History, politics, people of Oly WA

Best histories of Olympia, Part 1 (the ones I already wrote about)

This is the first part of a series of undermined length about the best written histories of Olympia. This part deals with two books that I’ve already blogged, so will be really easy for me.

The best, the most complete (up to the 1960s or so) is “Rogues, Buffoons and Statesmen” by Gordon Newell. This is a seriously thick book that covers almost every moment of Olympia’s history (from the state government and local perspective) from pioneer days to the 1960s. Of course its incomplete now because its so old now, but still very complete.

The second best book would of course be something that updates RB&S to the current day.

Here’s what I wrote about it earlier:

Generally speaking, the books tells the story of Olympia from main street and the Capitol. Gordon was an old time newspaper guy in Olympia, so he had great background for both Olympia scenes. He also lived early enough in Olympia’s history that the really old stuff really wasn’t that old to him. It is oft-referred to, but seldom seen. There are only six copies in the Timberland system, a few of which don’t circulate.

The lack of local library (or even digital editions) is made up by there being a lot of affordable copies online. Right now, Amazon has several copies under $20.

The second is “Confederacy of Ambition.” Certainly less of a total history than RB&S, but also deeper (if that’s possible). My earlier review.

This book is great because it takes on the glossiness that people put on local history when they’re being lazy. Like this:

Washington began as a state founded by optimistic settlers with utopian dreams, and to some degree that sentiment continues resonating.

Uh, no. If William Winlock Miller was the typical settler (and I think he was), he may have been optimistic, but he certainly wasn’t utopian. He was a driven, realistic, politically savvy and business focused sort of guy.

Or, more simply, it fills in with personal history the gaps that are left when you do a local history that just names names and takes down dates.


  1. Mark Derricott

    There are copies of "Confederacy of Ambition" at the Bigelow House Museum for sale. While they cannot compete with Amazon, the margin-donation is something the house could really use. And for another $3, you can have a marvelous personal tour with docents who knew and know the Bigelows.

    Thanks for the post Emmett!

  2. Anon_the_Great

    George Blankenship's "Lights and shades of pioneer life on Puget Sound, by a native son" is a good anecdotal history used by Newell and others as source material although at times George's recollections run afoul of more formal sources. Never the less it is a nice airy read that captures the zietgiest of pre-statehood Olympia.

    Lights and Shades was published by Shorey Books of Seattle, small almost vanity press that published a couple hundred history titles in runs of 50 to a couple hundred. In the last pages of most all Shorey books is a list of publications, most titles a couple dollars. Then again those prices are from 1972. I believe they closed up shop in the early eighties but don't hold me to that. I bet Stevenl over at Olyblogs could give us a valuable dose of knowledge about Shorey.

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