Name Game – What to Call The City?

This essay by Issaquah historian Harriet U. Fish was first appeared in the Issaquah Press on July 27, 1977. It also appears in the essay collection, “This Was Issaquah.”

Not many towns have been known by more than one name, as has Issaquah! It has been written many times, erroneously, that Issaquah has had four names in its 115-year history. 

The truth is that the town, itself, has had three names, not four! The first one sort of “happened” as it was picked up from the Indian term for this lush valley of singing birds, swimming fish, wandering game and plump berries. They called it by its sound – the calls and squacks of the many water birds which frequented the boggy land, the swamps, the creeks and the lake before its level was lowered.1

These sounds, as verbalized by the Insians, provided the area with the early name, “Squak.” This was used to refer to the fertile valley floor, the mountain to the west, the creek in the middle, the late at the north end, and the slough still farther north at the lake’s outlet. But the Indian had a guttural click in his speech and it came out of his mouth sounding like “Ishquoh.” The white settlers without that speech ability and click, pronounced it “Squak,” and so the first crossroads of traffic here in the valley, and the very first Post Office at the Pickering Farm, naturally were called Squak.

New Name

The colorful and euphonic name stuck until townspeople, some 26 or 27 years later, felt indebted to Mr. Daniel Hunt Gilman, who, with his partners, were responsible for bringing the railroad to carry the coal to market from this isolated hamlet. So, in 1889, the town’s name became Gilman, in his honor. “Squak” continued to be the name for the surrounding countryside features.

Unfortunately for the village, there was already another settlement in the State of Washington called Gilmer, and this being so close in spelling, our town’s Post Office had to be designated by some other name. And, here is the fourth name which has caused the confusion. Instead of retaining the historically significant name “Squak,” the name given to the Post Office was “Olney,” so anyone addressing mail here sent it to Gilman, Wash (Olney Post Office). The mail reached Gilman in Squak Valley. This we have learned from the records of the third Railroad Agent, Mr. W. W. Sylvester.

Mystery

The mystery of where Olney came from has confounded me, since no one of my contacts has had the answer. There have been many thoughts about it. The name Olnset is famous in Eastern Washington, and in reading the book The Name is Olsent by Roscoe Sheller, I learned that, during the middle of the nineteenth century, a Government Indian Agents assigned to the Oregon Territory, carried the name of Nathan Olnet. I wondered about this as a source. He had married Annette, the granddaughter of the chief of the Wasco Tribe. Theri son, in time, married and Indian of mixed blood, Emme, in Eastern Washington. And so the Olney name became associated with the Indians to come to the Squak area to hunt, fish and help harvest the hop crops. Could the name have come to us this way?

But no, another possible source of the name Olney has been located. Among the papers and possessions of General George Tibbetts, which are treasured by Ida Maude Walimaki, his granddaughter, there is an aged copy of Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Olney Journal, originating from the town of Olney, Illinois, the General’s home town.2

General Tibbetts was the Postmaster for Squak, which the facility located in his traveler’s hotel and store at Goode’s Corner, from Feb. 1879 to March of 1886. The Gilman name for the town was designated in 1889, according to the railroad records at the time the line became active. WIth the transfer of the mail center into town at that time, could it have been possible that Gen. Tibbetts suggested this name when the GIlman-Gilmer situation arose?

Other clues: 1) In the front of a school book, a 5th grade reader, in this same collection of treasures, is written “Olney POst Office, Oct. 20, 1889,” and 2) the presence among historical items fo three postal envelopes addressed to Olney, King Co. Wash. all postmarked in the 1892-1895 years, which throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the timing.

In any event, the dual names of town and Post OFfice became an irritant and source of confused misunderstandings, lost mail, and frustrated lawmen. So, in February of 1899, a formal petition from the GIlman Town Council, requested the Washington State Legislature to designate Issaquah as the name of both town and post office. In fact, the petition was carried to Olympia in the hands of a group of town leaders and representatives. They were that eager to get action, immediately, to straighten out their problems.

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  1. Native Americans in the area spoke the Lushootseed language, and their name for the area in their language was “ishquoh,” a word that means, “the sound of water birds.” 
  2. George Tibbetts was born in Acton, Maine, and lived in a number of other places during his lifetime. Olney may well have been one of those places, but documentation of that fact is missing.