Should Thurston County be 'cancelled?' The legacy behind the namesake and its controversy

As Black History Month continues, some are asking, should we cancel Thurston County? Amid ongoing protests against racial injustice, America has had a reckoning that has seen scores of offensive symbols removed, renamed or replaced. This includes statues, sports franchises and local school mascots.

Thurston County is named after Samuel R. Thurston, a lawyer and politician from the Oregon Territory, who actually never stepped foot into Washington State. 

History tells us Thurston’s most prominent contribution was the Oregon Donation Land Law, which he helped write and pass. The legislation promised hundreds of acres of land to white settlers, explicitly excluded Black Americans and dispossessed land from Native Americans, according to the Oregon Historical Society (OHS).

In a letter Thurston wrote in 1850, OHS said he supported yet another Black exclusion law-- "justified slavery and control of free Blacks" and used words such as ominous, evil, wretched and blight to describe Black immigration.

Ben Corey is a lifelong Washingtonian who started an online petition to rename Thurston County.

"Reading all of this, it began to seem to be very strange that we have honored this man with the name of a county, and not the name of any county, the name of the county in which the capital of our state Washington resides," said Corey. "If there was a statue of the guy, we’d have problems. If there’s a statue of Samuel Thurston in Olympia, that statue probably would've come down by now, but his name is on the County. For the same reasons the statue would’ve been taken down, we ought to at least reconsider renaming the county."

For weeks, we reached out to local historians to get their take on Thurston and his legacy, including the Thurston County Historic Commission. A county spokesperson said it didn’t have additional information to provide on Thurston and said it’s not in a place to interpret or comment on historical past deeds of an individual.

Eventually, we were referred to Emmett O’Connell of the online blog ‘Olympia Time’ by a member of the Olympia Historical Society. O’Connell has written about Thurston before, including a post dating back to 2011.

"Even though the Black exclusion law was eventually knocked off the books, things like the Chinese police tax in the 1860s, and the anti-Chinese riots in the 1880s, and even things like the 1920s era anti-immigration laws which were spawned by politicians in the Pacific Northwest all tie back into the Black exclusion law, which was to make this place for white people only."

A few locals in downtown Olympia told FOX 13 News they didn’t know about Thurston’s legacy.

"I feel like we’re pretty progressive and pretty open-minded here, so to think that we’re named after that is kind of surprising and not really ideal," said Nikki Taylor of Olympia. 

"I think education should be spread about that. I think there’s a lot that people don’t know, and we kind of just blindly live with, and I think it should be changed if it hurts people," said Sage Parrott of Thurston County.

The area was first home to the Nisqually Tribe who called their land Tumwata, which is today's city of Tumwater. Records also suggest Thurston County was supposed to be named ‘Simmons County’ after Michael Simmons, who led the settlement of Puget Sound, but he declined the honor at the time.

Simmons' story stands out for another reason. His friend and guide for the expedition was George Washington Bush, a Black businessman and explorer who was among the first African-American landowners in the State of Washington.

Renaming a county has been done before in our region. King County was renamed in 2005 to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. replacing William Rufus King, a little-known Vice President elected in 1853.

If you'd like to discuss the idea further, you can reach Corey via email at

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