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This small community is located on the Washington side of the Columbia River, with its lowlands and famous prairie situated on the west entrance to the scenic Columbia River Gorge. Motorists who approach Washougal from the west on the Lewis and Clark Highway are impressed with the majestic display of Mount Hood rising above the Cascade Mountains, framed by the columnar cliffs that signal the gateway of the Gorge and the great Columbia River that reflects its view. This setting of natural beauty has inspired many an explorer, both old and new.
Crossroads of Discovery
Gray, Vancouver & Broughton
It can be accurately stated that Washougal is the "crossroads to discovery" in the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after Captain Robert Gray, a Boston fur trader, discovered the mouth of the Columbia River in May of 1792, the famed British explorer George Vancouver traveled to the region to verify Gray's discovery. In October of 1792, Vancouver directed a young Lieutenant named William Broughton to lead a party of men in a long boat up the Columbia to explore its head waters.
Broughton came as far as present day Washougal and landed near the east end of Reed Island. He named Mount Hood after a British admiral and Point Vancouver after his commanding officer. Broughton incorrectly assumed the head waters of the Columbia originated from Mount Hood. In reality, the river originates some 1,000 miles to the north and east in Canada, but it would be 18 years later before the entire river was charted by another famed British explorer named David Thompson.
Captain Gray's discovery of the Columbia opened trade between Europeans and Chinook Indians who lived along the lower Columbia between the Cascade region and the river's mouth. U.S, British, Spanish, and Russian fur traders bartered for sea otter and beaver skins in the late 1700s. Then, another important group of explorers visited the region in 1805 and 1806, but this group came from the east, which marked the first cross-continental expedition. These famed explorers were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Lewis, Clark & The Corps of Discovery
The Corps of Discovery was impressed with the fertile valley located near Washougal. In fact, when they finally reached the Pacific Coast and conducted their historic vote on selecting their winter camp site, the three viable options considered were the Clatsop area near Astoria (Oregon), the north bank near Chinook (Washington), and the fertile valley near the Sandy and Washougal Rivers. But, because the Corps had reached the Pacific in late November, they did not have much time to construct a winter fort before the cold weather set in. They chose the Clatsop region because of the abundance of big game and its view of the Pacific, and they hoped to make contact with a fur trading ship to get word back to President Jefferson about the success of their mission.
So, within a 13-year period Washougal would have famous travelers visit its banks from both the east and west. Again in 1811 another famed explorer (David Thompson) would camp near the same "handsome prairie" on his famous journey to chart the entire length of the Columbia River.
Trade & Settlers
In 1825, the Hudson's Bay Fur Company established Fort Vancouver near present day Vancouver, Washington. Fur trappers and loggers began to visit regions of the Columbia River, and they also assigned names to familiar locations. Washougal became known as Washougally Camp, which is thought to be a derivative of an Indian word meaning "rushing water."
The first European to settle in this area was a British seaman named Richard Howe (also spelled Ough) who arrived in 1838. He eventually married the daughter of a local chief, named princess White Wing (and she was later called Betsy). Both Richard and Betsy Howe lived long and fulfilling lives, dying at the ages 90 and 96, respectively. Both are buried in the local Catholic Cemetery, and they have descendants who still live in Washougal. Personal belongings of the Howe's, including clothing and Indian artifacts, can be found in the Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal.