The History of the Chelan Region

Sure, everyone comes to visit Lake Chelan for the breathtaking natural beauty of the lake, for the watersports—oh, and did we already we mention the world-class parasailing?

But beyond all that, the story of the Chelan region reads like a mini-history of America, from the earliest Native American inhabitants to the settlers who arrived in the 19th century, all the way through the winemakers and artisans who help make modern-day Chelan so special.

You can learn all this history and more through the fascinating exhibits and permanent collections at the Chelan Museum, a historic structure operated by the Lake Chelan Historical Society.

Lake Chelan’s Earliest Inhabitants

It’s believed that the region’s first human inhabitants arrived around 10,000 years ago. (North America has had human inhabitants for at least 16,000 years; it’s possible they migrated from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge.)

Interestingly, scientists believe Lake Chelan itself was formed by glacial activity around 10,000 years ago as well. Is it possible that even then, the natural beauty and bounty of the region was drawing humans to its shores?

Those first native inhabitants were likely offshoots of the Wenatchi Tribe; it’s possible they gained the “Chelan” name as a result of Alexander Ross, an explorer employed by the Pacific Fur Company. He reported that the native inhabitants referred to the nearby river as the “Tsill-ane,” or “deep water,” and that it was connected with the nearby lake.

Caucasian Settlers Change the Human Landscape

The West Coast experienced a flood of settlers from the East. Many of the first waves came in search of valuable animal pelts; then in the middle of the 19th century, the California Gold Rush inspired many thousands more. In some regions of the West, indigenous tribes—many of them weakened by exposure to previously unknown diseases like smallpox—were simply driven away by the new settlers.

In the Chelan region, The Yakima Treaty of 1855 had consolidated several unaffiliated tribes together, removing their claim to millions of acres of land in exchange for a small reservation, cash, and other incentives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this agreement turned sour quickly, and a series of wars, massacres, and skirmishes marked the region until the remaining native tribes were finally relocated to the Colville Reservation and a few small allotments on Lake Chelan itself.

Shaping Modern-Day Chelan

The end of the 19th century brought many changes to the region: A new influx of settlers, many brought by the arrival of reliable railroad service. Agriculture—fed by the area’s plentiful irrigation water—flourished, and Don Morse, one of Chelan’s most beloved figures of the 20th century and the namesake of our beloved park was for many years an apple farmer. These days, a flourishing wine industry carries on the tradition of local and artisan foods and traditions, a nod to the richness and bounty of this gem hidden right in the middle of Washington State.

If you’re interested in learning more about Chelan’s history, check out the Chelan Museum where you can interact with fascinating relics of the past! When you’re done playing on the lake, do yourself a favor and pay the Historical Society a visit; it’s one history lesson you won’t regret!