Whatcom County, Washington

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Whatcom County
Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham
Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham
Official seal of Whatcom County
Map of Washington highlighting Whatcom County
Location within the U.S. state of Washington
Map of the United States highlighting Washington
Washington's location within the U.S.
Coordinates: 48°50′N 121°54′W / 48.83°N 121.9°W / 48.83; -121.9
Country United States
State Washington
FoundedMarch 9, 1854
Named forChief Whatcom
Largest cityBellingham
 • Total2,503 sq mi (6,480 km2)
 • Land2,107 sq mi (5,460 km2)
 • Water397 sq mi (1,030 km2)  16%%
 • Total226,847
 • Estimate 
228,831 Increase
 • Density103/sq mi (40/km2)
Time zoneUTC−8 (Pacific)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−7 (PDT)
Congressional districts1st, 2nd
Websitewww.co.whatcom.wa.us Edit this at Wikidata
Sign at county boundary, 1970
Sheriff's Department vehicle in Bellingham

Whatcom County (/ˈwɒtkəm/, /ˈhwɒtkəm/) is a county located in the northwestern corner of the U.S. state of Washington, bordered by the Lower Mainland (the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley Regional Districts) of British Columbia to the north, Okanogan County to the east, Skagit County to the south, San Juan County across Rosario Strait to the southwest, and the Strait of Georgia to the west. Its county seat and largest population center is the coastal city of Bellingham,[1] comprising the Bellingham, WA Metropolitan Statistical Area, and as of the 2020 census, the county's population was 226,847.[2]

The county was created from Island County by the Washington Territorial Legislature in March 1854. It originally included the territory of present-day San Juan and Skagit Counties, which were later independently organized after additional settlement.[3] Its name derives from the Lummi word Xwotʼqom, also spelled [x̣ʷátqʷəm], perhaps meaning "noisy" or "noisy water" and referring to a waterfall.[4][5][6] Whatcom County has a diversified economy with a significant agricultural base, including approximately 60% of the nation's annual production of raspberries.[7]


The Whatcom County area has known human habitation for at least twelve millennia. At least three aboriginal tribes have been identified in the area: Lummi (San Juan Islands, between Point Whitehorn and Chuckanut Bay), Nooksack (between Lynden and Maple Falls) and Semiahmoo (the northern portion, near Blaine).[8][failed verification][unreliable source?]

This area was part of the Oregon Country at the start of the nineteenth century, inhabited both by fur prospectors from Canada and Americans seeking land for agricultural and mineral-extraction opportunities. Unable to resolve which country should control this vast area, the Treaty of 1818 provided for joint control. In 1827 the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Langley near present Lynden.[8]

By 1843, the Provisional Government of Oregon had been established, although at first there were questions as to its authority and extent.[9] During its existence, that provisional government formed the area north of the Columbia River first into the Washington Territory, and then (December 19, 1845) into two vast counties: Clark and Lewis. In 1852, a portion of Lewis County was partitioned off to form Thurston County, and in 1853 a portion of the new county was partitioned off to form Island County.

The Washington Territory was formed as a separate governing entity in 1853.[10] In 1854, that legislature carved several counties out of the existing counties, including Whatcom County on March 9, 1854, with area taken from Island County. The original county boundary was reduced in 1873 by the formation of San Juan County, and again in 1883 by the formation of Skagit County.

In 1855 the settlers erected a blockhouse west of Whatcom Creek, to protect against forays from the aboriginal inhabitants who were attempting to defend their homelands. That year the Treaty of Point Elliott was signed, which assigned the Lummi and Semiahmoo peoples a greatly-restricted reserved area.[8]

The short-lived Fraser Canyon Gold Rush (1857–58) caused a short-term increase in the county's population, which briefly swelled to over 10,000 before the bubble burst.[8]

In 1857 the federal government began the field work necessary to establish the national border between the United States and Canada, which had been agreed on as the forty-ninth parallel in this area, and which would also mark the north line of Whatcom County. As the work moved east, several of the workers chose to remain in the area as settlers.[8]

Border crossings[edit]

Whatcom County's northern border is the Canada–US border with the Canadian province of British Columbia. Adjoining the county on the north (from west to east) are the Metro Vancouver suburbs of Delta, Surrey, Langley, the central Fraser Valley city of Abbotsford and the rural Fraser Valley Regional District.

The border crossing points are (from west to east):[11]

Several shopping malls and other services in Bellingham and elsewhere in the county are geared to cross-border shopping and recreation.


According to the United States Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 2,503 square miles (6,480 km2), of which 2,107 square miles (5,460 km2) is land and 397 square miles (1,030 km2) (16%) is covered by water.[13]

Western Whatcom County is part of the Fraser Lowland, the plain of the Fraser River, most of which is in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. At some periods in the past, one of the Fraser River's distributaries entered Bellingham Bay near Bellingham via what is now the mouth of the Nooksack River.[citation needed]

The remainder of Whatcom County is in the Cascade Range, including Mount Baker. In their foothills is Lake Whatcom, which is drained by Whatcom Creek into Bellingham Bay.

A small part of the county, Point Roberts, about 5 square miles (13 km2), is an extension of the Tsawwassen Peninsula, which is bisected by the Canada–US border along the 49th parallel. The highest point in the county is the peak of the active volcano Mount Baker at 10,778 feet (3,285 m) above sea level. The lowest points are at sea level along the Salish Sea, an arm of the Pacific Ocean.

Geographic features[edit]

National protected areas[edit]

State protected areas[edit]

Major highways[edit]

Adjacent counties[edit]


Historical population
Census Pop.
2021 (est.)228,831[14]0.9%
U.S. Decennial Census[15]
1790–1960[16] 1900–1990[17]
1990–2000[18] 2010–2020[2]

2000 census[edit]

As of the census[19] of 2000, 166,814 people, 64,446 households, and 41,116 families resided in the county. The population density was 79 people per square mile (30/km2). The 73,893 housing units averaged 35 per square mile (13/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 88.41% White, 0.69% Black or African American, 2.82% Native American, 2.78% Asian, 0.14% Pacific Islander, 2.49% from other races, and 2.66% from two or more races. About 5.21% of the population was Hispanic or Latino of any race. Of people of European ancestry, 15.5% identified as German, 9.2% as English, 8.2% as Dutch, 7.9% as Irish, 7.0% as Norwegian, and 6.6% as United States or American ancestry.

Of the 64,446 households, 30.40% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 51.20% were married couples living together, 8.80% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.20% were not families. About 25.60% of all households were made up of individuals, and 8.40% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.51 and the average family size was 3.03.

In the county, the population was distributed as 24.10% under the age of 18, 14.20% from 18 to 24, 27.50% from 25 to 44, 22.50% from 45 to 64, and 11.60% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females, there were 97.10 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 95.00 males.

The median income for a household in the county was $40,005, and for a family was $49,325. Males had a median income of $37,589 versus $26,193 for females. The per capita income for the county was $20,025. About 7.80% of families and 14.20% of the population were below the poverty line, including 14.20% of those under age 18 and 8.30% of those age 65 or over.

2010 census[edit]

As of the 2010 census, 201,140 people, 80,370 households, and 48,862 families resided in the county.[20] The population density was 95.5 inhabitants per square mile (36.9/km2). The 90,665 housing units averaged 43.0 per square mile (16.6/km2).[21] The racial makeup of the county was 85.4% White, 3.5% Asian, 2.8% American Indian, 1.0% Black or African American, 0.2% Pacific Islander, 3.3% from other races, and 3.8% from two or more races. Those of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 7.8% of the population.[19] In terms of ancestry, 20.8% were German, 12.8% were Irish, 12.6% were English, 8.0% were Dutch, 6.9% were Norwegian, and 4.4% were American.[22]

Of the 80,370 households, 28.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.0% were married couples living together, 8.8% had a female householder with no husband present, 39.2% were not families, and 27.8% of all households were made up of individuals. The average household size was 2.43, and the average family size was 2.97. The median age was 36.6 years.[19]

The median income for a household in the county was $49,031 and for a family was $64,586. Males had a median income of $47,109 versus $34,690 for females. The per capita income for the county was $25,407. About 7.8% of families and 15.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 14.9% of those under age 18 and 7.1% of those age 65 or over.[23]


The Whatcom County government is a municipal corporation operating under a county charter approved in 1978; it acts as a county constitution. Whatcom County is one of seven Washington counties to use the home rule charter provision of state law.[24] Local government is split between the county, incorporated cities and towns, and special-purpose districts. These local governments are established and operate according to state law, and operate independently from the county government.

County government[edit]

The charter establishes the structure of Whatcom County government. The Whatcom County Council holds legislative powers granted to counties. The council consists of seven members elected for a term of four years. Council members are elected at the general election in November of odd-numbered years. Three council members are elected one year before a presidential election; four council members are elected one year after a presidential election. One member is elected from each of the five districts; two members are elected at-large, which favors candidates who can command a majority of voters. The county council also serves as the county board of health.[25]

The executive branch consists of six elected officials, a county executive, and five department heads. The county executive is similar to a mayor or governor. The assessor, auditor, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, and treasurer are elected independently from the county executive and council. These six officials serve four-year terms.[26][27] The county council establishes various departments by ordinance. The county council or county executive appoint department heads. These departments include administrative services, health, medical examiner, planning and development services, parks and recreation, and public works.[28]

The judicial branch consists of a district court and superior court. The district court is a court of limited jurisdiction which handles civil and criminal cases. Criminal cases are limited to adults charged with misdemeanor and/or gross misdemeanor offenses. State law specifies what cases are in the district court's jurisdiction. The district court operates a small claims court to resolve civil cases involving monetary damages not exceeding $5,000. No attorneys are permitted to appear in small claims court. Cases are heard using less formal procedures.[29] The district court has two judges, a court commissioner, and a support staff.

The superior court is a court of general jurisdiction.[26][29] Superior court hears civil cases exceeding $75,000 or requesting non-monetary remedies.[30] Superior court hears all juvenile criminal cases and all adult felony cases. Superior court also hears appeals from district court and municipal courts.[30] Superior court staff include three judges, three full-time court commissioners, two part-time court commissioners, and support staff. District and superior court judges are elected by the county voters for a term of four years. Court commissioners are appointed by elected judges; commissioners have powers and responsibilities equal to elected judges.


Whatcom County has been largely Democratic in presidential elections since 1988. Since 2004, the Democratic presidential candidates have received the majority of the county's vote. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden handily won the county with a super majority of the vote at over 60%.

United States presidential election results for Whatcom County, Washington[31]
Year Republican Democratic Third party
No.  % No.  % No.  %
2020 50,489 36.42% 83,660 60.35% 4,471 3.23%
2016 40,599 35.82% 60,340 53.24% 12,400 10.94%
2012 42,703 41.14% 57,089 55.01% 3,996 3.85%
2008 40,205 39.84% 58,236 57.71% 2,465 2.44%
2004 40,296 44.58% 48,268 53.40% 1,830 2.02%
2000 34,287 46.49% 34,033 46.14% 5,437 7.37%
1996 27,153 42.09% 29,074 45.07% 8,283 12.84%
1992 23,801 37.38% 26,619 41.80% 13,259 20.82%
1988 23,820 47.55% 25,571 51.05% 703 1.40%
1984 27,228 53.72% 22,670 44.73% 788 1.55%
1980 21,371 46.40% 18,430 40.02% 6,256 13.58%
1976 20,007 48.00% 19,739 47.36% 1,933 4.64%
1972 22,585 58.21% 15,027 38.73% 1,189 3.06%
1968 14,695 47.10% 14,003 44.88% 2,501 8.02%
1964 10,900 34.69% 20,297 64.59% 225 0.72%
1960 16,651 52.82% 14,298 45.35% 577 1.83%
1956 17,414 54.10% 14,533 45.15% 244 0.76%
1952 17,590 57.06% 12,877 41.77% 361 1.17%
1948 12,850 46.81% 12,736 46.40% 1,865 6.79%
1944 12,890 45.88% 14,787 52.63% 421 1.50%
1940 13,351 46.30% 14,877 51.60% 606 2.10%
1936 9,035 35.08% 15,428 59.90% 1,293 5.02%
1932 9,254 41.11% 11,355 50.44% 1,902 8.45%
1928 14,621 76.87% 4,100 21.56% 300 1.58%
1924 9,214 57.19% 927 5.75% 5,969 37.05%
1920 9,157 57.52% 2,288 14.37% 4,475 28.11%
1916 7,632 48.18% 5,629 35.53% 2,581 16.29%
1912 4,187 27.90% 2,773 18.48% 8,045 53.62%
1908 4,955 57.48% 2,398 27.82% 1,268 14.71%
1904 5,410 70.41% 1,174 15.28% 1,100 14.32%
1900 2,952 56.62% 1,700 32.60% 562 10.78%
1896 1,971 46.16% 2,227 52.15% 72 1.69%
1892 1,709 41.50% 1,161 28.19% 1,248 30.31%

Cities and towns[edit]

Incorporated cities and towns provide municipal services. Each city or town has an elected council and mayor.

Special purpose districts[edit]

Special-purpose districts include cemetery, fire, hospital, library, school, and water and sewer districts. Each special district is governed by officials elected by voters within that jurisdiction.

Fire districts[edit]

Eleven fire districts, two city fire departments, and a regional fire authority provide fire prevention, fire fighting, and emergency medical services. Each fire district is governed by an elected board of commissioners. Most districts have three commissioners. Fire districts receive most of their revenue from property taxes. All of the fire districts and the regional fire authority have volunteer or paid-call firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), as does the City of Lynden Fire Department.

The City of Bellingham is an all-career department. Some of the districts also have full-time firefighter/EMTs. All fire districts use 9-1-1 for emergency calls. Whatcom County has one 9-1-1 call center located in Bellingham. Fire/EMS calls are processed and dispatched at a second public safety answering point called Prospect, located at a fire station in Bellingham. Additional dispatching locations provide backup capacity to answer emergency calls.

Whatcom County Fire Districts are:[32]

° Outside Lynden city limits only. The Lynden Fire Department serves Lynden.

Law enforcement[edit]

A Whatcom County Sheriff's office vehicle pictured in 2015.

The Whatcom County Sheriff's Office is responsible for maintaining the county jail, providing security at the Whatcom County Superior Court, serving civil processes, coordinating emergency management among the county's emergency services, and maintaining law and order in rural areas.[33][34]

The first sheriff was Ellis "Yankee" Barnes who was sworn into office in 1854, during a period in which the border between the United States and British Columbia along Whatcom County had not been fully delineated. That year, Barnes seized and auctioned 34 rams that belonged to Canadian farmer Charles Griffin for Griffin's failure to pay United States taxes. The event was one of several provocations that led to the Pig War between the United States and the United Kingdom.[35]

In 1863 James Kavanaugh served as sheriff. Kavanaugh, who married Princess Tol Sol of the Swinomish tribe, had previously served as the first United States Marshal in the Pacific Northwest.[36][34]

In 2005 the sheriff's office reported 80 deputies and 53 corrections officers on-staff.[34]

As of 2016, the sheriff is Bill Elfo.[33]


Coal mines, a sawmill, and a military fort were established on Bellingham Bay in the 1850s. Logging was the principal economic activity at first, and agriculture developed as land was cleared by logging activity. Canneries, both of fish and crops, shipped the county's products far and wide.

Pacific American Fisheries organized in 1899 in Fairhaven, and became the world's largest canning operation, employing over 1,000 Chinese and 4,500 "white persons". Smaller canneries at Semiahmoo also produced 2,000 cases of canned salmon daily. The Fairhaven Shipyard constructed fleets of fishing ships, and also produced freighters during World War I.[8]

Whatcom County is the top producer of raspberries in the state in the state of Washington, producing about 99% of the state's crop annually. This amount, varying from 60 to 80 million pounds per year, usually represents around 85% of the entire United States' raspberry harvest.[37]

Cross border activity is a significant driver of the economy.


Primary and secondary education[edit]

Whatcom County residents are served by public and private schools, providing preschool, primary (K-5), and secondary (6–12) education. Public schools are operated by eight school districts. Each school district is an independent local government managed by an elected school board. Seven districts serve the western portion of Whatcom County.[38] One district serves the southeast corner of Whatcom County. The remaining portion of the county is national forest or national park land, which has no permanent residents.[citation needed]

These districts (including any with any portion in the county, even if the schools are not in the county) are:[39]

Numerous private schools operate in Whatcom County, including Assumption Catholic School, St. Paul's Academy, Lynden Christian Schools, Bellingham Christian Schools, and the Waldorf School.

Higher education[edit]

Whatcom County hosts five institutions of higher education. Western Washington University (Western) is the third-largest public university in Washington. Western offers bachelor's and master's degrees through seven colleges and enrolls more than 15,000 students. Whatcom Community College is a public community college offering academic certificate programs and associate degrees. Two universities and two colleges are located in Bellingham. One college is located on the Lummi Nation (Lummi Reservation) west of Bellingham. Bellingham Technical College is a public technical and vocational college located in Bellingham. Trinity Western University (TWU) is a private, Christian university based in Langley, BC, about 25 miles north of Bellingham. TWU operates a branch campus in Bellingham, offering undergraduate courses and supports TWU's bachelor's degree completion program.

Northwest Indian College is a college supported by the Lummi Nation and serves the Native American community. Northwest Indian College is located on the Lummi Nation (Lummi Reservation), about five miles west of Bellingham.



Census-designated places[edit]

Unincorporated communities[edit]

Ghost town[edit]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Find a County". National Association of Counties. Retrieved June 7, 2011.
  2. ^ a b "State & County QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved April 7, 2022.
  3. ^ "Milestones for Washington State History — Part 2: 1851 to 1900". HistoryLink.org. March 6, 2003.
  4. ^ Oakley, Janet (July 3, 2005). "Whatcom County — Thumbnail History". HistoryLink.org.
  5. ^ Bright, William (2004). Native American Placenames of the United States. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 564. Retrieved January 29, 2023.
  6. ^ Johnson, Annie (2004). "Shifting Shorelines".
  7. ^ Bellingham County website https://www.bellingham.org/agricultural December 1, 2021
  8. ^ a b c d e f Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry
  9. ^ Brown, J. Henry (1892). Brown's Political History of Oregon: Provisional Government. Portland: Wiley B. Allen. LCCN rc01000356. OCLC 422191413.
  10. ^ Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Volume 48, p. 397, March 3, 1853.
  11. ^ "Data – IMTC".
  12. ^ "Just across the border, North Cascades National Park beckons". September 7, 2011.
  13. ^ "2010 Census Gazetteer Files". United States Census Bureau. August 22, 2012. Retrieved July 16, 2015.
  14. ^ "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Counties: April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021". Retrieved April 7, 2022.
  15. ^ "U.S. Decennial Census". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 8, 2014.
  16. ^ "Historical Census Browser". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved January 8, 2014.
  17. ^ "Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 8, 2014.
  18. ^ "Census 2000 PHC-T-4. Ranking Tables for Counties: 1990 and 2000" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 26, 2015. Retrieved January 8, 2014.
  19. ^ a b c "U.S. Census website". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved May 14, 2011.
  20. ^ "Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Demographic Profile Data". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on February 13, 2020. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  21. ^ "Population, Housing Units, Area, and Density: 2010 – County". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on February 13, 2020. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  22. ^ "Selected Social Characteristics in the United States – 2006–2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on February 13, 2020. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  23. ^ "Selected Economic Characteristics – 2006–2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on February 13, 2020. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  24. ^ "History - Whatcom County, WA - Official Website". www.whatcomcounty.us. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  25. ^ "County Council - Whatcom County, WA - Official Website". www.co.whatcom.wa.us. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  26. ^ a b "County Elected Officials". Archived from the original on May 27, 2008. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  27. ^ "County Code and Charter". Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  28. ^ "Complete List of County Departments & Offices - Whatcom County, WA - Official Website". www.whatcomcounty.us. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  29. ^ a b "District Court - Whatcom County, WA - Official Website". www.whatcomcounty.us. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  30. ^ a b "Whatcom County Superior Court". Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  31. ^ Leip, David. "Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections". uselectionatlas.org. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  32. ^ "Whatcom County Fire Districts map". Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  33. ^ a b "Whatcom County Sheriff's Office". whatcomcounty.us. Whatcom County, Washington. Retrieved September 17, 2016.
  34. ^ a b c "WHATCOM COUNTY CHARTER REVIEW COMMISSION Record of Proceedings". whatcomcounty.us/. Whatcom County, Washington. Retrieved September 17, 2016.
  35. ^ Tower, Elizabeth (2016). Over The Back Fence. Publication Consultants. ISBN 1594332851.
  36. ^ "Back in the day in Anacortes". Skagit County Herald. February 18, 2009. Retrieved September 17, 2016.
  37. ^ Gallagher, Dave (June 24, 2021). "Upcoming heatwave could put one of Whatcom's most popular crops in jeopardy". The Bellingham Herald. Retrieved July 1, 2021.
  38. ^ "School Districts in Whatcom County". Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  39. ^ U.S. Census Bureau Geography Division (January 14, 2021). 2020 Census – School District Reference Map: Whatcom County, WA (PDF) (Map). 1:140,000. U.S. Census Bureau. pp. 2–3. Archived (PDF) from the original on October 9, 2022. Retrieved August 4, 2022.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 48°50′N 121°54′W / 48.83°N 121.90°W / 48.83; -121.90