Whidbey Island (historical spellings Whidby, Whitbey, or Whitby) is the largest of the islands composing Island County, Washington, in the United States. (The other large island is Camano Island, east of Whidbey.) Whidbey is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Seattle, and lies between the Olympic Peninsula and the I-5 corridor of western Washington. The island forms the northern boundary of Puget Sound. It is home to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The state parks and natural forests are home to numerous old growth trees.
According to the 2000 census, Whidbey Island was home to 67,000 residents with an estimated 29,000 of those living in rural locations. This increased slightly to 69,480 residents as of the 2010 census.
Whidbey Island is approximately 55 miles (89 km) long (if measured along roads traveled from the extreme north to extreme south), or about 37 miles (60 km) when measured along a straight line from north to south, and 1.5 to 10 miles (2.4 to 16.1 km) wide, with a total land area of 168.67 square miles (436.9 km2), making it the 40th largest island in the United States. It is ranked as the fourth longest and fourth largest island in the contiguous United States, behind Long Island, New York;Padre Island, Texas (the world’s longest barrier island); and Isle Royale, Michigan. In the state of Washington, it is the largest island, followed by Orcas Island.
Whidbey Island was inhabited by members of the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, Snohomish and other Native American tribes. The Salishan name for the island was Tscha-kole-chy. These were peaceful groups who lived off the sea and land, with fishing, harvesting nuts, berries and roots, which they preserved over the winter.
Captain George Vancouver fully explored the island in 1792. In May of that year, Royal Navy officers and members of Vancouver’s expedition, Joseph Whidbey (master of HMS Discovery) and Peter Puget (a lieutenant on the ship), began to map and explore the areas of what would later be named Puget Sound. After Whidbey circumnavigated the island in June 1792, Vancouver named the island in his honor. By that time, Vancouver had claimed the area for Britain. On 4 June 1792, the King’s Birthday, near Possession Point at the southern end of Whidbey Island, Vancouver took formal possession of all the coast and hinterland contiguous to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including Puget Sound, under the name of New Georgia.
The first known overnight stay by a non-Native American was made on May 26, 1840 by a Catholic missionary, Father François Norbert Blanchet, during travel across Puget Sound. He had been invited by Chief Tslalakum. Blanchet remained on the island for nearly a year and guided the inhabitants in building a new log church.
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842, sailed the USS Vincennes into Penn Cove in 1841. By that time, the log church was already being built by the Native Americans beside a huge wooden cross (24 feet long) that they had erected. Wilkes ordered his men to use no force except in self-defense when dealing with the “savage and treacherous inhabitants”. In fact, he encountered few problems with the indigenous people who had already been poorly treated by visitors and suffered from diseases they had introduced.
Wilkes named the lower cove Holmes Harbor, after his assistant surgeon, Silas Holmes. During this time he charted Puget Sound. Other sites in the area that were given names by Wilkes included Maury Island (Vashon), Hammersley Inlet, Totten and Budd Inlets, Agate Passage between the Kitsap Peninsula, Hale Passage and Dana Passage.
Thomas W. Glasgow filed the first land claim on Whidbey Island in 1848, attempting to become the first settler. He built a small cabin near Penn Cove, planted some crops and married a local lady, Julia Pat-Ke-Nim. Glasgow left in August of that year however, having been forced out by the local inhabitants. Colonel Isaac N. Ebey arrived from Columbus, Ohio, in 1850 and became the first permanent white settler, claiming a square mile (2.6 km²) of prairie with a southern shoreline on Admiralty Inlet. He took advantage of the 640 acres offered free of charge to each married couple, the first to do so, on October 15, 1850. In the fall of 1851, his children, his wife, three of her brothers and the Samuel Crockett family arrived to join Ebey. In addition to farming potatoes and wheat, Ebey was also the postmaster for Port Townsend, Washington and rowed a boat daily across the inlet in order to work at the post office there. Colonel Ebey also served as a representative in the Oregon Territory Legislative Assembly, as Island County’s first Justice of the Peace, as a probate judge and as Collector of Customs for the Puget Sound District.
On August 11, 1857, at age 39, Colonel Ebey was murdered and beheaded by Native Americans, said to be Haida who had traveled to this area from Haida Gwaii. Some sources however, refer to his killers as “Russian Indians called Kakes or Kikans, [from] Kufrinoff Island, near the head of Prince Frederick’s Sound. Ebey was slain in proxy-retaliation for the killing of a Haida chief or Tyee and 27 other indigenous people at Port Gamble. Fort Ebey, named for the Colonel, was established in 1942 on the west side of the central part of the island, just northwest of Coupeville.
Admiralty Head Lighthouse is located in this area, on the grounds of Fort Casey State Park. The area around Coupeville is the federally protected Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, named in honor of Isaac Ebey.
On September 25, 1959, a U.S. Navy P5Mantisubmarine aircraft with an unarmed nuclear depth charge on board crash-landed into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island. The nuclear weapon was never recovered.
In December 1984, the island was the site of a violent encounter between law enforcement and white nationalist and organized crime leader Robert Jay Mathews of the group The Order. A large shootout occurred between Mathews and FBI agents in which Mathews was killed during a house fire. Mathews’ followers have since gathered on the island at the location where he was killed by FBI agents on the anniversary of his death to commemorate it.