Beyond the towering evergreens and glimmering waters that encapsulate King County rests a mosaic of cultures and histories – lives that have converged here from around the world, weaving the fabric of a region in constant evolution. A serendipitous discussion with a refugee opened my eyes to the rich cultural diversity and rapid evolution of this region over three hundred years.
King County is a place that encompasses not just land but the stories of diverse lives that have shaped its past and continue to shape its present and future. Nestled in the heart of Washington state, King County holds within its boundaries the bustling metropolis of Seattle, a city known not only for the iconic Space Needle but also for its role as a melting pot of cultures, ideas, and histories.
Imagine a county spanning about 2,100 square miles, home to the most populous city in the state, where more than two hundred languages echo in the air, creating a harmonious symphony of human expression. This is Martin Luther King Jr. County, where globalization has woven its threads into the very fabric of its being, connecting it to the world in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago.
But King County’s story is not just about its present.
It reaches back to times when native cultures thrived in the area, speaking various dialects of Lushootseed and embodying a rich cultural web.
It extends to the first European settlers who arrived in the 1850s, marking the beginning of a transformation that would shape the course of its history.
As I delved deeper, I uncovered the challenges and triumphs that this county had experienced over the years. From the waves of immigrants drawn by the promise of a better life, to the struggle against discriminatory laws that sought to divide, to the flourishing multiculturalism that defines the region today – every step has left an indelible mark on King County’s identity.
In this article I will look at recent history, exploring the intersections of cultures, the resilience of communities, and the continuous evolution of a place that stands as a testament to the power of diversity. King County is not just a geographical entity; it’s a living embodiment of the human spirit’s unyielding quest for understanding, growth, and unity in the face of change.
The first European settlers came to the area in the 1850s soon after Great Britain ceded the region to the United States in 1846. Trade with Asia started in 1882 as ships started sailing back and forth between King County and Asia.
With that trade came the first group of Chinese immigrants to the region who found jobs working on the railroad and other parts of the local economy.
As railroads started connecting the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the United States in the 1890s, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Sikhs and Filipinos moved into the region as well and the region recovered from an economic depression brought on by the end of the gold rush. Many of these immigrants were not eligible for United States citizenship and consequently were subject to land laws that were enacted when Washington Territory became a state, which prohibited “aliens who were ineligible for citizenship” (mainly Chinese and Japanese) from owning land.
As the economy of the region suffered, the Asian population in Seattle and Tacoma became the target of violence. Further laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were enacted to bar Chinese immigrants.
First generation Japanese farmers had come into the region in the 1920s and developed milk and strawberry production on leased farms.
The Japanese fared a little better than the Chinese because of the interventions from the Japanese government officials and Japan’s status as a rising power.
By 1910 there were 70,000 Japanese immigrants in Washington.
However, the situation for immigrants worsened soon after World War I, as imperial Japan began expanding its sphere of influence. A new law was passed which disallowed even leasing of land by non-citizens.
From World War II till the 1960s, African-Americans moved into Pacific Northwest in significant numbers and soon became the largest minority in Seattle, overtaking Asian-Americans (Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos). However, like the rest of the nation, African-Americans faced discrimination.
These attitudes and associated laws that promoted segregation continued to persist in Washington State till the 1960s when the alien land law was finally repealed after two unsuccessful attempts between 1960 and 1966.
The repeal of these laws and changing attitudes of people in the region along with an influx of immigrants shaped how cities and communities in King County have been populated over the last sixty years.
With the Century 21 Exposition, also known as the Seattle World’s Fair, the city drew worldwide attention. The largest Japanese fair market store in the Pacific Northwest started in the region in the 1960s soon after the fair.
The University of Washington (UW) also decided to increase its racial diversity and hired Samuel Kelly, a retired army colonel, as its vice president of minority affairs. The university administration approved the construction of a cultural center which opened in 1972. The Ethnic Cultural Center (ECC) housed events by Chinese, Indian, Chicano, Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants and indigenous peoples.
In 1965, the updated Immigration and Nationality Act removed the country of origin based annual quota that was established by the Luce-Celler Act.
This change allowed many educated and skilled immigrants from Asian countries to migrate to the United States. Some of these immigrants came to King County, significantly contributing to the diversity of the region.
By 1970, King County’s population had increased 26% in the previous decade, reaching 1,182,311. Whites still accounted for 93% of county residents, followed by 40,597 African Americans, 29,141 Asian Americans, 7,391 Native Americans and 3283 people of Hispanic heritage. Oppressive land laws were repealed and while racially discriminatory covenants were still present in land deeds, their enforcement dwindled as years passed.
In 1996, King County Executive Gary Locke became the Evergreen State’s chief executive. Washington became the first Lower Forty-Eight state to elect an Asian-American candidate as its governor.
Between 1970 and 2023, the population in the region doubled from 1.15 million to 2.27 million. Population diversity also increased, with the Asian community growing (it saw twenty-fold growth) and the Hispanic / Latino community growing (it saw seventy-five fold growth). In the 1970s, most Asian immigrants came in as refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, while the 1980s saw migration from China, Korea, India, and Pacific Island nations.
By 1980, two-thirds of the state’s Asian Americans were foreign born as opposed to two-thirds being American born. 1980 was the last year that more Seattleites were born in Washington than in the other forty-nine states.
The street trade along Jackson Street was replaced by shops and restaurants of Hieu Saigon, Seattle’s new Little Saigon. The 1980s saw a flood of refugees from Vietnamese boat people and their Hmong, Mien, and Khmer counterparts, to East Africa, Central America, the former Soviet Union, Bhutan and Myanmar.
This influx enriched local culture (and dining), invigorated ailing neighborhoods, and challenged schools and social services.
The overall population of King County increased from around 1.5 million residents in 1990 to over 2.26 million by 2018, growth of over 50%, while the rest of the United States grew by only 32%. Cities such as Renton and Kent grew by 153% and 244% respectively. Between 2010 to 2020, Seattle’s population grew by 21% while King County grew by 16%. This was the first time in over a century that the city grew more than the suburbs!
While Boeing was one of the biggest employers in Seattle prior to the 1970s, new employers started appearing in King County starting the 1980s, the most influential of which was Microsoft. As it grew, Microsoft attracted talent from around the world, driving secondary jobs, and charities. The region became an even bigger technology hub with the rise of ecommerce powerhouse Amazon.
Much of the increase in King County’s population has been due to an influx of foreign-born residents. The percent of foreign born residents of King County rose from 15.4% to 23.5% between 2000 and 2018.
Of the population increase in King County from 2000 to 2018, 52% of the growth came from foreign born residents while the percentage contribution of foreign born residents to the growth of residents for the overall United States was 32%, indicating that more foreign born residents moved to King County. Greater than half of the foreign born residents in King County came from Asian countries (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India) followed by Mexico.
With this influx of foreign born residents, the linguistic diversity of the region also blossomed. Nearly 600,000 residents of King county speak a language other than English at home. Seattle Public Schools currently serves nearly 7,000 English language learners across one hundred and sixty-two languages spoken at home.
According to federal data, Seattle’s 98118 zip code is home to speakers of seventy-eight languages, more than any other zip code in the United States. And Kent is currently ranked as the sixth most diverse city in the United States.
Groups of immigrants often chose to congregate together after moving to King County. In 1970, most non-white population was centered around south Downtown Seattle. As years passed, the Asian population shifted in concentration across the lake into Newport, Bellevue and Redmond while the Hispanic population moved further south into Renton, Kent and Auburn. Many in Seattle’s Black community also moved to South King County as the years passed.
King County has created language access policies to become more accommodating to people with limited English proficiency.
The county has categorized languages into three tiers. Spanish is considered a Tier 1 language and the county mandates that all documents be translated into Spanish and made available by default to the residents of the county.
Tier 2 languages (Vietnamese, Russian, Somali, Chinese, Korean, Ukrainian, Amharic and Punjabi) are ones where the government “recommends” translation and Tier 3 are ones for which translation services are “encouraged”.
King County’s ethnolinguistic makeup will continue to shift but the overall picture promises to become even richer, as new immigrants arrive, bringing their cultures with them. The stories embodied in each language will intersect, shaping the county’s future as they have its past and present.