Celebrate Spanaway logo
\Main Menu \ Our Sponsors \ About Us \ Contact Us \                            Fostering a livable community
What's in a Name?
Mystery Solved!
Map Reveals Source - View 1847 Hudson Bay Company Map

Ask locals how Spanaway got its name and you'll get a smorgasbord of oft vehemently defended choices.

Some claim a Nisqually word for the lake that means "shining water" - yawanaps - was simply spelled backwards by pioneers to name the town. Ingenious (some say ridiculous) idea, but a Nisqually tribe historian knows of no such word resembling "yawanaps" in their language.

A few folk ascribe to the mule span theory. A team of two mules (called a span) could pull a loaded wagon about ten miles before they had to be rested or replaced. So great-grandpa also used "a span" as a measure of distance. "Gotta haul this load of hay three spans (roughly 30 miles) into town." The first mule-changing station between the city of Tacoma and points south was just east of the southern end of (Yawanaps? Bushalier? Spanaway?) lake. So the question "How far is the lake from Tacoma?" was answered "A span away." And with common usage this location became "Spanaway".

But neither of these rather creative name generators have proved to be true.

Other oldtimers claimed Spanaway was a white man's perversion of the Nisqually word Spanuch, because the first known reference to this area was a Hudson Bay Company journal entry (mis)read as "two plows sent to Spanuch and Muck". But skeptics have had trouble creating Spanaway out of Spanuch. The town of Spinach - that leafy, green vegetable - might make more sense as a linguistic transition. However, in 2010 historian Steve Anderson found that on close examination of the original HBC journal entry, the "c" in Spanuch is really an "e". Spanueh, not Spanuch. Anderson also found the first known map of Spanaway, drawn by Fort Nisqually proctor William Tolmie in 1847. Tolmie's map (below) clearly labels the lake Spanueh and the area around the southeast end of it, where the HBC ran cattle and sheep and raised grain, as "Spanueh Station". And Spanueh, phonetically, does sound like Spanaway.

Did Scotsman Tolmie coin the term Spanueh? No, while "yawanaps spelled backwards" was a pretty far fetch, at least the idea that this area got its name from local Native Americans is true. According to linguist Nile Thompson (Manuscript Collection no.:2552, University of Washington Library), the Lushootseed word meaning a place to dig roots, was spa'du-we. By the time Euro-Americans arrived on the scene, the "d" had become softened to an "n" - hence Spanueh.

It's easy to see how Spanueh became the anglicized Spanaway used by white settlers. However, the town was platted in 1890 by the Lake Park Railway & Improvement Company as "Lake Park", and officially recorded as so by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names(USBGN). What happened?

Lake Park just did not stick. To the locals, Spanueh it was, and Spanaway it stayed. Seven years later the post office recognized Spanaway as the town's "real" name. It wasn't until 1970, though that the USBGN belatedly reversed its original ruling and make "Spanaway" the town's U.S. Government authorized place name.

Visit our Heritage page for more Spanaway history.
Early Spanaway by pioneer descendant Dorothy T. Wilson, with personal accounts and photographs of Lake Park and settler families is available to buy at the Fir Lane Memorial Park office.

View an excerpt from Steve Anderson's story about Spanaway's first settler

Segment of Tolmie's 1847 map showing Spanueh Cattleherd Station
Source:Hudson Bay Company Archive, Archives of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Used by permission. Reproduction prohibited.
back to top
| Map | Activities | Advertise | Antiques & Autos | Awards | Booths | Business Directory | Community News
| Entertainers | FAQ's | Heritage | Sponsors | Visitors Guide | Volunteer | About Us | Contact Us |

Spanaway, Washington, official website informing residents and visitors about Spanaway events and attractions, Spanaway businesses and services, and Spanaway's community fair.