DePauw was born in Salem, Indiana in 1822. He was the grandson of Charles DePauw, who came to the Americas with the Marquis de La Fayette, and the son of John and Elizabeth Battist DePauw. John DePauw had been a lawyer, judge, and a member of the Indiana Constitutional Convention.
In 1838, when Washington was just 16, he was elected for the first of four times to the Indiana legislature.
Throughout his lifetime, Washington amassed a fortune by investing in ventures such as grain, steel and glass, and during the American Civil War, government supplies. At one time, he was considered the wealthiest man in Indiana.
In 1881 he made provisions to establish a Methodist university after his death, which was to be named after him. Upon learning of these provisions, the trustees of Indiana Asbury University, located in Greencastle, Indiana, approached DePauw and asked him to divert his bequest to Indiana Asbury University, which would then take the name DePauw University.
Photo of Washington C. Depauw Portrait completed by T.C. Steele