Pioneer Childhood on the Hill

Chapter Six:  Pioneer Childhood on Queen Anne Hill
by Kay F. Reinartz, PhD; copied from Queen Anne:  Community on the Hill

Published 1993 by Queen Anne Historical Society, edited by Kay Reinartz

The very thought of [pioneer child life] makes the blood tingle and the heart leap.  No element was wanting for romance or adventure.  Indians, bears, panthers, far journeys in canoes or on horseback, fording rivers, camping and tramping, all in a virgin wilderness so full of grandeur and loveliness  that even very little children were impressed by the appearance thereof.
The strangeness and newness of it all was hardly understood by the native white children as they had no means of comparing this region and mode of life with other countries and customs.
                                                      Inez Denny, Blazing the Way, 1909

All too often frontier history tells the story of adult pioneers’ dreams, work, successes and failures, but the experiences of children are unknown.  By rare good fortune written records have been kept by the Denny and Mercer children themselves of their pioneer life on Queen Anne Hill in the 1860s and 1870s.  Fortunately, Inez and Abbie Denny had both a gift for words and the discipline to write of the pioneer childhood they and their siblings enjoyed on the hill.  In addition, Susie Mercer has left a modest collection of anecdotes published in the local newspapers.

Half of the 24-member Denny-Boren pioneer party that landed at Alki Beach on November 13, 1851 were children under ten years of age  None of these children lived on Queen Anne Hill, however.
The first children on the hill were the four daughters of Thomas Mercer — Mary Jane, 13; Eliza Ann, 11; Susannah, nine; and Alice, three — who came to live on the south slope with their widowed father in the summer of 1853.  In 1854 David and Louisa Denny brought their nine-month-old baby Emily Inez to their cabin in the swale.  Thomas Mercer’s daughters loved to hike through the woods to Louisa’s cabin to see the baby and visit.  Inez Denny and Alice Mercer were four years apart in age and eventually became good friends.
Following the Native American uprising both families moved to Seattle.  The Mercers moved back to the hill around 1861 and the Dennys spent their summers on the homestead and their winters in Seattle.  When the Denny family moved to a new farmhouse on Lake Union in 1870, there were seven children ranging in age from 16 to one year:  Inez, Madge Decatur, Abigail Lenora, John B., Anna Louisa, David Thomas Jr. (Davie), and Victor Winfield Scott.  A twin son had been born with David, but died at birth.  Cousin Billie Boren, who was Inez’s age, was also a part of the family.  More children came to the hill in the mid-1870s when the 11 Ross children and the seven daughters and one son of Dr. Henry Smith and Mary Phelan Smith joined the community.
Speaking for the pioneer children Inez says that, as children growing up on the hill, “we were seldom panic-stricken; born amid dangers, there seemed nothing novel about them and we took our environment as a matter of course.  We were taught to be courageous but not foolhardy which may account for our not getting oftener in trouble.”

Above:  Emily Inez Denny, the Denny’s first child, was an artist and writer who painted many scenes of the pioneer life she experienced.  She published the narrative of her parents’ pioneer experiences, as well as her own, in Blazing the Way published in 1909.  Her descriptive writing and character sketches provide priceless insights into the early community on Queen Anne Hill.

Above:  Abigail L. Denny was the third child of David and Louisa Boren Denny.  Abbie wrote spirited accounts of the Denny children’s life on Queen Anne in the 1870s.

The Native Americans of Puget Sound country have always been a people with a great love of children.  Inez Denny comments about the Indians, “How they admired the native white children!  Without ceremony they claimed blood brotherhood, saying to the children, “You were born in your illahee (country) and are our tillicum (friend).  You eat the same food, will grow up here and belong to us.”  Often in the 1860s, the Denny children were lulled to sleep at night in their Seattle cottage by the tamanuse singing of the natives camped on the nearby beach (vicinity Battery St.).
The native children were usually amiable and friendly toward the pioneer children.  Inez recalls as a girl meeting little native girls singing and walking hand-in-hand along the beach or a woods trail.  She asked them, “Ka mika klatawa?” (“Where are you going?”).  And they replied, “O, copa yawa” (O, over yonder”), nodding toward the trail stretching along before them.
Because of their parents’ apprehension following the Native American uprising, the Denny children were only occasionally allowed to play with the native children and visit their beach camps.  The children found the camps fascinating places of strong odors from salmon drying on poles over small fires and strings of claims hanging inside mat houses.
Inez recalls only a single incident when the Denny children were treated rudely by a native child.  She and Madge were visiting a camp at Smith Cove when a hostile little boy hurled a rock at Madge, hitting her in the head.  To Inez he appeared filled with hatred and bitterness, and she wondered what had happened to make him so.  She learned later that he was not of the Puget Sound people, but Snohomish, a group that harbored a deep hatred of the settlers because of bad experiences.

Inez tells us that the Denny children
had no real fear of the Indians and never but once were we frightened by them.  The first time was when we met ten big braves, wrapped in their blankets with one arm free, brandishing long knives and keeping time to a weird chant as they traveled at a dog trot along the road.  They were mamooking black tamanuse (driving away evil spirits).
The pioneer children were taught by their native playmates that the northern tribes, especially the Stickeens, should be feared for they were fierce headtakers.  The Puget Sound natives greatly feared these people themselves.  Indeed, Inez declares that the children feared the drunken white man much more than the sober Native American.
The Denny children learned that the greatest fear of their native friends was the frightful statalth or “stick siwash,” which haunted the dark forest.  These were ghosts of a race of people long dead who had been of a gigantic stature.  The ghosts were likewise very tall, dreadful and intent on chasing anyone they met in the woods on moonless nights.  Inez reports one black moonless night a large brawny brave dashed into the Denny’s farmyard running as fast as his legs would carry him.  He was carrying a blazing pitchwood torch over his head as he kept looking back over his shoulder for the statalth.
When Susie Mercer first met native children she was astonished that she could not understand them when they spoke and vice versa.  She and her sisters immediately decided to learn the local tribal language and to teach their native playmates English.  Susie reports that “the Indians were slow to learn, and as a result all of us talked Chinook, even among ourselves.”  Inez and Madge Denny also decided to teach a native playmate to read English and every day they sat down with her for an hour with their graded reader and dictionary.  The girl, who was very pretty “with long wavy black hair and bright color in her cheeks,” had a lively curiosity and a zest for learning English.

The Denny children’s native friends brought them pets, including bear cubs, mink, a raccoon, and numerous wild birds.  Once the children adopted several grouse chicks and raised them with the barnyard chickens until the day they flew off.  A special pet bird was a crow named “Jim,” who liked to help the children pick currants.  As they worked their way through the thickets he would hover close by, opening his mouth to receive currants from the children.  The greedy crow would eat berries so fast they would roll out of his mouth.
One pet they all adored was an orphan fawn which soon became their close companion, following them everywhere — into the house or out in the woods, wherever they went to work or play.  A memory Inez treasured of Madge, her dear sister and good friend, was Madge as a girl “with her arms entwined abut the slender neck of [the] pet fawn, her eyes shining with love and laughter, her burnished hair shimmering like a halo in the sunlight as she pattered here and there with her graceful playfellow.”  When they were busy berry picking, which occupied them most of the time, the children had to keep a sharp eye  eye on their buckets or the fawn would make lunch of hours’ worth of work.  The berries were preserved as part of the family’s food supply.
One day a native friend walked into the Dennys’ farmyard with a beaver cub in a covered basket.  The children kept the beaver as it grew, fascinated by the replacement of its soft baby fur with strong stiff fur that shed water and protected the animal.  The beaver was as tame as a kitten and would eagerly eat raspberry shoots and other fresh greens from the children’s hands.  Whenever there was a tub of water around the beaver climbed in and happily slapped the water with its broad tail, spraying a sheet of water in a ten-foot arc.
Louisa Denny, who generally approved of her children knowing and befriending the array of woods animals, finally objected to the full-grown beaver, which regularly flooded the house by diving into any tub of water placed on the kitchen floor.  The pet went to the Territorial University’s student dormitory, where it soon died.  The children were told that the beaver died because the students “bathed it to death,” but more likely it was fed the wrong food.
One day the Denny children reversed the situation with their native friends and gave a Duwamish woman a kitten for a pet.  The woman had come to their house to trade clams for potatoes and was very pleased to receive the kitten, which she called pish-pish (cat) as she wrapped it in her shawl.  The next day she reappeared at the Dennys’ door, displaying her hands and arms which were covered with scratches made by the mesachie pish-pish (bad cat).  Louisa soothed her ire by giving her some oven-baked supalel (bread), which was highly valued as a luxury by the natives, who rarely had yeast bread.
When one of the children’s pets died, they invariably held a funeral with pomp and ceremony as they buried it in the orchard or flower garden.  One time when a pet bird had died Madge, aged six, arranged a litter upon which the tiny corpse was placed, draped with white muslin and decorated with flowers.  Two children carried the litter as Madge followed, singing seriously:
We’re traveling to the grave
To lay this body down
And the last word I heard him speak
Was about Jerusalem.

The Denny family was very fond of dogs.  David had brought his large black Newfoundland, Towser, out west with him and the dog was David’s constant companion while hunting in the 1850s.  Watch was a longtime family pet, although there is no record of the dog’s origins.  Jack, a yellow hound, was also a family pet and David’s hunting companion in the 1860s.
Watch often accompanied the children on their adventures exploring the hill and cove, and at least once saved their lives.  On a sunny April day, five of the children finished their work early and decided to take a walk west through the forest, toward Smith Cove and Elliott Bay.  As they went along the beach at the cove, they went beyond the three big stones, the marker agreed upon with their parents as the farthermost distance they should go along the beach.
Admonishing Abbie, John, and Dave to “stay together,” Inez and Madge climbed up the steep hillside to gather some creamy white honeysuckle.  They had just broken off some blossoms when they saw Watch become very excited about something that appeared to be in an immense hollow log.  Every bristle on the bulldog’s body stood straight up.  He quivered with terror and animal rage, and was slowly, very slowly, backing toward the girls.  Without any discussion, the girls took to their heels and scrambled and fell down the yellow bank to where the others were waiting.  The troop stampeded down the beach and then up the trail to home, about a mile and a half.
A few days later the Dennys were invited by their native neighbors to come to their camp in the cove to see the carcass of a cougar which measured about nine feet.  With wondering eyes the children circled the huge beast, marveling at its great length, huge paws, and hard white teeth protruding over shrunken lips.  They were sure this was the creature that had alarmed Watch a few days earlier.

On Saturdays in the 1860s and 1870s, when the children’s lessons and work around the farm were well done, Louisa rewarded them by permitting them to spend the afternoon on the beach.  Abbie tells us that “the beach was clean and beautiful … and we found treasures of little pink shells, agates, pebbles, and many other things.  The banks in the spring were all abloom with syringa, red flowers, coral, honeysuckle, and spirea.”  When it was warm enough to swim the children went skinny-dipping.  When a visitor to the farm reported that he had seen them skinny-dipping the day before, they objected, saying he had seen native children.

Christmas was observed each year beginning at the Alki settlement in 1851, when the children’s gifts were trinkets Louisa had the foresight to tuck into her emigrant trunk.  In 1859 George Frye and Charlie Plummer decided there should be a Santa Claus for the children and dressed up as natives, wrapping themselves in blankets and carrying their trinkets in a sack.  The children were ecstatic, no matter that Santa was “double” and appeared as a Native American.
Christmas trees were not a custom in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The custom was introduced in England by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, and thence it came to America.  Around 1860 Louisa and David Denny had the first Christmas tree in Seattle.  David cut a small Douglas fir and Louisa hung bright red Lady apples, sticks of candy, and little gifts on the branches.
After the Territorial University’s 1860 opening, a Christmas tree was put up on a platform and Susie and Alice Mercer joined in the decorating party.  They also made great ropes of spicy cedar with which they crisscrossed the central hall.  Boughs of Douglas fir were ornamented with large glass balls.  A program was put on for the community with the young children, including Inez and Madge Denny and Alice Mercer, singing Christmas carols and hymns.

In the frontier home there was always an abundance of chores and tasks, and every pair of hands was needed.  Children learned while still very young that they were expected to be industrious and useful to their parents.  In fact, there were many jobs that could be done by even a five- or six-year-old child around the homestead.  One such daily job was bringing the cows home from where they grazed among the stumps and natural clearings, where they found lush grass.  This task often took real fortitude, for it meant going along trails “through the dark, thick forest in the deepening twilight that was impenetrable blackness in the wall of somber evergreens on either hand,” in Inez’s words.
Older brothers and sisters were responsible for watching out for the little ones.  The garden always needed weeding and many hands were required for gathering the quantities of vegetables.  The woodbox must be kept full, and water hauled to the house from the creek, lake, or well.  Children helped with all aspects of food preparation, including cooking, baking, and the serving of meals.
In the early pioneering days there was not the rigid differentiation between the roles of women and men, or of boys and girls.  Inez Denny tells us that “the majority of the pioneer boys were expected to not be particular as to whether they did men’s work or women’s work.”  Cousin Billie Boren was “a notable example of versatility, lending a hand with helpless babies, cooking or washing, the most patient and faithful of nurses, lifting many a burden for the tired house-mother.”
The children helped preserve the garden produce, such as stringing apples for drying.  Another chore was selling surplus vegetables and flowers door-to-door.  Susie and Alice Mercer also made the rounds of the village selling vegetables, milk, and eggs from their farm.
On washing day children were pressed into service performing numerous tasks:  tending the fire under the big kettle in the yard, rubbing soft homemade soap into the soiled places on the clothing and linens, and wringing out the washed clothes.  The children then spread the clothes on bushes and branches to dry.  Later they used clotheslines.

The pioneer children had few toys and their playground was the green, tree-covered hillsides and brown beaches.  For fun they dared each other to climb up the steepest, slipperiest banks above Smith Cove or to walk or run down the 50- and 60-foot logs that lay at odd angles across deep ravines or on steep inclines.  Inez reports that the children went on with their usual outdoor games the year around, unless it rained unusually hard.  They loved being outside and were restive if kept in the house for very long.
The children were not restrained in their athletic adventures for fear of damaging their clothes.  The girls’ dresses and boys’ shirts were of cotton calico which cost only five cents a yard at Dexter Horton’s store.  Warmer dresses and trousers were made of linsey-woolsey, a home-woven blend of linen and wool fibers, and handknit wool sweaters, mittens, and scarves kept off the damp child from the bay in the winter time.  The girls participated in making their own clothes, knitting and stitching the garments.  Everything was carefully washed and mended over and over before it was handed down to the next child, or to a neighbor.
When the Chinook wind came singing across Puget Sound in January or February, the boys sent their homemade kites up, up into the sky at the top of Queen Anne Hill.  On such windy days the girls would loosen their long hair, which was normally braided or held back in a net, and perform what they called a “skirt dance” be holding the hems of their skirts over the heads and running down the hill squealing with delight as their skirts ballooned out behind them like sails.
The cattle were another source of adventure.  When David’s range stock came around the homestead, which it did quite often, the children would run for a rope or rawhide lariat and lasso the calves.  One day Inez and Madge enjoyed a wild adventure.  Mounting a two-year-old heifer when it was lying down, they were startled when it leapt to its feet and bellowing hideously, ran for dear life with the two girls clinging to its back.  In seconds the entire herd began stampeding toward Lake Union — cows leaping over logs and calves bawling — with the girls astride the heifer in the middle of a cloud of dust, shrieking with delight and fright.  They eventually flew off, landing in a soft sandy spot in the road.
When the Ross or Smith children came over to the Denny farm they loved to play on the teeter-totter.  The Denny teeter-totter had the longest, strongest Douglas fir board that could be found laid across a large log.  A huge stone was placed in the middle to hold down the board, which was then crowded with large and small children at either end until there was hardly any board showing.  They then see-sawed the board up and down, with their eyes glued on the huge stone, prepared to leap aside if it started rolling.
Canoeing along the shores of Elliott Bay and later, when they were older, north and south along the Sound, was a major recreation of the children, who all quickly learned to handle a native canoe.  Most often the pioneer women and children used the style of canoe designed for the native women, a stable, lightweight canoe that was easily navigable, in contrast to the larger, heavier, fishing and war canoes used by the men.
At a young age all boys and any interested girls were taught to shoot well.  David and Louisa’s sons, as well as Madge and their cousin Billie, became good shots with both the shotgun and rifle at a young age, and killed numerous bear, deer, grouse, pheasants, ducks, wild pigeons and other game for the family table.  Thomas Mercer taught all of his daughters how to handle firearms.  More than one girl brought down bear, as well as birds, elk, moose, and deer.

Toys were simple and homemade.  The few toys a family had were shared by everyone.  Dolls made of calico or corncobs were common, as were calico dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, and horses.  Children traded with the native children for their toys, including child-size bows and arrows.  The bows were stained with berry juice and the arrows tipped with red, with duck feathers forming the vanes that kept the arrows flying straight.
Children often made their own toys, such as kites constructed of slivers of light wood and paper.  Baseballs were made by winding a piece of rubber with yarn, then twine, and covering it with leather cut from the tops of old worn-out boots.
In the evenings children often played Authors, Hearts, or other card games.  Lucky children received in the mail Youth’s Companion or St. Nicholas, popular young people’s magazines from “back east.”  Each issue had crossword puzzles and pencil games, and was a treasure-trove of ideas for things for young people to make and don.

The families living on the hill in the 1850s and 1860s shared a strong religious faith, and many attended church on Sunday.  The boys’ Sunday best consisted of “Buster Brown” style linen blouses, long trousers, and cloth caps with wide visors.
The girls wore ankle-length full skirts held out by hoops, and long, wide, stiffly-starched and beruffled pantlets.  Abbie recalls these “as the bane of our lives, for we had to walk so carefully along the side or the road that their immaculate whiteness should not be marred by the dust.  How we envied the little care-free “Injuns” that we passed on our way to Sunday school.  They did not have to hitch up their hoops in the back when they sat down or else have them fly up and hit them in the nose.”
Abbie Denny has left a delightful sketch of her sisters’ and brothers’ experiences at church.  Reaching the church each Sunday, they climbed what seemed like very high steps to small people, tip-toed in, and sat down on long, painted benches in a “sniggering row to say say their catechisms.”  When the teacher told the children how sin came about by Adam and Eve eating apples, the Denny girls agreed among themselves that “if the apples had been as greens as the ones [they] had tried from the ‘sweet June’ tree, Adam would have let Eve eat them all.”
The Sunday school teacher asked the children to prepare verses to recite, promising that the one learning the most by heart would receive a prize.  One Sunday Anna Louise, about six, put up her hand, indicating that she had a verse.  Receiving a nod, she stood up, and facing the group blurted out at breakneck speed, so no one could stop her:
     Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
     Saddle a cat and I’ll get on.
After a stunned silence the entire Sunday school class erupted into a hysterical laughter, including the teacher.
When Sunday school was over, the children, like their parents, stood around on the church steps talking over the news, such as “”… the folks up river including the little Terry girls, were all flooded out by the early summer freshets … and had all come to Seattle in canoes.”  When they ran out of things to talk about they would wonder about “which Indian had fired the gun that had left the bullet holes in the church window frames.”

The main recreation enjoyed in the evening was getting together with the neighbors for taffy pulling, playing word games, or theatricals on the order of charades.
The older children enjoyed spelling bees, since being able to speak well and spell correctly was much esteemed at this time.  “Spell downs,” in which good spellers engaged in friendly competition, were popular.  These were usually held at the schoolhouse and were well-attended.  Singing was a favorite pastime of children as well as of adults.  Singing schools were organized throughout the year, meeting in the evening, and it was a real step forward toward being “grown up” to be allowed to attend, usually at age 14 or 15.  Many a courtship began at singing school.
Reflecting back on their pioneer childhood in 1906, Abbie Denny-Lindsley observes:
To some of our middle-aged citizens who were once the barefooted boys and girls who played in the roads that are now First and Second avenues, the past seemed like a beautiful dream wherein people of another era dwelt:  the red man with his picturesque garb of blanket and beads; the pioneer in his buckskin hunting blouse; the sailors from white-winged ships of foreign lands, and the jolly jack tars from the old man-of-war.

Madge Decatur Denny:  Queen Anne’s First Mountaineer
Born March 16, 1856, Fort Decatur
Died January 17, 1889,  Queen Anne Hill

All of the pioneer children were adventurous, and some of them became mountain climbers.  Named for the fort where she was born during the Native American uprising, Madge Decatur seemed to have been endowed with a fearless nature and an insatiable appetite for adventure.  Her mother often noted that Madge approached everything in life with a calm, quiet courage.  Madge was a strong natural athlete whose physical stamina and beauty impressed the community.  By the time she was 14 she was a crack shot and could shoot off the head of a grouse at long range.
Inez says of Madge:
Courage, steadfastness and intrepidity were marked traits of her character.  The surpassing loveliness and grandeur of the “world in the open air” appealed to her … even in extreme youth.
Her nerves were of steel; she seldom exhibited a shadow of fear and seemed of a spirit to undertake any daring feat.  To dare the darkness, climb declivities, explore recesses, seemed pleasure to her courageous nature.  At Snoqualmie Falls, in the Archipelago de Haro, in the Jupiter  Hills and Mount Olympus of the Olympic Range, she climbed up and down the steep gorges with the agility of the chamois or our own mountain goat.  The forest, the mountain, the seashore yielded their charm, to her, each gave their messages.
Endowed with great beauty and a keen mind, Madge was also well known for her cheerful temperament and keen sense of humor.  She enjoyed keeping everyone laughing.  She died at age 32 from an undiagnosed illness.  Courtesy Museum of History and Industry