Chapter Four of Queen Anne: Community on the Hill, published 1993
by Kay F. Reinartz, PhD
The noble army of courageous, enduring, persistent, progressive pioneers who threaded their way across the western wilderness prove that an age of marvelous heroism is but recently past.
The knowledge, foresight, faith and force exhibited by many of these daring men and women proclaimed them endowed with the genius of conquerors.
PIONEERS IN THE WILDERNESS NORTH OF SEATTLE
On January 1, 1852, the European American population in the vicinity of Elliott Bay was 31: 11 men, six women, and 14 children. The next year, 170 residents were counted in the newly-created King County, Oregon Territory. By 1854 there were four claims on the west side of Lake Duwamish (Lake Washington), four more along the south shore of Elliott Bay, and one in Rainier Valley. Settlements were also quickly forming in the Duwamish and White river valleys.
The area north of the Seattle settlement is officially designated in the government survey as Township No. 25, North Range, No. 3, East, Willamette Meridian, Territory of Washington and includes districts that later became known as Denny Hill (Denny Regrade), Queen Anne Hill, Lake Union, Smith Cove (Interbay), Magnolia, Ross, Fremont and Salmon Bay (Ballard). Between 1853 and 1859 approximately 15 land claims were filed, mostly by single men, for land in this area north of Seattle. Some of the claims were only partially within the Queen Anne community and in a couple of cases the settler’s homestead is located just outside the boundaries. In spite of their isolation, the north district settlers became well-acquainted and functioned as a single informal community working together, visiting, and looking after each other when illness or other trouble befell a household. All of these settlers are included in the following discussion of the early years.
These adventurous pioneers shared cultural, political, and religious values. They were mostly American-born, not immigrants, and came to the Northwest from the middle states, e.g. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. They were very experienced with the conditions of living in a primitive outpost, far from the securities and comforts of civilization. With few exceptions, they grew up in frontier conditions.
Those whose political allegiance is known were Whigs, abolitionists, and pro-Union in the Civil War. They were remarkable in that many were intellectuals, deeply religious in the Protestant faith, and teetotalers. Their strong support of temperance was not in total harmony with frontier life, where hard drinking was commonplace and used by men to relieve the stress of an unbalanced social life. Although most of these pioneers were bachelors, the male leaders among the north district settlers had families with them, which critically influenced their shaping the course of local history.
While not far apart in terms of miles, the density of virgin forest made travel slow and difficult, which in turn isolated each homestead. The native people’s trails crisscrossed the area, connecting Lake Union with the bay and cove. The trails also connected their semi-permanent camps on Lake Union at Smith Cove, and in the vicinity of Battery Street. Trails also linked the permanent Shilshole people’s village on Shilshole Bay to the camps and waterways. These native trails around the perimeter of the hill, as well as game trails, were used by the early settlers for many years and in some ways later became the routes of paved roads.
THE DENNY BROTHERS EXPLORE SMITH COVE
In December 1852 David and Arthur Denny and William Bell, all members of the Denny Brothers party, decided to explore the area north of Seattle in their search for pasture land. The area was only vaguely known to the Seattle pioneers through accounts by the natives. Skirting around the west side of the two hills directly north of Seattle (Denny and Queen Anne) the trio fought their way through incredibly dense vegetation. Bell, discouraged by the steady rain and slow progress, turned back around 2p.m., but the brothers continued on until they reached tidewater, called Shilshole by the native people (now known as Salmon Bay).
The early darkness of December overtook them, making returning to the settlement impossible. They had not come prepared for camping and had neither food nor bedrolls, and their clothing and matches were soaked. However, as seasoned frontiersmen they found dry wood inside logs and under downed timber and soon had a warm fire, ignited with the flash of David’s musket. Sheltered from the cold winter rain by the wide spreading branches of a giant cedar, they passed a safe night. In the morning, they trekked back to Seattle, meeting up with Bell in the cove which would become known as Smith Cove. Bell had come looking for them with his pockets full of hardtack.
That winter the Denny brothers showed the cove to several newcomers to Elliott Bay, including Dr. Henry Smith and Henry Pierce, and later Ira Utter and Osborn Hall. All found the cove a favorable location, as the land was relatively flat and open, making only light clearing necessary, and had direct access to Puget Sound. The main disadvantage of the site from the perspective of the newcomers was its proximity to the Shilshole village located on Salmon Bay, in the vicinity of the present-day Ballard Locks.
THE SWEETWATER BRIDE
About six weeks after he spent a damp night under the great cedar on the north side of the hill, David Denny and Louisa Boren Denny were married on January 23, 1853. In the early morning, the couple had gone to the beach to collect clams and oysters for their wedding dinner. Next they gathered evergreens from the forest and fashioned garlands with which they decorated the fireplace mantel, doorways, window sills and dining table of Arthur and Mary Boren Denny’s cabin. The bride helped her sister Mary prepare the wedding dinner of clams, oysters, salmon, wild duck, potatoes, baked beans, stewed wild berries, biscuits and cake.
Shortly past midday, Louisa climbed the ladder to the cabin loft and put on a soft white mull dress she had made in Cherry Grove and pinned in her hair a bit of cedar greens and bright berries she had also gathered that morning. David donned his only jacket, pinned some cedar and berries to the lapel and joined Louisa in front of the fireplace. With 15 settlers, including seven children, and a handful of native people looking on, David “Doc” Maynard, Justice of the Peace, performed the civil ceremony. Henry Yesler, King County Clerk, recorded the marriage, the second one in Seattle, on a slip of paper which was given to the couple.
After the ceremony and wedding dinner, the bride and groom walked down the bluff to their canoe, laden with their few wedding gifts, including a pair of chickens from Doc Maynard — a valuable gift, for it meant a supply of fresh eggs. Before dark they paddled about a mile and a half north and climbed up the steep, muddy hillside to the cabin on their 120-acre donation claim, which they dated January 24th, 1853. The claim ran from Lake Union to Elliott Bay, with its boundaries on the north and south being marked by today’s Mercer Street and Denny Way.
Below: David and Louisa Boren Denny with daughters Emily Inez and Madge Decatur, c. 1858
HENRY SMITH, ABIGAIL TEAFF SMITH AND ELLENDER SMITH
In the summer of 1853 the Smith family from Wooster, Pennsylvania, established their homestead in the cove that lay on the northwest side of the hill, and the cove became known as Smith Cove. The family was Dr. Henry Smith, 22, Abigail Teaff Smith, 61, his mother and a widow, and sister Ellender Smith, 16. The Smith family had traveled with a wagon train the summer of 1852 that was organized under the epic name “Far West Emigration Expedition,’ with Henry serving as assistant to the expedition’s physician, a former teacher in medical school.
Leaving his mother and sister in Portland, a settlement of about 150 people, Dr. Smith decided to walk north to Puget Sound country, which had been highly recommended to the California-bound trio. In the second week of his walk, in an unremitting downpour he met and befriended Henry K. Pierce. They completed the journey together, traveling by water from Olympia to Seattle. Meeting the Denny brothers, they were shown the cove area where Smith selected land because he was convinced it was the natural route for the future railroad to enter Seattle. In addition, he saw the potential for large commercial docks where the cove opened into Elliott Bay. Pierce chose land on the north side of Salmon Bay.
After spending the winter in Portland with his mother and sister, Smith returned to the cove early in the spring of 1853 and built a log cabin. Abigail and Ellender came by ship in early summer and planted potatoes and onions. Soon after arriving at the cove Abigail Teaff Smith selected land and filed her own claim immediately north of her son’s.
THE FRIENDS EXPLORE THE WHITE RIVER VALLEY
Full of curiosity about the area, the two young Henrys, Smith and Pierce, spent what free time they could manage exploring. In the autumn of 1853 they headed over to the White River. As they paddled downriver one day, another canoe overtook them and pulled alongside. This canoe held a white man of short stature who wore overalls tucked into his boots, a blue flannel shirt and a slouch hat covering a head of long black hair. His companions were Native American paddlers. Smith relates:
We fell into easy conversation on that ever new topic, the weather, the wildness of the country, richness of river bottom soils, etc. etc. and I eventually asked if he was looking for a claim.
“No,” he said, “I am not much of a farmer — I have my hands pretty full already and expect to have more irons in the fire soon; the country needs workers.
So the two canoes passed the hours, traveling side by side with the men conversing until they reached Seattle. Smith invited the stranger to visit him at the ranch in the cove and they parted ways.
A few days later Smith and his family, Henry Pierce, and every other man, woman and child around the Sound crowded into Yesler’s Mill to meet the newly-appointed territorial governor, Isaac Stephens. When the governor stood up, Smith and Pierce were astonished to see that it was none other than their fellow traveler of a few days earlier — still dressed the same as on that day. Smith immediately dubbed him “Puss ‘n Boots,” a moniker applied to Napoleon, who also was short and wore his pants tucked into high boots. Many in the territory called Stephens “Hat and Boots,” since that was often all one would see of him as he explored the region by native canoe. As he was paddled up and down the rivers of Washington, he would typically lie in the canoe studying a map spread across his chest and only his hat and boots visible. Governor Stephens was glad to see the two Henrys and made the promised visit to the cove a few days later.
The summer of 1854 was a busy one in Smith Cove. Lumber was hauled from Yesler’s Mill to the cove by scow and ox team for a comfortable two-story frame house, which was built on Abigail’s claim. (The exact location of this house is unknown.) Smith hired natives from the large camp located nearby to turn over the sod for an orchard. Then he, Abigail, and Ellender, along with native helpers, spent long days planting a large grafted apple orchard, the first of its type in King County. They began harvesting apples in the third year.
HENRY SMITH’S WALKS IN THE WOODS
During the summer of 1854, Smith left his house one day determined to cut a trail to Seattle. At that time the only route to the settlement was via canoe. It was a bright sunny day, but within the hour clouds rolled in and he had to rely on his compass to determine the route. Smith noted at noon that the compass had reversed its poles and was elated, since he interpreted this to mean there were iron deposits nearby. He continued walking all afternoon — but without intersecting Seattle. Finally, at nightfall he spied a clearing and shake-built cabin. He immediately concluded that it was John Nagle’s place east of Lake Union (Eastlake), and sat down on the rail fence to consider if he should spend the night with John or walk into the settlement. We have Smith’s own words on what happened next:
While sitting there, I could not help contrasting his improvements with my own. The size of the clearing was the same, the only seeming difference was that the front of his faced the west, whereas the front of mine faced the east. While puzzling over this strange coincidence, my own mother came out of the house to feed the poultry that had commenced going to roost, in a rookery for all the world like my own, only facing the wrong way. “In the name of all that’s wonderful,” I thought, “What is she doing here? and how did she get here ahead of me?” Just then the world took a spin around, my ranch wheeled into line, and lo! I was sitting on my own fence, and had been looking at my own improvements without knowing them.
Ellender Smith, 18 in 1854, is described by contemporary Cornelius Hanford as “a beautiful girl and lovely character.” Needless to say, Ellender did not remain single for long. The energetic, enterprising businessman Charles Plummer was the lucky bachelor who married the rosy-cheeked Ellender Smith on New Year’s Day, 1855. They were married in Plummer’s newly-built mercantile, which was festively decorated with garlands of evergreen and holly. The sociable Plummer invited everyone in the community to enjoy a dinner and dance right there in the store. In the spring Plummer put his carpenters to work on a large home for his bride, which was the showplace of Seattle for years. Sadly, Ellender would die giving birth to twin boys in 1858.
JOHN ROSS AND EDMUND CARR
In January 1853 two newcomers to Elliott Bay, John Ross and Edmund Carr, met and agreed to search for suitable land for their claims. A few days after New Year’s Day they paddled a native canoe from the small freshwater lake (Lake Union) to Salmon Bay via a shallow, swampy channel which they portaged. The place where the waters of the lake flowed out to the sea they named the Outlet (vicinity of Fremont). Continuing west, Ross and Carr came to a shallow bay which they named Salmon Bay because the day they explored it the waters were teeming with salmon. The native people living on this bay called it Shilshole and themselves the Shilshole-ahmish (people of Shilshole). Ignoring the natives’ names, the settlers gave the name Shilshole Bay to the little bay north of Magnolia, by which name it is still known.
Attracted by the idea of convenient water transportation to Puget Sound, John Ross selected a 148-acre tract of land on the north side of Queen Anne Hill and built his cabin at the Outlet. Edmund Carr selected land about a mile further west, on the south side of Salmon Bay, next to Dr. Henry Smith’s. In the twentieth century Ross’s homestead is the site of the Seattle Pacific University campus and Carr’s land is occupied by the Fisherman’s Terminal.
THE THOMAS MERCER FAMILY
Back in Illinois in the winter of 1851, when Thomas Mercer was dreaming of Oregon Country, he envisioned his wilderness home being on a lovely lake. The fulfillment of his dream was Lake Union, which he described as “hidden away in the tremendous forest,” and “a mirror-like lake surrounded by deep, dark evergreens of the primitive forest.” Deer trails led from the forest to the water’s edge and flocks of duck and geese made the lake their home. A Native American trail skirted the shore of the lake to the Outlet that led to Salmon Bay. Mercer called Queen Anne Hill “Eden,” for he felt he had reached the Promised Land.
Thomas Mercer’s claim lay directly north of David and Louisa Denny’s claim, with today’s Mercer Street marking the shared boundary. The eastern boundary of Mercer’s claim was the meandering shoreline of Lake Union, the western boundary was about Queen Anne Avenue, and the northern boundary became Highland Drive.
Mercer furnished his rustic home [[featured in “Early History of Queen Anne“]] with simple hand-made furniture, three large double beds, a table and chairs. Some shelves and clothing pegs along the walls completed the rooms. A treasured piece of furniture in the Mercer home was a little blue rocker in which Nancy Brigham Mercer had rocked her babies back in Illinois.
After completing the two-story log cabin in the summer of 1853, he returned to Salem where his daughters were waiting, and brought them back together with his team and wagon. They traveled overland to Olympia, where everything was loaded onto the steamer for Seattle.
As the boat pulled up at Yesler’s Wharf that sunny September day, all eyes were on Thomas Mercer’s team of big horses, Tib and Charley, the first horses in the Seattle settlement. In the following days a steady stream of Duwamish people passed by Mercer’s place to examine the team. With their first glimpse of the wagon they pronounced it to be a “Boston Kayim” (foreigner’s canoe). When they heard the creaking of the wagon as it was being pulled, they called in a “chik, chik,” a musically alliterative expression which the girls took an immediate liking to, declaring it matched the creaking sound the wagon made as it bumped over logs, stumps and rocks.
Tib was coal black, and Charley snow white. Mercer liked to joke that he had the “most perfectly matched team in town.” This was indeed true, because it was the only team for several years. Tib was an exceptionally fine horse. On the overland journey, Native Americans they encountered had recognized this and had attempted to buy her several times. Charley died within a few years, but Tib lived many more long years and was well-known and loved by the Seattle pioneers. When his old friend and helper died, Mercer buried her in the orchard on the homestead and today her remains lie below the modern streets of brick and concrete in the vicinity of Taylor Avenue and Roy Street.
While Mercer’s team attracted the interest of the natives, the pioneer women’s hearts went out to Mercer’s motherless daughters, and the girls were offered homes in other cabins. However, Thomas and his eldest daughter Mary Jane, 14, were determined to keep the family together. Between the two of them they divided the most difficult homemaking tasks and the younger girls helped with the simpler chores. Susie Mercer recalled later, “we helped our father with just about everything.” Mercer often told his daughters, “Now girls, whatever’s worth doing is worth doing well.” Susie liked to tell that “if we didn’t do a job properly, such as sweeping, he’d sweep and show us how.”
Fifty years later, Susie Mercer remembered her father’s care of herself and her three sisters in the 1850s, particularly “his patience, his sweetness, his kindness, [and] his constant thoughtfulness in raising the four motherless little girls.” Susie relates how in the first cold winters, after they moved onto the homestead when they lacked adequate bed covers, to keep his two littlest children warm at night he slept crosswise in the bed with his arm around each child curled up in the corners. Susie Mercer commented on these days: “Looking back, I can’t see where we had many hardships. Life was simple, but we had plenty to eat — lots of wild berries and salmon and trout.”
The Mercer family soon had neighbors. David and Louisa Denny’s second home on Queen Anne Hill, their “house in the swale” [vicinity of the Seattle Opera House], was about four city blocks away. However, the vegetation was so dense that it took David and Tom two months of hard labor with an axe, mattock, and crosscut saw to just make a narrow trail between their two places the winter of 1854-55. It took several decades of logging and clearing before they could clearly see each other’s homes, although they could see the light from the cabin windows at night, which was a comforting sight. Inez Denny reports that “for many years we looked across the alley to see the smoke from the fire on the Mercer hearthstone winding skyward, for they were our only neighbors. … We were not so lonely as we might have been with no human habitation in our view. Then we knew we could always claim the cheerful greetings and friendly visits.”
NEIGHBORS AROUND THE HILL
Many who arrived in 1854-55 shared Dr. Henry Smith’s vision that the valley between the two hills (Queen Anne and Magnolia) would become a center of the area. Indeed, many newcomers were convinced that “the city” for the region would grow in the Smith Cove area rather than the Seattle settlement. The cove was deemed a more favorable town site for commercial enterprises since the ground was level. Around the fireplace settlers talked of how the sloping hillsides to the east and west of the cove would be the perfect location for the city’s residential district.
Among those filing claims for land around the cove between 1833-35 were Erasmus Smithers, Edmund Carr, Francis McNatt, Osmine Frost, and David Stanley, all single men. On the south end of Lake Union another bachelor, John Nagle, 24, a German immigrant, filed claim on a homestead. William Strickler, from Page County, Virginia, age 26, settled across the Outlet from John Ross. A man of good education and means, he quickly bought four lots of Carson Boren’s land for $1000 in 1854. Just across the shallow tidewater of Salmon Bay Ira Utter, 24, and Osborn Hall, 22, two college men from upstate New York, had claims close to Henry Pierce.
Soon after Mercer arrived with his team, the bachelors homesteading on the north and west sides of the hill turned out to help widen and smooth the trail through the woods leading north from Seattle to the Mercer homestead at the foot of Eden Hill. Rough as it was, it was the first road built in the Seattle area. It ran from Yesler Way to the corner of Roy Street and Taylor Avenue.
TWO OLD MEN JOIN THE PIONEER COMMUNITY: OSMINE FROST AND DAVID STANLEY
Osmine Frost, already 45 years old when he arrived in King County in the summer of 1854, was old by frontier standards. Frost was born in 1809 and had grown up on the Kentucky frontier. He, like so many others, was directed to Doc Maynard when he arrived in Seattle, and Maynard suggested that Frost look at the district north of Seattle for a land claim. Frost soon selected a 160-acre section directly west of Henry and Abigail Smith’s and Erasmus Smithers’s claims in the cove. Little is known of Frost’s background. Frost’s closest neighbor to the west, David Stanley, came in the late fall of 1854.
At age 64, David Stanley was by far the oldest settler in the area north of Seattle, when the age of the average settler was about 24. Stanley was born in 1790 in Missouri and had considerable experience living in wilderness conditions. He befriended Henry, Abigail, and Ellender Smith the day he appeared in the district. Dr. Smith tells the story:
David Stanley, an old man in his seventies [Smith’s guess] came to the cove one evening in the fall of 1854, looking for a claim. He came from Missouri, was low in stature and thin to flesh and his voice too was thin from age. His beard was long and gray, and he wore a blanket overcoat that trailed to the ground. His wife, he said, who was much younger than himself, had deserted him for a younger handsome many, and, feeling lonesome, he had concluded to spend the remainder of his life by the sea shore, where he could listen during the long nights to the waves beating against the rocks and the monotonous music, he thought, would lull his mind and keep him from thinking.
The next morning was a rainy one, but the old man was anxious to get a claim before they were all taken, and he started off immediately after breakfast. It rained steadily and hard all day, and much of the time it fairly poured. All through this drenching storm he waded among beds of drooping ferns and brakes, and just at dusk returned, tired out and wet as a musk rat.
“Rather a bad time for looking up claims, uncle,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “it has been mighty damp all day.”
But the poor old soul had found a claim that suited him on the mouth of Salmon Bay…. There on the beach he built a little log hut and lived for nearly twenty years listening through the long nights to the music of the waves and the shrill cries of the sea-mews. What a weird story his thoughts would have made!
Smith reports that over the years Stanley was robbed by the natives a number of times — they would enter his cabin when he was gone and take what they wanted.
THE BACHELORS WORK TOGETHER
Needing cash for proving up their claims, in the summer of 1854 neighbors John Ross, William Strickler, Edmund Carr, and Frances McNatt set up a logging camp near Olympia. At the end of the season they lashed their logs together with ropes and light boom chains, and floated them north toward Yesler’s Mill. Alas, they hit rough seas and the raft broke up, leaving the logs floating off in every direction. As the logs disappeared over the choppy waves, the partners helplessly watched the entire summer’s income vanish.
In spite of this loss, the following spring the four men launched another enterprise. Anticipating the logging of the dense virgin forest that covered the hills around Lake Union, they built a sawmill near Ross’s claim at the Outlet and added a dam to hold back the logs and a footbridge.
Eager to bring work to their mill, the group asked the King County Commissioners, the official governing body for the region (Seattle was not incorporated until 1869) to improve the roads in the north district. They wanted the road to Mercer’s homestead widened and leveled and a new road opened to their sawmill. The County Commissioners agreed to this and Carson Boren, Edmund Carr and John Nagle were appointed to view the route. The road was barely begun when the Indian War erupted and the brave little mill went up in smoke on January 26, 1856.
PROVING UP THE CLAIM
The pioneers reaching the territory early received gratis land grants. However, the bargain did not come free of labor. In the first decade or more, most of the settlers proving up their land claims did little more than clear land and see that they had enough to eat. There was little cash to buy anything, hence literally everything was made at home.
With almost every square rod of land densely covered with luxuriant native vegetation, the process of converting the wilderness to farm was Herculean in scope and went on for decades. It was not uncommon for a settler to work steadily for more than 20 years to convert a 16-acre claim into a farm with at least 20 percent left unchanged, because the land was too marshy, hill, or was left as a wood lot.
Clearing the claim naturally went faster with more workers. Family members were the main labor supply for most settlers. When a hired man was available for clearing land it was expensive; the going rate throughout the 1850s range from $40 to $60 a month or $2.50 to $3 a day. Many men hired labor out to earn needed cash.
Native American men were often hired to help with the logging and clearing at a rate of $1 a day. While some settlers complained about the work, the Dennys found the natives to be good workers. Inez Denny reports that “far from lazy, many of them were hard workers and would dig and delve day after day to remove immense stumps of cedar and fir left after cutting the great trees.”
The settlers in the north district often worked together, rotating from claim to claim. Inez Denny tells that the main help for men with families were their wives and children. The most common task assigned to children was piling brush and keeping the fires going. They often made a game out of the chore. Inez writes “many a merry party turned out at night to ‘chunk up’ the blazing heaps; after nightfall their fire-lit figures flitting hither and yon against the purple darkness suggested well-intentioned witches.”
LAND RICH AND CASH POOR
In addition to hiring out clearing land, there were several other sources of cash. Yesler’s sawmill, opened in 1853, paid mill hands $30 to $50 a month and more, dependent upon skill level and technical difficulty of the job performed. Farm hands were paid $30 to $40 a month, with room and board provided. Artisans and tradesmen, such as carpenters, mechanics, painters, coopers and tailors, made $3 to $4 a day.
The timber from one’s claim could be a source of cash, depending upon the lumber market. During the San Francisco building boom, before the Indian War in 1856, sawed fir lumber sold for $25/1000 lineal feet (l.f.); cedar lumber $30/1000 l.f.; cedar shingles at $5/1000; pilings, 3 cents/ft.; and squared lumber 16 cents/ft. By 1857 the California market was flat. Pilings for building docks and wharves, mostly around the Puget Sound, were the ash wood product in highest demand, and the settlers set aside all trees appropriate for this use as they cleared and burned the trees growing on their land. It was not until the late 1880s that the lumber industry boomed on Puget Sound.
CIVIC AND PUBLIC SERVICE
King County was created in 1853 when it was still a part of Oregon Territory. It was up to the settlers scattered around King County to fill the civic offices required by their new status. Seattle was quickly designated the county seat, which placed pressure on those living in and near it to assume responsibility for those offices. A token payment accompanied a few of the offices, but most were strictly volunteer.
The group of settlers north of Seattle, as a whole, were well-educated and moved by a strong sense of community service. Thus, they accepted the duties of various civic offices more frequently than most. Dr. Henry Smith was appointed School Superintendent and Constable in 1853, and in 1854 Thomas Mercer was elected King County Commissioner, the highest office. William Strickler served as Probate Judge and was elected to the Territorial Council, the legislature in Olympia. King County records for the 1850s and 1860s show the north district settlers sitting in almost every petit and grand jury, as well as serving as county treasurer, auditor, tax collector, coroner, school superintendent, road viewer, and election judge. In a given year one individual often served in several capacities.
THE NATIVE UPRISING
After several years of growing tension, open conflict developed between the Elliott Bay settlers and the Native Americans during the winter of 1855-56. All of the settlers living in the outlying areas moved into Fort Decatur, a crude blockhouse built in the vicinity of First Avenue and Cherry Street of logs David Denny had cut that previous summer on Queen Anne Hill. With over 70 people living in Fort Decatur that winter, conditions were very crowded. The Dennys’ second daughter, Madge Decatur, was born in the fort in March 1856.
By August 1856, all hostilities had ended, and the native uprising was officially over. However, the next decade would prove a hard one for the settlers. Looking back 82 years later, Susie Mercer observed, “I am convinced that it was the faith and courage of the founders that made Seattle a great city. They [the pioneers] loved the city all the more because of the work and hardships they underwent.”
Some of the settlers filed reports of their losses at the hands of the natives to the government in hope that they would be compensated — which they never were. The claims, however, provided some insight into the property and chattel of these community pioneers: David Denny, claim $97, canoe and stock; Dr. Henry Smith, claim $1306, log cabin and stock; Ira Utter, claim $637.25, log cabin, canoe, furniture, and crop; Erasmus Smithers, claim $1306, dwelling and stock; Edmund Carr, claim $480, log cabin; David Stanley, claim $173.50, loss of crops.
Genuinely interested in homesteading, the pioneers of the district north of Seattle were less discouraged than who had hoped to “get rich quick” through business ventures or the rapid increase in the value of land they obtained through land grants. These men left, along with many others who feared future uprisings by the native people.
Those who stayed harbored unspoken anxiety over the prospect of other Native American attacks for years. Louise Boren Denny told her children “for years afterwards it was easy to imagine Indians everywhere.” Throughout the 1850s Thomas Mercer never went into the woods to cut trees or clear land alone, his daughters reported; one of the girls always accompanied him. While Mercer worked, her duty was to stand guard with her rifle at the ready in case hostile natives appeared.
RESPECT FOR THE LOCAL TRIBES IS RETURNED WITH RESPECT
In the Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856, the natives set fire to almost all of the outlying homestead cabins. When Tom Mercer, David and Louisa Denny, and Dr. Henry and Abigail T. Smith returned to their homesteads in the spring, they were astonished to fine their dwellings intact, although many of their belongings had been taken.
Mercer’s frame house of 1854 was not burned. After the war the local natives were asked why they had not burned Mercer’s place. One replied, “Oh, [we thought] Old Mercer would want it again.” The natives explained that Mercer was ‘klosh tum tum,’ kind, friendly, literally a good heart, and ‘be wawa-ed sahle tyee,’ prayed to the Heavenly Chief or Great Spirit. They had come to know and respect Thomas Mercer, whose wife had died and who was caring for his children alone. Mercer had always dealt with them honestly and fairly, and had learned to speak their language. His gentleness, integrity and kindness had made a deep impression on them.
While his house was intact, the milk cow that Mercer had just bought was gone. The Mercer girls mourned the loss of their cow, which was a pet, as one of the major tragedies of the Battle of Seattle.
Louise and David Denny’s house in the swale was also spared the torch. Dr. Henry Smith and Abigail Smith’s frame house was burned to the ground, but the original log cabin and log cabin infirmary were left unharmed. Like Mercer, the Dennys and Smiths had learned the local native language and way of life, for which they demonstrated great respect on many occasions. The natives noted this and in return respected Denny and Smith and their klootchman (women) as tillicums (friends).
MARRIAGES AND NEW BEGINNINGS
The winter the settlers spent living in the crowded quarters of Fort Decatur had its bright side for it provided an opportunity for courting. In spring of 1856 Edmund Carr and Olivia Holgate, who had become acquainted teaching Sunday school at the Methodist Episcopal Church, announced their intention to marry. The Seattle settlement had shrunk from 250 to about 70 people, and those who remained were serious and resolute. However, they were also young and optimistic, and the very idea of a wedding and the belief in the future that it represents appealed enormously to everyone.
The community went all out in putting on a grand wedding celebration for the young couple, complete with a feast and a wedding cake. Cornelius Hanford, Olivia’s brother, comments on the wedding preparations:
The market was nearly destitute of delicacies usually supplied for such an affair, but it is wonderful how pioneer women, with scant provisions, can delight the appetites of the hungry when they try; they did try and made the feast a great success.
In November 1857 Erasmus Smithers, 27, of Smith Cove married the land-wealthy 28-year-old widow Diana Gilmore Tobin. After living a short time on Smither’s claim in the cove they founded the city of Renton, which lies on her donation claim of 1853. Smithers held on to his 160 acres in Smith Cove to the end of the nineteenth century when his heirs sold the land.
JOHN ROSS AND MARY MCMILLAN
Unable to work on his claim because he was harassed by the local natives, John Ross decided in the fall of 1858 to go to Portland and then on to Salem. At Salem he met and married Mary Jane McMillan, age 15, the daughter of Rev. David McMillan, a well-known clergyman from Illinois. Mary McMillan was born in 1843 in Springfield, Illinois. In 1853, at age ten, Mary’s family had come to Oregon Territory. John Ross was 32 at the time of their marriage.
The couple returned to Seattle bringing with them from the Willamette Valley a quantity of fruit tree cuttings. The settled into a house in Seattle in January 1859, and John hiked out to his claim, packing the cuttings and a spade on his back. However, he reports in his land grant records that once again the natives drove him off, as they had in 1857 and 1858. John regularly “commuted” from Seattle to his claim on foot and by canoe for years to fulfill the proving up requirements.
Eventually, Ross planted over 50 fruit trees and invested $3,000 in improvements. During these years Ross expanded his land holdings, filing for additional land on the north side of Salmon Bay under preemption law. In addition, he received a parcel of state school land on Denny Hill in 1860, as payment for carpentry on the Territory University building.
THE DETERMINED FEW
The historic records for the settlers making their living north of Seattle in the late 1850s and 1860s are sketchy. However, it is known that after the native uprising they were reluctant to live isolated on their claims and many moved into the Seattle settlement, going out to their claims for day work. David and Louisa Denny moved into a three-room cottage in Seattle, which remained their principal residence until 1860. Between 1860-1870, the Dennys lived part of the year in the Seattle cottage and the other part in their house in the swale of Queen Anne Hill. The Thomas family moved permanently back onto their claim around 1860.
*A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative Citizens of The City of Seattle and County of King, Washington. New York: The Lewis Publishing, 1903
*Baist Real Estate Atlas. “Surveys of Seattle.” Philadelphia: G. Wm. Baist, 1905
*Bass, Sophie Frye, Pig-tail Days in Old Seattle. Portland, OR: Metropolitan, 1937
*Bass, Mrs. Sophie Frye, When Seattle was a Village. Seattle: Lowman & Hanford 1947.
*Arthur Denny. Pioneering on Puget Sound. Fairfield, WA; Galleon Press, 1965.
*Dickey William and Dillis B. Ward. Family documents. “Highlights of the Dillis B. Ward Collection,” prepared by Shorey Book Store, Seattle; Typewritten.
*Hanford, C. H. ,Seattle and Environs, 3 vols. Chicago & Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924l
*Meeker, Ezra, “Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound.” Seattle, 1905; rpt. 1980.
*Seattle Leaders. Edited by Edward Desmond. Pioneer Printing Co., 1923.
*Thompson, Nile R., “The Original Residents of Shilshole Bay,” Passport to Ballard by Kay F. Reinartz, ed. Seattle: Ballard News-Tribune, 1988.