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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Van Fleet Family Profile
& Eliza Van Fleet Diary

(Van Fleet Stump)
      This cedar stump on the Van Fleet homestead was a meeting place for pioneers from the 1880s until the 1950s and this photograph of it in 1902 is one of the famous by Darius Kinsey, the photographer who would establish his fame while living in Sedro-Woolley from 1896-1906. It was broad enough that several horses and the entire Sunday School class could fit inside. The men and boys on horses were (l. to r., Mitchell Wicker, Jay Smith, Clyde Mattice, George Hammer, Harry Clark. Back row: Agnes Devin, ___ Van Fleet, Ernest Starr, rev. Carter, Mark Gillette, Ethel Van Fleet, Leona Starr, Frances Devin. Front: Earl Van Fleet, Art Douglass, Bill Hegg, Nellie Brown, Mae Hegg, Mildred Mattice, Nellie Angell, Mildred Hegg, Lois Wilmarth, Muriel Wilmarth, Beulah Carter, Dot Mattice, Emma Hayes. A Carter boy is behind the snag. Click on the photo for a larger version. I asked the late Stan Nelson, who owned the neighboring ranch in Skiyou, if he remembered the stump. He recalled that sometime in the 1940s it was dynamited to make way for pasture.

Skiyou pioneers in 1880, pre-Sedro
Pioneer: Emmett Van Fleet, Born Jan. 23, 1849, Fleetville, Pennsylvania, Died Aug. 12, 1916
Pioneer: Eliza Mitilda Farnham Van Fleet, Born July 24, 1856, Pennsylvania, Died April 10, 1937

      Emmett and Eliza Van Fleet and their infant daughter Eva left their hometown of Fleetville, Pennsylvania, on May 3, 1880, to join his brother Luther who had moved to wilds of Washington State two years earlier. They rode the Union Pacific Railroad to San Francisco and since there was no connecting railroad yet, they boarded the steamboat Oregon bound for Portland.
      They then took another steamer down the Columbia River to Kalama, then boarded the Northern Pacific train for Tacoma, and boarded another steamer to Seattle. From Seattle they boarded another steamer, the Chehalis, which took them to the town of Sterling, about a mile west of present Sedro-Woolley.
      Eliza notes in her diary that there were 40 men on board who were traveling to the Ruby Creek gold mines. She was the only woman on the boat, and when she arrived in Sterling she found only one woman living there, Emma Welch, the daughter of Jesse B. Ball, the owner of the lumber camp there (hence Ball Street).
      All the riverfront acreage on the future site of Sedro had been homesteaded by the time they arrived so the Van Fleets preempted a claim a half mile north of pioneer Daniel Benson who was an early Puget Sound steamboat captain and piloted the Chehalis on the Skagit River. Their claim was along what was then called Benson Creek, which was later renamed Hansen Creek. Their grandson Virgil Van Fleet bought back the original homesite in 1994, four years before his death, and began restoring it for his daughter's family.
      From the time their homestead Emmett and Eliza became sort of town father and mother for the area from Sterling to present-day Lyman, a distance of about ten miles. Emmett brought his farming experience and tools. His grandfather, James Van Fleet (for whom Fleetville was named), once bought a standard wooden plow back in Pennsylvania, but he didn't like the way it performed. So he fashioned his own more effective plow, and soon the new "Van Fleet"-style plow started catching on like crazy with local farmers. Emmett had the same effect locally. As more farmers moved to the area to grow crops on the logged-off land, he organized crews at harvest time. His brother Luther originally wanted to name his area and the land east up the river, Fernland, but it eventually went by the Indian name of Skiyou. Skiyou, or Skiou, was also the name of the island in the horseshoe bend of the river, east about two miles.
      Eliza's diary notes that she was the first wife here. Benson's wife moved here in August of that year. David Batey's wife Georgiana followed a month later. She describes their first home as being built of split cedar. The cedar forest was so thick at the time that her husband Emmett sometimes lost his way. When he was disoriented, Emmett would fire his rifle in the air and Eliza would bang her cast iron skillet against the cabin until he could his way home.
      In the spring of 1881, they planted a small garden and marveled at the rich soil that produced amazing quantities of vegetables, flowers and fruit. That same spring Emmett and three neighbor bachelors followed a primitive trail along the Skagit to Mt. Vernon and bought several head of cattle.
      That was Eliza's first time alone and she notes that she was definitely frightened. They would stand silently, watching her work and leave just as unceremoniously as they entered. She notes that they let the cattle browse freely for pasture and wintered them on Skiyou Island, two miles up the river. They lost half of them the winter of 1882 to one of the frequent river floods.
      Her only complaint in what she called her new "Eden" was that they had pole a canoe down to Sterling for groceries and mail. She was overjoyed when Mortimer Cook arrived in 1884 and built a general store at the original site of Sedro just a mile southwest of their cabin.
      She finally got used to groups of Indians entering the cabin at odd times. She learned that as long as she did not react in a threatening way when she found them in her kitchen that they would merely observe her and leave just as quietly as they arrived. Her daughter Eva loved the visitors like playmates and showed them pictures in the many books that Eliza brought along from Pennsylvania. Eliza later opened the first school in the area at her homestead.
      Along with her diaries, she and her daughter Ethel are best known for hosting the first meeting of the Territorial Daughters organization at their home on Aug. 20, 1936.

Eliza Van Fleet's memoirs: a woman's perspective of the wilderness
Written for her application to the Daughters of the American Revolution, Jan. 27, 1928.
(Van Fleet Family)
Eliza, Emmett and Eva Van Fleet, 1884. Courtesy of LaRayne Van Fleet Jeffries

      Imagine if you can a young wife leaving her native home where her forefathers had lived for many generations, stepping off into the great west, leaving father, mother, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, in fact leaving everyone but my husband and little daughter Eva. No words of my pen can describe the anguish of my heart for months before we started.
      On the morning of May 3, 1880, my husband half carried me out through the hall to evade saying good-bye to the many friends who had called to see us off. No good-byes were said as we were all crying too hard for words.
      My husband's brother, Luther Van Fleet, had preceded us by about two years. His letters portraying the wonderful hunting and advantages of the Puget Sound country, together with the letters of [Edgar] A. Sisson printed in the Scranton Republican paper, proved the irresistible side that carried us away off out west. My husband had promised me that in seven years or as soon as one of the northern railroads were built, I could go back on a visit, but the seven years dragged on until it was seventeen years before I returned.
      And now that I have been here 54 years I can say with the poet I think that if ever man found a place to live easy and happy, that Eden is on Puget Sound.
      We came on the Union Pacific to San Francisco where, after resting a few days, we boarded the steamer Oregon bound for Portland. After visiting Portland three or four days we went back down the Columbia River to Kalama — then by train to Tacoma, from Tacoma to Seattle by boat, and in a few days boarded a river steamer, the Chehalis, bound for the Upper Skagit and brother Luther.
      There were about 40 men on board the steamer going to the Ruby Creek gold mines. I was the only woman — imagine — however they were very gentlemanly and courteous. I had never been away from the Pennsylvania hills, stones, lakes and rills, so I was surprised to learn that so much of our U.S. was level prairie land.
      I thought of the many years of toil and hardships my ancestors had endured trying to make farms among the stony hills of Pennsylvania. I was very favorably impressed with the Sacramento Valley and wanted to stop there, so many flowers in bloom, oranges, trees loaded with both fruit and flowers, but on we came and finally landed in the great wilderness of the Skagit Valley. No roads, schools or churches, in fact but very few white people. Mrs. Emma Welch, daughter of J.B. Ball, was the only white woman in Sterling. Several bachelors had taken up claims farther up the river from Ball's camp, i.e. gentlemen Hart, Batey, Dunlop and Woods, also Daniel Benson. We preempted a claim back of Mr. Benson's near brother Luther Van Fleet's claim.
      Many expressed their sympathy for us that we had to go back so far from the river to take up land. The Sundays were long and dreary days, nothing to do but to wander out in the forest and listen to the singing birds and chattering squirrels. Mrs. Benson moved within a half miles of us in August and in September Mrs. Batey and two sons came. Dreyers and others soon followed. Our first house was made of split cedar was very cozy. Many Indians lived along the river and creeks. Quite frequently my door would open slowly and in would stalk several Indians. They would stand round and watch me work for a time and then levee as unceremoniously as they had entered. Yes, I was a little afraid of them.
      The second summer we had a small garden and were pleased to see how well everything grew. In 1881 Mr. Van Fleet and three men from Lyman went down below Mt. Vernon and bought several head of cattle. the trail was in very poor shape so they were gone several days longer than they had expected. I was terribly frightened for fear I had been left alone here in the wilderness.
      We let our cattle browse for pasture, then turned them out on Skiyou Island to winter on rushes. They came out nice and fat in the spring but the second winter we lost half of our heard in a flood. After that we managed to winter them at home. The greatest drawback was that we had to go down river in a canoe to Sterling for our groceries and mail, and take our butter and vegetables around to logging camps in the same way. It was very hard work poling the canoe back up along the shores of the river, especially when a tree had fallen out in the river. The current was so swift it was almost impossible to paddle out around it.
      Mortimer Cook came to Sedro in June 1884, established a store and post office. He also built the first shingle mill in Skagit County and worked out a plan for drying shingles so they could be shipped east. Mrs. Cook and two daughters, Fairie and Nina, came a year later, in June 1885.
      Occasionally ministers would come up the valley, either by steamer or horseback and hold services in Sterling and Mrs. Cook's house. Charles Wicker and Will Mitchell came in January 1884. George Wicker and his wife and mother came in October 1884. Ira Brown and family came in November 1884, and P.V. McFadden one month later (later married to Olive Wicker, with relatives in Mount Vernon).
      Mrs. Brown went around to the logging camps soliciting money to buy lumber to build a schoolhouse. She received $150. The work on the building was contributed by the patrons. It was built on the Van Fleet place near the bridge. Fairie Cook taught the first school. Sunday school and religious services were held in this building until the Presbyterian church was built in Sedro.
      Frank West, [his] wife and young son William came in April 1885. A few of us organized a gun club and became expert marksmen which served us a good purpose for hawks and wild cats were a constant menace to our chickens. Bear, deer and pheasants were very numerous so we near were without fresh meat. Mr. Van Fleet killed seven deer and three cougars in one winter, but the cougar and bear stories will have to wait until some future time.


1. Chehalis sternwheeler
      H. H. Hyde built the small Chehalis sternwheeler at Tumwater in 1867 and was assigned to the Chehalis River route until it was wrecked there and was subsequently operated between Snohomish, Port Gamble and Ludlow. She was later sold to the Black Diamond Coal Company for towing barges on Lake Washington. Sometime after that, Brittain & Brennan bought her and used her on the run to the Skagit River. After Amasa Everett and James J. Conner discovered coal ore on Coal Mountain across the Skagit from future Hamilton, the Chehalis became a key part of the relay past the log jams that choked the river at future Mount Vernon. Loggers and laborers had to cut a road through the dense forest that lined the bank south of present-day Avon. When the ore got that far, just below the second jam, it was loaded onto the Chehalis. That service began on April 22, 1875, when the sternwheeler off-loaded downriver to the schooner Sabina.
      After the blizzard of the winter of 1879-80 and the resulting high water, the Chehalis was the first steamboat that ever went up as far as Portage Rapids, near the talc mines that were a few miles north of future Marblemount. Before then, the farthest point reached was at Durand Riffle, a mile or so below Marblemount. The Chehalis was also the first to ascend Sauk River that year, about seven years before the goldseekers used that route to ship goods and machinery to the Monte Cristo miens. From Lewis & Dryden's 1895 book, Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, we learn that "Captains Daniel Benson, Curtis D. Brownfield, and Robert Bailey had charge of her while she was on the Skagit, and Capt. Hiram Olney ran her on the Seattle and Olympia route. She did good service until November, 1882, when she was caught in a gale while en route from Snohomish to Seattle, in command of Capt. W. F. Munroe, and, becoming unmanageable, was blown stern on to the beach near Ten Mile Point. The vessel was a total loss, and her cargo was strewn along the shore for a distance of ten miles. The Chehalis was equipped with the engines which were originally in William Moore's Fraser River [1858 gold rush] steamer Henrietta. [Return]

Links, background reading and sources
      See the Table of Contents of Issue 39 for the links to these stories in the Van Fleet family saga about their settlement in the Skiyou district east of Sedro in 1880 and their family back in Pennsylvania.

Story posted on July 7, 2002, last updated May 20, 2007 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article appeared in Issue 39 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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