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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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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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Earliest settlers in Whatcom and Skagit counties
Portal section

(Skagit City)
    Skagit City was located on the South fork side of the Skagit River, less than a mile southeast of where the river forks north and south. Tom Robinson drove me to the very spot a couple of years ago and the bank is now covered with ferns and brambles where these buildings stood circa 1890-1900. The town began near where Barker's Trading Post opened in 1869. Within ten years, most of these buildings cropped up as Skagit City became the major crossroads for trading in the area that became Skagit County in 1883. During the 1870s, hotels, stores, saloons, a school, church, the Good Templars and Masonic lodges and other businesses were built to accommodate those who were claiming land above the river's log jams located where Mount Vernon is today.
    When those jams were cleared in the late 1870s, the town declined as other villages formed along the upper stretches of the river and sternwheelers ascended the river as high as Sterling and Hamilton, depending on the depth of the river. By 1906, only one building remained — the general store of Daniel E. Gage, the building at the far left. John G. Kamb Jr., a descendant of two pioneer families on Fir Island, showed us a faded copy of this photograph at the Skagit City School that does not have a date but the old handwriting on it indicates that it was from the 1920s or 1930s. It noted that the Gage store was the only one still standing at the time of the notation. Besides the store, the note indicated that the church at the far right was Baptist in affiliation and that the large white house in the center was the home and office of Dr. Thompson.

      We are creating this special portal section so that readers can find records of the earliest settlers and compare memories between the various pioneers. Here is one such letter that early pioneer David E. Kimble wrote to the new Skagit News newspaper in Mount Vernon, in its first year of publication. Below that you will find links to all such stories in the Journal. And here you will find some introductory snippets to a few of the features:

Early times on the Skagit river
By David E. Kimble, Skagit News, Mount Vernon,
Dec. 30, 1884 (first year of publication)

      It may be interesting to the readers of the News to know something of the first settling of the Skagit. The first white woman came to the river in 1854. Two ladies from Whiidby island came to live on the river. They spent one night under a spruce tree near about where E. McAlpine's house now stands, near Skagit City. The Indian war broke out in 1855 and they did not again visit this land.
      The next ladies that came to the Skagit were Mrs. A. Hartson, Mrs. Laning [actually Lanning] and Mrs. Washburn, all remaining here. The first family that came was Mrs. Gage and her two daughters, now Mrs. Keen and Mrs. Narl. Mrs. Bartl, Mrs. Jasper Gates and Mrs. M.J. Kimble all came at one time. We chartered the steamer Linny [actually the Linnie] to bring us up. This was the first steamer that ever came to the jam near Mount Vernon. Mrs. Sam Tingley and Mrs. [Thomas P.] Jones soon followed the above-named and Mrs. Thomas Moore was next. It is too tedious to mention all that came after. [Read the rest of the story at this Journal site.]

Sartwell's first cabin built next to the Skagit in 1863
      William H. Sartwell (1820-1884) is one of the most important of the earliest Skagit Valley pioneers because he is the first permanent settler who was recorded as living on the river. By most accounts he came to the valley in 1863, but an obituary of his neighbor, Orrin Kincaid, suggests that he could have arrived in 1862, as we will explain later. To fully appreciate Sartwell's introduction to what was then wilderness, you can read an account by his future neighbor, George E. Hartson, in The Coast [Endnote 1] magazine, December 1908:
      It is scarcely possible to conceive the great changes that have taken place from the time the first settler located his humble cabin in the heart of a great jungle, until the present time. Then were great forests of alder, spruce and fir trees. Now there are wide stretches of rich alluvial lands, on which are found the beautiful mansions of wealthy farmers. Many of these farmers are the original first settlers, while others are their successors, and are reaping the harvest sown by the old timers of forty years ago.
      The writer well remembers that at this time not even a blind trail existed over which it was possible to travel. All transportation was by canoes and boats. The first of the early settlers was careful to have his cabin located on the bank of the river in order to have some means to reach the outside world and renew his supply of provisions when they became exhausted.

      [Read the rest of the story at this Journal site.]

William Robert "Blanket Bill" Jarman,
      William "Blanket Bill" Jarman was one of those frontier characters who became famous by inventing and reinventing themselves several times over. That reinvention and redemption has become almost a cliche about the famous Western historical figures, but Bill made an art of it. His nickname is derived from one of the tall tales he loved to spin, a legacy from being a sailor in both the Atlantic and Pacific who deserted from the British Navy at least once and covered his tracks with more than one conflicting scenario. Born an Englishmen at Grave's End on the Thames River near London, probably in 1820, he would make his mark by being one of the very first European settlers in northwestern Washington Territory and the first to live among Indians for a sustained period.
      His lasting physical legacy is Jarman Prairie, about four miles north of Burlington and east of Old Hwy 99, Bow Hill and the Friday Creek Fish Hatchery. It is still named for him but for many decades it was misspelled as German Prairie. For a few decades, the phonetic German Prairie replaced the original name on the map, but Skagit County restored Jarman's surname because of demands by old-timer neighbors. As charming and convincing as the man could be, researchers are forewarned that the record on Jarman up through the 1950s was based more on folklore than well-researched history.
      Lelah Jackson Edson pretty much accepted the details of Jarman's life that he claimed in an 1897 interview when she published her The Fourth Corner book about Whatcom history in 1951. But Percival R. Jeffcott actually sought out original sources as he researched Jarman's claims on at least three continents and found that many events either could not have happened or at least not in the time frame that Jarman presented. Jeffcott's 1958 book, Blanket Bill Jarman, is generally considered the most complete picture of the man. Jarman is a most difficult pioneer to measure because he left comparatively little public record, much of which is contradictory.
      We still do not know when Jarman began telling the most famous and fantastic of his tall tales; we wish the earliest pioneers had kept track of how the tales evolved. Did he tell the earliest settlers the story of his ransom for blankets or was the story a defensive explanation for his lifestyle that seemed strange and unorthodox to traditional settlers? After all, newcomers were already wary of Indians and apprehensive about their families' security. At least one aspect of his oral memoir makes sense. Jarman came to Puget Sound because the captain of the English ship sought valuable furs for the fashion conscious upper classes of the British Isles. We also know that the stocks of beaver and other fur-bearing animals had been thinned almost to extinction after several decades of unrestricted trapping on ponds, streams and rivers. [Read the rest of the story at this Journal site.]

Links to early settlers of future Skagit county and the Skagit river valley
The earliest settlers in the 1860s
Others from very early on, 1860s and 1870s
Skagit river folk and earliest towns
The river pioneers
Other early histories of the river towns and people
Pioneers in other county locations
LaConner and southwestern county
Genealogy of the early families
Fidalgo island
Samish bay and northwestern county
Upriver earliest pioneers

Whatcom county portal section
The settlers linked from this portal chose the Skagit county portion of the mother county, Whatcom. Click above to find the profiles of key pioneers north of Chuckanut Mountain in the half that remained Whatcom after November 1883.

Story posted on Dec. 6, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 58 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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