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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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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
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Skagit County History, from the
point of view of Charles Easton, the dealer of lovely books

(Diking crew)
      This diking crew had the arduous task of constructing dikes by hand, with pick and shovel around their own farm or contiguous farms on Fir Island. Photo courtesy of the book, Skagit Settlers, which is for sale again at the LaConner Museum in a new printing.

By Charles Easton, Puget Soundings Magazine (Junior League of Seattle), 1976
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      Skagit County is not long removed from its pioneer past, and remnants of that past still persist in spite of advancing urbanization. A few old-timers still remember knowing and talking to original settlers. LaConner still retains its pioneer flavor; old buildings still stand, and large parts of the upriver area are little changed from those early years. Searching the past is now a popular pastime, but people of the Skagit Valley have been interested in their "roots" for a long time.
      The first white men in the area were 18th-century explorers, Spanish and English, who came by sea. They left no settlements, only names, some of which are used to this day: Fidalgo Island, Deception Pass, Guemes Island, Cypress Island.
      The first overland visitor to what is now Skagit County was Alexander Ross. Ross, a fur trader, [who] was attempting to find a route from the Okanogan Valley to salt water that would be shorter than the long trip to the mouth of the Columbia River. He set out in 1814, crossed the mountains, probably by Cascade Pass, and came west at least as far as the present town of Marblemount. There, abandoned by his Indian guides, he decided the route was not suitable for the yearly fur brigades and went no further.
      In subsequent years, trappers and fur traders made incursions into the Skagit area but only as transients. It was not until the 1850s that the first true settlers arrived. It is hard for us today looking at the gentle farmland of the Skagit flats, to appreciate the formidable landscape that greeted them. Except for a few prairie regions, dense forests came down to the water's edge; the Skagit River delta was a vast area of mud flats and salt marshes dotted with densely wooded islands. The only route to the interior was up the Skagit River, a poor avenue until two vast log jams were removed from the lower river in 1879.
      The first white resident was "Blanket Bill' Jarman who, in 1853, settled with his Indian wife on Samish Island. He was called "Blanket Bill" because he was ransomed from Indian slavery by the Hudson Bay Company upon payment of 32 blankets. The story may be apocryphal since no known records support it. Jarman lived there off and on for several years.
      March's Point, another prairie area, was the site of the first continuous white settlement. A series of people came there beginning in 1853. They would farm for a while, move on, and others would take their places. One settler, William Munks, arrived around 1853, farmed briefly and moved away In 1860, he came back, found William Bonner living in his cabin, and bought out his rights and improvements:

      Know all men by these present that I Wm Bonner have bargained and sold to Wm Munks for the sum of Sixty dollars cash in hand paid and one silver watch all my right title and interest . ..
      Later Munks redeemed the watch. Both the document and the watch are owned by his grandson who still lives on part of the claim. Since then, Mardi's Point has been continuously inhabited, and descendants of several pioneers still live there in the shadow of two oil refineries.
      Attention soon turned to the possibility of diking and farming the potentially rich Skagit River delta. Two men, Samuel Calhoun and Michael Sullivan, who had some experience with farming such land, started diking and were producing crops by 1870. The diking process was incredibly hard work. Today dike work is mechanized; it is the responsibility of diking districts and the federal government, and no individual farmer has to worry about protecting his own land. In pioneer days, however, a farmer would stake out his marsh-land claim and proceed to erect a dike around it. This was done with shovel and wheelbarrow Since work was possible only at low tide, the work schedule for months on end would be set by the tide table and not by the sun.
      The gigantic task was gradually completed; today with the total diking of the Skagit River, only the most extreme river-flow conditions menace the delta lands. Floods occasionally threaten and infrequently occur. In the big flood of 1909, you could row a boat all the way across the delta. In the winter of 1975, downtown Mount Vernon barely escaped inundation.

(Threshing machine)
      This threshing machine would have been a Godsend for Fir Island farmers. Photo courtesy of Don Moa, former mayor of Stanwood, who is a descendant of the Cornelius family of Pleasant Ridge.

Logging and agriculture
      The delta was — and is — incredibly productive: grain crops, seed crops, peas, beans, corn, and bulbs have all been successful, and crop failures are virtually unknown. At one time, almost all the world's cabbage seed was grown there, and today nearly 20 percent of all the frozen peas produced in the United States are packed in the Skagit valley.
      In the early years, when grain crops predominated, the numerous sloughs provided the means of getting the harvest to market. Granaries were built at the edges of the sloughs. Small sternwheelers would come up at high tide and take on cargo. Some sloughs were so narrow that the boats had to back out. This is the trade in which the well-known Seattle banker, the late Joshua Green, got his start.
      As farming gained a firm foothold on the prairies and marshes, other settlers were carving out town sites, homesteads, ranches, and dairy farms in wooded areas. Today timber is a precious commodity, but, in those days, trees were an obstacle to be cut down and burned. Stump removal was a chore that often took settlers a decade to complete.
      Not until sawmills were built and a business structure set up to sell lumber to California and elsewhere, did woodlands have any economic value. Then logging became — and continues to be — an important part of the economy of Skagit County. Early logging was done close to water with oxen hauling the cut timber over a skid road to a beach or river bank where it would be rafted to a mill

(Stump Ranch)
Howard Royal and his amazing model of a stump ranch like the one he grew up on near Birdsview during the Depression years. You can see remnants of the stump ranch, with dozens of weathered stumps, just east of the Lusk Road turnoff from Highway 20. The Lusk Road takes to the old town of Birdsview, where his mother, Mabel Boyd Royal Steen raised her brood, largely off the fat of the land. Update 2011: We met Howard at the same time that we started this project in 1992 and we are happy to report that he is still standing, like one of those cedars that he and his brothers used to fell on the Stump Ranch.

      By 1890, logging operations had advanced far up the Skagit River, and, just as the supply of timber close to water began to run out, railroad logging was introduced. Some 360 miles of track and 40 locomotives were operated by 30 or more logging companies. In the 1920s, logging trucks began to compete with railroads, completely replacing them during the 1950s.A recent logging operation in eastern Skagit County used helicopters for timber removal.
      While the Skagit settlers faced a stern natural environment, the social environment was amiable. The Skagit Indian tribes, who had no strong warlike traditions, were relatively friendly. With just cause, they came to resent the white intrusion, but they expressed their displeasure peacefully. There is no recorded instance of a Skagit settler being killed by Indians. The record on the white side is less good but, even here, the general rule was moderation and accommodation. Except for the usual petty crime and the occasional murder motivated by passion or drink, pioneer Skagit County was singularly peaceful. From the first, the pioneers seem to have experienced rather honest and efficient government, a tradition which continues to this day Thus they were left unhampered, except by nature, to develop their farms and businesses.

Trading posts become towns
      Trading posts were established during the 1860s, and some developed into towns. The earliest town was LaConner, which began as a trading post in the early 1860s. In 1869, John S. Conner came to the settlement which he later named after his wife, Louisa A. Conner. He was well educated and wealthy by frontier standards. In such a setting, where most settlers had few resources except willing hands and strong backs, he soon became the area's principal banker and realtor. During the years of water transportation, LaConner flourished because it was on a protected waterway giving ready access to other Puget Sound settlements.
      When Skagit County separated from. Whatcom County in 1883, LaConner became the temporary county seat and fully expected to win the election for permanent county seat which was to be held in 1884. However, upstart Mount Vernon entered the race. B.L. Martin, a LaConner businessman, writing to John S. Conner in October, 1884, said:

      There has nothing occurred of great interest except that the county seat controversy is growing hotter every day as the day of Election draws near. They are perfectly beside themselves at Mt. Vernon and terrible coarse in their abuse of LaConner and everything in it. They are thoroughly unscrupulous and there is no doubt that they intend to resort to the infamous repeating system of the Democrats . . .
      Unscrupulous or not, Mount Vernon won and has been the county seat ever since. Water transportation gradually became less important. Even as late as the 1880s, when a railroad was being planned from Seattle to Vancouver, LaConnerites made no move to lure the railroad with free grants of land. They were certain the railroad could not afford to bypass Skagit County's future great seaport.
      Bypassed they were, and LaConner settled down to become a small, quiet, fishing village and trading center. Today it enjoys a modest boom as a tourist attraction. Other towns were soon founded but for several years were smaller and less important than LaConner. A post office was established at Mount Vernon, in 1877. Situated on the east bank of the Skagit River between the two log jams, it did not grow until the log jams were removed. Then, as logging moved up the river and towns were settled, it gradually developed into the county's most important trading center. [Ed. note: see these Journal websites about logjams: http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WestCounty/MV/Pre1900/Jams/JamsMV1-Intro.html and http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WestCounty/MV/Pre1900/Jams/JamsMV2-Articles1.html and about the birth of Mount Vernon in 1877: http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WestCounty/MV/Pioneers/Pre1900/ClothierEnglish1-EarlyMV1.html">EarlyMV1.html">http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WestCounty/MV/Pioneers/Pre1900/ClothierEnglish1-EarlyMV1.html ]

Railroads, speculation booms and ghost towns
(Atlanta plat)
This is the map of Atlanta, which was platted on the western portion of Samish Island by former Whatcom County Sheriff G.W.L. Allen in 1883. For a person who had so much influence on the northwest corner of Washington, he has never been profiled extensively in any of the histories. We hope that a reader will share information about him, including the full story behind his Atlanta Home Hotel, the welcome resting spot for steamboat travelers that was supposedly dedicated to Confederate veterans of the Civil War. Can you help? Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized drawing.

      Anacortes had a post office by 1879, but remained small and unimportant until the great railroad boom of the 80s and 90s. Bribed with large grants of land, a company completed a rail line to Anacortes, linking it with Seattle in 1890. Immediately the residents envisioned their town as the great national gateway to the Orient. Almost overnight, Anacortes was transformed from a sleepy little village into a city with broad streets and brick buildings. With the Panic of 1893, the boom collapsed. In time, Anacortes came to find that its true wealth was in fish, timber, and shipbuilding.
(Samish plat)
This is the map of Samish, which was platted in 1884 by George Dean, a Union sympathizer who was apparently enraged by Allen's plat to the west, which was separated by Mill Street, the common boundary. We are also seeking the full story of Dean and his town. Can you help? Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized drawing.

      Many pioneer towns which once flourished have disappeared without a trace. Other towns existed only in the minds of their promoters. Two such dream towns were Atlanta and Samish. In 1883, a Confederate veteran [Whatcom County Sheriff G.W.L. Allen] platted the town of Atlanta on Samish Island to be "a sanctuary of persecuted Confederates and other sympathizers with the, lost cause." A staunch Unionist [George Dean] promptly platted the town of Samish immediately adjacent. Both men built docks and trading posts and competed in selling cordwood to the steamboats plying the local waters. Rival woodcutting crews frequently clashed. In one brawl, a man was killed; the two responsible were convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail.

Minerals and mining spawned many dreams
      The upriver towns boomed and faded with the changing fortunes of lumbering and mining. Mining excitement ebbed and flowed for years prior to 1900. The finding of a few hundred dollars worth of nuggets or gold dust was enough to start a rush which would bring in hundreds of men. Gold, silver, copper, coal, and iron have all been found in the county but only non-metallic limestone proved to have lasting economic value.
      For years, until a souvenir hunter packed it out, an anvil sat on a rock pile 7,000 feet up on Sahale Arm, north of Cascade Pass. It was a relic of the days before 1900, when hopeful miners transported ore from workings high in the Cascades to Marblemount by mule team. Today when a hiker in these high regions roams away from the established trails he has the strong feeling of treading virgin land. Actually a prospector has probably preceded him by eighty or more years. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fortune hunters carefully combed all but the highest peaks and ridges for mineral wealth.
      The mineral wealth is there, but the enormous cost of extracting it protects this marvelous wilderness at present. What does the future portend as we run low on resources? What was life like without roads, cars, electricity, telephones, and proper medical facilities? Often it was grim but not without certain rewards. Most pioneers came knowing full well the problems they would face. They accepted accidents, sickness, and death philosophically They were convinced that hard, back-breaking work would in time lead to an easier, better life. They were grateful for the abundant wildlife. No family which had even one moderately good hunter or fisherman needed go hungry.
      In old age, most pioneers felt that it had been worth the struggle. Lack of women in pioneer days slowed the establishment of stable family groups. Marriage to Indian women and the importation of mail-order brides was fairly common. Washington Territory did not allow marriage between Indians and whites, but many whites nonetheless mar-tied Indian women in native ceremonies. When Washington became a state in 1889, interracial marriages were legalized with the provision that all men then living with Indian women either go through a legal ceremony or send the women away. Some men abandoned their wives, others went through the legal ceremony but one settler refused to do either. He considered the Indian rite valid and believed that a second ceremony would brand his children as illegitimate. He was indicted but finally acquitted.
      A friend of William Munks had talked a young woman acquaintance into coming west to marry Munks. Her boat came into Fidalgo dock early and Munks had no time to change from his work clothes. The woman took one look at this awful, unkempt creature and turned him down without getting off the boat.
      The pioneers worked long, hard hours, but no matter how urgent the tasks, they needed some recreation. Dances, church socials, and picnics by chartered stern-wheeler were frequently held and well attended. Hunting was as much a recreation as a necessity. Families visited a great deal in spite of poor traveling conditions. Other pastimes were popular even though strongly disapproved of by the "better" people: the gambling and drinking habits of the single men supported numerous saloons; often the first building constructed in a new community, after the hotel and saloon, was the whorehouse — churches and schools came later.
      As the rigors of pioneer life lessened, social activities increased until there was a host of fraternal, social, and musical organizations. "Opera" houses were built in most towns and traveling dramatic and variety companies frequently performed. By 1900, the county was growing out of its pioneer days. With its timber and fishing wealth, prosperous farms, solidly established towns, and developing transportation, it was rapidly entering the mainstream of American culture. From now on, its development would be little different from that of other parts of America. Enough, however, of that pioneer past still remains to give Skagit County a distinctive flavor.

Crossing Cascade Pass
      The first successful crossing of Cascade Pass by whites from the western side occurred in 1870 by a Northern Pacific Railroad survey team headed by D.C. Linsley, who took the young Frank Wilkeson along as his assistant. You can read about their crossing at this Journal website. [Return to top]

William Munks and the mail-order bride
      This story has mystified us for some time. We finally narrowed down the genesis of the tale to the family of Minnie Van Valkenburg, William's first wife. But when one of her descendants wrote to us after reading the Journal feature, the story was not quite the same — that she was a mail order bride all right but that she happily wed him and made a home with him after she arrived, following a weary trip across the plains. But then we discovered that her father bought land next door to Munks and that they met that way, not by mail order. We are pursuing this further and we hope to share the answer with you in the Anacortes section. Or do you have any documents that will help our research?[Return to top]

Links, background reading and sources

Story posted on July 18, 2006, moved to this domain Oct. 12, 2011
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