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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
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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Indentured servants on the frontier

By Catherine Savage Pulsipher, Senior Profile magazine, March 1978
courtesy of Jennifer Savage Tjeerdsma, a Savage family descendant
(Catherine fishing 1970)
Catherine fishing 1970.

      A recent television series has made viewers conscious of Negro bondage as perpetuated by the South, but other forms of bondage existed in pioneer America. One of these was the indentured or "bound" servant, a European who emigrated to America under a contract binding a man or woman for a period of four to seven years.
      The contracted party had passage paid to the destination and was given room, board, and suitable clothing during the bondage. One release from this contract for a woman was to marry a man who would pay out her bonded debt to her owner. My Aunt Mary Bannon and my sister-in-law, Katherine McGibbons Savage, came to America under such a contract straight from the "auld sod" of Ireland.
      The mother had died in Dublin, and the whereabouts of the father was unknown. To escape dire poverty, the oldest sister, Mary, contracted out first and crossed the Atlantic to work on a farm in Iowa. Here she met and married my father's youngest brother, Lincoln, who paid out her contract and took his bride to the Puget Sound area of Washington territory where my father, George Savage, ran a large saw mill at LaConner.
      Lincoln worked in the mill, and the young couple were fortunate in obtaining one of the wooden frame houses father built for his mill workers. Some of these homes are still being lived in today. One of my older brothers, Leslie, was working in the mill, and Aunt Mary soon saw romantic possibilities for her younger sister, "Biddy." At her urging, Katherine signed a contract, and crossing an ocean and a continent, arrived in LaConner.
      She was soon freed of her bond as Leslie and she were married in Mt. Vernon, Washington, on May 10, 1891. I became the "kid" sister-in-law to an Irisher of the "auld sod" whose sharp tongue never forgot her native language and whose daily life was built around all the superstitions of the land of her birth. Although Aunt Mary called her sister, "Biddy," Katherine McGibbons became Kate to the rest of us. The young couple settled on a part of my father's land-grant claim on the banks of the Skagit River in the foothills of the Cascades.

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We recently visited our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, which is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down bedding. See our Journal feature on this local business and learn more details and how to order items at their website.

      The farm made a living for them through the dairy cows. The cans of thick separated cream were wheel-barrowed to the river, canoed over to the other side, and wheeled up the steep bank to the Carnation Company pick-up stand. Kate, as a farm wife, did her share of the milking, tended her "potattie" patch, canned the "garden sass," kept up a large farm house, and raised four children — three sons and a daughter. And never once did she let her family forget her origin. Her children were taught the Irish language. The boys were called "spalpeens," meaning imps, and her daughter was her "one ewe lamb."
      Since I lived down the lane and daily played with Kate's bairns [kid, youngster, small fry], I became the scapegoat of any mischief in which we were caught. Her topknot quivering in anger, she would fix me with her bright Irish eyes and sternly demand, "Arrah, now what have you done, Toot?" My playmates would stare in accusing silence, and I would hang my head in shame whether guilty or not. But Kate made up for her Irish temper with her Irish cooking.
      I can still taste those rich sour cream scones, those many-layered chocolate cakes with custardy filling, those buttery warm berry shortcakes, the deep-dish fruit pies, and the other farm delicacies all piled high with mounds of whipped cream. At mealtimes, the children were admonished to leave something on each plate for the leprechauns who lived behind the kitchen doors, for this kept them in a good mood and luck would be with the family. We knew the leprechauns lived there, because when a rocking chair would move back and forth, she would say the little men were in it. It did us no good to point out that someone had just gotten up or that one of us had set it in motion as we ran past. The broom was never kept behind the kitchen door, for if the leprechauns were angry, they would use it on their tormentors. In fact, behind these doors were the cleanest places in the kitchen, because the leprechauns dwelled there.
      Farm wives lived a hard life, but they did have moments of pleasure, and Kate's was her flower garden. An oak tree grew in the front yard, started from an acorn sent from Ireland. Pink climbing roses rambled over the front gate, and a lilac scented the air each spring. Though nearly a century has gone by, and the old farm house is now a pile of rubble, these reminders of Kate's green thumb still grow freely amid the nettles and high grass.
      Kate's happiest time was that spent in the evening listening to the old gramophone with its long horn, its diamond needle and scratchy cylinder records. We would be shooed into the front parlor with a flap of her embroidered apron and hushed with a stern pointing finger. A record would be reverently lifted from its box and placed on the cylinder. The evening always began with an Irish ballad which would bring tears to Kate's eyes. Then the Irish comedian would have his turn, and she would laugh joyously at the familiar jokes until her chubby belly made the hand-stitched flowers on her apron bounce in glee. "The poltroon, the rascal," she would gasp. Her wholehearted Irish reactions were our delight, and we would all laugh because she did.
      Then suddenly Kate was taken from us. A telephone call in the night brought word of the death of her first grandbaby, a little girl. Kate quickly went into the bedroom to dress for the boat ride across the river. When Leslie called her to "hurry" and she did not come, he found her kneeling in prayer by her bed. She had gone to join her grandchild in death. She lies with her "ewe lamb" clasped to her Irish heart. A part of the "auld sod" is now home in an Irisher heaven where angel harps play only Irish ballads, and the grass grows forever green. God rest the soul of Katherine McGibbons, the "bound" servant from Erin's isle.

First-hand accounts
      If you have followed our adventure from the early days of the website, from August 2000 onwards, you might recall that our "Statement of Purpose" included a primary goal. We wanted to find and publish first-hand accounts of pioneers and their descendants. Over these 11 years we have found such wonderful stories from pioneers like Katy — including Otto Klement, John Conrad, Alice Elinore Lambert and many others. Katy's are quite special because we hiked some of the same trails that she and June Burn traipsed in the 1930s. We are especially grateful to Jennifer who has sent us this unique story. And we hope that other descendants of Skagit pioneers will send us more stories that include personal stories of what it was like to live here when Washington was the "Last Frontier."

Links, background reading and sources

Story posted August 22, 2011. Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 56 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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