Skagit River Journal
(Territorial Daughters) Territorial Daughters 1936
of History & Folklore
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Valley Girls - Notable Women of the Skagit

How pioneer women adapted to the
Skagit frontier and made the wilderness home

Reading about frontier women


The importance of women on the Northwest frontier
By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal, ©2001
Updated with new links and features on Dec. 24, 2009

      In the very early days of settlement of the Skagit valley in the 1870s and '80s, this was largely a man's world with both physical and mental challenges that quickly demanded the tenderfeet become mountain men and lumberjacks. There was a paucity of women in the rough frontier and the settler soon missed a helpmeet who could help meet the challenges. The rough settlement that the Bachelor Four carved near future Sedro and present Riverfront Park became more civilized when two pioneer men moved families here early on. We can almost hear the voices of bachelors complaining when Eliza Van Fleet arrived in 1880, "There goes the neighborhood!" But she soon became as proficient as her husband Emmett in many chores and she provided much of the glue that originally the bound the small community together.
      To understand the Western experience, you must realize that the wife of a homesteading family was truly a "renaissance woman," if you will pardon the cliche. She was venerated by both the profane and the profound as the Madonna of the frontier (please do not confuse her with the pop singer). Even if Joe Blow really believed he was escaping problems with women back on the Missouri or the Mississippi, he soon missed his water when he realized how dry the local matrimonial well was. Even some of the most bigoted Democrats wound up taking an Indian squaw as their klootchman, a Chinook Jargon word for today's chauvinistic terms such as the old lady, or maybe the main squeeze. When proper young white women such as the Mercer Girls showed up years later, the klootchman was sometimes pitched back to the newly formed Swinomish reservation. If she was lucky, her husband built a shanty behind the main house where she could baby-sit her progeny. By the time that Washington territory became a state in 1889, many white men had married Indian women in tribal ceremonies. A new state law legitimized such marriages but it also required that the couples remarry in a U.S. civil ceremony, or else the spouse had to be sent away.

(Ethel Van Fleet Harris)
Ethel Van Fleet Harris

      The pioneer wife, such as Wilhelminia "Minnie" von Pressentin or Georgetta Savage had to prepare for their families living in remote wilderness for many months of every year. Georgetta must have been frightened nearly to death when she had to load her babies and all their bedding and furniture onto flimsy looking cedar canoes and then be rowed up the Skagit river in pouring rain. Her initial reward was to fall into the drink. Minnie discovered a sewing machine for sale in Mount Vernon before heading upriver to meet her husband, Karl, so she bought it on the spot and it was one of her most valued possessions.
      Educated and politically aware women, such as Georgiana Batey and Eliza Van Fleet, must have cheered when the Washington territorial legislature ignored the suffrage restrictions in most states and granted women the right to vote on Nov. 23, 1883. The men learned, too late, how well women could organize, because the 759 registered women voters in Seattle convened an "Apple Orchard Convention" on June 13, 1884, and ran a reform ticket for the city council. They voted en masse and their reform ticket of "sober, honest and efficient" candidates all won.
      Within a year the new council people went too far. Skid Road on Yesler Way had thrived on the liquor and prostitution trade, but the reformers ordered the police to actually enforce laws and ordinances and most of the "sin" houses were soon closed down. As in Sedro-Woolley later on, fines and licenses on purveyors of liquor, gambling and prostitution was a major source of revenue to the city. But soon the bottom dropped out of city coffers and the reform ticket was voted out in the next election. In 1887 a lower appeals-court judge ruled that the legislators erred in 1883. The legislators had simply dropped the word male before the word citizens from the voting law, but the judge ruled that the legislators mistakenly assumed that women were citizens. After the appeal was upheld in the territorial supreme court, suffragettes appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The jig was up, however, because the highest U.S. court denied their appeal and upheld the lower courts' rulings on Aug. 15, 1888.
      Washington women did not vote again until the state constitution was amended on Nov. 8, 1910 to grant women the vote. The 19th amendment to the national constitution was ratified by the necessary 36 states on Aug. 18, 1920, granting the same right to all women in the United States. That was just seven months after the dreaded 18th amendment was ratified, which ushered in Prohibition.
      We hope that those of you whose families have retained writings or documents from your ancestor women will consider sharing copies with us. In closing this introduction, we want to especially honor Ethel Van Fleet Harris, who took her family's legacy very carefully. She spent much of her adult life researching and recording the events of her own parents' lives and the lives of their fellow pioneers. She and her husband, Elza Harris, owned the Sedro-Woolley Steam Laundry and built the beautiful rock-front house on Warner street where Wayne Peters now resides. Now, can anyone provide us material about her elder sister, Eva, and her husband, Mr. Beebe? Eva, the cherubic little girl who lived in the Skiyou cabin that her father built and watched Indians draw photos of the crucified Christ and heard her mother banging cast-iron pots against the cedar logs to help her husband orient himself home through the dense woods of cedar and fir more than 200 feet high. Lucky for us, women such as Deanna Ramey Ammons, who grew up in a logging family near Day creek, are now carrying on Ethel's tradition, digging out stories and manuscripts in thorough research that rewards us all continuously.

"Valley Girls - Notable Women of the Skagit"

by Mari C. Densmore, Librarian of Skagit County Historical Society

Over the years, the Skagit County Historical Museum in La Conner has received stories of many pioneer-era women who helped establish communities and services and who fought their way into nontraditional careers. This series will highlight some of the influential women featured in the exhibit "Valley Girls," and written by the wonderful Mari C. Densmore for the Skagit Valley Herald. The links go straight to where they are posted on SVH.

(Louisa A Conner)
Louisa Ann Conner



Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt
(Bold Spirit cover)
Bold Spirit cover

      This is possibly the book that will define both the indomitable spirit of the Victorian-era frontier women — especially those who were immigrants, and their perseverance along with the consequences if they stepped "out of the place" in society. When you read Helga Estby's very personal story in Linda Lawrence Hunt's Bold Spirit, I suspect that you will often do as I did — ruminate on whether you could fill her dozens of pairs of shoes as she walked across America. [University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho, 2003 ISBN 0-89301-262-9]
      Born in 1860 and raised through age 11 in the cosmopolitan city of Christiana, Norway, Helga emigrated to Manistee, Michigan, with her mother in 1871 to join her stepfather who had gone ahead to carve out a new life in the logging community. Those who have read the Journal series about the von Pressentins who became a leading family in Birdsview on the upper Skagit river will recall that the nucleus of that family also lived and worked at Manistee at the same time after their own immigration from Germany. Soon after the Estbys arrived, Manistee became embroiled in a raging debate about the "woman's question" and a women's suffrage amendment was on the 1874 ballot, which attracted early suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady to speak in the state. Those who have read the Journal series about Frank Wilkeson may also recall that his mother was Catherine Cady, Elizabeth's sister. We suspect that Helga read about this debate as a teenager because we learn that her parents quickly enrolled her in common schools where she became fluent in English. Helga, a mother of nine, accepted a challenge to walk across America from Spokane in 1896, and collect a wager that would save her family home.

. See a more extensive review here.
Journal stories and further reading
(Nina Cook)
Nina Cook Budlong, in 1902 while she was pregnant with her son, Mortimer Cook Budlong, in Oak Park, Illinois.
Click on photo for the story about her 1886 Sedro diary.

      We have launched our most ambitious project so far: a comprehensive study of the woman's experience on the Washington frontier. When you see the stories we have collected we hope you will agree that we have offered more in-depth insight into this subject than any Northwest Washington regional book or website so far.
      We have spent much of our research time trying to find the most original sources possible for stories about how women coped in the forest wilderness. Some of the stories in this section have been shared on the free site from the original Subscribers Edition, but many new ones will be shared with subscribers first.

Sedro-Woolley and surrounding communities:
Upper Skagit river:

Western Skagit county:
Outside Skagit County:

Links to other stories and further reading

Story posted on April 13, 2003, last updated Feb. 20, 2007,and Dec. 24, 2009, links corrected Oct. 2017
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