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Skagit River Journal

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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
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Exploration and settlement of The Last Frontier
by Europeans and easterners

(Town of Utsalady near the turn of the century)
      Utsalady, on the north side of Camano Island in Snohomish County, was the site of one of the most important early sawmills in the Washington Territory. This view is of the Cranney-Grennan mill and various town buildings sometime before the turn of the century. In the 1850s, as Seattle pioneers built shacks along Elliott Bay and Tacoma was still a clam beach, investors observed the success that Pope and Talbot were enjoying with their mill at Port Gamble on the Olympic peninsula. Their competitors, Thomas Cranney and Laurence Grennan, built a sawmill in 1858 on the north end of Camano island, which drew timber in from the north sound and from the mainland of Snohomish county on north. Grennan filed one of the first territorial land claims when the whole northwestern corner of Washington territory was in one large county called Island, including present Whatcom and Skagit counties. Camano is the island tucked in east of Whidbey that looks like a boomerang on the map. Utsalady Bay is mostly sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly winds that accompany storms on the waters of Puget Sound. Explorers waited out many gales in that bay as they traversed the Sound.Photo from Ronald Holttum Collection. It is also featured in Skagit Settlers, a fine book that can be purchased at the Skagit County Historical Museum in LaConner.

Spain and England explore Puget sound
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      In 1846, a treaty between the United States and England fixed the boundary between Canada and the U.S. For the Oregon territory, which then included the territory that would become Washington, that meant that the border would be at the 49th parallel, and would continue south and west through the middle of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. In the 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties [hereafter 1906 Book, we learn that Juan de Fuca was actually Apostolos Valerianos, a Greek captain of Cephalonia, and he claimed that he had discovered the straits in 1592 while in the service of Spain. He also claimed that he sailed here to prove the theory put forth by Gasper Cortereal of Spain in 1500 that there was a northern strait through the North American continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, which he named Anian. The Northwest Passage, as that mythical body of water came to be known, was the explorers' Holy Grail for four millennia. Of course there was no proof besides Valerianos's own account, and many historians contend that he never sailed near the straits, but such is folklore. His tale spurred the exploration of what President John F. Kennedy called the Last Frontier.
      There was little exploration here during the 17th century, but by the middle of the 18th, European nations again expressed great interest in the western shores of America because of the great natural resources of furs, timber, gold, silver and other gems. A great race began between English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian and American sailors. Russia, then a superpower ruled by Peter the Great, seemed to have an edge. He employed the Dane, Vitus Bering, who threaded the thousand islands of the Aleutian archipelago, from 1729-1741. In 1771, the first cargo of furs was shipped from Avatscha, the chief port of eastern Siberia, to Canton, China. In this same time period, Spain took entire possession of California and the two country's possessions soon overlapped each other, with the coast of future Washington, British Columbia and Alaska as a jewel in the middle. England, not wanting to be left out in the cold, dispatched Captain James Cook, who sailed up and down that whole area, but he failed to discover either the Columbia river or the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Anyone who sails those waters now knows that the omnipresent fog can shroud almost anything. He died while ashore in the Sandwich [Hawaiian] islands in 1779, but his exploration and that of his two successors established England's presence in the future Oregon territory.
      For the next ten years, England and Spain expended great energy exploring the Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, and the Queen Charlotte and Georgia straits. In 1788, the Americans, flexing their muscles after the Revolutionary War, finally got into the picture with two ships launched from Boston. The Columbia, under Captain John Kendrick, and the Washington, under Captain Robert Gray, sailed into Nootka bay that year. Four years later, Captain Gray met Captain Vancouver just below Cape Flattery, where they admitted to each other that they had not found the Columbia river. Vancouver proceeded north to explore the Straits and northern Puget Sound, while Gray actually discovered both Gray's Harbor and crossed the bar of the Columbia at long last. The 1906 Book points out that "it was a well-established and universally-recognized tenet of international law that the discovery of a river followed within a reasonable time by acts of occupancy, conveyed the right to the territory drained by the river and its tributary streams."
      Meanwhile the French were approaching the terra incognita of the western half of North America from the east through modern-day Canada. One Frenchman roamed as far as the present city of Helena, Montana, in 1773 before turning back. A French historian of the Louisiana Territory wrote in 1758 that the first man to scale the Rocky mountains from the east was a Yazoo Indian named Moncachabe. The first Frenchman to cross the Rockies was Alexander Mackenzie, who reached the coast at roughly 52 degrees latitude, marking his arrival with vermilion and grease on a rock with the words, "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, July 22, 1793." Back in 1786, while serving as minister to Paris, Thomas Jefferson was caught on fire with the idea of opening a large and profitable fur trade in the north Pacific. The year after that, his friend, a sailor named Ledyard, traveled overland to Kamchatka on the Russian East Coast, with the plan of sailing to British Columbia on a Russian ship. This was a continuation of a journey he had made through that region from 1776-80 while a member of Captain Cook's crew, but this time the Russians arrested him as a spy. In 1792 Jefferson proposed to the American Philosophical Society that it should engage a competent scientist "to explore northwest America from the eastward by ascending the Missouri, crossing the Rocky mountains and descending the nearest river to the Pacific Ocean." Captain Meriwether Lewis was initially passed over and a French Botanist, Andre Michaux was dispatched instead, but he was recalled by his government while still in Kentucky.
      Lewis did get his chance, of course, years later after Spain retroceded the Louisiana Territory to France in 1802, and Napoleon Bonaparte sold it to the U.S. for $15 million in 1803. Jefferson had already convinced Congress to launch an expedition to the West Coast. He chose Lewis, by then his private secretary, and another Virginian and veteran of the Indian wars, William Clark, to lead it. They left St. Louis on May 14, 1804, and arrived near Astoria, Oregon, on Nov. 8, 1805. Although their journey did not touch on our area, it excited Americans' imagination about the Northwest. In 1827, England and the U.S. formally extended their agreement from 1818 to jointly occupy the territory north from California to Alaska, then ruled by Russia, but eager explorers and scientists began pressing for an expanded American presence here from 1829 on. In 1844, the expansionist Democratic presidential candidate, James Polk, adopted the campaign slogan of "Fifty-four, forty, or fight!" And that brings us around to where we began the chapter. On June 15, 1846, the Oregon Treaty was signed with England, creating a territory stretching east into part of modern Montana.
      Before U.S. settlement began in the Puget Sound, however, James W. Marshall discovered gold on Jan. 24, 1848, on the American river near the junction of the Sacramento river in California. Over the next six years, four men who would have a profound effect on our region either prospected or established businesses in gold country. They included Winfield Scott Jameson, who obtained much of the timberland on the north shore of the Skagit River west and east of future Sedro in the late 1870s. He was a latecomer, prospecting in the headwaters of the Sacramento river in 1854. Four years later, he pursued gold again when the rush began to the Fraser river in British Columbia. Henry Roeder, considered the father of Bellingham (originally called Whatcom), prospected in the Sacramento area about 1850 and then started a store on the Feather river. In 1851, he and partner Russell Peabody started a fishing business and decided to relocate to the fishery of the Pacific Northwest. On the way north, they heard about the fire that year that nearly wiped out San Francisco, so they went into the lumber business instead. With the help of Indians they found a suitable logging site at the falls of Whatcom Creek on Bellingham Bay in December 1852 and built a sawmill at the future site of Whatcom in the fall of 1853. After sailing around the Horn from New York, John Madden Warner prospected even earlier — in 1849, near Rabbit Creek, north of Auburn. He stayed in gold country the longest of the four, until 1858, when he came north to join Roeder and another gold rush veteran, Mortimer Cook, on another gold rush to the Fraser River in British Columbia. Cook, the eventual founder of Sedro, was serving in the US Army in Eagle Pass, Texas, when Marshall discovered the gold, but after riding horseback across Mexico, he took a schooner north to California and wound up at the Rabbit Creek diggings in 1852. We will have lots more about these gentlemen later on.

Early Seattle-area settlement
      Settlement around the Elliott Bay area effectively began on Sept. 25, 1851, when John N. Low, David T. Denny and Lee Terry sailed up the sound in an open boat with Captain Robert C. Fay and landed on the shore of what would later be named Alki Point, now West Seattle. Low was originally a Maryland native who moved West from Illinois, the Terrys were from New York and Denny was from Cherry Grove, Illinois. Low had led a small wagon train, with a herd of dairy stock, across the plains and mountains to Oregon in August of that year. Denny was in another train that was led by his older brother David and his father, John, and they joined Low's train for the final trek across the mountains to the Columbia river. Arthur Denny was quite ill when they arrived and his wife, Mary, delivered a baby, so David — just 19, joined Low, who drove some of his cattle overland to the Olympia area. Together they explored the Ford's prairie area, where Low found winter pasturage for his stock, and then they met Terry at Olympia. From there they sailed with Fay and checked out Alki as well as the Duwamish river, largely ignoring the mudhole on Elliott Bay that is now underneath Seattle's celebrated sports stadiums.
      The date celebrated in 2001 for Seattle's 150th birthday is Nov. 13, 1851, when Arthur Denny and Low and about two dozen others arrived on the schooner Exact. Low had returned to Portland in the interim to report their findings to Arthur Denny and his extended family. He contracted with David Denny and Lee Terry to build a cabin while he was gone, but when the party arrived in November, the cabin was still unfinished and roofless, David Denny was nursing an axe wound on his foot and Lee Terry was off visiting other settlers, trying to find a froe, the tool that pioneers used to shave off shakes from bolts of cedar. The birthday last year was celebrated in a pouring rain just like the weather that day when Arthur and party arrived, but the merry recreating crew was in a much better mood than were the pioneer folk. David's reported first words reflected the emotions that many people feel after experiencing a drizzly Northwest winter: "I wish you hadn't come." Admonished by his brother, David recounted all the impediments, and besides, he noted, the cabin had been pillaged by an impertinent band of skunks. Alki soon took a back seat to the eventual town of Seattle on Elliott Bay, but ship captains were delighted to dock and buy the tall limbless Douglas fir trees that the merchants at Alki felled and prepared for ship masts. Earlier that year, John B. Soule, editor of the Terre Haute, Indiana Express had coined the famous phrase, "Go West, young man, go West." Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, repeated it and is usually given credit, but he merely added, "and grow up with the country."
      Volume 1, Number 1, of the Olympia Columbian newspaper was published on Sept. 11, 1852, with the editors' insistence that the northern half of Oregon territory be split off for a new territory forthwith. Low was a delegate that November to a homespun meeting about the territory at a place called Monticello, which was located at the future town of Longview. A bill approving the territory proposal passed the Oregon legislature in December; a final bill passed the U.S. Senate and was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore on March 2, 1853, two days before Franklin Pierce succeeded him. The land of future Skagit County was initially included in the huge Island County (1853 population: 195), a wedge of northwestern Washington north of King County and east of Jefferson County, which was on the Olympic peninsula. The first governor was Isaac I. Stevens, then in charge of the U.S. Coast Survey. He was out of state in Minnesota much of the time, surveying for the proposed transcontinental railroad from St. Paul to Puget Sound. Capt. George B. McClellan, who would later have a checkered career as a Civil War general, was dispatched to build a military road from Fort Steilacoom, near Olympia, over the Cascades to Walla Walla. Immigrant wagon trains discovered that fall to their chagrin that McClellan had failed at the task. A protegee of Stevens, he was also assigned in the winter of 1853-54 to survey the Cascade Pass as the northernmost of five proposed transcontinental railroad routes. He reported back that the crossing of the Cascades was out of the question. A puzzled Stevens sent A.L. Tinkham and a group of Indians to try again and they reported in January that they found no serious obstructions, but by then a southern route through California had gained favor.
      John Low and his family later moved to Snohomish county, where they were substantial pioneers. Indeed, the Low family left their mark on many points of Puget sound as they were among the handful of original families at Olympia, Mukilteo, LaConner and Snohomish City. John's son Alonzo, who was six when the Low family arrived at Alki, opened in 1867 the first trading post on the mainland that became Skagit county. John's wife, Lydia, was often the only woman living at Alki for substantial periods of time; she was self-educated and whiled away part of her time reading most of the works of Dickens, according to historian Dick Fallis of Mount Vernon. Arthur Denny was eventually declared the key city father of Seattle, due mainly to his own autobiography, and donated part of his claim on Elliott Bay for the territorial university that grew into the present University of Washington. David Denny always lived in the shadow of his older brother and had financial disagreements with him. Lee Terry was less than impressed with the settlement and soon returned to New York, but his brother Charles brought a large stock of goods with him and started a store at Alki. [Ed. note: thanks are due to famed Seattle historian Paul Dorpat for pointing out an error in the first draft of this story.]

Pope & Talbot opens up the Sound to timber trade

(Port Gamble)
This is an 1860s view of Pope & Talbot's Puget Mill at Port Gamble. We look south towards the bay.

      The first step towards settlement on the Skagit occurred down on the Olympic peninsula in July 1853 when partners J.C. Talbot and A.J. Pope from Maine, via San Francisco, set up a lumber mill that they named the Puget Mill Co. at Port Gamble on the northeast side of Hood Canal. That is just south of Port Townsend, where U.S. Customs were then collected. Pope and Talbot pre-dated Weyerhauser by 40 years and reigned as an industry giant for 130 years, outliving the other mills that were popping up all over the peninsula at the time. Just ten miles to the north, Whidbey island, the largest one in the Puget Sound archipelago, was already being settled. And 25 miles to the northeast was Camano Island, where many early Skagit-county settlers worked for the Cranney-Grennan mill before building homes on the Skagit river delta. There are two general rules about early settlements. First, all of them around Puget Sound, except Port Townsend, were dependent almost completely on the lumber industry during their formative years. Second, the earliest towns were generally settled on islands or high ground adjacent to salt water; open prairies or ridges shelving onto deep water attracted them. Forested areas not adjacent to water discouraged home seekers. The little village of Utsalady on Camano Island had the nearest sawmill to the Skagit river, built soon after Puget Mill Co., as a market for logs that men cleared from areas next to water up the Skagit river or on other islands. At first, the settlers towed logs to mill one at a time behind canoes or small sail or rowboats after clearing them from their property. In turn, the company milled lumber for the first permanent houses near the water. Farther inland or where money w as scarce, homes were of built of rough logs or with split cedar boards and shakes, all of which could be fashioned by the settler himself.
      Utsalady was an export mill, shipping prime lumber as far away as France and the Orient. Homebuilders all over the country lusted after the hardwoods and cedar that Utsalady milled and ship captains preferred the Douglas fir for ship's mast because the old ones were often limbless beyond 100 feet. Settlers on the islands and Skagit and Snohomish county got the seconds, then judged "inferior" wood, which would fetch astronomical prices today. The trick was to fell trees on your own claim, use the wood to build your own shack, roll the rest of the logs down to the water, and then have the extra logs milled to your needs or for trade. Merchants lined the shore around the mill in the 1870s, supplying settlers along the river systems of the Skagit and Stillaguamish who paddled to the island rather than bucking the current to shop upstream. That business fell off starting in 1878 when the log jams were cleared and steamboat captains on the way to Victoria and Whatcom discovered the Swinomish slough that split off Fidalgo island from the Skagit mainland. Protected from the elements, they chose the new town of LaConner for a port in the storm. Camano is also an island; Davis slough splits off the peninsula from the Snohomish mainland. When the Utsalady mill failed in 1879, Pope and Talbot bought it out and made it a satellite mill as they did the one at Port Ludlow. The lumber market took a dive in 1890, just as trains were taking over from steamboats, and both Utsalady and Port Ludlow closed; Utsalady never reopened. And no, a Scottish father did not hang his head out the window and inform the town: "It's a Laddy." Uts meant place in the local Stillaguamish Indian dialect.

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Story posted on Jan. 22, 2003, moved to this domain April 18, 2011
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