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John Fravel, pioneer of both
Whatcom and Skagit county
(Including a 2008 update)

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore ©2005
(Downtown Fravel)
Downtown Fravel, at the turn of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of Mike Aiken collection

      John H. Fravel is a key figure in both Skagit county and Whatcom county history for two of his accomplishments: heading the crew that constructed the telegraph line along the east coast of Puget sound to the Fraser river and New Westminster, and for laying out the village of Fravel near Chuckanut drive, which was later renamed Blanchard.
      The most complete information on Fravel was published by Lelah Jackson Edson in her 1951 book, The Fourth Corner, and that was supplemented by E. Rosamonde Ellis Van Miert in her 2004 book, Remembering the Old Settlers of Whatcom County. John Henry Fravel was born at Woodstock in the Shenandoah valley of West Virginia on May 3 or 4, 1832. His family moved to Ohio when he was a child and Fravel was drawn West at age 18 by the '49er gold rush; he assisted in a cattle drive from Cincinnati to California in 1850. After mining for several years in northern California, he moved to Portland in the spring of 1858, the same year his future wife was born.
      After hearing reports about discovery of placer gold on the bars of the Fraser River in British Columbia, Fravel boarded the sidewheeler Sea Bird north to Whatcom, arriving in April 1858. On September 7 he took the same ship north with hundreds of other miners. About 18 miles from Victoria, fire broke out in hold of the ship near the boiler and Capt. Francis Conner ordered all to abandoned ship as he ran her ashore on the rocks. The vessel was a total loss and the crew and passengers escaped with only the clothes on their backs.

John H. Fravel and the telegraph
      We lost track of Fravel until 1864 when he was hired by the California State Telegraph Co. [CSTC] which was constructing a telegraph line north from San Francisco. As Edson explained in detail, CSTC was the result of a grandiose plan spawned by Perry McDonough Collins after he engaged in business with Russia near St. Petersburg. After observing the initial setbacks from 1857 on for Cyrus W. Field's planned trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, Collins theorized that an overland line up the Puget sound and north through British Columbia could be continued across Alaska and connected with Russia with a short 40-mile undersea cable across the Bering Straits. His proposed line would continue across Siberia to St. Petersburg and then be strung across Russia and Europe to London.
      The Civil War delayed Collins's project but in 1864, Secretary of State William Seward approved the project and appropriated the initial funds. Collins's CSTC joined with the Western Union Telegraph Co. to organize the Western Union Extension Company for the purpose of that particular project. The wires reached Olympia in September 1864 and telegraph messages were exchanged between Governor William Pickering of Washington Territory and President Abraham Lincoln. We are unsure of his qualifications, but CSTC hired Fravel at that time and he soon assumed the roles of builder, superintendent and troubleshooter for the company as the line was strung north along the shoreline from Olympia through Seattle, then Mukilteo, LaConner and on to Bellingham Bay. Sheriff James Kavanaugh recorded in his diary on March 16, 1865, that the telegraph office opened at the Sehome Coal Mine store]. With a crew that included William "Blanket Bill" Jarman, Fravel continued stringing wire north to Lake Terrell near Ferndale, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo and then east through future Everson and future Nooksack and finally north to the Fraser river. The final link to British Columbia was completed after Fravel's crew crossed the river and erected lines into New Westminster, where the first message originated on April 4, 1865. Although we have never seen any details confirmed, several sources state that the first telegraphic message on the Puget sound line was the news of Lincoln's assassination on April 14.

(4th of July)
      This was a Fourth of July Parade in downtown Fravel in 1913, just before the town and the Great Northern Railway depot both took the name of Blanchard. Photo courtesy of the Mike Aiken collection.

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      As explained in the 1971 book, Chechacos All, the Pioneering of Skagit, the system of telegraphic connections was continued throughout British Columbia even after Field's company successfully completed the permanent trans-Atlantic cable on July 27, 1866. But funding eventually dried up during the winter of 1867, so much so that there was no money to transport material back to central warehouses. Indians through the Pacific Northwest fetched the insulators and wire and various material, converting them to their own use including suspension bridges over creeks and rivers. White settlement of the Northwest temporarily stalled so the telegraph was a low priority during that period. We lose track of Fravel again until Edson reported notes in Fravel's diary about his assignment to restring wire and build new lines along sections of what became known as the Telegraph road. Fravel wrote that the project began in Whatcom county on July 8, 1870, and continued on to Sumas and beyond. An interesting note in August is a letter that he received from F.H. Lamb at Yale on the Fraser river asking Fravel to hire "Dirty Dan" Harris as a packer on the project. His recorded the final note about the project on April 27, 1871, about payment to the Indians on the crew who worked in the Lake Chilliwack area of British Columbia.

Fravel founds his namesake town
      In the 1870 federal census of Whatcom county, Fravel is recorded as age 38, a telegraph foreman with $1,000 personal property, but born in Ohio. That was an enumerator error and it was corrected in subsequent censuses. Sometime in the summer of 1871, after his crew completed the telegraph wire in British Columbia, Fravel moved to McElroy slough. That is the present site of Blanchard, just south of Chuckanut mountain, which would later mark the boundary between Whatcom county and Skagit county when Skagit broke off from the larger Whatcom County ounty in November 1883. The slough was named for James H. McElroy, an early logger in the area. Fravel laid out a village along what is now called Colony creek, but did not plat a town. We again lose track of him except for a humorous story in the new Bellingham Bay Mail newspaper in Whatcom, dated Nov. 29, 1873, about Fravel absconding with a sleigh and running a merry team of guests back and forth between hotels for libations [publisher James A. Power later moved that newspaper to LaConner and renamed it the Puget Sound Mail]. Edson found an item in Fravel's 1874 diary when he was hired again to string wire between Cache creek and Kamloops near the Thompson river in British Columbia.
      Back at the village of Fravel, John H. Fravel's claim was across Whitehill creek from the ranch of Capt. David D. Whitehill. That was a lonely place, especially during winter, and Fravel decided to take a bride. He married Mary J. Richardson in San Juan county on June 4, 1876. She was the youngest daughter of George Hall Richardson and his Indian wife, Cubshelita, or Fanny. John was 44 and Mary was 17. We are unsure if her father was still alive by then and her mother may have been a widow. Regardless, Sand found a record that Fanny married again, to Captain David D. Whitehill, Fravel's neighbor. Sand found the marriage license dated May 12, 1879, but not a date for the wedding. Whitehill may have had an Indian wife before Fanny. The 1880 federal census shows two sons who are identified as half-breeds, Thomas, 11, and Frederick, 3. The couple had two daughters together, Mary Ann and Agnes. The undated obituary that Lynn Hower showed me illustrates the confusion over the Whitehill name. The headline names Fanny Whitehall and within the story the spelling is Whitehill. Florence Smith Lowe recalls that the name of both the family and creek was spelled Whitehill while she lived in Blanchard in 1912-24. And of course the confusion has continued, since the creek is now named Whitehall. For an unknown period of time, mother Fanny Whitehill and daughter Mary J. Fravel lived right across the creek from each other. In the 1880 census, John H. Fravel is recorded in the Samish district, still part of Whatcom county, along with Mary and one child, a daughter named Lottie.

The mysterious father-in-law, George Hall Richardson
      Fravel returned to Bellingham Bay that fall and was hired to log and mill timber for the Sehome Coal Mine. In 1861, he joined fellow carpenters William Utter and John Plaster to help build the first public school house on Bellingham Bay near the Sehome Coal Mine. Located in middle of what is now Maple street, near what is now Cornwall avenue, they erected the 16x24-foot building from rough lumber from Roeder mill and made the roof of cedar shakes. In an intriguing note, Edson reported that the first teacher at the school was George Hall, the father of Fravel's future bride, Mary. This teacher was actually a British subject named George Hall Richardson.
      From that point on, the research into Fravel's father-in-law has been very difficult and confusing because of the scarcity of records and because various sources address him by three different surnames or "last names." The research is further complicated because, in order to learn about George, you have to look for the names, Richardson, Richards and Hall. We have finally put together a sketchy profile based on census records and a cursory look at family collections, plus material uncovered by researcher Donna Sand from Whatcom county. We start with what Lelah Jackson Edson wrote about George in The Fourth Corner::

      He was a well educated Englishman, who with three others deserted the British Man-of-War, Satellite, at Victoria and escaped across the Sound. On American soil, he dropped his last name, Richardson, and was known by his given names — a common practice among sailors fleeing the rugged life in the Queen's Navy. Later George Hall's children resumed the family name of Richardson. He successfully conducted the first school term. Available funds would allow no more than three months of schooling. Other teachers, other terms followed at irregular intervals.
      From various records, we infer that Richardson, along with his future sons-in-law, Thomas Barrett and Fravel all met during the 1850s and all three of them were familiar with the Samish district that is now in Skagit county. In the 1860 federal census of Whatcom county, George Hall is recorded but we are uncertain of his location. He is listed as being 30 years old, a farmer, with $500 of property. Confusion has resulted from the line in the 1870 federal census of Whatcom county, where a George Richardson is recorded as a coal miner from England with a 17-year-old wife named Harriet from Pennsylvania. After assuming that the age was wrong because of an enumerator's error, we now conclude that this was a different person because his middle initial was "W." The 1860 listing is mysterious because it does not mention his Indian wife. John H. Fravel is also listed, at 28 years old, a laborer born in Virginia.
      We will introduce you to the Hower family below. In our cursory look at Lynn Hower's records, we learned from a 1913 obituary (undated from an unknown newspaper) that George Hall Richardson married a Samish Indian woman with the first name of Cubshelisha sometime in the 1850s. Donna Sand found her burial record in Bayview cemetery in Fairhaven, where the spelling on her tombstone is Cubshelita. Although either of those spellings could have been her Indian name, an obituary that Donna found in the Nov. 12, 1913, American Reveille (Bellingham) notes that she spent her life with white people. She is known historically as Fanny, with alternate spellings of Fany or Fannie. Sand discovered that George and Fanny (or Fany) Hall married at the "Samish Illihay" (definition unknown) in January 1855, and the Reveille obituary notes that theirs was the first marriage license issued in Whatcom county. Their first child, a daughter named Fanny, was born Oct 15, 1856. According to information in the 1900 federal census, their second child, a daughter named Mary J., was born in October 1858. Both daughters are key figures in this story. Then a gap occurs because we can find no further record of George Hall Richardson after 1861 by any combination of his first and last name, including in census reports. He may have died sometime in the next 18 years before his wife remarried, as we will explain below.

      2008 Update: Just when we had almost given up on finding information on the death of George Hall Richardson, Bellingham researcher Donna Sand came through again, as she often does. She found this small obituary in the:
Olympia Transcript, July 15, 1871, p 2
      The ECHO says: Geo Richardson, a collier employed at the Bellingham Bay coal mine, accidentally shot himself on the 30th inst. He had been on a visit to Cowichan, British Columbia, accompanied by his wife and sister. While on his way home, in a canoe, he saw a deer on the north end of Orcas Island. Richardson — who had a pistol in his belt — jumped ashore to have a shot at it. He tripped, however on the rocks, and in falling the hammer of the pistol struck a stone and the weapon went off. The ball entered the unfortunate man's abdomen. He died soon after.

The Blanchards replace Fravel as village leader
            By 1885-86, when George and Dudley Blanchard established their logging camp and tram railroad on Blanchard Mountain north of the slough, Fravel's interest in the townsite apparently waned, even though the Whatcom Reveille of Oct 15, 1886, reported: "Coal oil has been discovered on the J. H. Fravel's place, and no doubt in paying quantities." We have found no other details about that discovery.
      The village took the Blanchard name when George became the first postmaster at the post office there on July 20, 1886. Unless we find other evidence we conclude that Fravel maintained a home near McElroy slough until his death and some of his children lived there for decades afterwards, but John H. Fravel seems to have centered his business operations in Whatcom county. From other records we deduce that he must have married sometime during the 1880s but we will check that when we interview a Fravel relative later this month. [See the link below for the full intro story to Blanchard, which includes a 2010 profile of both town and family.]
      Over the next 20 years, the Fravel family owned a home and land at Blanchard, but John H. Fravel seems to have centered his business operations in Whatcom county. Blanchard may have been their summer or "country" home. We researched the baptismal records of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 2117 Walnut Street, Bellingham, which was established in 1883 on lots contributed by Henry Roeder from his homestead. When Mary Fravel was a widow in 1907 she had four of her six children baptized on the same day in 1907. We learned, however, in our initial interview with a Fravel relative that the birth dates listed on their forms are incorrect and that error was compounded when he found the federal census records of 1900. The Fravel children were:

Lottie M., born Oct 1878, age 21, at school
S. Nason, Oct 1880, 19, Day Laborer
Thomas? F., Nov. 1890, at School
Lena Blanche, Sept. 1893, 9
Rebecca, Sept. 6, 1895, 4
Baby daughter, [Gladys Virginia] Dec 1899

Where did the Fravels go?
(Fravel Dock)
The Fravel Dock in an unknown year. From a postcard owned by Mike Aiken.

      In the 1910 Federal Census, Fanny was recorded as living as a widow with her stepson, Frederick Whitehill, age 32. Across the creek, Mary also lived as a widow, with her son, Samuel N. (Nason) Fravel, age 29, and daughter, Gladys, age 10. The Fravel relative is Larry Hower, who lives in what he says is the fifth house on the original Fravel property. We deduce from a 1925 Metsker's Skagit county plat map that Fravel must have pre-empted a quarter section — 160 acres, back in 1871.
      Larry explained that he and his family lived in another home on the property from the time when he was a child in 1948. He is 69 and he graduated from Burlington High School. Larry's wife, Lynn Hower, has assembled various records of the family and we plan to review them when we visit next month. Larry's mother, Julia "Judy" Barrett Hower, was a second cousin of Rebecca Fravel, one of John and Mary's six children and the one who lived the longest at Blanchard. Julia married Nelson Hower, whose brother Loren was very active in the oyster industry. Judy's grandfather was George Hall Richardson. Her father was George Barrett, a son of Thomas E. Barrett, who married Fannie (or Fanny) Hall Richardson, Mary Richardson Fravel's sister, on Aug. 22, 1869 when he was clerk in Whatcom.
      Apparently, the ancestral Howers inherited the land because none of the Fravel children had children of their own, or at least we do not find any recorded. By the time that a 1925 Metsker's map was drawn, 120 acres of Fravel's original claim was in Mary J. Fravel's name. A neighbor to the north, William Gilmore, owned the northeast quarter of the 160-acre quarter section next to the Fravel property. Perhaps John H. Fravel's initial claim was an irregular shape. Larry told us that when John H. Fravel first lived near the slough in the 1860s, his cabin was on the little lip of land south and west of the mouth of the slough. Larry can still remember that when he was a child, he and his father found remnants of a fruit orchard where the cabin would have been located. In the 1980s, Myron Bentz still lived on that piece of property, which his grandfather or father bought from the Fravel estate.
      Rebecca never married. She died on Oct. 29, 1982, at age 87. Her birthdate was Sept. 6, 1895, not 1886 as listed in the baptismal records. If the other notations on the baptismal records were correct, she was born while her mother was at Blanchard, as was her sister Lena Blanche. Florence Smith Lowe, author of the book, Equality Colony, and now 93, recalls that she met Fravel's daughters, Rebecca and Blanche, after she was born in Blanchard and while they all lived there from 1912-24. Daughter Gladys Virginia was also baptized in 1907 but she died young in an undetermined year, apparently of leukemia.
      Another daughter, Lottie M. Fravel, shows up in the 1910 federal census as age ten and living with her mother in Bellingham. She later married Henry Heal, who knew both John H. Fravel and Blanket Bill Jarman from the old days of the townsite of Fravel. Heal became president of the Bellingham Bank. At this point, we think that the last Fravel child to live on the Blanchard property was Nason Fravel, who was born in 1880 when the townsite was still Fravel. He died in the barn on the property in 1948 and he also never married.
      Lottie Roeder Roth reported in her 1926 book, History of Whatcom County, that in 1889, Fravel was roofing houses in the growing town of Ferndale. We find no record of Fravel's business activity after 1889 and we find much more activity by him before then in Whatcom county than in Skagit. Skagit county split off from mother Whatcom by territorial legislative action in November 1883 and the dividing line was at the Chuckanut Mountain group. For instance, Fravel observed the brief Nooksack Indian War skirmish in 1859 along with Charles Finkbonner, the federal Indian agent, and Fravel was a pallbearer at his friend Finkbonner's funeral in 1876.
      Van Miert wrote that Fravel died on March 17, 1905, and that his blue and white house at 2415 Utter St., has a sign that reads "Fravel Home built 1903." She also observes that "Somewhere his letters and diaries still exist." Lynn Hower tells us that she and Larry have some similar documents that appear to be his notes from the times of building the telegraph line and other projects. We have not yet had the opportunity to read Fravel's obituary in the Bellingham Herald dated March 18, 1905. Fannie (Cubshelita) Whitehill died on Nov. 10, 1913, at age 87. We hope that a reader will have family memories of Fravel, Jarman, Hall, Richardson, Whitehill or of the Blanchard brothers whose name has permanently been affixed to the town. We also hope that a reader will know more about the Samish Indians and the tribal members whose names we found in the research noted above. We hope to share more information in the near future.

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Story posted on July 28, 2005, last updated July 14, 2010
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This article originally appeared in Issue 29 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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