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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition
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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"Blanket Bill" Jarman, our first white settler

By Ray Jordan, from Skagit Valley Herald, Sept. 12, 1868
(Bill Jarman)
Bill Jarman circa 1900 after returning from his trip back home to England

      No human welcoming committee was out to greet he tired blond white man and his Indian wife that June day in 1868 when the lowered their packs to the ground on the low bench overlooking Jarman Prairie (One mile east up the Samish River from Old Highway 99 on the Prairie Road.) Only the virgin timber springing skyward from the waist-high ferns was there to meet them in friendship.
      Nowhere was there any sign of Indian invasion except the Indian trail and faint traces of Indian occupation on the Prairie proper, which had been an Indian bulb and root field since time immemorial. Everything was clean and uncluttered.
      W.R. "Blanket Bill" Jarman and his klootchman, Alice, had just completed the long back packing haul from the head of canoe navigation on the North Fork of the Samish River near Bow to the Prairie upon which he intended to squat and hold. This was five years before government surveyors had penetrated the area.
      The will-o-the-wisp life of the much traveled, adventurous Jarman had been difficult to trace. But P.R. Jeffcott, historian of Whatcom County, after more than two years of tenacious research during which he corresponded with sources in distant parts of the world has succeeded in trapping much of the elusive, almost legendary character between the covers of the book, "Blanket Bill Jarman."
      Of necessity, at this late date, there are blanks in the saga during which the man seems to have disappeared from the earth. However, Mr. Jeffcott has been able to collect many documented facts, which he has woven into a fascinating and credible story, though it shatters some popular tales while lending credence to others.
      It is pretty well established that William R. Jarman was born in 1820 at Gravesend, England, and that he took to the sea of an early age and saw much of India, many of the South Sea Islands, Australia and Tasmania. A sailor's life was a hard one those days and twice, when conditions became intolerable, he jumped ship and managed to escape, though once he had to walk 122 miles in his bare feet to do so.
      Much of the time spent in southern waters, Jarman never accounted for. At last we find him serving aboard the Platypus, a fur trading ship commanded by Captain Richards (or Richard Hardy). After a time in Tasmanian waters, Captain Hardy seems to have heard of the fine furs to be had in the New World and set sail for America.
      His target was the mouth of the Columbia River, but he failed to find it, turned north and anchored at Nootka sound on Vancouver Island, a favorite rendezvous for fur trading ships at this time (1846). After collecting a cargo of furs Captain Hardy prepared for the long trip to the China market. Now occurred one version (the popular one) of the incident that gave Jarman his colorful sobriquet of "Blanket Bill."
      Jarman and a companion were sent ashore to fill the ship's water casks. While engaged in this task, Indians attacked the ship, which succeeded in slipping its anchor and escaping, leaving the two sailors stranded. Soon afterward, they were discovered by the Indians and Jarman was captured but his less fortunate comrade was killed.
      Jarman was held captive for two years during which time he was blessed with two Indian wives and seemed to acquire a liking for Indian ways, which clung to him the rest of his life. News of a white captive among the Indians finally leaked out to Governor Douglas of the Hudson's Bay Company at Victoria who is supposed to have ransomed Jarman in 1848 for 32 blankets giving rise to the nickname of "Blanket Bill." In an interview in 1897, Jarman stated that he never saw the Platypus again after his capture in 1846.
      It could all be true, due to some confusion in dates, but there are some big holes in the tale if the date of ransom was 1848 as he claimed. Douglas did not reach Victoria until 1849. He did not become Governor until 1851.
      There is no record of Jarman's ransom (yet found) in any of the Hudson's Bay records, either at Victoria or London. Research in the Provincial Archives of Victoria reveals nothing of Jarman's release. Lloyd's Register of ships for 1835 to 1847 does not list the ship. Platypus.
      But there is little doubt that somewhere during his adventurous, wandering life filled with alliances with native women, some happening did occur which resulted in the "Blanket Bill" nomenclature, for he was so called from the early days until he died. Among the Indians he was known as "Paseese Bill" (Paseese in Chinook Jargon for blanket). Or perhaps it was his fondness for wearing coats made of Hudson's Bay blankets, or just wearing the whole blanket Indian style. After his British Columbia adventures we find him living in King George's Clallam Indian Village near Port Townsend where he acquired his wife, Alice, his companion for many years.
      But freewheeling Blanket Bill could not stay put too long in any one place, so some time in 1852 he loaded a canoe and with Alice paddled in the big Indian village on Samish Island which to be their headquarters for many years. Thus Blanket Bill became the first permanent white settler in Whatcom County, [Washington Territory] (Skagit County was part of Whatcom County until 1883). He fished, hunted and trapped. During the 1850s he is said to have staked out a 640 acre Donation Land Claim where Edison now stands, but didn't prove up on it. Also, he is supposed to have made a trip to California and tried his luck in the gold fields.
      In 1855, Indian trouble threatened the Northwest, and in 1856 Captain George Pickett arrived at Bellingham Bay with orders to build Fort Bellingham which he accomplished the same year. At this time we find Blanket Bill delivering mail by canoe between Fort Bellingham and several other army posts on the Sound.
      Jarman, more Indian than white by now, was eminently fitted for this job and carried on successfully, but not without some hair-raising adventures with the marauding Northern Indians and perilous storms. The same day of Colonel Isaac N. Ebey's death on Whidbey Island, Jarman had noted Northern Indians prowling about and had warned the good Colonel that these Indians were up to no good, but Ebey took no precautions and thereby lost his head.
      Blanket Bill never lost his love of the sea and in the meantime either built or traded for a small sloop which he named the Alice, in honor of his wife. In this vessel he cruised far and wide. Many of these mysterious trips were across the line to Victoria and since smuggling was a profitable business and the laws lax in those days it is suspected.
      Soon after 1860, Jarman was known to have taken up residence in the Indian camps on the beach of east Whatcom Creek on Bellingham Bay. During 1865 the International Telegraph Line reached Sehome on its projected way to St. Petersburg, Russia. Again Jarman is pinned down working on the extension northward and later, as a lineman between Blanchard and Lake Terrell.
      In 1868, as we have said before, he squatted on a claim at Jarman Prairie, Here he was busy for some time building a house, setting out an orchard of some 50 trees and slashing out a road westward toward Belfast.
      The fall of 1871 found Blanket Bill working as a bartender at the Bellingham Bay Coal Company Saloon at Sehome. And here took place one of the most spectacular events in his checkered career. The miners, mostly from the Old Country, were a tough lot, especially when in their liquor. Three of them had been giving Bill a bad time of late and his patience had grown thin. One night they became uglier than usual and Bill ordered them to leave. They refused and a free-for-all fight ensued in which Jarman succeeded in throwing them all out.
      A night or two later, on January 15, 1872, the same trio entered again looking for trouble. They were ordered out again and remembering their previous beating complied. But one of them, a James Farmer, returned for a bottle of whiskey that he had left in his haste. Farmer must have felt lucky this time for he knocked over the light and jumped Jarman.
      A furious fight followed and Farmer, realizing that Jarman was going to be too much for him broke away and snatched up a stove poker. Jarman grabbed a six-shooter from beneath the bar and faced the miner charging with upraised poker. Jarman warned him, but was ignored. The six-shooter roared and the miner fell to the floor with a slug in his chest, which proved fatal.
      Long-suffering Blanket Bill made no effort to escape and did not deny the killing when the sheriff came. He was arrested and languished in the old brick courthouse jail at Whatcom for a month before he was transferred to the Territorial Court at Port Townsend for trial where he was acquitted on March 5, 1872, on the grounds of justifiable homicide

Jarman Prairie, east of Bow Hill and Old Hwy 99
(First cabin site)
Jordan showed Jeffcott where Jarman built his first cabin. Photo collector Ed Marlow, who lives east of the Prairie on Prairie Road, explained that the Jarman homesite was on the slope north of the road, about a half mile west of where the F&S Grade Road intersects.

      No doubt much relieved to escape his recent publicity, Blanket Bill returned to his friendly Prairie and for some time devoted himself to improving his claim. In 1873 the Government surveyed the area making it possible for squatters to file their claims. Here the record is on firm ground for the writer has a photostatic copy of Jarman's pre-emption Certificate — "Squatted June 1868" — Filed September 6, 1873 — Certificate issued March 22, 1876. (He couldn't have filed much earlier since a government survey was not made until early in 1873.)
      Excerpts from his final proof papers: "Entered upon and made settlement in person on the said land since the 4th day of September, 1841, to wit: on the 15th day of June 1868, and built thereon two dwelling houses.
      "The first was built of shakes about the 15th of July, 1868, containing windows, doors and fireplace and chimney . . . the second was completed about the 15th of April, 1873, 14 by 22 feet square, 1 stories high containing 4 rooms, 5 windows, 5 doors with a good fireplace and chimney, built of hewn logs and weatherboarded in front which is a comfortable house to live in . . .
      ". . . and cultivated one acre of land and is using the first dwelling erected as a barn, built a workshop 12 by 26 feet square, dug a well, planted a orchard of fruit trees fifty in number, some of which are now bearing, built a root house and chicken house thereon, cut out through the heaviest timber, a wagon road from said land to a public road at least one mile in length . . . said improvements are worth at least $400 . . . Signed by John McIntosh and Joseph Hall, 11th day of March, 1874, before Edward McTaggart, Notary Public within and for Washington Territory.
      It so happened that his improvements were just over the line off the quarter section he wanted, but two friends signed an affidavit attesting that the improvements were on the 160 acres, upon which he was filing, so on December 1, 1876, a patent was issued to good old Blanket Bill on land he claimed to have occupied as a squatter since 1868. The Government never knew the difference — there was plenty of land anyway. Jarman was a man who always seemed to land on his feet.
      Not long after this he was saddened by the death of his wife, his companion on many a long trail. She now lies in a second growth grove alongside a baby daughter just across the line from the Jarman improvements on the claim that he had patented. The writer remembers the neat little cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence and the graves ringed with white quartz stone.
      Later, there were more Indian alliances and marriage to Emily Plaster, daughter of John H. Plaster who had once been a judge in Whatcom County. This union, which appears to have been his last, ended on the rocks.

(Alice's Grave)
      Author Ray Jordan showed Jeffcott Jarman's apple orchard and this grove where he buried his wife and daughter.

      At last the chance to realize on his Jarman Prairie property came in the person of M.V.B. Stacey to whom deeded the place in 1880 for a consideration of $750. After this, except for an occasional visit, he seems to have left the Prairie for good.
      Foot-Loose Blanket Bill now crops up in various places. Two or three years were spent in Port Angeles. According to the memory of an old partner of Jarman's (still living at last accounts in 1962) Jarman left Port Angeles for England in 1892 where he remained a year or more.
      When he returned to Port Angeles he brought his niece, Minnie Vine, a young girl of twenty, back with him. This niece objected so strenuously to the crude life there and her uncle's association with his Indian friend that to please her they moved back to the Samish country. Later, in 1895, the girl married William Manning and the couple settled on a farm near Ferndale.
      Old age was now stalking the restless freedom-loving Blanket Bill and the circles of his roaming grew smaller. Eventually, he settled down in body if not in mind with his niece on the Manning farm. To old-timers he was a familiar figure around Ferndale for many years recounting his sailor's yarns.
      It was hard for him to give up. The old blaze was easy to fan. When the Klondike gold rush erupted he was eager to be off to seek his fortune but was talked out of it. When the Boer War broke out he became greatly excited and wanted to go and fight for England.

(Jarman Prairie)
Jeffcott took this photo as he looked south over Jarman Prairie from the slope where Bill built the family's second home.

      But at least one memorable highlight was to flare and illuminate his brooding, declining years. At a ceremony in 1903, the city of Bellingham erected in Elizabeth Park the same flagpole that had been raised at Fort Bellingham in 1856.
      Blanket Bill had been present at the fort when the first flag was raised and is said to have climbed the pole to free the flag when it caught in the branches of a tree. Now, he was invited as the oldest pioneer to raise the flag on the same pole that he had mounted in 1856, after a span of 47 years. This last flag was the one that had so proudly flown on the cruiser Olympia during the Spanish-American War.
      During the year of 1912 his faculties began to fail and on June 11, 1912 a stroke ended the old sailor's long voyage at the age of 92. Today he lies anchored in peace in Woodlawn Cemetery near Ferndale.
      William ("Blanket Bill") Robert Jarman's fame stems from being the first white settler and the romantic saga he left behind, not from any material accomplishment since steady work was not to his liking. But there will never be another like him.
      There is little left at Jarman Prairie to mark his passing — one pathetic apple tree and a depression in the field where his well used to be. The cemetery fence and native stones placed around the graves have long since disappeared from the ravages of logging, fires, and neglect.
      The second house that he built, which was quite a substantial one considering the building difficulties at the time, was still standing in 1912, but was later burned with a slashing fire got out of control. And one ironic thing: The mapmakers persist in labeling the place "German Prairie" and they don't even have that printed near the right place.
      Long live "Blanket Bill."

(Samish Island book cover)
Links, background reading and sources
      Blanket Bill Jarman and the stories associated with him are the entire contents of Issue 40. Go back to the Table of Contents for that issue to find the links to all the stories. If you are not yet a subscriber to the Subscribers Journal magazine online, please see the complete story list and details of how to subscribe. We are pleased to announce the publication of a complete history of the island where the Samish Indians were based. Samish Island, a History: From the Beginning to the 1970s by Susan and Fred Miller is a terrific new book and a loving story of the hook of land just west of Edison in Skagit County. Look for it at your favorite bookstore or online. There is no ISBN number, but the publishing information is: Mount Vernon, WA: Copy & Print Store, 2007. Gail Hopley laid out the book, which also includes poems and stories by and from one of our favorite writers, Berniece Hoyt Leaf, of Sedro-Woolley and Juniper Beach. When we finish reading the book, we will review it in depth in the free home pages of the Journal. If you want to purchase the self-published Miller book in your area, Fred shared a current list of retail locations: "WD Foods in Allen; Skagit County Museum at LaConner and Anacortes Museums; Stowe's Clothing Store and Horen's Drugstore, both in Burlington; Rosabella's Gift and Apple Store on Allen-West and Farm to Market Road; Rhododendron Cafe on Chuckanut Drive; and Blau's Oysters, here on Samish Island. Books can also be ordered thru our e-mail ( and at Hopley's e-mail at (ghopley@wavecable,com). Or people can phone me at 360-766-6548 or Gail Hopley at 766-6823. We will go on line to such outlets as Amazon at some point. We arranged the publication ourselves, so there is no publisher sales outlet." If you live outside the area, look for it at your favorite bookstore or better yet, ask them to stock it. There is no ISBN number, but the publishing information is: Mount Vernon, WA: Copy & Print Store, 2007.
Attention: We have reserved the Burlington Library meeting room for a presentation on October 18. This replaces our original date of Sept. 27, which had a conflict. We will review rare photos and documents about the settlement of the towns north of the Skagit River and west of Sterling. Reservations are not required, but we would appreciate your feedback for planning purposes if you would like to attend. Please click this email button ->> with the number of people, your remarks and what you would like to see. Or read more details here

Story posted on Aug. 30, 2007 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 40 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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