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William H. Sartwell, first permanent settler
at the Skagit River, 1863, and his cabin

(First House)
This photo from the December 1908 issue of The Coast magazine remains a mystery. The caption reads: "First House built on the Skagit river." It was credited to "Ralph Hartson, 1906." We know from research on William Sartwell that he built the first permanent settler structure, a cabin, in 1863, north of the later town of Conway. Is the Sartwell cabin what Hartson meant? This seems to be a more substantial log house. Also, we know from the 1913 obituary of Mrs. Mathilda (Magnus) Anderson that the 1863 cabin had collapsed that summer. We hope that a reader can help us answer the question and especially we hope someone can identify the people in the photo.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2011
      William H. Sartwell (1820-1884) is one of the most important of the earliest Skagit Valley pioneers because he is the first permanent settler who was recorded as living on the river. By most accounts he came to the valley in 1863, but an obituary of his neighbor, Orrin Kincaid, suggests that he could have arrived in 1862, as we will explain later. To fully appreciate Sartwell's introduction to what was then wilderness, you can read an account by his future neighbor, George E. Hartson, in The Coast magazine, December 1908:
      It is scarcely possible to conceive the great changes that have taken place from the time the first settler located his humble cabin in the heart of a great jungle, until the present time. Then were great forests of alder, spruce and fir trees. Now there are wide stretches of rich alluvial lands, on which are found the beautiful mansions of wealthy farmers. Many of these farmers are the original first settlers, while others are their successors, and are reaping the harvest sown by the old timers of forty years ago.
      The writer well remembers that at this time not even a blind trail existed over which it was possible to travel. All transportation was by canoes and boats. The first of the early settlers was careful to have his cabin located on the bank of the river in order to have some means to reach the outside world and renew his supply of provisions when they became exhausted.
      Imagine if you please three men gathered together on the bank of the river near where the town of Conway is located. A few trees have been cut down, but not enough to let in the sunshine. . . . A long slim alder tree has been chopped down, and one of them takes an ax and cuts it into lengths of twelve and fourteen feet. The other two proceed to notch the ends and lay them up, forming a pen. This is the beginning of the first cabin in the Skagit Valley, built of logs and covered with cedar shakes. The doorway was so low that one had to duck his head in order to enter.
. . .
      This, the first house in the Skagit Valley, was built by W.H. Sartwell on the land now owned by Magnus Anderson, five miles below Mt. Vernon, in the year 1863. The men who assisted Mr. Sartwell were O. [Orrin] Kincaid and a man named Todd, whose cabins were built by the trio a few days later.
. . .
      Sartwell, Kincaid and Todd established a cabin on the former's cabin a trading post, exchanging goods and merchandise with the Indians for furs. They found great difficulty in purchasing their stock of goods, as the dealers at Seattle and Olympia being desirous of securing the Indian trade, refused to let them have goods at less than retail prices, which they were compelled to pay, as they were not in a position to order goods from San Francisco; neither were they certain that the mill companies would consent to bring them in their ships if they were to endeavor to open up a trade with the distant city. [See full transcript at this Journal site.]
      Before we go forward, we will head back to see what we know about Sartwell and his neighbor Kincaid and how they became the earliest settlers. We will feature Kincaid in a future issue, but for now we note that in 1883 he turned out to be especially important to Skagit County's history when he became the key figure in the split from Whatcom County that year.

The first settlers
      Sartwell was born in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, on an unknown date in 1820. That is all we know about his life before he arrived here. We know a lot more about Kincaid because we found his extensive 1905 obituary as well as a much more extensive series of newspaper, book and magazine references. Orrin was born in Grafton, New Hampshire, on an unknown date in 1821. He was married in Vermont in an unknown year and the couple had three children together, all still living in 1905.
      He exhibited the pioneer spirit of moving westward and in 1852 he crossed the plains with a wagon train, according to his obituary. For no explained reason, he was forced to dispose of his interest in the train when they reached Soda Springs near Fort Hall. That is in the eastern base of modern Idaho. He was determined to proceed but had "no supplies but a few crackers and dried beef commenced the nine hundred mile trip on foot. After many privations, he finally reached Placerville, [California] where he prospected for some time."
      He then engaged in mining ventures in California, Nevada, and New Mexico through 1862 with a respite to return to the East, but that was no longer home, so he "re-crossed to the Pacific Coast, landing in Los Angeles. . . . In 1862, he came to Puget Sound, and in the fall of the same year migrated to Skagit county. He located near the mouth of the river, on what is known as the Gilligan's place, and here was built the first log house on the Skagit river. The only white people on the river at that time besides Mr. Kincaid were W.H. Sartwell and John Wilbur, both of whom are dead." [Obituary] We should note here that the above reference is the sole source citing the fall of 1862 as when Sartwell and Kincaid arrived.

Sartwell, Kincaid and Todd
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      Solveig Lee found a copy of the Jan. 4, 1892, Skagit News newspaper of Mount Vernon that explained,
      Sartwell, Kincaid and a Mr. Todd formed a partnership and established in the cabin a trading post for the purpose of exchanging goods and merchandise with the Indians for furs. The difficulty of purchasing goods, however, by reason of the exorbitant charges of the wholesalers at Seattle and Olympia, who wished to monopolize the Indian trade themselves, rendered this first mercantile venture on the Skagit unprofitable, and soon after Mr. Kincaid went to California [until 1878]. In the meantime, Mr. Todd died and for some time Sartwell was alone on that immediate portion of the river.
. . .
      This, the first residence in the Skagit valley, was erected on the claim of W.H. Sartwell, now owned by Magnus Anderson, about 5 miles below Mount Vernon in 1863?. Mr. Sartwell, in constructing his cabin, was assisted by Orrin Kincaid and a man named Todd, who were the first settlers in the valley.

      We have never found another record of the mysterious Todd, who died in an unknown year after 1863. Here we have to discuss the location of the cabin, which took some ferreting to determine and which is still not a completely solved puzzle. LaConner author Tom Robinson discovered during his research for a book in progress that the three men's attempts to establish an early trading post on the south fork. Dealers in Seattle and Olympia wanted the Indian trade for themselves and would not sell staples to the settlers at wholesale prices, insisting instead that they pay retail. That was compounded with the fact that the companies who owned the mills also owned the steamboats on which the goods would be transported and had company stores of their own. Thus five or six years passed before a trading post was established at the fork of the river.

Was the cabin on the east side or the west side?
      For brevity sake, we will not review all the various ambiguous cabin references we found, even in the authoritative 1906 book, Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties [hereafter 1906 Illustrated History]. In our initial research we did not dig very deep. But over the past nine years we have been corresponding with Tom Robinson, in quest of the actual location. With his considerable help, we finally decided.
      Our original inclination was that the cabin was built on the west side of the south fork of the Skagit river, possibly on the later location of Mann's Landing/Fir], and near the present Lutheran church at the western end of the bridge. We found some hints that seem to point in that direction, especially a note by Eldridge Morse Jr., the publisher of The Northern Star, newspaper of Snohomish, in a story headed "Trip to Skagit by Canoe" in the Star issue of April 9, 1877,

      On Wednesday morning, leaving Mr. [Prichard's] residence, we turned our double-ender skiff up stream, towards Skagit City, visiting the different settlers on the way; stopping at the residences of [Joe] Lisk [who died a few years later and his widow married Jesse Beriah Ball, who founded Sterling]; W.H. Sartwell [the first settler on the fork, Sartwell was set back when his infant child died that month]; C. Thompson; J.V. Abbott;
(Anderson cabin)
The considerably restored 1869 Magnus Anderson cabin in LaConner. Read our exclusive Anderson profile for all the details.

      Because we know of Joe Lisk and his farm from other research, we knew that his land was in the general area that we suspected. Since Morse listed Sartwell next to Lisk, we inferred that he was relatively next door and on the west side.
      But we were hasty and Robinson's reasoning and more recent research revealed the probable location. The 1892 article noted that Kincaid and Sartwell owned adjoining ranches and "Orrin Kincaid, living on the present Wilson ranch," which strongly suggests the eastern side since that is where the Wilsons settled.
      We found the clincher in favor of the east side in another biographical profile in the 1906 Illustrated History about Conway pioneer Charles J. Villeneuve: "On the east side of the [South fork of the] river at that time were Big Wilson, Little Wilson, Willard Sartwell, Orin Kincaid and Billy Johnson." So that pretty well settles it for us.
      We were also originally tempted to favor the west side because of references to pioneer Magnus Anderson who bought the cabin in 1869. In the 1892 article, "The first house to be built in the Skagit valley was erected in 1863 on the claim of W.H. Sartwell, now owned by Magnus Anderson, about five miles below Mount Vernon." That was also copied in the 1906 Illustrated History. We have had long discussions with Tom Robinson, a history author in LaConner who is completing a book about western Skagit County history and he is convinced that Anderson and his wife lived on the eastern side.
      Because Anderson was a key figure in the growth of the town of Fir on the western side (formerly Mann's Landing), we inferred that he moved to the Fir location sometime from 1877 onwards. But Robinson argues that crossing the fork at that location would not have been very difficult. And we also realize that Magnus could have lived at his hotel in Fir a few days a week and returned across the fork to his farm on other days.

The next settler neighbors
      The 1892 article listed the next settlers in the south-fork area:
      . . . John Wilbur, John Shepherd, Wm. Johnson, and Mr. Alexander, J.V. Abbott, an old-timer, and still living on his original claim, located in May 5, 1865, shortly followed by Dane Anderson, who first located the old McAlpine place, on which the town of Skagit City now stands. In those early days the settlement did not increase very rapidly, the following being the first settlers.
      On the South fork — Joe Lisk, [William] Kayton, Geo. Wilson, John Wilbur, [Edward] McAlpine, [Lemuel] Sweet, A.G. Kelley, R.I. [actually R.L.] Kelley, J. Wilson, Joe Wilson. On the North fork — John Maddox, W. Brown, H.A. Wright, Peter [Vander] Kuyl, Franklin Buck and Magnus Anderson.

      In his 1908 article, George Hartson also listed the early settlers:
      In the period of a few years the following settlers had located: On the south, Joe Lisk, William Kayton, George Wilson, John Wilbur, Lemuel Sweet, A.G. Kelley, R.L. Kelly, John Wilson and Joe Wilson. On the north fork, John Ganey, William Hayes, William Oughton [also spelled Ongton], Joe Maddox, William Drown, H.A. Wright, Peter [Vander] Kuyl and Magnus Anderson. These comprise the earliest of the early settlers, and all were unmarried at the time of their location. The first man with a family who made a settlement was Thomas R. Jones, followed shortly after by [Samuel] S. Tingley, both of whom located on the north fork. To the wife of Mr. Tingley was born the first white child, Oliver C. Tingley, born June 6, 1870.
      The history of the Tingley family notes that in 1867, Samuel Simpson Tingley and his first wife, Maria (a Mercer Girl from Massachusetts], settled on the north fork of the Skagit, "In 1867 Mr. Tingley went to the mouth of the Skagit River, on the south side of the north fork, and took up a claim. Messrs. Abbott and Sartwell were the only men on the south fork at that time, though up by La Conner were Mike Sullivan and Sam Calhoun, both of whom had some land diked in." Therefore we infer that Kincaid had already moved to Virginia City.

The 1870s
      The earliest actual record of Sartwell was noted by D.C. Linsley in May 1870. Linsley led a surveying expedition of the Skagit river watershed and the Chelan area with assistant Frank G. Wilkeson and Sartwell was the first settler they met after ascending the south fork.
      May 26, 1870 [The second night of the journey]. "Reached W.H. Sartwells about 4 miles above mouth of river at 3 p.m. . . . The river at Sartwells is 480 ft wide, 40 to 50 feet deep at present stage which is about 4 ft below extreme high water. Current about 4 miles per hour. Fall 6 to 8 i
      That was land right on the river and Linsley notes the width of the river there and its comparative shallowness. The shores were wooded, mostly with cottonwood and alder trees. The cottonwoods grew to a huge size; one, measured 6 ft. above the ground, was 27.9 ft. in circumference. From Sartwell's the party went on up the Skagit river.
      In that same year, according to the 1906 Illustrated History,

      Thomas P. Hastie homesteaded his present place near Fir in June, 1870, coming over from Whidby [Whidbey] island. He lived on the place on and off until he proved up in 1872. In 1870 he found the following settlers in his neighborhood: [see other citation]. . . .
      By 1870, several other settlers had moved into the Tingley neighborhood. In an interview for the 1906 Illustrated History book, Thomas P. Hastie Jr. recalled that he and Samuel lived near Franklyn Buck, DeWitt Clinton Dennison, Bus Lill, Samuel S. Tingley, Magnus Anderson, William Brown, Joseph L. Maddox, Thomas R. Jones, Peter Vander Kuyl, Moses Kane, John Guinea, Quinby Clark, [unknown first] Fay, T.J. Rawlins and Charles Henry.

      In 1872, Sartwell made history again by hosting the first school on the mainland of future Skagit County; it was initially a subscription school. An earlier school opened in 1869 but it was on Fidalgo Island. A Pioneer school also opened in July 1872 at Pleasant Ridge at Albert Leamer's house, with the teacher his daughter, Ida Leamer, who was only 15. The 1906 Illustrated History noted regarding Sartwell's school:
      The school board consisted of William Sartwell, Orrin Kincaid and "Little" Johnson. This school was held in Sartwell's original log cabin, a building so low that even the children could hardly get in without stooping. There were seven pupils and the teacher was Zena Tingley [daughter of Samuel], who afterward became Mrs. H.H. [actually recorded in the federal census as J.D.] Moores. The length of time at that time was but three months. This school was housed for two years thereafter in an old cabin on John Kelley's homestead, now occupied by Peter Egtvet. Subsequently, by the efforts of Mrs. C.C. Villeneuve, who went around to the lumber camps with a Siwash [vernacular for Indian] pilot, lumber was procured and a new building erected upon an acre of land donated for the purpose by Mr. Kelley. By reason of a difference between the people of the north and south sides of the river, this acre of land with the school building passed into the hands of Peter Egtvet and the pioneers erected a new schoolhouse at the delta on John Wilbur's place. This was used for a number of years, until a separate district was established on the south side of the river. Among the teachers in the old Wilbur school were G.E. Hartson and Mrs. Kate Washburn.
      That school eventually evolved into Whatcom School District 3, which was named Skagit, serving "All that part of Township 33 lying east of the Dry Slough." Parenthetically, we know from our Earliest Schools story that when the Kelley/Egtvet cabin could not contain all the neighborhood's students, a new school was constructed on the John Wilbur ranch, west of the river. We thought it was a little east and south of the present vacant Skagit City School, at 1552 Moore Road on Fir Island, built in 1902. But Tom Robinson has surmised something different. When we discussed the early history of Skagit City, he suggested that, "One possibility is the school, which was built on the original John Wilbur claim, In other words, the first actual schoolhouse may well have been exactly where the later one is now." We are researching that possibility.
      The Bellingham Bay Mail of April 10, 1875, presented a bird's eye view of Whatcom county. The writer recorded the reclamation and cultivation of a considerable part of the tide flats on the north side of the Skagit river and mentioned the fact that LaConner, then the base of supplies for the entire region, had three general merchandise stores besides warehouses and wharves. Special mention was made of the following men as active in the developments of that period, "namely Messrs. Conner, Dodge, Whitney, Calhoun, Sullivan, Smith, White, Stacy, Polson, [John] Cornelius, McAlpine, Sartwell, Maddox, Wallace, [John] Ball and [G.W.L.] Allen."
      In her memoir of living on Fir Island, Mamie Johnson Moen listed subsequent settlers along the south fork:

      Among the names of the first homesteaders we have Greenleaf Stackpole [arrived 1874], Downs, Thomas Hayton, Garret, Cobb, [Jasper and John] Gates, Dougold Good [arrived 1872], Charles H. Mann, [Thomas P. Hastie Jr., Russell, Abbot, Henry and Sarah Summers [immigrated from England 1874], Lisk and Ben Loveland [Whidbey pioneer 1874, Brown's slough of Skagit 1883]. There are also many Scandinavian names in the 1870s and '80s, such as John and Magnus Anderson [brothers-in-law], Peter Olson, Christ Olson, Branstad, Enen, Louis Johnson, Ole Johnson [arrived 1878], Lars and Nels Danielson [Milltown island 1884], Lanke, Andrew and Wilhelmina Crogstad [Brown's slough 1877], Tolber [also in records as Charles Tollber, a Finn and ship's carpenter], Olaf Polson [came to the valley in 1871 as the patriarch of the famous LaConner-area family], Ollie Wollan [ later a partner with Charles H. Mann's nephew, George H. Mann, in a Fir hotel in 1898] and Swanson [family arrived 1879].
      Tom Robinson informed us early in the research that Sartwell made history again in 1876 when he platted the town of Skagit City. In fact, it is Robinson's discovery about Sartwell that helped us confirm that the original village went by that name two years earlier. As he told us, "I have come across a reference to 'Skagit City' from 1874. William H. Sartwell was appointed to fill a vacancy on the county board of commissioners. He was stated to be from Skagit City, thus a concept of a Skagit City was emerging even before there was any platting. Or maybe the two names were used interchangeably." We have also found reference to the name as just Skagit later in the decade.
      That is the last record we have of Sartwell until his death in January 1884.

Sartwell's death
      Sartwell's death was very briefly noted in his obituary on Jan. 19, 1884, issue of the Puget Sound Mail newspaper of LaConner: "Death of William H. Sartwell. This estimable and well known citizen, the first settler on the Skagit river, dating as far back as 1863, departed this life at his home on last Saturday, the 12th inst." A companion note was recorded in the next issue: "Mt. Vernon, Jan. 14, 1884. Another of the old settlers of the Skagit River has passed away. Last Friday night W.H. Sartwell [noted in last week's paper] died from the effects of a stroke of paralysis, and was buried on Sunday. Mr. Sartwell settled on the river in 1863 and has resided here ever since. He leaves a wife and one child and a large circle of friends and acquaintances to mourn his loss."
      Unfortunately the location of his last residence was not included. As to the note about one child, the only record we have is a William Sartwell whose death was recorded in the county burial book, William H. Sartwell, Died 1935, age 58, Born Washington [Territory] Buried Mount Vernon by Light Funeral Home. We infer that another listing was for his wife, Cora Sartwell, Died 1932, age 61, Born Scotland, Same Burial. We still do not know exactly where Sartwell lived anytime after 1863. Robinson concludes that the Andersons moved to the land around Sartwell's original claim as late as 1877 and they may have lived in the original cabin for a short period while building a larger home on their land. According to Mrs. Anderson's obituary (get info from Tom), the cabin was just a pile of boards by the time of her death.
      The lack of clear facts still leaves us with a loose end and another possible child or certainly a close relative. We found in the first marriages recorded in Skagit County, this item: "First marriages, Skagit county, 1884-86, Fred Rose and Mary Sartwell, Feb. 10, 1885." Could she have been Sartwell's daughter? We are still looking for information and we hope a reader may be able to help. By the way, we also plan to profile the pioneer Hartson family in a subsequent issue and we hope that a descendant will write to us. Coincidentally, a boating mishap on the river was reported in the same issue as the above obituary, involving George Hartson — a neighbor to the north of Sartwell and the future 2008 author, whom we cited above. "G.E. Hartson had a narrow escape from drowning a few days since by the capsizing of a canoe in which he and two others were crossing the river."


The Coast magazine
      We will profile Honor [or Honore] L. Wilhelm and his monthly The Coast magazine more extensively in an upcoming issue but briefly this is one of the most vital resources about the first decade of the 20th century that we have discovered during our research. The University of Washington Suzallo Library has copies for reference and various issues are also showing up online.
      The magazine debuted at the turn of the century, calling itself "An Illustrated Magazine of the West," and it was described as "given to illustrating the wonders of the Far West with photographic half-tones." The December 1908 issue, from which we quote extensively, is now online at Google Books. [art insert: WilhelmTheCoast190409.jpg 425 295 US Autos section] [Return]

Mann's Landing
      See this article about Magnus Anderson for a synopsis of Mann's Landing and the Mann family. [Return]

Robert L. Kelley
      Solveig Lee found Kelley's obituary, which tells us a lot about this very early South Fork pioneer:
      Obituary — Born, July 30, 1821, at Bethlehem, Ind. Died, July 4, 1895, a 9 o'clock p.m., Robert L. Kelley Skagit News [Mount Vernon] February 11, 1895 Robert L. Kelley, the subject of this sketch, was one of the pioneer settlers of the Skagit Valley, having located on his farm south of Mount Vernon in 1871. He resided at his birthplace until 1854, when he removed to Fairfield, Ia., living at that place for ten years, being engaged in farming. From Fairfield he went to Missouri, where he remained four years, going thence to Tennessee, and from there to Skagit River in the year mentioned.
      The two brothers, R.L. and A.G. were men of means, and lived together at this time. Many of the old settlers were indebted to them for the money with which they made proof on their claims, and this at a time when banks and loan agencies were absolutely unknown. To their credit, be it said that they never pressed a debtor of foreclosed a mortgage
      A.G. Kelley was one of the victims of the ill-fated Josephine, which exploded her boilers while on the run from Seattle to Mount Vernon, and received a broken leg and other injuries, from which he died in the hospital at Seattle a few days later. Since the death of his brother, R.L. Kelley has lived quietly on his farm, content to lend a helping hand to every public enterprise, and though never leaving his home, taking the liveliest interest in all matters of public benefit.


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