Legends of the Lake: Founding Seattle
by Dick Wagner
At 8:00am on the dark, drippy day of November 13, 1851, the 65’ schooner Exact, out of Portland, Oregon Territory, dropped anchor off Alki Point, Washington Territory. The longboat carried 10 adults, 12 children and their supplies to a wide gravel beach. They saw a roofless log cabin and encampment of about 100 Indians, mostly naked and mostly anointed with shark oil.
A party who had courageously trekked in covered wagons for six months from Cherry Grove, Illinois to Portland, Oregon was introduced to their new home. They came to Oregon assuming the rest of their lives would be spent plowing fertile fields and milking cows. While resting up in Portland getting ready for their last leg of the trek, they heard of Puget Sound. To many the Sound seemed to offer more advantage than Oregon. They came up with a new plan: if Puget Sound was as good as they heard they would head north and create a sustainable city, the like of which Washington Territory had not yet seen.
The Cherry Grove group were the Denny, Low, Boren, and Bell families. Others joined in at the starting line of founding Seattle: Charles and Lee Terry, Doc Maynard and Henry Yesler. All were ready for a fresh start with a blank sheet.
Lack of a froe to split cedar bolts into shingles was the cause of the roofless cabin. David Denny also was thwarted in cabin construction because he cut his foot with the axe when the rain-wet handle slipped through his hand. His other little problem was starvation. A colony of skunks had eaten his last remnants of food. As they were being rowed ashore, the women cried. Welcome to a bright new frontier!
The decision to claim Alki Point as the site of the new city was made by David Denny and John Low. The Cherry Grove people sent Denny and Low to scout Puget Sound and pick the best site. It was September and a decision to go south to the WillametteValley or north to Puget Sound had to be made before winter.
Denny and Low, with the group’s herd of cattle, crossed the Columbia River by ferry. A settler on the Chehalis River agreed to mind the herd though the winter. The point men proceeded to hike a 200-mile trail through dense forest to the modest village of Olympia. They found a dozen cabins, partly built store, post office, customs home and a beat up sloop. A sail north to see Puget Sound was arranged. The captain had already planned to stop at the Duwamish River where it emptied into Puget Sound and buy salmon from the natives, so that was the first anchorage. They anchored just inside a noble point on the east shore.
Denny and Low were intrigued by this area. They hired canoes and explored all around the point and up the Duwamish Valley. They chose to claim the point. The natives called it Smaquamox. Denny named it New York. They liked the wide shallow sloping beach above high tide as a fine place for the new buildings and the jutting point would be a can’t miss navigational aid for passing ships.
Low returned to Portland to report their find and Denny was assigned to build the first cabin. Duwamish and Suquamish natives who were fishing the fall run of salmon hung out with Denny and he began to pick up their languages, Lushootseed and Chinook. He tacked the Chinook word Alki to New York because it meant “bye and bye” or “before long.” David Denny’s presence and his attempt to build a permanent structure on the point was an irresistible attraction of the natives. So they just moved in. They set up longhouses which were designed as knock-down buildings of lashed together split cedar planks. They could easily be taken apart and loaded in canoes. The new city of New York Alki had already acquired its first residential neighborhood. It was becoming apparent that the scope of work to be done to create a city was building facilities and building social and political relationships with Denny’s neighbors.
The Duwamish and Suquamish population at the point kept expanding. Before winter ended the native population was over 1000. They were attracted by the proximity to an exotic culture. White men had been seen passing through Puget Sound in 1792, of the ships Discovery and Chatham of the Vancouver expedition of surveying and in 1841, when the Wilkes expedition’s schooner Peacock explored what Vancouver missed. The Alki settlement was the natives’ first opportunity to learn the life style of human beings from another world. The settlers had information written on paper. They worshipped one God. The natives had no alphabet, no metal tools, no metal cooking implements. Their history was myth of supernatural spirits which were the race of beings before humans. The new settlers offered opportunities for the natives to compare and contrast their cultures.
Another reason for the cozy connection with the newcomers was their firearms. The natives saw the Alki settlers as an added means of defense if other tribes came on raiding expeditions. The Duwamish had long ago created connection through marriages in the tribal leadership echelons, with the Suquamish to the west and Snoqualmie to the east. This formed an east-west mutual deterrent belt across the central Puget Sound region, to help defend each other. White settlers were cast as mysterious but potentially valuable neighbors.
By the beginning of December four houses were complete and Terry’s store was partly finished. On December 10th the community made its first commercial transaction. The Brig Leonesa came from San Francisco, which was a shanty town created during the 1849 Sutter’s Creek Gold Rush, but was now beginning to evolve into a city. The skipper of Leonesa was scouting Puget Sound for sources of pilings to bring to San Francisco. He spotted the cabins and peeled logs at Alki and Captain Folger decided to check this out. He rowed ashore, informed them he had come from San Francisco and asked the name of this village and if they could sell him some 50’ pilings. The villagers informed the Captain he had arrived at New York and yes they would supply pilings.
Everyone immediately dropped whatever and focused on felling, debarking and man handling Douglas fir pilings to the shore. Terry even had the natives paddle him to Puyallup where he purchased a yoke of oxen and drove them back on the beach. It took about three weeks to accumulate, prepare, and load the pilings. Captain Folger paid $1000, promised to come back and sold the pilings in San Francisco for $6800.
New York, Washington Territory was now in the piling business. However through the experience of strained muscles and wrenched backs it was concluded that this new destination for raw tree trunks should be re-located. The new site should be safe from the winter southerly storms, with deep water next to the shoreline for easy transfer of products from shore to vessel. An accessible virgin forest and rangeland for stock was also required. The settlers hired their native neighbors to survey the suitability of nearby shorelands. David Denny borrowed the only clothesline. It was 100’ long. He borrowed horseshoes from Terry’s store and with this emergency sounding equipment it was determined where the deep water was.
Canoes were the prime means of transportation. There was barbed wire underbrush and a geography of steep hills and deep chasms. Even the mail was sent by native canoes from Olympia. It took 2-3 days to get to Seattle. Each letter cost 25 cents extra for handling.
On January 6, 1853 the community officially changed its name to Seattle and its location to the east shore of Elliot Bay. The last canoe express mail to Seattle was delivered on August 15, 1853, even though its territorial government called it “Duwamps.” The canoes were replaced by the steamer Fairy purchased in San Francisco and brought to the sound on the deck of the bark, Sarah Warren.
Seattle was considered the right name for this wilderness camp yearning to be a city. Chief Seattle (a.k.a. Sealth, See-Alt, Se-at-le) had proved him self worthy of a name to be perpetuated because of his skilled balance in retaining the essence of Duwamish culture while integrating them with the white culture. For example, the settlers complained to the chief that some clothes were missing that had just been hung out to dry. Seattle immediately gathered the Alki Duwamish and lashed out with a serious lecture. Soon the clothes that were reported lost appeared on the thresholds of the cabins along with a lot more material goods that the setlers didn’t know were missing.
Land claims of 160 acres for each adult were apportioned to the original settlers in 1852 and the plat of Seattle was filed on May 23, 1853. All gathered at the Mercer homestead on July 4, 1854. The site was on the west side of the south end of LakeUnion with a high prospect of the lake. Thomas Mercer felt this Independence Day celebration should confer new names for the nearby lakes. It was declared that day that the little one would no longer be AH-chu, Lushootseed for littlest water or Tenas Chuck (Chinook for small water). The big lake to the east would no longer be Hah-chu or Hyas Chuck—it would be Lake Washington and the one they were looking down on would be LakeUnion. It’s obvious that Washington had perpetuity rights as General of our Revolution and our first president. It is not conclusive if Union referred to a vision of connections between Puget Sound and the lakes, or because our colonies became a union of states.
This period, when the future city and its waters received new names and the claims and plat of the city were filed, marked the end of the pioneer days and the beginning of managed growth.