A Look to the Past: Kirkland - The French Family Comes West (Part II: Seattle)

Harry French and his parents, Samuel and Caroline, stepped off the tiny Puget Sound steamboat, Ruby, at about noon. At long last they’d reached Seattle, 19-year-old, Washington Territory sawmill village of just over 1100 souls.

It was July 2, 1872, and the family’s just-completed journey brought them out west from Dixfield, Maine.

In 1872, Seattle probably looked, sounded and smelled considerably different than what they’d been accustomed to in Maine. Seattle was then a rough, still stump-strewn clearing amid a hilly forest of massive coniferous trees—hemlock, Douglas fir and cedar, mostly--unlike Maine’s smaller, mixed pine and hardwood forests, interspersed with many deciduous species that turn brilliant colors in the fall.

In addition to the wind, squawking seagulls and typical port sounds, the Frenches would have also heard the loud, piercing whine of massive circular saw blades ripping through giant first-growth logs as the steam-powered sawmills reduced them to boards and slabs.

But mostly, they undoubtedly noticed that early Seattle smelled really, really bad. In fact, when the tide was out it downright stank. Back then Elliott Bay had vast, smelly mudflats, especially at the Duwamish River’s mouth.

And there was the sewage problem. At that time it was all just dumped straight into the Sound. That could be OK on an outgoing tide. But when the tide was coming in or at low water…not good.

The Frenches friends from Maine, the Smiths, met the three tired travelers and helped them settle in. Two households of Smiths travelled out west a few years earlier and through letters they enthusiastically encouraged the Frenches to emigrate. Leonard, 57, was a jeweler and his family included his wife Agnes, 54, son Llewellyn, 25, who worked in Henry Yesler’s sawmill, Alfred, 22, and Mary, 17. Leonard’s older brother and his family lived in the adjacent house.

About three months earlier, the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company completed its crude, 3-foot gauge rail line between south Lake Union and its bunkers at the foot of Pike Street. Its locomotive, the first in western Washington, was the diminutive Ant, a 0-4-0T, built by San Francisco’s Fulton Foundry the previous year.

By 1872, the Newcastle-area coal mines produced from 75-100 tons of coal each day. At the mines, the loaded coal cars were lowered down a steep tramway to Murphy’s Landing on Lake Washington and loaded onto a barge which the steamer Chehalis pulled to the west shore, at today’s Montlake area. There, the cars were portaged over the narrow isthmus and reloaded onto a second barge on the Lake Union side and then floated to the railhead where they were unloaded and hitched to the Ant, which pulled them to the company’s waterfront coal bunkers. This labor-intensive operation required 60 miners to excavate the coal and 15 laborers just to haul it the 17 miles from mine to waterfront.

On Harry’s first afternoon in town, Alfred proudly took him to see the little coal railroad and Harry wrote of it glowingly in his journal. What the two young men discussed that afternoon was not recorded, but it is likely that Alfred told Harry about the 77.8 acre homestead land claim he had staked on the eastern shore of Lake Washington. Alfred had about half an acre--well up from the beach--cleared and he’d already erected a small cabin, but the forest between the cabin and lake was so thick that the crude little structure was not visible from the water. There were but a handful of other settlers on the lake’s eastern shore, most well spread out on land claims averaging 160 acres.

The Frenches spent the next few days in Seattle recovering from their trip. They walked around Seattle, had picnics and visited with new friends like Jay and Eve O’Connor, who they’d met on the ship from San Francisco.

The priority item on their agenda was finding suitable land—a terribly important choice. On July 6, “Uncle” Leonard Smith joined Sam and Harry and the three looked at the area around Brace Point, on Fauntleroy Cove, but were not favorably impressed. The following day Sam and Leonard traveled across Lake Washington and Sam scouted potential claims near today’s Houghton.

Early Monday morning, July 8, Harry and Sam walked together to the Seattle waterfront but split up once there. Sam caught the steamboat Zephyr, bound for the Snohomish River, where he would reconnoiter potential homesteads.

Harry, wanting to earn some money during the downtime while the family decided where to settle, lined up a farmhand job in the White River Valley, near today’s Kent and Auburn, working for James Henry Wood on his 160 acre ‘ranch.’

In 1872, the river network flowing through the valley and into Elliott Bay was considerably different than it is today. Then the Green River flowed into the White River at today’s Auburn; the White flowed north; and, near today’s Tukwila, the now-extinct Black River, which drained Lake Washington, converged, forming the Duwamish River, which flowed north, finally joining the salt water at a massive mudflat and intertidal marsh complex near today’s Harbor Island—the world’s third-largest man-made island did not exist until created from discarded ships’ ballast in 1909.

Captain Simon Peter Randolph was a pioneer among pioneers. He’d ventured west from Illinois before the transcontinental railroad’s completion, arriving in Puget Sound country in 1868. That year he acquired the Fanny, a small steam tug, and brought her from the Sound into Lake Washington via the Black River, to tow a coal scow, giving him the distinction of being the first person to operate a powered vessel on the lake.

But Randolph soon turned to the lucrative White River trade, where farmers desperately needed to float their crops to market in Seattle. In those days, government was quite small and, by today’s standards, did little infrastructure development. It also did not require permits to make improvements, the region’s growth and its people’s prosperity and future demanded its residents simply take the initiative—which they did. So Randolph took on the task personally of dredging the lower White River and clearing its worst snags. Most vessels that attempted to navigate the often shallow, treacherous river encountered enormous problems because their hulls were too deep. In 1871, Randolph constructed the small steam sternwheeler Comet specifically for the river. He innovated a new, inverted construction method, giving her a relatively flat hull design and once in operation she quickly emerged as the river’s most successful boat.

As Sam French ventured north on the Zephyr that early morning, Harry boarded the Comet, bound for Wood’s ranch at White River. The tiny sternwheeler left the Seattle dock and headed south, toward the mouth of the Duwamish. Harry was likely excited at the prospect of seeing more of his newly adopted home’s countryside and to begin his new job. It must have been near low tide when the boat reached the mudflats because despite the Comet’s efficient new shallow-draft hull design, Harry noted in his journal: “…at 8 a.m. we got stranded on the tide flats by Seattle and had to lay five hours.” It was probably late that evening, or the next day perhaps, before he finally reached Wood’s ranch.

He did not record whether he worked on the 9th, but he did write that he bought a new straw hat and pair of boots, for which he paid a combined total of $6.75.

On August 20, 1847, twenty five years before Harry French came to the Washington Territory, Ezekiel Popham, a hardscrabble pioneer who had earlier that year brought his young family west to the tiny hamlet of Salem, Oregon Territory from Illinois via the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon, stormed into a building and demanded answers. He was livid, as most fathers would have been, because his young son had been whipped with neither his knowledge nor permission. Popham had three children, daughter Ann, 13, and sons James, 11, and William Thomas “Tom,” 7. Apparently Popham was so irate that he was undaunted by the presence of three men inside the building: Joseph Holman, a man who would later rise to prominence as a Salem business leader, a Native Hawaiian known simply as “Jimo,” and John H. Bosworth, 28, who had emigrated to Oregon from his native Kentucky.

Popham furiously demanded to know which of the three had beaten his son. Bosworth admitted that he had assaulted the boy. It isn’t known who said what to whom or which man threw the first blow, but soon Popham and Bosworth were punching and smashing each other through the room. The battle ended when suddenly Popham collapsed, dead.

An inquest by Doctors W.J. Bailey and J.W. Boyle concluded that during the affray Popham suffered a bursting blood vessel, which caused his sudden death. Bosworth was therefore not convicted of a crime, though died himself soon after, in 1850, at age 29.

Frontier life was at best harsh and Ezekiel’s 38-year-old widow, Nancy Caroline (Graham) Popham, faced a dire situation. While some today might smirk or raise an eyebrow at her hasty remarriage within weeks, perhaps days, of Ezekiel’s death to John McGregor, 42, a New York native with a substantial 618 acre farm, it is probable that Nancy’s remarriage was motivated by utilitarian frontier practicality, not romance. In 1847, girls commonly married in their early teens, and women nearing 40 were looked upon as aged. On the harsh frontier, a widow with three young kids had few means to support them. But on the frontier, men greatly outnumbered single American women, so that fact undoubtedly worked in her favor. She and the children quickly moved south roughly 50 miles to McGregor’s farm. So, within a matter of days during August, 1847, the Popham kids suffered the violent loss of their dad, the presence of a new step-father and subsequent move to his isolated frontier farm. Their feelings and opinions about John McGregor were not recorded. He did not adopt them though in 1850 he or Nancy apparently told a census enumerator that the children’s last name was McGregor.

John McGregor died in September, 1851 leaving his entire estate to Nancy. Now a woman of means, this time she did not remarry. And the kids reclaimed the surname Popham.

Harry French wrote that July 10, 1872 was a hot day and that he’d begun his job on James Wood’s farm cutting hay, at that time a labor intensive process performed with hand tools: scythes and sickles.

At Wood’s farm that day Harry met a 32-year-old man who had traveled the Oregon Trail as a small boy and grew up on the Western frontier. The intersection of these two lives at this place and time would prove a seminal one for Harry.

He wrote: “I made the acquaintance of Mr. (Tom) Popham who lives at Lake Washington today.”

To view photos from the entire A Look to the Past: Kirkland series, please visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/kirklandviews/sets/72157625335342667/