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

Harry Dwinel French lived in Maine.

He was 21 during the first frigid months of 1872 and lived with his parents, Samuel and Caroline (Fuller) French where he helped out on the family farm--located near the tiny hamlet of Dixfield--raising cranberries, potatoes and livestock. But Harry’s journal reveals he was discontent with his life there. Cranberry cultivation required much time in icy bogs immersed waist-high and similar discomfort and drudgery.

For example, Sam French’s January 14, 1869, journal entry states that day he, “Worked with Harry hauling muck.” It was clear that Harry had, like many at his age, a pronounced, unfulfilled lust for adventure, one that muck-hauling in the frigid Maine winter did not satisfy. Sam’s journals convey his discontent with farming, as well. He was a molder by trade (a manufacturing worker), not a farmer. His family were vault light manufacturers. His entries convey discontent with the many challenges of farm life, from the bone-chilling cold water, to the mold on his crops to the grasshoppers eating up his profits—so, like Harry, Sam was not terribly happy either. Because Caroline did not keep a journal we do not know her feelings on the matter.

Family friends, Leonard P. Smith, his wife, Agnes, and their children had lived about 10 miles away in the equally small town of Canton, but had already moved out west via the new transcontinental railroad which had rendered obsolete the iconic ‘Prairie Schooner’ covered wagons of the Oregon Trail pioneers. The Smiths ended up in Puget Sound country, in the Washington Territory, where they pinned their hopes and future on a growing, muddy little sawmill town named to honor a beloved local Indian leader, Seattle (Sealth).

The Smiths wrote glowing accounts of their new home in the Pacific Northwest and those letters encouraged the French family to come try their luck out west.

There may have been an additional motivation for the move. Harry was Samuel and Caroline’s oldest of four children. In 1860, when Harry was 10, the census lists daughters Rebecca, 7, and Alice, 4, and a second son, baby Samuel, 1.

By 1869 the three youngest French kids were all dead.

While the specifics still remain cloaked in mystery, disease is a likely cause. Lacking vaccinations and effective medical remedies, childhood mortality in 19th century America was terribly high, both back east and out west.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario whereby Sam and Caroline, staring sadly for a few years at those three empty chairs at their supper table, may have desired to go far, far away from the place where they had suffered such a gut-wrenching, unimaginable loss. And the Washington Territory was about the farthest one could go from Maine and still remain within the continental United States’ borders. On March 10, 1872 Sam listed the farm for sale.

By 1872, the ‘dime novel,’ tawdry, sensational pulp fiction magazines, were rising in popularity among young people. Frontier heroes, dangerous adventure and the cowboy archetype were devoured by readers as the western rapidly emerged as a distinct literary genre.

Perhaps seeing himself as a potential western adventurer, perhaps for other reasons, on June 4, 1872, Harry purchased a revolver, a “seven shooter,” from his cousin Dick French for $10. At this time the Frenches were visiting family in Chicago, Illinois.

Harry did not provide any specifics, but it was likely a .32 caliber Moore Belt Revolver, a seven shot, early rimfire cartridge pistol, manufactured between 1861-63, which had some popularity among Union officers and enlisted men during the 1861-65 War Between the States. About 7000 were manufactured before Smith and Wesson prevailed in a patent-infringement lawsuit, ending the model’s production. It is probable that many of these would have made it back to Maine via returning veterans. In fact, Harry was going to a place were, contrary to myth and dime novel descriptions, few but hardened peace officers and military personnel wore sidearms and gunfights were actually uncommon events. At this time most homesteaders would have much preferred a rifle, like a .44 Henry rimfire Winchester Model 1866 ‘Yellow Boy” lever-action, than a pistol because of rifles generally provided superior utility in both big game hunting and defense.

On June 5, Sam bought three first-class railroad tickets from Chicago to San Francisco, for $118 apiece. The transcontinental railroad was still new, completed in late 1869, and direct service to Puget Sound country was not yet available, so the Frenches would have to take three different railroads—the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific to Omaha, the Union Pacific from Omaha to Ogden and finally the Central Pacific to San Francisco, where they would board a ship to the Washington Territory.

Sam French's family were vault light manufacturers and he had the opportunity to join the firm, but opted instead to take his family to the great Pacific Northwest.The Frenches arrived in Omaha on June 7 and transferred to a Union Pacific train, but had to pay a $15 overweight charge for their trunks. They rolled out over the prairie and Harry noted seeing antelope, prairie dogs and a wolf. By the evening they chugged west along the Platte River. The next evening, the 8th, they were in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory and had added a second locomotive to facilitate pulling the cars over the mountains. On the 9th, Harry noted passing the Devil’s Slide formation and other notable geologic features. At 5:30 pm they arrived in Ogden, Utah Territory where they switched trains and were headed west once more by 6 pm.

The next morning Harry saw the desert for the first time and noted that it was quite dusty. Soon they were in the Sierra Nevada range and he wrote on the 11th that the scenery was spectacular. They arrived in San Francisco at 8:30 pm and the next day booked passage on the bark Northwest, bound for Port Madison, Washington Territory, and met Jay and Eve O’Conner--he was originally from New York and she was from Ohio—a married couple also traveling to Seattle on the Northwest. By 2 pm they had settled into their shipboard accommodations and Harry wrote, “We have good berths.”

At 6 am on the cold morning of June 15, the Northwest set sail with the Frenches, O’Conners and three other passengers aboard. At noon, Harry noted that it was cold and the wind was to the northwest.

At 4 pm that day he wrote: “I feel some seasick.”

Sunday, June 16, Harry wrote: “I am very seasick. It is pretty rough,” but added, “I saw a shark.”

Harry had a miserable trip as the Northwest sailed north. It wasn’t until the 21st that he noted, “I am nearly well.”

At sea, one day became another as the Northwest crept slowly up the coast. As a sailing vessel, she was totally at the wind’s mercy. Harry wrote on June 25th, “I saw porpoises today—the first time in my life.” On the 26th he saw whales and noted the ship’s position as 78 miles from Cape Flattery.

They sighted land on the 27th and by 5 pm were heading into the Straight of Juan de Fuca---but there was a problem. The wind was blowing west, against them, so the ship had to tack its way up the Straight, a slow, arduous process. He noted rain.

The 28th and 29th alternated between strong head wind and dead calm. Harry saw more whales, but the Northwest made very little forward progress.

By Sunday, June 30th they had been at sea 15 days and by 6 pm, after seeing more whales, the Northwest passed Discovery Bay. At 8 pm the Northwest arrived at Port Townsend, then Puget Sound’s major seaport with a population as large as Seattle’s.  At 7 pm the next day, the Frenches arrived at Port Madison and walked down the Northwest’s gangway. She had been their home for a cold, seasick 16 days, but they’d spend this night on dry land.

The next morning was pleasant as the drizzle had given way to a clear summer sky that makes the scenery of Puget Sound nothing less than spectacular. The Frenches boarded the tiny Puget Sound steamboat Ruby and arrived in Seattle at noon.

With his parents, Harry had finally reached the place he had thought so long and hard about. As to his first impression of the village of just over 1100 souls that Harry had spent so much time, money and effort to reach he wrote, simply: “Seattle is a pretty place.”