On July 10, 1872 Harry French, late of Dixfield, Maine, met Houghton homesteader William Thomas “Tom” Popham while working on a farm near the White River.
Tom Popham had a homestead claim on 161.65 acres at the south end of today’s Yarrow Bay, then called Pleasant Bay. North of that, his brother James had staked 167 acres and north of James’ claim the men’s mother, Nancy McGregor, had 142.9 acres--the northern line of her land is today’s NE 60th Street. North of McGregor’s homestead, the French family’s friend from Maine, Alfred Smith had 77.8 acres. About this time, Jay and Katherine O’Connnor, whom the French family met on the ship enroute from San Francisco to Seattle, had a 79.5 acre claim.
Harry French continued to work for James Wood’s white River farm until the 20th and then he inquired with pioneer Kent-area general store owner John Langston about other work in the area. Langston was a very early settler who had arrived in 1862 and he directed harry to a farmer named Benson who needed help. On the 24th, Harry noted in his journal that he had suffered “the blue devils,” which was then a slang expression for feeling depressed. On the 27th Tom Popham join him again and Harry sent his “valise” to Seattle on the steamer Comet. On the 28th the two men hiked from the White River (today’s Kent/Auburn area) all the way to Seattle. At about today’s Tukwila, where the now-extinct Black River then met the White River, they crossed at the ferry that then operated there, just northeast of today’s I-5/I-405 interchange.
He also noted that his father, Samuel French, was thinking of buying Alfred Smith’s land claim. On the 30th, Harry and Samuel traveled down the dirt, wheel rut road from Seattle to the lake’s shore that we now know as Madison Street. At that time prominent Seattle attorney John McGilvra owned the land on the lake’s shore at today’s Madison Park, on a land claim he called Laurel Shade. McGilvra owned a sailboat which he made available for rent to those few brave souls who sought to venture to Lake Washington’s dark, mysterious, densely forested eastern shore.
Harry and Samuel sailed McGilvra’s boat to the southern part of today’s Yarrow Bay where Tom Popham’s claim was located. From there the men explored Smith’s claim and the surrounding terrain. Harry noted, “We travelled over Alfred’s land and back of it. There is considerable good land there.”
The men stayed overnight at Tom Popham’s place. Harry mentioned his night was less than comfortable, “I slept in a haycock and bout froze.” A haycock was the term used for a pile of hay, ‘haystack’ would be the term we’d think of today. The next day the men looked at Popham’s claim and Harry called it “a nice one.” At this time Samuel was considering buying either Smith’s or Popham’s land. The two sailed back across the lake and returned to their Seattle house around 8 pm.
On August 2, Harry wrote, “I am waiting for father to buy Popham’s claim on Lake Washington. If he decides to.” He went on to mention that Alfred Smith’s brother, Llewellyn, gave his father the use of an English rifle in exchange for “fixing it up”.
Saturday, August 3, was a fateful one for Kirkland. Harry’s journal reveals, “Father has decided not to buy Popham’s claim. Father paid Alfred Smith $350 to abandon his claim to him. Father has got to pay the government $2.50 an acre in greenbacks and has 2 ½ years time if he likes to do it in.”
Alfred Smith did not yet have clear title to the land under the Homestead Act. He was in the process of doing the requisite improvements and time necessary to secure title under the act, what the settlers called ‘proving up’ one’s claim. So, for the $350, Smith had agreed to remove from the land and let Samuel French take over his claim. Thus, upon satisfying the time and improvement requirements, French would be granted title to the land. The $2.50 per acre reference Harry made refers to a ‘cash sale,’ whereby a settler could bypass some of the requirements of the Homestead Act and purchase the land outright from the federal government. Samuel decided against this, the Government Land Office records show he ‘proved up’ his claim and was issues title under the Homestead Act on January 20, 1881—about nine years after he took over Smith’s claim. It is also interesting that for decades Harry French was called the Houghton-area’s first permanent settler, but his own journal shows that it was his father who had his claim first. In fact, Jay O’Connor may have even been on his claim before Samuel took over Smith’s land.
On August 5, Harry noted that he and Samuel left Caroline in Seattle and traveled to Samuel’s land claim, which Harry referred to simply as “Lake Washington” and the two paid an unnamed man $1.50 to take them across the lake. He also mentioned that the men arranged to “sleep at Pophams nights.” On the 6th, the two men began the arduous task of clearing Samuel’s claim. Harry provided some detail, “Father’s claim has only about ½ an acre cleared on it and that is so hidden by trees that it is invisible from a boat on the water. The cabin on it is covered by leaning trees that are liable to fall as they are rotten.” The men continued clearing land for several days, but on the 10th,, a Friday, paid Tom Popham $2 to take them over to McGilvra’s where they walked to the Smith’s house where Caroline was staying. The two stayed in Seattle over the weekend, but returned to Samuel’s claim Monday. Harry noted that they had solved their lake transportation problem, “Father bought a canoe and paid $25 in gold. Father paid a man $2.50 to haul it over to McGilvra’s for us so we could launch it. We have to row a mile to sleep nights at Mr Popham’s cabin.”
The two spent the rest of August at work on the claim, returning to Seattle on the weekends. On September 6th, Harry wrote, “Father and I have been building a cabin out of cedar shakes in the past two weeks; we got it most done” Then, on the 7th, Harry made this substantial revelation, “I bought Mr O’Conner’s right to a preemption claim joining Father’s for twenty two ($22) today; and filed on it costing me six ($6) more or ($28) in all.” So, young Harry now had a 79.5 acre land claim adjoining on the north his parents’. This is also an interesting revelation because it shows that Jay O’Connor had staked a claim prior to Harry, possibly even prior to Samuel (this is mere speculation on my part) but what is interesting is that O’Conner staked another claim just northeast of his old one and he gained title to that land via cash sale in 1876, so O’Connor was another Houghton-area settler whose arrival pre-dated Harry’s.
On September 10, Harry wrote, “Father got a team to take us and our goods over to McGilvra’s this morning; we left the city at 8 arrived at 12 a.m. Mother came over with us for the first time. Written on a boiler by the light of a tallow candle in our lake cabin.” At long last, the French family was home.
Harry noted on September 27, “Mother thinks Ashville will be a pretty name for the future town on our land.”