Of Wolf and Man
What is now Seattle has been inhabited since at least the end of the last glacial period (c. 8000 BCE—10,000 years ago). Archaeological excavations at what is now called West Point in Discovery Park, Magnolia confirm settlement within the current city for at least 4,000 years and probably much longer. The area of [toˈlɑltu] (“herring house”) and later [hɑˈʔɑpus] (“where there are horse clams”) at the then-mouth of the Duwamish River in what is now the Industrial District had been inhabited since the 6th century CE. The Dkhw’Duw’Absh (People of the Inside), and the Xachua’bsh (People of the Large Lake), of the (Skagit-Nisqually) Lushootseed Coast Salish Native American Nations occupied at least 17 villages in the mid-1850s (13 within what are now the city limits), living in some 93 permanent longhouses (khwaac’ál’al) along the lower Duwamish River, Elliott Bay, Salmon Bay, Portage Bay, Lake Washington within what is now Seattle, as well as Lake Sammamish, and the Duwamish, Black, and Cedar Rivers in what is now metropolitan Seattle. The Dkhw’Duw’Absh and Xachua’bsh are today represented by the Duwamish Tribe.
George Vancouver was the first European to visit the Seattle area in May 1792 during his 1791-95 expedition to chart the Pacific Northwest; the first White forays for sites in the area were in the 1830s.
The founding of Seattle is usually dated from the arrival of the Denny Party on November 13, 1851 at Alki Point. The group had travelled overland from the Midwest to Portland, Oregon, then made a short ocean journey up the Pacific coast into Puget Sound, with the express intent of founding a town. The next April, Arthur A. Denny abandoned the original site at Alki in favor of a better-protected site on Elliott Bay, near the south end of what is now downtown Seattle. Around the same time, Doc Maynard began settling the land immediately south of Denny’s. Charles C. Terry and others hung on at Alki for a few more years, but eventually it became clear that Maynard and Denny had chosen the better location.
The first plats for Seattle were filed on May 23, 1853. Nominal legal land settlement was provisionally established in 1855 (with treaty terms for what is now Seattle not implemented). Doc Maynard’s land claim lay south of today’s Yesler Way, encompassing most of today’s Pioneer Square Historical District and the International District. He based his street grid on strict compass bearings. The more northerly plats of Arthur A. Denny and Carson D. Boren encompassed Pioneer Square north of what is now Yesler Way; the heart of the current downtown; and the western slope of First Hill. These had street grids that more or less followed the shoreline. The downtown grid from Yesler Way north to Stewart Street is oriented 32 degrees west of north; from Stewart north to Denny Way the orientation is 49 degrees west of north. The result is a tangle of streets where the grids clash.
Both Alki and the settlement that was to become Seattle relied in their early decades on the timber industry, shipping out logs (and, later, milled timber) to build and rebuild San Francisco which kept burning down. Seattle and Alki offered plenty of trees to build San Francisco and plenty of hills to slide them down to water. A climax forest of trees up to 1,000–2,000 years old and towering as high as nearly 400 feet (120 m) covered much of what is now Seattle. Today, none of that size remain anywhere in the world.
The early Seattle settlers had a sometimes rocky relationship with the local Native Americans. There is no question that the settlers were steadily taking away native lands and, in many cases, treating the natives terribly. There were numerous deadly attacks by settlers against natives and by natives against settlers.
“The general consensus of the community was that killing an Indian was a matter of no graver consequence than shooting a cougar or a bear…” Against this background, Doc Maynard stands out for his excellent relations with the natives. He and Chief Seattle were friends and allies: Maynard certainly profited greatly from this friendship, but that should not diminish the fact that during the outbreak of violent hostilities in 1856 he risked the wrath of his fellow settlers by protecting neutral Indians. However, outside of some old-time trappers and traders, he was almost unique in his attitude.
Denny and Edward Lander (the latter was the first local federal judge) also stood out in that they believed that the law should be applied fairly and equally: to them, murder was murder, regardless of the race of the victim. However, it was impossible to get this view upheld by a jury.
By the time of the Treaty of Point Elliott, Maynard had already made an ally of Chief Seattle by arranging to have him somewhat compensated for the use of his name for the new town. Chief Seattle’s ancestral religion and Coast Salish culture have beliefs opposed to speaking or using a person’s name after that person’s death and prior to protocols, so this was not a simple matter, although Chief Seattle soon converted to a somewhat eclectic Roman Catholicism. At Point Elliott, Maynard cemented this alliance (and greatly benefited his emerging town) by getting Chief Seattle and the Duwamish a separate, more favorable treaty, which, in exchange for a relatively large reservation (promised, not yet ever fulfilled), Natives abandoned all aboriginal title to 54,790 acres (221.7 km²), constituting an area almost identical to the eventual twentieth-century city limits of the City of Seattle, for nearly nothing at the time.
With Stevens in Eastern Washington sowing discord, Secretary of State Charles Mason was left in charge of the state government. Yakama Chief Kamiakim had effectively declared war and told nations such as the Duwamish that they could either join him or would be treated as enemies. By autumn, there had been an exchange of massacres by Whites and settlers, in which both sides seemed ready to kill whichever people of the other race were at hand, with no regard for whether these particular individuals had in any way previously wronged them. (This cycle of retaliatory violence would reach its logical conclusion two years after the war, when the brilliant and generally respected si’ab Lescay (Chief Leschi) was tried and condemned to death for a murder he almost certainly did not commit, and hanged before his appeal could be properly heard.)
Maynard got Mike Simmons to deputize him as a Special Indian Agent, then—in a complex, multi-way transaction—cemented a relationship with acting governor Mason and some other key figures by selling them some prime Seattle real estate at a good price. He then used the money from the transaction to buy supplies and a boat to ferry Chief Seattle and his Duwamish to what was effectively a privately-funded reservation at Port Madison, west of Puget Sound. He also, at enormous personal risk, spent the first several weeks of November 1855 traveling around eastern King County, which was already penetrated by some of Kamiakim’s men, informing several hundred other neutral natives that there was a safe place they could go. Most of them took him up on it. Induced fear effected abandonment of places Natives were otherwise loath to leave.
Battle of Seattle
Shortly before Stevens returned to Olympia January 16, 1856, Captain E.D. Keyes had managed an uneasy informal truce by communicating with, among others, Chief Leschi. Stevens promptly undercut the truce, saying of the natives, “Nothing but death is mete punishment for their perfidy.”
On January 25, 1856, Stevens announced, “The town of Seattle is in as much danger of an Indian attack as are the cities of San Francisco or New York.”
On January 26, 1856, natives attacked the Seattle settlement. Friendly Indians permitted to stay in Seattle had warned the Whites, and sentries had been put on patrol. In the morning, acting on tip, a shell was lobbed into the forest above the town, what is now First Hill. First fire. The Indians fired back, small arms. Settlers rushed from their cabins to the blockhouse. The defenses were based on a large wooden blockhouse, a five-foot-high wood-and-earth breastworks, various ravines—and the cannon just offshore zeroed (bearing and range laid in). The settlement was defended at the time by the 150 man, 566 ton, 16 gun sloop-of-war Decatur, the bark Bronte, seven out-of-town civilian volunteers, fifty local volunteers, and at least 6 Marines from the Decatur The number of attackers is impossible to establish: estimates range from a mere thirty to 2000 with more than a hundred killed, another hundred wounded. Not so much as a single Indian body was ever found, not even a sign of blood. The Indians had made no attempt to storm the stockade. No one in the blockhouse was much interested in venturing out on attack. Both sides had paused for dinner. There were two known fatalities: a young volunteer and a 14-year-old boy, both of whom had neglected to stay behind cover. No one who kept inside the stockade was wounded. A few things do seem clear in this fog of war: nearly all of the local volunteers hardly left the blockhouse, the Navy took no combat casualties in this land battle, and Kamiakim’s forces were successfully driven off, but also took few (if any) fatalities. Still, they seem to have drawn the conclusion that attacking a major settlement wasn’t worth the trouble. The only remaining major battle of the war was to occur March 10 at Connell’s Prairie near Puyallup.
At first, Alki was larger than Seattle. “It was platted into six blocks of eight lots… and most of them had buildings on them that were in use. There weren’t eight level, usable blocks in all of Seattle.” However, when Henry Yesler brought “financial backing from a Massillon, Ohio capitalist, John E. McLain, to start a steam sawmill once he had isolated the perfect location for such a structure,” he chose a Seattle location, on the waterfront where Maynard and Denny’s plats met. Thereafter, Seattle would dominate the lumber industry.
Yesler selected this location because of a critical flaw with Alki as a port: “During the winter, the north wind, building up the tides in front of it, comes sweeping down the Sound out of Canada, piling mighty waves on Alki Point. Beginning with Terry… nobody has been able to build anything out in the water at Alki that will withstand those waves.”
The road leading down the hill to that mill, later called Mill Street and now known as Yesler Way, was originally known as the Skid Road, the route for skidding logs down to the mill, hence the term “Skid Road” or corrupted as “Skid Row” for a rundown or dilapidated urban area as the mill declined and the area collapsed with the Crash and Great Depression.
Via the bargaining power of his mill, Yesler wrangled about 20,220 square feet (1,900 m²) of prime land from some of the original settlers. Besides his mill, Yesler started a cookhouse that “did more to ‘set’ the heart of the city in the middle of Yesler’s property holdings than anything else Henry did. Henry never did make a lot of money out of his mill. It was the strategic location of his land that made him a millionaire.” Like many of Seattle’s early entrepreneurs, Yesler was not always the most scrupulous about how he made his money; he borrowed $30,000 at 8% interest to build the mill, and repaid McLain only after McLain took Yesler to court three times.
A city grows
The first Seattle fortunes were founded on logs, and later milled timber, shipped south for the construction of buildings in San Francisco. Seattle itself, in the early years, was, of course, also a place of wooden buildings, and remained so until the Great Fire of June 6, 1889. Even the early system of delivering water to the settlement used hollowed-out logs for pipes. Seattle in its early years relied on the timber industry, shipping logs (and, later, milled timber) to San Francisco.
Terry sold out Alki (which, after his departure barely held on as a settlement), moved to Seattle and began acquiring land. He either owned or partially owned the first ships that allowed Seattle’s timber industry to exist by providing a means to move the product to market. He eventually gave a land grant to the University of the Territory of Washington that housed its original campus and today makes the University of Washington a downtown landlord collecting rents of more than $1 million a year. He worked in politics to establish street grades, a water system, and a host of other services (which, not coincidentally, benefited him as one of the city’s largest landholders).
Meanwhile, Arthur Denny became the second richest man in town, after Yesler, and got himself elected to territorial legislature. From that position, he tried unsuccessfully to get the territorial capital moved to Seattle from its then supposedly temporary location in Olympia. The other potential money prizes were the territorial penitentiary and the territorial university. When the politics all played out, Vancouver wound up as the proposed capital, Port Townsend was supposed to get the penitentiary, and Seattle got the university. Apparently, Seattle was the only real winner in this deal: to this day, Olympia remains the capital of Washington; the main state penitentiary is in Walla Walla.
The legislature had tacked on the requirement that a grant of 10 acres (4 ha) of land would be required for the university to be built, which they presumably thought would be sufficient to prevent its construction. However, Denny wanted his town to grow and donated the land, creating what would be “one of the biggest and most effective central core properties in the United States.”17 The University of the Territory of Washington (later the University of Washington) opened on November 4, 1861. There were barely enough students to run it as a high school, let alone as a university, but over time it grew into its originally grandiose name.
The logging town developed rapidly into a small city. Despite being officially founded by the Methodists of the Denny Party, Seattle quickly developed a reputation as a wide-open town, a haven for prostitution, liquor, and gambling. Some attribute this, at least in part, to Maynard, who arrived separately from the Denny Party, and who had a rather different view of what it would take to build a city, based on his experience in growing Cleveland, Ohio. By selling some of his land cheaply on condition that businesses be soon built upon them, he recruited professionals, such as blacksmiths and purveyors of vice, who enhanced the value of his remaining land. The city’s first brothel dated from 1861 and was founded by one John Pinnell (or Pennell), who was already involved in similar business in San Francisco. Real estate records show that nearly all of the city’s first 60 businesses were on, or immediately adjacent to, Maynard’s plat.
Seattle was incorporated as a town January 14, 1865. The incorporators were Charles C. Terry, Henry L. Yesler, David T. Denny, Charles Plummer and Hiram Burnett, an officer of the largest Puget Sound lumber company Pope & Talbot. That charter was voided January 18, 1867, in response to unrest. Seattle was re-incorporated as a city on December 2, 1869. At the times of incorporation, the population was approximately 350 and 1,000, respectively.
The Great Seattle Fire
The early Seattle era came to a stunning halt with the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889. It burned 29 city blocks, destroying most of the central business district; no one, however, perished in the flames, and the city quickly rebounded from the destruction. Thanks in part to credit arranged by Jacob Furth (as well as brothel-owner Lou Graham), Seattle rebuilt from the ashes with astounding rapidity. A new zoning code resulted in a downtown of brick and stone buildings, rather than wood. In the single year after the fire, the city grew from 25,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, largely because of the enormous number of construction jobs suddenly created.
The Klondike Gold Rush
Seattle, as well as the rest of the nation, was hard hit by the Panic of 1893, and to a lesser extent, the Panic of 1896. Unlike many other cities, it soon found salvation in the form of becoming the main transportation and supply center for stampeders heading for the Klondike gold rush. When the steamer S.S. Portland arrived at Schwabacher’s Wharf in Seattle July 17, 1897, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer scooped all other U.S. newspapers with the story that a “ton of gold” had arrived from Alaska. A publicity campaign engineered largely by Erastus Brainerd successfully convinced the world that Seattle was the place to outfit yourself for the journey to Alaska, and Seattle became a household word, literally overnight. The miners mined the gold. Seattle mined the miners.