The Germans are Coming! Part 1

In May, 1880, Fred Richter fell off the scow that he was poling back across the Nisqually River towards his cabin on the east bank. He probably drowned immediately, though his body was not recovered from the swift-moving river by his neighbors until July.

Who was Richter, and why did he fall off the boat? Well, the second question is easily set aside: we don’t know and never will. Local historian Del McBride thought perhaps he had partied a little too hard, after using the scow to return a mower that he had borrowed to its owner across the river. However, that was only conjecture (and, if we are not careful, the beginning of a pseudo-memory!).

But Richter’s identity, and the usually-associated questions about where he came from and what he was doing in the Valley (and, as we shall see, how many handkerchiefs he possessed at the time of his death, all are within our grasp, thanks in large part to Daniel Mounts and his descendants. (Have patience, I’ll explain the several mysteries in that sentence in later posts.)

For us, blessed with an ability to see connections and cause and effect provided by historical perspective, the beginning of the answer to “Who was Friedrich Theodore Richter?” (for that was his given name) must begin with Warren Gove and his lyrically-named wife, Hepsibah Crocker Gove.

A full and proper treatment of the Goves, as well-known, community-minded pioneers, first of Steilacoom and Ketron Island and then the Nisqually Valley, will come at another time. For our purposes now, two things about them will suffice.

The first is that both Warren and Hepsibah traced their family lines back to the early Plymouth Colony, and themselves were from the portion of Massachusetts that became southern Maine during their lifetimes. As such, they represented a link between cultures—the comparatively well-educated, traditional and perhaps somewhat fusty life of New England; the young, rough and lively tempo of the American western frontier; and the young Germans, many of them from Prussia, that were beginning to make the South Puget Sound region their home. Like the region in general, the Nisqually Valley was a melting pot of races, ethnicities and cultures.

Second, the Goves, along with their neighbors, the Mountses and others, were among those who had an opportunity to get to know the wrath of the Nisqually River at full flood, an experience that caused them to sell their land in the valley and return to the relative safety of urban life, in Steilacoom. We know this because Christina Mounts, Daniel and Catherine’s oldest child, was there, an eye witness, albeit only five years old at the time. Seventy-five years later, the events, as dictated to her grandson, historian Delbert McBride, were still clear in her mind.

The Daniel and Catherine Mounts family, including Catherine’s father, John McLeod, ca. 1894. Christina is the adult, fourth from the right, with a child on her lap.

It was the winter of 1867-1868. Christina remembered two months of steady rain, followed by a December freeze and then a sudden thaw, as a warm dry wind from the south swept the land in the early part of January. Three more days of solid rain in mid-January, and the river started to rise. Christina’s father had gone for the mail in Steilacoom, earlier in the day, leaving his family at their home by the Nisqually River. Then the big trees started coming down the river:

There were huge fir trees and cedars hung up in log jams. The river was not yet over its banks, so the swirling water was cutting away the rich soil very rapidly. Pigs and cattle were marooned in the fields; some pigs on the wide, flat tree stumps there were squealing in fright. At the Shazer farm across the river[1], they gathered their flock of sheep onto a scow to keep them from drowning.

Evening brought the crest, and then, just as Daniel arrived home, the river overflowed its banks. He and neighbor Warren Gove conferred, knowing what might come.

They had both heard the old Nisqually Indians tell of the river suddenly cutting away its banks and changing its course from one side of the valley to the other. Many Indians were alive who had seen the Nisqually change its course completely overnight—some said because of a beaver tooth charm buried where someone wanted the course of the river to go. Little bridge upriver went out—the logs piled up against it and it suddenly gave way, all knocked to pieces.

The Gove’s house was close to the bridge, which Warren had built. Fearing that their home would go into the river, the family packed up a few necessary things and left to take refuge in the house of a neighbor, Philander Washburn, on higher ground.[2] The men left the women and children there, to try to save what they could from the house by the river. Meanwhile the Mounts women watched in consternation as the water rose around them, filling the kitchen to three or four inches. A bit later Daniel’s brother Thomas arrived and escorted Christina and her pregnant mother to safety; at times the refugees had to swim their horses across deep gullies cut by the raging waters. Huge trees roared past in the still rising river.

We reached the safety of Mr. Washburn’s place, after our adventures, and that night slept on pallets on his cabin floor. It was a cabin full, with Mrs. Gove, her daughters, Alice, Fannie and Clara, Mother, myself and Gus Kautz, the General’s young son by his Indian wife.[3] The men slept in the Washburn barn loft.

We stayed at Washburn’s place for two nights, while the water receded. When we came back to our home on the river, the whole place looked so different it was hard to recognize it. All the big cottonwood trees between the house and the river had been swept away, and the milk house was filled with three or four feet of silt, and was never useable again. The shed part of the barn had collapsed, the cleared fields had piles of driftwood ten feet high.

The ’68 flood changed the course of the Nisqually River and of the lives of the Mounts and Gove families as well. Daniel Mounts vowed never to spend another winter in the Nisqually floodplain, and by the following fall had moved his family into a new, clapboard house on higher ground. The Goves lasted a couple more years, but by 1871 they had sold their Nisqually bottom land, which they had purchased only six years before, and moved back to Steilacoom. The new owner of the land was the first of our five Prussians, August Charles Wolff.

Preview: The Germans are Coming, Part 2

The coming, and swift going, of August Wolff, first of five Germans to own the Nisqually land. Friedrich Richter and his friend and countryman, Joseph Klee, arrive in the New World.

[1] A veteran of Indian wars (the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832, in what is now Illinois and Wisconsin, serving under General Winfield Scott, and the Puget Sound Indian War of 1855-56) and signer of the Medicine Creek Treaty, George Washington Shazer (or Shaser), with his wife, Margaret Packwood, and 14 children amassed about 1,000 acres of land on the west side of the Nisqually River delta. Their farm is the current site of the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

[2] According to H.K. Hines, after seven years in the California gold fields, Philander S. Washburn arrived in Olympia “alone and afoot, carrying his blankets” in the spring of 1858. He settled on a claim of 320 acres in the Nisqually Valley, but in 1871 moved to the area which eventually became the town of Gate, on the Black River. After the death of his wife, Mary Jane McAllister (widow of John Wesley McAllister), Washburn returned to the Nisqually Valley and his “best friend,” Daniel Mounts, spending his remaining years on the Mounts’s farm.

[3] August Valentine Kautz, a German immigrant, was a professional soldier who served at Fort Steilacoom during the Indian wars of the 1850s. During the Nisqually leader’s trials for murder after the war, Kautz advocated for the release of Leschi, his relation by marriage to a Nisqually woman, Kitty. Kautz later left his Nisqually family to fight in the Civil War and eventually married a white woman and started another family.