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.

Memories of Memories

In my introduction to Historical Musings I described history as memories, most often memories of memories. So-and-so remembers hearing from their grandmother that she heard that her great-grandfather had committed Such-and-such an act in the year 18xx, and of course So-and-so’s grandmother thinks she read about it in the family bible which, unfortunately, washed away in a flood in the year 19yy…

It is an axiom of professional historians that every factoid must be gleaned from three independent sources for it to lose its wanna-be status and become accepted fact. Or perhaps at least it used to be, before everything—fact and fiction—was committed to the Internet, most of the time without source attribution. Since then source independence has gained the status of an oxymoron.

But as you go back to the day, in the history of the Pacific Northwest, when mail was carried by snail (or canoe) and people used to actually write things down and look each other in the eye when they talked to one another, the sources of stories were a little more obvious and/or verifiable. Add in a soupçon of contemporary, working historians and you may find some of the “realest” facts available to us. At least, in their reporting, you can usually judge how old the information is, and thus how many memories it may have gone through; whether the account is an eyewitness one; and how likely it is that the writers may be describing something they heard from each other. I am of course referring to many of the “giants” of the era and locale, including William P. Bonney, Edward Huggins, Elwood Evans, Thomas W. Prosch, Herbert Hunt, H.K. Hines, William Fraser Tolmie, and the like.

Then there were the letter-writers and journal-keepers of the time, people like Joseph Heath, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who farmed the Nisqually plain for four years and recorded his daily activities and trials in detail.[1] There were Nisqually Valley pioneer Daniel Mounts and his sons, who assiduously kept and preserved daily records of their labors, their businesses, and their family tribulations for later generations. Joel Myers, who filed a donation land claim[2] for the Nisqually land that later would belong to the Mounts family, and after them, the Bragets, kept a ledger of his daily business as a buyer and seller of goods and services (including loaning of the wherewithal) that listed the names of his clients, white and Indian, and, in many cases their hat and shoe sizes. So many of those names went unrecorded anywhere else.[3]

And finally there were the latter-day historians, who reached back in time through oral histories of their aging relatives to lay their memories out for other family members and the world at large. People who researched and preserved their family histories, like Delbert and Albert (Bud) McBride, descendants of the Mounts clan headed by Illinoian Daniel and his half-Indian, half-Scots wife, Catherine. Del’s interviews of his Aunt Ruby, Daniel’s granddaughter who knew her grandfather for twelve years and Catherine for another twenty-nine, provide wonderful eye-witness accounts of multi-racial life on the biggest farm in the valley, late in the 19th Century. And with his partner, Richard Schneider, Bud McBride preserved Del’s work after his death and added to it a significant collection of family and regional artifacts from that time.

Finally, there are the records, the trove of names and numbers that was created at the time of the events: donation land claim files, filled out by the pioneers themselves; census lists; sales and tax receipts; birth and death notices (though not often available); legal documents; and newspaper accounts of those events significant enough to be judged as of public interest. Such accounts, of course, bring up the question of selective perception: what roles do an author’s biases—political, racial, social, religious—play in what is reported, and how?

These are the sources we have to work with—yes, memories and interpretations all, but ones much closer to the original, if you will, ones less contaminated by the passage of time and secondary revisions by later, more distant authors.

Let us use them to create new memories.

*******

Preview: The Germans are Coming, Part 1 A thirty-something immigrant from Prussia drowns in the Nisqually River. Why? Who was he? How did he get there? Read on…


[1] Heath took up residence at Nisqually one year before Michael T. Simmons, George Bush, James McAllister, and others defied Hudson’s Bay Company hegemony by establishing the first American settlement in the region, near the falls on the Deschutes River at “New Market” (now Tumwater). Spanning the years 1845-1849, a single volume of Heath’s diary was rescued from oblivion not once but twice, first in 1930 by a distant relative of Heath’s and then in the 1970s by local historian Lucille McDonald. It has been published as Memoirs of Nisqually (Ye Galleon Press, 1979). Heath died in 1849. Western State Hospital now occupies the site of his farm.

[2] With the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, the U.S. government offered free land in Oregon Territory, including all the area west of the Continental Divide and north of the 42nd parallel. Driven by the doctrine of manifest destiny, the DLC Act was one of several land-grab tools that the government employed to populate the west with Americans while at the same time divesting earlier inhabitants—the Native Americans and the British—from their holdings.

[3] The primary purpose of Myers’ ledger was to record his business transactions as he bought, sold and bartered produce, animals, provisions, implements and labor with his neighbors and with nearby merchants in Steilacoom and Olympia. But for the historian, it contains a wealth of information about his life and times. The ledger, which deserves a chapter of this blog all its own, resides in the collection of the Washington State Historical Society.

My New Historical Blog

Greetings friends, fellow historians, and any and all that love to turn back the clock a bit to look at what folks have done, used to do, or perhaps wanted to do but couldn’t.

I am pretty sure that time travel to the past is a pretty universal fantasy of folks with good imaginations–being a fly on the wall for major events whose stories have come to us imperfectly as memories, usually memories of memories. Did Nero really fiddle while flames consumed the city? Just how seductive was Cleopatra? Did Hamilton and Burr really have a bromance?

Many of you, like me, have stood upon a spot where something “significant” is supposed to have happened 50, or 100, or 500 years ago, and wondered what it looked like back then, what the people there were doing and why, what the food tasted like, whether the air was fresher, how quiet it could have been. A form of nostalgia, for sure, but also a deep curiosity about life as it was then and, perhaps, how it came to be what it is now.

I recently completed a book about life on 410 acres of land on the banks of the Nisqually River in the South Puget Sound region of western Washington state called For the Good of the Order: The Braget Farm and Land Use in the Nisqually Valley. The Bragets, a family of Norwegian immigrants, loved and lived on their dairy farm there for 100 years before selling it to the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the original stewards of the land and the nearby salmon-bearing waters. I spent the better part of 20 years trying to become the fly on the wall in that story so that I could share it, and its importance to all of us, as I would come to know it. I hope I was successful in that.

Along the way I got to know a little about the lives of some of the many pioneers that lived on or near that land in the Nisqually Valley before the Bragets acquired it in 1896. They were a diverse and multi-ethnic bunch, hailing from New and old England, Ireland, France, Prussia, and the Midwest and southeastern Atlantic states. The reasons that brought them to the Nisqually Valley were also diverse, but as far as I can tell these men, women and children all came in search of new lives and improved circumstances. Some found these things, and they and their descendants stayed. Others suffered and left, or died in the trying, and left no trace other than the memories of their contemporaries who, thankfully, committed them to print.

My posts, as they follow, will share what I have learned about those pioneer families, their impact on our lives, and, perhaps a few questions that their existences have raised. For the most part, these posts will be based on the writings of others, past and present, who knew or know something of these people. But please remember, all history is memory, and by necessity, memory is selective, often discarding the parts that are painful, repetitive, boring, or apparently irrelevant at the time. And, as any self-respecting wall fly will tell you, the devil (and so much more) is in the details!

BTW, if you want to know more about the Braget book, or possibly purchase it, check out https://gorhamprinting.com/book/nisqually.