The Germans are Coming, Part 2

Dear Reader:

Just a reminder that the pages of this blog consist of an overflow, an excess of information I garnered while researching the life and times of the Braget family, owners of a farm on the east bank of the Nisqually River in the South Puget Sound region of Washington State from 1896-2002. In addition to the first inhabitants, the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Steh-Chass, many interesting people inhabited the Nisqually Valley as newcomers. While often referred to as pioneers, these folk more immediately were immigrants, usually youngsters, bringing with them their styles of life, visions, prejudices, and dreams from some other region of the country or world. Some left sizeable footprints, others a bare scrape in the historical dust, but all are worthy of our remembrance.

As I go, I am using the much expanded coverage of the internet to flesh out the material I first started gathering twenty years ago, and of course I am making many discoveries in the process, in some cases most startling and exciting ones. In many instances the new finds come as the result of wonderful old records and biographies that have been put online since (and therefore made available to my very own desk); in others, the digitization of databases such as those available through Ancestry and Find-A-Grave, for example, has made an amazing amount of new information about families and the links between them available. All of it, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt, for it represents someone’s memories, or memories of memories.

But let’s get on with our stories of the immigration of young Germans to the Nisqually.

More than a million and a half Germans immigrated to the U.S. between 1850 and 1869, part of an excess of five million that did so before the end of the century. At times one in every three recent immigrants in the country was from Bavaria, or Prussia, or Saxony, or another of the 41 states of the Holy Roman Empire that had become semi-independent in the mid-seventeenth century and would only become unified under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck with the formation of the German Empire in 1871.

The twenty-five or so years that led up to German unification were marked by foment, radical change, and increasing religious persecution. Revolutionary fever swept the region in 1848-49, as the liberal middle-class teamed with a labor class radicalized by a desire for improvements to working and living conditions, only to break upon the resistance of a strong, conservative aristocracy. Meanwhile, crop failures, draconian inheritance laws, a high cost of living and the growing impact of the Industrial Revolution led to widespread suffering and poverty. Some people, such as well-known liberals, were forced to leave to escape persecution, and became known as Forty-Eighters. Others, whose skills and class allowed them to, chose to emigrate in search of a more promising future.

German immigrants spread out all over the East Coast and Midwest of the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, but a considerable number of them ended up looking for jobs and opportunities in Chicago. There they met Edward S. Salomon, the man who arguably had the greatest impact on continuation of German immigration west to the southern Puget Sound region.

Edward Selig Salomon was born on Christmas Day, 1836, into the Jewish aristocracy of the duchy of Schleswig, then part of Denmark.  He attended university in the town of Schleswig before immigrating to America as a seventeen year-old, in 1853, where he quickly made his way to Chicago. Salomon eventually took up the study of law, was admitted to the bar in 1859 and, at age 24, was elected to the Chicago city council as alderman to the Sixth Ward only a year later.

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 interrupted Salomon’s promising political career, but at the same time it brought him notoriety for bravery, skill in battle, and strategic expertise that was to stand him in good stead in the postwar years. Edward enlisted on May 6, 1861, joining Company H, Twenty-Fourth Illinois Infantry, under Colonel Frederick Hecker, another German lawyer whose radical championship of popular rights and participation in the failed revolution of 1848 had driven him from his home in Baden. Salomon quickly rose to the rank of captain in the 24th, but when Hecker resigned his commission following a disagreement with his officers, Edward followed him and helped form a new regiment, the 82nd Illinois, which came to be composed mainly of German, Jewish, Swedish and other European volunteers. Company C of the 82nd consisted entirely of Jews who had been equipped and armed by the Chicago community. 

Edward S. Salomon

Now a lieutenant colonel, Edward became the quintessential Civil War hero, and was reported to have two horses shot out from under him, just at Gettysburg. Salomon and the 82nd exemplified the backbone of the Union Army, serving at most of the major battles from 1863-65, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, New Hope Church, Peachtree Creek, the siege and occupation of Atlanta, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Salomon concluded the war as a brigadier general, with commendations for bravery and excellence as an officer, all by the age of twenty-nine. 

The 82nd Illinois Infantry

Back in Chicago, Edward received a hero’s welcome, especially from the so-called Radical Republicans. During and after the Civil War the Republican Party underwent several upheavals, one of the most intense of which occurred when pro-Lincoln members decamped, in 1864, to create the National Union Party. Those left behind, the “Radical Republicans,” were fiercely abolitionist and anti-slavery (as were most German immigrants), felt that the Southern states should be dealt with severely both during and after the war, and opposed Lincoln’s leniency. When Grant emerged as the Radicals’ presidential candidate in 1868, Salomon came to stand out among those in Chicago who organized political clubs to support the “Galena Tanner,” a nickname Grant apparently chose to reflect his humble beginnings as a leather merchant in a small Illinois town. [More about his “Tanners Clubs” will follow in a later post.]

Ninth Territorial Governor, Edward S. Salomon

In the first year of his presidency, Grant provided jobs for his friends, among them General Salomon, who he rewarded for outstanding military service and for an ability to turn out the vote in Chicago with an appointment as governor of Washington Territory in early 1870, succeeding the 8th governor, Alvan Flanders. 

Now let us leave Gov. Salomon for a moment, and meet the first of the three young German men that are known to have owned land, which would eventually become part of the dairy farm owned by the Braget family, in the Nisqually Valley.

August Charles Wolff

Little is known about the life of August Charles Wolff before he appeared in the 1870 census for Olympia, the territorial capital of Washington state. The census taker recorded that he had been born about 1848, in Mecklenburg in the north of Germany, and that his profession was that of “upholsterer.” The census shows 22 year-old August living at an address owned by George Farmer, perhaps a boarding house that attracted Germanic immigrants, for also listed at the address were William Sternberg, a furrier from Hanover, a city in northern Germany not far from Bremen, and Adam Yost, from Hessen, both in their mid-40s. Of the three boarders, only William Sternberg seems to have left a lasting impression on the town: a house and old waterwheel that survived on East Union Street for some time. However, thanks to Georgiana Mitchell Blankenship, Sternberg’s story is known in detail and provides wonderful clues about the lives of our young Nisqually Germans. For, as recorded in Mrs. Blankenship’s volume, Tillicum Tales of Thurston County,[i] Mr. Sternberg was a friend of Governor Salomon.

Like so many other German immigrants, John Henry William Sternberg made his way to Chicago, where he became a success at his chosen trade as an expert in furs. Somewhere along the line he met Salomon who, when appointed territorial governor, convinced Sternberg to follow him to Washington to pursue the fur-trading business there. Sternberg must have done so with alacrity (leaving wife and four children behind in Chicago), accounting for his presence at Farmer’s boarding house in mid-1870, just months after Salomon’s appointment. As Mrs. Blankenship put it,

With visions of wealth and rapidly acquired fortune to be gained in the West through bartering with the Indians for the furs of wild animals which were so plentiful before the march of civilization drove them to the remote parts of the mountains, Sternberg accepted Salomon’s offer.

(There’s a lot to unpack there, but that’s for another time.)

I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that Salomon and Sternberg accounted for Wolff’s presence at the boardinghouse, as well.

Then, sometime later, Gov. Salomon, realizing “that the vast resources of this country imperatively demanded more men and women to develop them and subdue the wilderness,” and perhaps now missing his wife who had also remained behind in the Windy City, convinced Sternberg to return to Chicago to gather up a “colony” of immigrants. This he did, and soon a party of forty-some families, including the Mmes. Salomon and Sternberg, were travelling by rail to Oakland, California, where they embarked on the steamer Idaho for Steilacoom. There,

the majority of them remained at the military post at that place. Governor Salomon had made arrangements for their support, until the men could locate on homesteads. In addition to this encouragement, the homeseekers were supplied with teams, farming implements and supplies, payment to be made out of the crops as the settlers were able.

We don’t know when August Wolff left home in Mecklenburg, but it is a fair bet that he learned his trade in the manufacture of furniture there and that he succumbed to the blandishments of the City of Bremen’s advertising campaign touting the benefits of immigration to the New World and took ship from the northern port of Bremerhaven. We do know that by 1870 he was in Olympia, living cheek-by-jowl with Sternberg, and that one year later he had the wherewithal, $450, to buy 100 acres on the edge of the river in the Nisqually Valley from Warren and Hepsibah Gove (see my blog post The Germans are Coming, Part 1).

At this point it is anyone’s guess whether August was one of the beneficiaries of Governor Salomon’s largess or perhaps assembled his own grubstake from employment in a professional capacity, as an upholsterer, in Olympia. In any case, on July 26, 1873, August wrote to his friend, Friedrich Richter, on the letterhead of J. C. Horr, “Manufacturer, Importer, Wholesale and Retail Dealer in Furniture, Bedding, Carpets, Picture Frames, Brackets, Toilet Sets, Vases, and All Furnishing Goods.”

J. C. Horr

Because we can, let’s spend a little time with Mr. Horr’s story here. His life, thankfully presented in detail in his obituary in the Morning Olympian on March 11, 1899, stands in stark contrast to what we know of the young Germans’, and is a good example of how interesting and varied were the comings and goings of many of Olympia’s early citizens.

In 1872 forty-year-old James Cortlandt Horr (“J.C.”) was as new to Olympia as Wolff. By this time, the town faced an uncertain financial future. A real estate boom had been spurred by the possibility that it might become the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, connecting the branch that in 1870 the NPR had begun building north at Kalama, Washington, approximately 40 miles north of the Columbia River, with the line stretching west from the Midwest. But Olympia faced intense competition from Steilacoom, Tacoma, Mukilteo and Seattle, and the town fathers were nervous. Then on Dec. 14, 1872, the city was severely shaken by an earthquake. The fact that “chimneys cracked in Olympia, trees toppled in Puyallup and fissures split the ground south of Seattle led early observers to assume the quake was centered under Puget Sound. But windows also shattered as far away as Victoria, B.C., and people were knocked off their feet at Snoqualmie Pass. The first analysis of newspaper reports from the time put the epicenter not far from Vancouver, B.C. The most compelling eyewitness accounts, though, trickled in from east of the Cascades, in the sparsely populated hills near Wenatchee.” It was what proved to be the largest earthquake ever to strike eastern Washington.[ii]

Nonetheless, Olympia at this time was a desirable place to be, as Gordon Newell has pointed out:

Olympia, at this critical period in its history, was still the largest settlement in Washington territory and, despite its miles of mudflats at low tide, the most attractive. As streets were laid out in the 1850’s and 60’s, maple trees were planted to shade the wooden sidewalks, and by the 1870’s these shade trees were the town’s greatest visual asset, giving it the appearance of a carefully tended New England village and sparing it from the raw and temporary look of most frontier towns.[iii]

Considering Horr’s later success as a businessman and political figure in the South Sound region, his beginnings were not particularly auspicious. Born in 1834 of decidedly English stock, James began his westward migration when he was only two by moving with his parents and four brothers from Vermont to Ohio; he “left home at the age of 10 years and from that time earned his own support,” according to the Morning Olympian, but somehow managed to attend Oberlin College “for a time.” As a nineteen year old he acquired miner’s fever and became one of some 18,000 Americans who responded to the gold rushes of the early 1850s in Australia, whose population tripled by 1860 and became relatively more cosmopolitan, due to the influx of Euro-Americans looking to get rich. In his 12 years down under, James spent more time learning and then managing the overland stage transportation business than in the mines; his company, The Cobb and Co Telegraph Line of Royal Mail Coaches out of Victoria, was purported to be the largest stage line in the world.[iv]

James also found a wife in Australia, Eliza Upton, a lass from County Limerick, and they had a daughter, Pearl, who did not survive childhood. The Horrs left Australia for the States about 1865, first moving to Ohio, where with a brother, James operated purportedly the largest cheese factory in the state, and then, finding the weather disagreeable there, continuing on to California’s Santa Cruz County, where they tried ranching. Finally, in 1872, the Horrs found Washington Territory and Olympia.

By this time it seems as though James was willing to try his hand at anything, and/or may have been good at everything. Not content with the furniture store where August Wolff found work, James got himself appointed a special agent of the U.S. Treasury Department by Secretary John Sherman (brother to General William Tecumseh Sherman) the year of the move to Olympia, a position that eventually gave him responsibility for a district that included the state of Oregon and the Washington and Alaska territories. Thirteen years later he was removed from the job during the brief (and tragic) Garfield Administration and the political upheaval that ensued.

In 1876 Horr was elected both mayor of Olympia and a member of the territorial government, where he served in the third and fourth legislatures, according to his obituary. Apparently never one to rest on his laurels, James also went into the grain and feed and real estate businesses somewhere along the line and “later handled hundreds of tons of oysters yearly,” probably the tiny Olympias on their way to becoming Hangtown Fry in San Francisco and other west coast towns.[v]

In 1891, six years after being forcibly retired from his position with Treasury, Horr was re-elected mayor of Olympia, and a year later returned to the legislature as a state senator from Thurston County. Politically he was a “staunch republican,” and was known as an indefatigable (no kidding!) booster of Olympia’s growth and prosperity. He was a Mason (just about everybody seemed to be back then), and a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW), an organization that had been created at the end of the Civil War to provide mutual social and financial support. The AOUW was the first of the fraternal benefit societies that would offer insurance as well as sickness, accident, death and burial policies to its members. Horr was also a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE), which modelled itself on the Masons.[vi]

At age 67, James Cortlandt Horr finally came to rest, quietly, about three am on March 11, 1899, due to blood poisoning as the result of “an aggravated attack of erysipelas.” Not a common condition today and called St. Anthony’s Fire in the Middle Ages, erysipelas is a bacterial infection of the skin that results in a fiery red rash. The cure, penicillin, would not come along for another 30 years. Horr’s funeral took place the next day at the Masonic Temple on Eighth and Main streets in Olympia. He was buried at the Masonic cemetery in Tumwater. Elizabeth, his wife, survived him by ten years.

Back to August Wolff (I promise)

Wolff’s employ with Horr, and in fact his presence in the South Sound region, was not to last. He only held on to the land in Nisqually, the 100-acre Gove parcel, for three years before selling it to Richter and Klee, without making any profit, in 1874. One wonders whether the awarding of the western terminus of the railroad by the NPR to Tacoma in July, 1873, may have had something to do with his departure. On the one hand, a case certainly could have been made for a branch of the railroad north and east out of Olympia, had it been made the terminus, coming straight through the Nisqually Valley (one later did, though not from Olympia) and increasing the value of Wolff’s investment many-fold. On the other, there is no indication that Wolff wanted to work the land himself. In fact, August’s letter to Richter mentions that he hired others to cut the marsh grass growing along the mudflats of his land for sale as hay to the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. The lands of the PSAC, an offshoot of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and its flocks and herds spread out on the prairie north and east of the Nisqually River for miles.[vii] Marsh grass, which had been feed for PSAC stock for years, would next provide income to both Richter and Klee, but would also be the cause of Herr Richter’s downfall, as we shall see.

Puget Sound Agriculture Company Land Claim

August Wolff next appears in the record as a thirty-two year-old married man with wife Louise and two children, a son, August Jr., age three, and a daughter, Muriel, a toddler, living on Cherry Street in Seattle in 1880.  The census still listed him as an upholsterer, but August went on to careers as a soda maker, bottler, and, finally, a candy maker with the new Pacific Coast Biscuit Company, located on Occidental Street, near Jackson, in Seattle.[viii]  He died at age 61 in 1909 and was buried by his family and the fraternal benefit society he had shared with Horr, the Ancient Order of United Workmen.

Preview: The Germans are Coming, Part 3

Fred Richter finds Chicago after failing at his own attempt to get rich quick in Iowa. The evolution of Chicago politics (and social life), from the Know Nothings and the Wide-Awakes, to the Tanners.

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[i] Early History of Thurston County, Washington Together with Biographies and Reminiscences of Those Identified with Pioneer Days, Mrs. George Blankenship, ed., Olympia, Washington 1914.

[ii] Accessed on 4/25/2021.

[iii] Newell, Gordon, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen. Seattle: Hangman Press, 1975.

[iv] Cobb & Co was set up in Melbourne, Victoria in 1853 by a small group of immigrant Americans and originally was called the American Telegraph Line of Coaches. Established with the intention of servicing the Victorian goldfields, the company quickly became the most successful one of its kind during the nineteenth century, pioneering transport routes, delivering mail, gold, and passengers throughout the country, and contributing greatly to social growth and the expansion of settlement across Australia. (; accessed 4/25/2021)

[v] “Hangtown Fry could possibly be the first California cuisine. It consists of fried breaded oysters, eggs, and fried bacon, cooked together like an omelet. In the gold-mining camps of the late 1800s, Hangtown Fry was a one-skillet meal for hungry miners who struck it rich and had plenty of gold to spend.” (, accessed 4/28/2021)

[vi] Both the AOUW and the BPOE, which began as a social club for minstrel show performers in New York City, were for whites only.

[vii] The formation of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company in 1838 ranks, with the U.S. government’s passage of donation land claim laws in the 1850s, among the most significant events in establishing the Puget Sound region as a destination for immigrants. The success of the Agricultural Company in using the landscape to raise cattle, sheep and crops was proof to the newcomers, most of whom were farmers, that the region was a suitable place to start a new life. Students of Hudson’s Bay Company history are in general agreement that the Puget Sound Agricultural Company was formed for two reasons: to try to strengthen British claims to lands north of the Columbia, and to expand the profitability of the mother company, the HBC.

[viii] Formed to compete with the National Biscuit Company (later Nabisco), the Pacific Coast Biscuit Company included seven companies that together controlled most of the commercial biscuit and cracker business west of the Rockies.

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