Pioneer David Longmire buys homestead in Wenas Valley, Yakima County, on March 10, 1871.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 1/20/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10711

On March 10, 1871, David Longmire (1844-1925), who as a child in 1853 was a member of the first wagon train of settlers to enter the Yakima Valley, purchases a homestead in the Wenas Valley from Augustin Cleman, the first non-Indian to have settled there. Longmire will acquire adjacent lands in 1875 and 1878, establishing a large holding upon which he and all his children eventually will reside. Part of Longmire's homestead once belonged to Owhi (d. 1858), a chief of the Yakamas who had sold the 1853 party potatoes grown in his garden along Wenas Creek. Longmire will live in the valley for more than 50 years, becoming one of the region's leading citizens, a prominent farmer and stockman, and the successful plaintiff in a landmark legal dispute over water rights.

A Long Trek West

David Longmire came from a prolific and somewhat confused lineage. Sources agree that he was born on May 8, 1844, in Attica, Fountain County, Indiana, and that he was the second son of James Longmire (1820-1897) and Susan Nisley Longmire (1821-1847). The year after Susan's death, James married Virinda Taylor (1830-1912), and while still in Indiana she gave birth to a daughter, Tillatha (1850-1925), and a third son, John Albert (1852-1935). After arriving in Washington Territory and settling in Yelm in 1853, the couple had another daughter, Melissa (1856-1914), and four more sons, William (1859-1947), Robert (1860-1941), George (1865-1931), and James (1868-1883). In later years David identified his stepmother Virinda Longmire as his mother.

The family's passage from Indiana to Washington Territory in 1853 was relatively well documented, although accounts differ on some details. It seems clear that in 1852, James Longmire decided to move with his family to the West. He had heard a glowing account of the Puget Sound region from Asher Sargent (1804-1883), whose son Nelson had settled near Olympia after having been shipwrecked on Queen Charlotte Island far to the north. Encouraged by Sargent's report, the Longmire family -- two adults and four children -- left Indiana in the spring of 1853 and traveled by water to St. Joseph, Missouri, where they purchased eight yoke of oxen and two wagons. They then went northwest to Cainesville (now Council Bluffs, Iowa), bought provisions for the long trip ahead, and were joined there by other hopeful pioneers.

The party traveled west to pick up the Oregon Trail, which started in Independence, Missouri, wound through parts of what are today Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho, and ended up at Oregon City, with a branch cutting up to Portland. Upon reaching Oregon Territory, many pioneers chose to take a route south past Mount Hood to the fertile Willamette Valley. Those wishing to travel north to Puget Sound country had to raft down the Columbia to where it met the Cowlitz River, then up the Cowlitz to near the present-day town of Toledo, and finally on foot, horse, and wagon up a rough and arduous trail from Cowlitz Landing north to their destinations.

After a remarkably easy trek through the plains and over the Rocky Mountains, the Longmire party arrived in the summer of 1853 at Grande Ronde Valley in northeastern Oregon Territory (Washington Territory had been created in March of that year). There they were met by Nelson Sargent, and he relayed the exciting but inaccurate news that a wagon trail was being cut through the Cascade Mountains at Naches Pass. The Longmires and most of the others decided to head for the Puget Sound country using this new route, which they hoped would prove easier than the western, Cowlitz River approach. By this time the party had grown to more than 150 men, women, and children traveling in 36 wagons.

The Longmire Party was not quite the first group of non-Natives to pass through the Wenas Valley. A federal party led by Captain George B. McClellan (1826-1885) had been dispatched in August 1853 to survey a wagon route over Naches Pass along an old Indian trail, a route McClellan concluded was not feasible. Within two months, the sturdy pioneers who next reached the area would prove him wrong, earning fame as the first wagon train to enter the Yakima Valley and the first to make it over the mountains.

More than 60 years later, David Longmire spoke of the final legs of the party's progress, which took place when he was 9 years old:

"We travelled towards White Bluffs, then up Coal Creek and turned westward, crossing the Yakima River at Selah ... . The next day we arrived in the Wenas Valley and camped on a beautiful spot owned by Chief Owhi. We remained here two nights. The chief was farming and our party bought of him thirteen bushels of potatoes.

"This was about September 20 and 21 ... . We followed up the Naches River toward Naches Pass. We crossed and recrossed the river about sixty-eight times. When we reached the summit and started down the western slope we came to a very steep place where we were compelled to lower our wagons suspended by the rear axle with a rope fastened to a tree while it was gradually lowered. There were thirty-six wagons to be let down that way ... . ("First Immigrants to Cross ... ").

David Longmire's memories of the trek actually played down the hardships that were endured. The road that Sargent spoke of did not exist, and after cutting through thick forests and fording numerous waterways, it was early October before the party reached Naches Pass, and the weather was already turning cold. A more complete account of the journey, based on the written recollections of several adult participants, was compiled by the Tacoma Public Library in 1984, entitled The Terriblest Route of All. As the title suggests, it is a more realistic telling of the difficulties faced by the pioneers. Despite all, the passage over the mountains was completed with no lives and only two wagons lost, and the party reached Thurston County by mid October 1853.

Settling In

The Longmire family settled near Yelm, where James Longmire took a donation land claim. They were friendly neighbors with Nisqually Chief Quiemuth (d. 1856) and his brother, Chief Leschi (1808-1858). As a result of accusations arising from the Indian Wars, the former was murdered and the latter executed, acts abhorred by young David, who was present in Governor Isaac Stevens's (1818-1862) house in Olympia when Quiemuth was slain. He would later say, with considerable understatement, that "The Indians of those days were not treated altogether right by the white men who came in to take their lands" ("Years of Water War Ended").

David, who had started school in Indiana, attended a one-room log schoolhouse on Yelm Prairie that he helped his father build. From 1855 to 1857, while the territory's Indian Wars were raging, he was schooled in Olympia, where James Longmire was serving in the legislature. He then briefly attended another small school at Chamber's Prairie, but formal education was soon put aside and he turned his hand to agriculture, working alongside his father. 

In later years, James Longmire acquired substantial holdings in Yakima County. He also discovered and developed Longmire Springs on Mount Rainier, where he filed a homestead claim in 1883 and lived until his death in 1897. Most of the rest of the numerous Longmire family would remain in Thurston County, but David never forgot the "beautiful spot owned by Chief Owhi."

Memories of a Garden

Chief Owhi was evicted from his land along Wenas Creek and later slain by U.S. Army troops, on October 2, 1858. On the other side of the Cascades, David Longmire was entering early manhood. In coming years, he would travel often across the Cascades, driving cattle to the Wenas Valley's rich pastureland and back, and he was determined to return there to live. On September 12, 1869, at the age of 25, he married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Pollard (1854-1888), who had crossed the plains with her parents in 1864.

The newlyweds soon made the move east, probably in late 1870, and Lizzie Longmire shortly thereafter gave birth to a daughter, Alice (1870-1937), the first of six children the couple would have. The record of their early land holdings is somewhat confused, but it appears that Longmire's first purchase in the Wenas Valley was held but briefly, then sold. On March 10, 1871, he bought land on Wenas Creek from Augustin (some sources say "Augustus") Cleman, the first permanent non-Indian settler in the Wenas Valley. In 1875 Longmire expanded his holdings, purchasing land that had briefly been occupied by Anson White (1848-?), but was owned by the federal government. This apparently is the tract that included Owhi's Garden. In 1878 his homestead grew again when Charles Longmire (1848-1933), a cousin, conveyed to David additional acreage along Wenas Creek.

Life on Wenas Creek

David Longmire developed a thriving farm and ranch on his land in the Wenas Valley and became a leading citizen of Yakima County. A later account of his life stated:

"Besides general agricultural pursuits, Mr. Longmire has also given much attention to live stock and has become one of the large stock raisers of the valley. Moreover, he was one of the first orchardists here, planting his first orchard in 1872.  Although he thus gave great impetus to an industry that is now very important to the valley and proved the suitability of climate and soil for that purpose, he never went into orchardizing commercially" (Lyman, Vol. 2, 26).

But it was still the frontier, and life could deliver unexpected tragedy. The territory's Indian Wars had ended many years earlier, but remote areas were still subject to occasional violent incidents. On July 9, 1878, newlyweds Blanche Bunting Perkins (1856-1878) and Lorenzo Perkins (1836-1878), both known to David Longmire, were killed by a small group of Bannock and Paiute Indians at Rattlesnake Springs, about 60 miles northeast of the Wenas Valley. Longmire joined a party of local farmers that crossed the Columbia River and captured the alleged killers near the Crab Creek lava beds to the east. All but one Indian suspect soon died, either by suicide, gunshot, or hanging.

Despite such occasional misfortunes, the population of Yakima County more than quintupled between 1870 and 1880, but it remained a land of wide open spaces. David Longmire eventually accumulated 480 acres of irrigated farmland and several thousand acres of grazing land. In 1883, he built an impressive house in the Wenas Valley, the doors and other furnishings for which were shipped across the Columbia River and hauled overland from mills at The Dalles, approximately 100 miles distant. He and Lizzie would carry on the Longmire tradition of large families, adding five more children to their brood: Martha (1877-1945), Burnetta (1879-1932), David (1884-1935), George (1886-1942), and James (1888-1971). Ten days after James was born, on November 16, 1888, Lizzie Longmire died, likely from complications of childbirth.

In 1890, David Longmire married Elizabeth Lotz Treat (1860-1949), a widow with two children. Her father had arrived in the future Washington Territory even before the Longmire Party, in 1851, and she and her mother followed in 1855. With her, David would father one additional child, Roy Bryan Longmire (1896-1967). Longmire later referred to this son, his last child, as "Donald."

Longmire v. Smith

Although laced with rivers and creeks, many areas in the Yakima Valley could not provide enough water to meet the needs of those who settled there, and this often led to disputes between neighbors. The Washington State Supreme Court described the situation in the Wenas Valley:

"The Wenas river ... has its source in the Cascade Mountains, and flows through the Wenas valley, which is from 1 to 2 1/2 miles wide, and about 20 miles long ... . The volume of water flowing in the stream varies from an ample supply in the spring and until about the middle of July of ordinary years, when it begins to subside, and is inadequate to supply sufficient quantity to irrigate all the farm lands of the valley" (Longmire v. Smith, 440).

As more people moved into the valley to farm, several located upstream from David Longmire's property and started drawing off water from Wenas Creek (its proper name, although the supreme court referred to it as the Wenas River). This went on for years, and in the summers of 1897 and 1898 most of the creek's flow was diverted before it reached Longmire's land. In 1899 he filed suit, and the case would become of great importance, pivotal to the future allocation of water resources in the more arid regions of the state.

Longmire's argument was simple: He claimed that he had a preemptive right to as much water as he needed for the sole reason that he was there first and was using the water to irrigate his land before the upstream owners started diverting the creek's flow for their own purposes. The upstream owners argued that their right to the water was equal to Longmire's and that those rights had been perfected by more than 10 years of uninterrupted use. The Yakima County superior court agreed with them, and Longmire appealed.

The century had turned before the state supreme court decided the case in 1901, overruling the lower court and holding that it was  "an elementary principle of the law of appropriation of water for irrigation that the first appropriator is entitled to the quantity of water appropriated by him, to the exclusion of subsequent claimants" (Longmire v. Smith, 447). In layman's terms, it was first come, first served. Since Longmire had been using the water of Wenas Creek to irrigate his land for some years before his upstream neighbor appeared, they had to leave the water alone until his needs were met. The court remanded the case back to the superior court to determine how much water Longmire would reasonably require. It was a major victory and an important precedent, and it made the news as far away as Seattle.

A Long and Fruitful Life

David Longmire's eventful life would end on June 27, 1925, when he died at the age of 81 after refusing to be hospitalized for treatment of a heart condition. He left behind a substantial family -- seven children, two stepchildren, and at least 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He had been prosperous enough to provide each of his children with a farm and a house near his own, and he died in their midst.

By the time of his death, Longmire was recognized as "the dean of all the Yakima Valley pioneers" ("David Longmire ... Dies") and the only surviving resident who had passed through the area by wagon train 72 years earlier. In addition to his accomplishments in farming and ranching, he was a justice of the peace, known for impartiality, and he served two terms as a Yakima County commissioner. He left his mark on both the history of the valley and the law of the state, and he was a willing and knowledgeable resource for those seeking to preserve the stories of some of the territory's earliest settlers. In 1917, eight years before David Longmire died, a marble monument was erected on his homestead to mark the location of Owhi's garden, commemorate the pioneers who first passed through the valley so many years before, and note the less notable occasion of Captain McClellan's brief stay.


Sources:

A. J. Splawn, Ka-mi-akin, the Last Hero of the Yakimas (Portland: Kilham Printing & Stationary Company, 1917), 259; David Longmire, "First Immigrants to Cross the Cascades," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (January 1917), pp. 22-28; James Longmire, et al., The Terriblest Route of All, ed. by Gary Fuller Reese (Tacoma: Tacoma Public Library, 1984); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1919), 202-207; W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Vol. 2 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1919), 22-27; Robert S. Lince, The Selah Story: History of the Selah, East Selah, and Wenas Valley in Yakima County, Washington (Selah: Selah Valley Optimist Printing, 1984), 9, 10, 14-17, 20, 24; Elva Cooper Magnusson, Naches Pass (Seattle: Washington Historical Quarterly, 1934); Longmire v. Smith, 26 Wash. 439 (1901); Historic America Building Survey, "David Longmire House," Library of Congress HAB/HAER website accessed January 13, 2014 (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/wa0129/); Frank M. Farquhar, "Historical Sketches of Yakima County -- No. 1," The Washington Historian, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July 1901), pp. 190-194; "Virinda Taylor Longmire," Find a Grave website accessed January 12, 2014 (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=15200562); "Naches Pass Trail," Naches Pass.org website accessed January 13, 2014 (http://www.nachestrail.org/); "Susannah 'Susan' Nisely Longmire," Find a Grave website accessed January 12, 2014 (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=28711019); Robert W. Merry, "The Ordeal of Naches Trail," Washington Highways, Vol. 13 ( September, 1966), pp. 4-5, available at (http://www.nachestrail.org/media/pdf/MERRY%20history%20of%201853%20train.pdf); "Principal Writes History of Naches Pass," Yakima Daily Republic, October 28, 1951; "Years of Water War Ended," The Seattle Sunday Times, September 27, 1903, p. 113; "David Longmire, Pioneer of 1853, Dies," The Seattle Times, June 27, 1925, p. 5; Ida Wilcox Howell, "Historic Cascade Crossing," The Seattle Times (magazine section), June 23, 1946, p. 2; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Blanche Bunting Perkins and Lorenzo Perkins are murdered at Rattlesnake Springs en route to Yakima City on July 9, 1878" (by Paula Becker), and "First emigrant wagon train crosses Naches Pass through the Cascade Mountains in the fall of 1853" (by Kit Oldham), and "Yakima County -- Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker),  http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 13, 2014).
Note: This essay was corrected on April 10, 2014, to give the correct death date of Melissa Longmire.


Related Topics:   Northwest Indians | Pioneers | Roads & Rails

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