Patten, Robert W. (1832-1913), Seattle's famed Umbrella Man

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 3/29/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3149
High in the pantheon of Seattle's eccentrics, Robert W. Patten invented the Umbrella Hat, the symbol of his celebrity, while prospecting in Mexico. Claiming to have scouted the West with Kit Carson, Patten arrived in Seattle in the 1890s. With his burly build, bushy white beard and hair, and rain-repellent headgear, Patten inspired a cartoon strip and became a familiar sight on city streets until his death in 1913.

Tall Tales, Funny Hat

Robert W. Patten claimed to have been born in New York in 1811, but was actually born in 1832. He arrived in Seattle sporting his odd bumber-bonnet, complete with insect netting that he tucked into his shirt. This, the Civil War veteran claimed, saved him from the mosquitoes that plagued him in the jungles of Yucatan. His headgear was so fitting for the Puget Sound climate that John Ross "Dok" Hager, a dentist turned cartoonist, adopted the whole Patten package -- hat, locks, cane, and suit -- for a new feature in The Seattle Times. Beginning in 1909 the "Dok's" Umbrella Man "Sport" dispensed folk wit and weather forecasts from the newspaper's front page.

Patten regaled locals with colorful tales of his life. After running away from home at the age of 9, he said he eventually wound up living with the Winnebago Indians and was adopted by the Chief Big John. He roamed the plains with the chief's daughter, and later hunted and traded with Kit Carson. It was during these times that Patten claimed he single-handedly saved the famous explorer John Fremont and his men from certain death during a winter storm in the Rockies.

Patron Saint of Bumbershoot?

Such heroics were not lost on his friends Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, who, Patten said, made him their Chief U.S. Scout. He held this exalted position until the Civil War's end, when he surrendered the honor to Buffalo Bill Cody.

While in Seattle, Patten worked as a fix-it man, with umbrellas -- of course -- his specialty. He also drew a small Civil War pension. He lived on a Lake Union houseboat, an experience he believed should qualify him to serve as Seattle's harbormaster (the city government was unpersuaded). The Umbrella Man died in 1913 at the age of 81 (not 102), but his legend continues to unfurl.


Sources: Paul Dorpat, "Now and Then: The Umbrella Man," The Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Magazine, April 5, 1998; John Russ "Dok" Hager, Sport and the Kid (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford, 1913).

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