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Seattle and King County's First White Settlers

HistoryLink.org Essay 1660 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Duwamish Valley and Elliott Bay were not an uninhabited wilderness when Euro-Americans began arriving in the middle of the nineteenth century. Along the Duwamish River and Elliott Bay where the first U. S. settlers began building one- and two-room log cabins, the Duwamish tribe occupied at least 17 nearby villages.

First People

For example, the tribe had a village called Hahapoos, located near the original mouth of the Duwamish River, with three large buildings (each about 60 by 120 feet). Another village called Tal-tal-kus, located along the original winding route of the Duwamish River at what later became Airport Way and Spokane Street had three to five medium sized buildings (each about 48 by 96 feet). Two other villages sat near the site of Renton Airfield -- Nua-hub-kow with five houses (one was about 36 by 100 feet), and Sctub-beles, with 10 buildings. A federal court issued a finding in 1933 which stated that in the mid-1850s, when the Indian treaties were signed, the 17 Duwamish villages had a total of more than 93 buildings. The finding held that the Duwamish tribe occupied land around Elliott Bay, the Duwamish River, Lake Washington, and Lake Sammamish.

The land and waters had been home to Salish tribes for millennia, but they would be overwhelmed by their new neighbors within a few short years.

The Collins Party: King County's First White Settlers

On September 14, 1851, King County's first white settlers arrived at the mouth of the then-winding Duwamish River. They explored the area and on September 16, selected claims about three miles up the river. About two weeks later, on September 27, 1851, they brought family members and household goods by scow from the Nisqually River near Ft. Steilacoom to their claims. These original settlers were Luther M. Collins (1813-1860), Collins' wife Diana, and their children Lucinda and Stephen, Henry Van Asselt (1817-1902), Jacob Mapel (or Maple) (1798-1884) and his adult son Samuel Mapel (or Maple) (1827-1880).

Names and Ages of the Collins Party upon Their Arrival on the Duwamish on September 27, 1851

  • Luther Collins, about 37
  • Diana Borst Collins, about 36
  • Lucinda Collins, 13 or 14
  • Stephen Collins, about 7
  • Jacob Mapel (Maple), 53
  • Samuel A. Mapel (Maple), 23
  • Henry Van Asselt, 34
The area of the Van Asselt claim was annexed to the City of Seattle in 1907. The Collins claim and both Mapel claims were incorporated as the City of Georgetown in 1890 and were annexed by the City of Seattle in 1910.

Exploration Before the First Settlers Arrived

In 1792, with the arrival of the two-ship Vancouver expedition, Europeans had first entered the waters of Puget Sound. For the next three decades, perhaps occasional ship had entered the sound in search of sea otter and beaver pelts. In 1833, the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Nisqually (nine years after they had entered the Puget Sound) in order to be able to aquire furs year round. They also established a farm. In 1841, the U. S. Exploring Expedition, led by Charles Wilkes, surveyed Puget Sound. Four years later, U. S. citizens established the first settlement on Puget Sound at Newmarket (renamed Tumwater).

By the midpoint of the nineteenth century, Puget Sound's few hundred white residents were concentrated in the vicinity of Fort Nisqually (Hudson's Bay Company) and Fort Steilacoom (U.S. Army), and in the southern Puget Sound village of Tumwater, and on Whidbey Island.

Two factors accelerated white settlement of the Sound:

  • The 1846 ratification of the Treaty of Oregon, which established United States sovereignty below the 49th parallel;
  • The 1850 passage of the Donation Claims Act, which granted 320 acres to each adult U.S. citizen (640 acres to married couples) who arrived in Oregon Territory before December 1850, and resided on their claim for four years. (Oregon Territory extended over land that became the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and far western Montana.)

Congress amended the Donation Claims Act to allow settlers who arrived in Oregon Territory between December 1850 and December 1855 to make smaller Donation Land Claims (up to 160 acres for single men and 320 acres for married couples).

Elliott Bay Passersby: Simmons and Ebey

Puget Sound's first settlers typically explored the Sound before deciding where to homestead. They would usually walk north from the Columbia River along the Cowlitz corridor to the south end of Puget Sound. Then they would hire Indians with canoes to guide them around the Sound.

The first United States citizens to do this were Michael Simmons and a party of nine men. In the summer of 1845, they paddled along both sides of the Sound and past Elliott Bay. Simmons decided to settle at Newmarket (Tumwater). Thus began the first U.S. settlement on Puget Sound.

In 1850, Colonel Isaac N. Ebey (1818-1857), on his tour of Puget Sound, reconnoitered Elliott Bay, the Duwamish and Black rivers, and Lake Washington before settling with his wife and children on Whidbey Island. He worked as a farmer, a customs officer, and in the Oregon Territorial Legislature. In 1857, Ebey was killed and beheaded by Indians from British Columbia or Alaska in retribution for the killings of tribal members by a U.S. warship the previous year.

First Settler Pretenders: Holgate and Latimer

Historian Edmond Meany (writing in 1909) and others incorrectly give the honor of "the first settler of Seattle" to John Holgate (1828-1868). In 1847, Holgate traveled west from Iowa to Oregon Territory. In the summer of 1850, at the age of 22, he very likely explored the Duwamish River and considered settling on the site where Collins and Mapel homesteaded the following year.

Holgate wrote to a family member of his six-week (mid-August to early October 1850) exploration of Puget Sound, "The Sound has four rivers along its eastern shore. The valleys of these rivers will average about 15 miles in width and are about equally divided in prairie and timber." He declared the Sound to be "decidedly ahead of any other country" he had ever seen. But he did not stay, because "I have not got that other 'rib' yet" (Grant, 89).

He did not wish to settle by himself, and headed south in search of a wife. Moreover, the Donation Land Claim Act did not take effect until September 27, 1850. It is doubtful that Holgate even knew of it, considering the slowness of communications. Some accounts state that he returned to the East to bring out his relatives, but it is likely that he remained in Oregon until 1853 (Hanford). John Holgate returned (still a bachelor) in the spring 1853 and on June 21, 1853, he settled on Seattle's future Beacon Hill. In his absence, others had arrived.

Another myth makes William Latimer (1833-1898) Seattle's first settler in the summer of 1850. In fact, by Latimer's own account, he made his "first journey on Puget Sound" in the fall of 1852 (Seattle P-I, November 29, 1896).

Back to the Collins Party

During Holgate's absence, the Collins party --Luther Collins, Henry Van Asselt, Jacob Mapel, and Samuel Mapel -- canoed north from the Nisqually area. Collins had arrived on Puget Sound in 1847, and had settled near the Nisqually River. Early summer 1851 found Collins and the two Mapels returning north from the Yreka goldfields in far northern California. Along the way they met Van Asselt, another returning gold miner.

They headed to Puget Sound and used Collins' farm near the Nisqually River as their base to look for farm sites. On September 14, 1851, with the possible exception of Samuel Mapel, the men arrived near the mouth of the Duwamish River and camped for the night. By September 16, after exploring the Duwamish River and valley, they selected land on which to settle. They then returned to Collins' farm to help move his family, household goods, and livestock to the Duwamish River.

Proposed Earlier Arrival Date for Collins Party Probably Inaccurate

There is one account, that of Eli Mapel, that puts the Collins party settlement on the Duwamish River three months earlier. Eli traveled west over the Oregon Trail and joined his father and brother in the Duwamish River valley in October 1852. Fifty years later, Eli Mapel published an autobiographical account in a local newspaper in which he relates that Collins, Van Asselt, and his father Jacob and brother Samuel "were the first settlers who located here -- June 22, 1851."

Yet it is doubtful that the Collins party reached the Duwamish River Valley and Puget Sound that early. Evidence suggests that in early July 1851, at least two of these homesteaders were farther south, in Oregon. In March 1855, Samuel Mapel stated in a Donation Land Claim filing that he arrived in Oregon Territory on July 1, 1851. This probably refers to the date he entered Oregon Territory while traveling north from the California gold fields. The Samuel Mapel party included Jacob Mapel and Luther Collins and perhaps Henry Van Asselt and his group of returning miners who joined forces somewhere between California and the Columbia River.

Moreover, two different biographical sketches place Henry Van Asselt in Oregon in early July 1851, and imply that Collins and the two Mapels were with him. Finally, a letter dated January 1, 1880, published in The West Shore in 1884, and signed by King County pioneers Henry Van Asselt, William Bell, Henry Yesler, Carson Boren, and Arthur and David Denny, gives a chronology of settlement in King County. This letter states: "September 16, 1851 -- Henry Van Assalt, Jacob Mapel and L. M. Collins selected claims on Duwamish River ...."

The Denny Party Vanguard Arrives at Alki

On September 25, 1851, about a week and a half after the Collins party left the Duwamish River to return to the Collins farm, the vanguard of another party of settlers appeared in Elliott Bay. David Denny (1832-1903), John Low (1820-1888), and Leander (Lee) Terry (1818-1862) arrived and camped at a point later called Duwamish Head. On the point was an Indian village where, according to David Denny, they met Chief Seattle (d. 1866). By canoe and on foot, they explored the shoreline of Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River looking for the best land on which to settle. On September 27, 1851, the men returned to their first night's encampment.

As the three men sat around the evening's campfire, they heard a boat approaching, and the two parties greeted one another. The boat carried Collins, his wife and two children, and likely Van Asselt and the two Mapels. After visiting briefly, the Collins party continued on up the Duwamish River to settle on their Donation Land Claims.

The next day, on September 28, David Denny, John Low, and Lee Terry paddled west along the shoreline until they reached Alki Point, which they decided offered the best site for a future community. John Low and Lee Terry selected their homesteads, but David Denny was too young to make a Donation Land Claim. He remained at Alki with Lee Terry to protect the claims and begin building a cabin. Alki has been continuously occupied since September 28, 1851, In May 1907, the Town of West Seattle annexed Alki and two months later the City of Seattle annexed the enlarged West Seattle.

John Low returned to Portland with a note dated September 28, 1851 from David addressed to Arthur Denny:

"Dear Brother,
Come as soon as you can. We have found a valley that will accommodate one thousand families. Mr. Low will describe it to you.
Respectfully, D. T. Denny"(The Seattle Times)
Remainder of Denny Party Reaches Alki

On November 13, 1851, Low returned to Alki aboard the Schooner Exact with the Boren, Bell, and Denny families, about 22 settlers. Apparently Charles Terry (1828-1867) did not disembark at Alki Point. In late October, his brother Lee had left Alki headed south in search of tools. Charles Terry, possibly in search of his brother who had not returned after going off to find an adze, remained on board the Exact, which continued south to Steilacoom and Olympia. Lee and Charles Terry returned to Alki Point within a week or two.

The Denny party came with the explicit purpose, as Arthur Denny stated, of availing themselves "of the privilege of a donation claim ….” (Denny, Pioneer Days, 16) Lee Terry and John Low had already taken the prime homestead sites on Alki Point, so the two Dennys, Boren, and Bell decided to look elsewhere around Puget Sound. Until they could locate their own claims, they took up temporary residence at Alki. By the end of November, they had completed cabins for each of their families.

In December, the ship Leonesa arrived looking for 50-foot-long pilings for use in constructing docks at San Francisco. During the last three weeks of December all the adult males at Alki spent most of their time felling trees and towing the logs out to the ship. After the loaded Leonesa sailed away on January 2, 1852, they started exploring central Puget Sound for homestead sites.

The four men explored the territory south to the Puyallup River, west to Port Orchard, and by early February they were examining the shoreline north of Alki along eastern Puget Sound. Arthur Denny stated:

“… we begin exploring round Elliott Bay, taking soundings … After a careful examination of the harbor, timber and feed for stock, we on the 15th of February, located and marked three claims in one body” (Denny, Pioneer Days, 16-17).

Denny Party Settles Site of Future Downtown Seattle

They placed one stake at the south end of what would later be called Maynard’s Point. The stake was located about one-half block south of the future Jackson Street near 1st Avenue S. They staked the north end of their claims at the future Denny Way. They also decided that Carson Boren would take the south portion, Arthur Denny the middle portion, and William Bell the north portion, leaving for later the determining of the exact boundaries among them.

Boren, Arthur Denny, and Bell adjusted their claims twice for subsequent arrivals. In late March 1852, David Maynard (1808-1873) arrived seeking a good place to salt and barrel Duwamish River salmon. In October 1852 Henry Yesler (1810-1892) arrived looking for a site for a steam sawmill. Claims were adjusted to make room for them. In 1853, David Denny turned 21, the legal age for homesteading, and made a claim north of Bell's.

In early March 1852, William Bell symbolically took possession of his claim by felling a tree, cutting it into lengths, notching the ends, and laying down a four-sided cabin "foundation." But it wasn't until April 3, 1852 that Bell actually started constructing the cabin (Bell, June 4, 1878).

It seems that Mary Boren (Carson's wife) and Louisa Boren (Carson's sister) performed the same symbolic act as Bell. In late March or early April 1852, Indians paddled them across Elliott Bay to the chosen Boren cabin site. An early writer states that “they cut with their own hands some small fir logs and laid the foundation of a cabin” (Blazing the Way, 59). Subsequent writers have misinterpreted their symbolic act as the actual building of the cabin.

Carson Boren left the Alki settlement on March 23, 1852, to get livestock and probably started building his family's cabin when he returned in late April. On April 27, 1852, Carson Boren purchased six pounds of nails and a wood stove from Charles Terry, which he undoubtedly used for his cabin. On papers Carson Boren filed for his Donation Land Claim, he stated his claim was settled on May 13, 1852. This is likely the date the Boren family moved into the completed cabin.

From April 3 to June 12, 1852, according to their Donation Land Claim filings, the recently arrived David Maynard followed by Bell, Boren, and A. A. Denny moved to their chosen homesteads. Seattle has been continuously occupied since that time. When the Town of Seattle was originally incorporated in 1865 these four Donation Land Claims were the first homesteads made within the Town’s boundaries. In 1867, the Washington Territory Legislature disincorporated the Town returning jurisdiction of Seattle to the King County Commissioners. In 1869, the City of Seattle reincorporated and this incorporation continues to the present day.

Names and Ages of the Denny Party upon Their Arrival at Alki on November 13, 1851

Families:

  • Arthur A Denny, 29
  • Mary Ann Denny, 28
  • Louisa Catherine (Kate) Denny, 7
  • Margaret Lenora (Lenora) Denny, 4
  • Rolland H. Denny, 6 weeks
  • John N. Low, 31
  • Lydia Low, 31
  • Mary L. Low, 8
  • Alonzo Low, 6
  • John V. Low, 4
  • Minerva Low, 2
  • Carson D. Boren, 26
  • Mary Boren, 20
  • Livonia Gertrude (Gertrude) Boren, 11 months
  • William N. Bell, 34
  • Sarah Ann Bell, 32
  • Laura Keziah Bell, 8
  • Olive Julia Bell, 5
  • Mary Virginia (Virginia) Bell, 4
  • Alvina Lavina (Lavina) Bell, 9 months

Single adults:

  • Louisa Boren, 24
  • David T. Denny, 19
  • Charles C. Terry, 22
  • Leander (Lee) Terry, 33

The honor of being King County's first white settlers rightly belongs to Luther and Diana Collins and their children Lucinda and Stephen, Henry Van Asselt, and Jacob and Samuel Mapel (Maple). But it is the members of the three-family Denny party who are rightly considered the founders of Seattle. It is worth noting that the Duwamish River farmers assisted the Denny Party and conducted commerce with the growing city to the north. In 1853, Luther Collins was appointed as one of King County's first three Commissioners.

Chronology

Because these dates have been the subject of so much debate and confusion, it is worth restating them in a brief summary.

  • September 14, 1851 Collins party arrives at the mouth of the Duwamish River.
  • September 16, 1851 Collins party selects homesteads on the Duwamish River.
  • September 25, 1851 Denny party scouts (David Denny, John Low, and Lee Terry) arrive at Duwamish Head.
  • September 27, 1851 Collins party encounters Denny party scouts on Duwamish Head. The parties greet one another as the Collins party goes by in a scow with household goods to settle on their Duwamish River claims.
  • September 28, 1851 John Low, and Lee Terry (accompanied by David Denny) select Alki for their settlement. Low returns that day to Portland to inform the rest of the Denny party.
  • November 13, 1851 the rest of the Denny party arrives at Alki Point.
  • February 15, 1852 Arthur Denny, Carson Boren, and William Bell select the eastern shore of Elliott Bay for their homesteads.
  • April 3, 1852 Bell, David Maynard, and the Boren family excluding Carson settle on their Seattle homesteads.
  • Late April, 1852 Carson Boren starts building his cabin and moves into it by May 13, 1852.
  • June 12, 1852 Arthur Denny and family, detained at Alki by illness, move into their cabin (built by the others).
  • By about October 1852 they had named the settlement Seattle.
  • May 23, 1853 Seattle is platted.

Sources:
Gordon Newell, Westward to Alki: The Story of David and Louisa Denny (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977), 50-51; Laura Arksey, "Beheaded Pioneer," Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1988), 24-30; Lucile McDonald, "Seattle's Durable Maple Clan," The Seattle Times, November 24, 1957, Magazine section, p. 8; Miriam Baughman et al., The Duwamish Diary, 1849-1949 (Seattle: Cleveland High School, 1949 and 1996); James R. Warren, King County and Its Emerald City, Seattle (Seattle: American Historical Press, 1997); Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West: The Story of Seattle (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1931), 65; United States Court of Claims. The Duwamish, Lummi, Whidby Island, Skagit, Upper Skagit, Swinomish, Kikiallus, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Samish, Puyallup, Suqaxin, Skokomish, Upper Chehalis, Muckleshoot, Nooksack, Chinook and San Juan Islands Tribes of Indians, Claimants v. The United States of America, Defendant. Cause #F-275, Consolidated Petition. (Seattle: The Argus Press, ca. 1933), 686-687, 694, 697; Elbridge Morse, "Notes of the History and Resources of Washington Territory Furnished H. H. Bancroft of San Francisco, Cal. Book No. 1 Settlement," p. 119, University of California at Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, Microfilm Edition, University of Washington Library, Newspapers and Microforms; Emily Inez Denny, Blazing the Way: True Stories and Sketches of Puget Sound and Other Pioneers (Seattle: Rainier Printing Company, Inc., 1909), 43-45, 58-59, 214-218, 222, 274-275; Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 227-229; Transcription of July 12, 1883 Seattle Weekly Chronicle in Clarence Bagley In the Beginning (1905), p. 35-39; Frederic James Grant, History of Seattle, Washington (New York: American Publishing and Engraving Co., Publishers, 1891), 87-90; National Archives, Washington Donation Land Claims, Samuel Mapel Donation Land Claim Number O-206,O-314, O-351, O-353, O-405, O-423, O-429, O-440, O-466, O-521, National Archives Microfilm M615. (Washington DC: National Archives, National Archives and Records Service, ca. 1970); Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle From 1850 to 1897," p 17, 22-23, 24, typescript dated 1900-1901, Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Thomas Prosch, David S. Maynard and Catherine T. Maynard Biographies of Two of the Oregon Immigrants of 1850 (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Stationery & Printing Co, 1906), 28; Robert L. Ferguson, The Pioneers of Lake View (Seattle: Thistle Press, 1995), 30-31; Seattle Post-Intelligencer November 29, 1896, p. 5; E. B. Mapel, "A Short Autobiography of E. B. Mapel..." dated in ink November 16, 1902 in C. B. Bagley Scrapbook at University of Washington. Microfilm at University of Washington Library, Suzzallo Branch, Newspapers and Microforms Vol. 1 pp 38-39; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago; The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), Vol. 1, p. 17, Vol. 2 p. 800; History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington (Portland, OR: North Pacific History Company, 1889), 612-613; H. K. Hines, An Illustrated History of the State of Washington (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1893), 522-523; The West Shore Vol. 10 No. 6 (June, 1884), p. 164; Arthur A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound (Seattle: C. B. Bagley, Printer, 1888), 10-11, 16-20; Account Book in Charles Carroll Terry Papers, Leaf 4 verso, leaf 5 verso, leaf 6 recto, leaf 7 verso, in back of book leaf d recto, Accession No. 0247-001, University of Washington Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives; Walt Crowley et al., "An Accidental Metropolis," The Seattle Times October 1, 2000, p. 1-D.
Note: This file was corrected on October 27, 2004. Lee Terry's and Charles Terry's dates were corrected based on the Terry family genealogical Website, "TERRYs of Oneida and Madison Counties New York," compiled by Debbie Jeffers, accessed on October 27, 2004 (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~nyterry/). This corrects Lee Terry's 1889 death date as reported in Arthur Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, 1908 Edition.


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Duwamish westcoast canoe for travel in salt water, and cedar long house, Cedar River, 1893
Courtesy University of Oregon Library, Special Collections (Neg. AD 1418)


Jacob Maple (or Mapel) (1798-1884)



Henry Van Asselt (1817-1902)



Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey (1818-1857)



John C. Holgate (1828-1868)



Early Seattle claim map, including the then-winding Duwamish River, 1850s



John N. Low (1820-1888), 1860
Courtesy A.A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound


David Denny (1832-1903), ca. 1890
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image No. PH Coll 879.22)


Lee Terry (1818-1862)
Courtesy Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound


Arthur Denny (1822-1899)



William N. Bell (1817-1887)
Courtesy Bagley, History of King County


Sisters Mary Ann Boren (r.) and Louisa Boren (l.) married brothers Arthur Denny and David Denny
Courtesy UW Special Collections


Low family (from upper left) Alonzo Low, John Low (father), John N. V. Low, Minerva Low, Lydia Colburn Low (mother), Mary Low (later Sinclair), ca. 1860
Courtesy A. A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound


Charles C. Terry (1828-1867)
Courtesy Bagley, History of King County


Lydia Low
Courtesy A.A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound


 
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