Denny, David Thomas (1832-1903)

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 8/31/1998
  • Essay 1729
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David Thomas Denny was the first member of the Denny Party (led by his older brother Arthur) to arrive in the future city of Seattle in 1851. He staked a claim to the future site of Seattle Center and in 1853 married fellow pioneer Louisa Boren (1827-1916). Denny pursued a diverse career as a community leader, capitalist, streetcar operator, and developer until he lost his fortune in the Panic of 1893. Denny died in near poverty in 1903 and was buried in the family plot in today's Evergreen Washelli Cemetery.

Go West Young Man

David Denny was born on March 17, 1832, in Putnam County, Indiana. His parents were second-generation immigrants of English and Scottish stock who came to Pennsylvania via Ireland in the 1700s. In 1851, David, his older brother Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899) and stepmother Sarah Boren Denny traveled the Oregon Trail to Portland in a party of 50 settlers led by his father, John Denny.

While the party waited in Portland, David Denny and John N. Low (1820-1888) took the Cowlitz Trail to Olympia. There they joined with Lee Terry and sailed up Puget Sound to look for homesteads.

David was the first to make landfall at the mouth of the Duwamish River on September 25, 1851. The “wilderness” was already filling up and they were welcomed by Luther Collins (1813-1860), Henry Van Asselt (d.1902), and Jacob and Samuel Mapel (or Maple), who had filed claims in the Duwamish Valley nearly two weeks earlier. Denny was also greeted by no less than Chief Seattle (d. 1866), leader of the resident Duwamish and Suguamish tribes.

Room For a Thousand

After scouting the area, Low commissioned Denny and Terry to build a cabin on Alki Beach while he returned to Portland with a note from David to Arthur Denny. It read "We have examined the valley of the Duwamish river and find it a fine country. There is plenty of room for one thousand settlers. Come at once" (Bagley, 46).

Arthur Denny arrived aboard the schooner Exact on November 13, 1851, with nine other adults and a dozen children. They found Denny alone and fevered in the unfinished cabin (Terry had gone off to visit nearby settlers in search of an ax). From this inauspicious beginning, Seattle began to grow.

The following February, most of the party decided to relocate to the eastern shore of Elliott Bay. In March, David Denny staked a claim to 160 acres north of present-day Denny Way, encompassing much of Queen Anne and the future site of Seattle Center. (Being a minor, he filed this in his father's name).

On January 23, 1853, David "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873) issued a King County marriage certificate to David Denny and Louisa Boren, long-time sweethearts and companions on the trek west. (The coupling of Dennys and Borens was something of a tradition, apparently.) The newlyweds first occupied a cabin near the foot of Denny Way, and Louisa planted gardens that later earned her the nickname "Sweetbriar Bride."

Raising a Family and a City

In 1860, the Dennys moved inland to the edge of a broad field variously dubbed "Potlatch Meadow" (there is no proof that tribal festivals were held there), "the swale," and "the prairie." The Seattle World's Fair would be held here 102 years later. A five-acre portion of the Denny Claim served as Seattle's first municipal cemetery beginning in 1861. After its original occupants were relocated to Washelli (now Lake View) Cemetery on Capitol Hill in 1876, the Dennys donated the tract as the first city park, and it is now named Denny Park in their honor.

Over the years, Louisa bore eight children and managed the home while her husband pursued a variety of business ventures, logging his property, establishing an early sawmill on Lake Union, and farming in the Duwamish Valley. He was also active in public life, serving as probate judge, King County Commissioner, Seattle City Council member, a director of the Seattle School District, and regent of the Territorial University of Washington, which later became the University of Washington.

Denny was an ardent advocate of woman suffrage and helped lead the movement that in the 1880s won Washington women the right to vote. He opposed the expulsion of Chinese immigrants in 1886, which antagonized local nativists.

From Riches to Rags

David Denny lacked the predatory instincts of other frontier capitalists, but he made enough money to build an imposing mansion on Queen Anne Hill in about 1890. He followed his older brother into real estate and platted several new neighborhoods in Seattle, including the Ravenna Park area. In 1891, he established the Rainier Power and Railway Company to provide streetcar service from downtown to the University District.

This enterprise along with Denny's entire fortune was wiped out during the national economic Panic of 1893 and ensuing five-year depression in Seattle. Denny's creditors, including many supposed friends and beneficiaries of his charitable spirit, seized his assets and forced him and Louisa to retreat to a small house in Fremont and from there to a tiny cottage at Licton Springs near Green Lake.

In 1899, at the age of 67, Denny won a King County contract to build roads near Snoqualmie Pass. He worked side by side with his crew and survived an accidental ax blow to the head.

Death Claims a Pioneer

The rigors of his life finally caught up with David Denny on the morning of November 25, 1903. At his death, Seattle belatedly honored one of its most generous founders. He was buried in the family plot, now part of Evergreen Washelli Cemetery.

Louisa lived another 13 years. Her last wish was to visit a point above Elliott Bay near the site of her and David's original cabin. There, on August 18, 1916, as a friend later wrote, "Within the sound of the lapping waters of Puget Sound, she passed on to meet David on the other shore" (Bagley, 87).


Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916); Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle (Forty Fort, PA: Harold E. Cox, 1968); Gordon Newell, Westward to Alki (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977). Note: This entry was updated on February 14, 2020, to correct David Denny's birthdate. 

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