Boren, Carson Dobbins (1824-1912)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 10/31/1998
  • Essay 1936

The pioneering contributions of Carson Dobbins Boren to the founding of Alki (in future West Seattle) and Seattle began and ended within a short period of six years. Carson Boren was a member of the Denny Party, which arrived in 1851. He was the brother of Mary Ann (Boren) Denny (1822-1912), who was married to Arthur Denny (1822-1899), and Louisa Boren Denny (1827-1916), whose marriage to Arthur's younger brother David Denny (1832-1903) was the first non-Indian wedding in Seattle. Arthur Denny was the acknowledged leader of the immigrant party that chose Seattle as the site of a future town.

Carson Boren was born on December 12, 1824, in Nashville, Tennessee. Like other members of the Denny Party, he arrived in the Pacific Northwest from the farming country of the Midwest. Although little is known about him, shards of evidence and the comments of his contemporaries help describe Carson Boren's role in the founding of Seattle.

Boren helped build several small log cabins at Alki. After he and the other men had erected shelter and learned from the Indians how to split cedar boards, they were pleased to see Leonesa -- a brig (a two-masted, square-rigged sailing ship) -- drop anchor off the point.

Captain Daniel S. Howard asked settlers if they would provide piles needed for San Francisco wharves. San Francisco was then a boomtown, still heady over the California gold rush. A contract was signed, and the male members of the party set to work.

Using two pair of oxen, in just 16 days they helped Captain Howard and his crew load 13,458 feet of lumber. The results, besides pride in their own accomplishment, were hard cash for a struggling colony and the establishment of a trade link between Elliott Bay and San Francisco. Before the Leonesa set sail, Arthur Denny and Carson Boren gave the skipper money for barrels of pork and flour to be delivered on his return visit.

Despite the enthusiasm of Denny Party members Lee Terry and Charles Terry (1830-1867) for the original settlement of "New York" (later-Alki, meaning by-and-by in the Chinook trading jargon), Carson Boren, William Bell (1817-1887), and the Dennys questioned the town's location and doubted its longterm prospects. In February 1852, Boren, Bell, and Arthur and David Denny set off in a canoe to explore the eastern shore of Elliott Bay.

Deep Water and Tall Trees

According to the story, Boren and Bell did the paddling while the Denny men dragged the clothesline and horseshoe to sound the depth. They found what they were looking for: deep water for a harbor, a nearby meadow with a stream (later the site of Henry Yesler's mill), and plenty of tall timber.

Arthur Denny, a former surveyor, pounded the first stake at the foot of what is now Denny Way (named after David Denny) and the next stake at what they called the "The Point," the corner of present-day 1st Avenue and King Street. It was agreed that Arthur Denny would take the middle section, Bell the adjoining north section, and Boren the south section. At the time they gave little thought to how far back, or uphill, their sections should extend.

On March 23, 1852, the Exact returned from her voyage to the Queen Charlotte Islands with a boatload of disillusioned gold prospectors. Carson Boren and David Denny went aboard for her continuing journey southward to retrieve stock they had left in the Willamette Valley.

After returning, Carson Boren and William Bell packed their goods and moved to the new townsite on April 3, 1852. At the northwest corner of present-day 2nd Avenue and Cherry Street, Boren built a tiny cabin -- the first in the town. A plaque on the side of the Hoge Building at that site reads: "Carson D. Boren built here the first cabin home of white men in the city of Seattle in April, 1852. It was made of split cedar puncheons [split logs with smoothed faces]. This tablet was erected by the Washington State Historical Society November 13, 1905."

Roberta Frye Watt, Arthur Denny's granddaughter, noted that Boren chose a house site that was "in the woods," attesting to his life-long interest in farming and hunting. The "city" was not for him and later in life he lived out his years far from urban activity. In fact, Boren the hunter provided much of the game for the village during its first year or two. Carson's appreciation for the wooded hills of Puget Sound led him to collect seeds and specimens for re-planting. He once brought pink mission roses from Steilacoom to brighten his sister Louisa's garden.

Carson Boren brought to Seattle, besides his hunting and building skills, a Midwest religiosity. In 1853, he donated land for the church and parsonage of Rev. David Blaine at the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Columbia Street. There is also a record of his donating land "just outside the village survey" for a seminary, but this was never built.

Keeping the peace became one of Carson Boren's responsibilities. Officially, he was elected King County's first sheriff. Informally, he tried to maintain peace between the Indians, who apparently trusted him, and the non-Indian populations. Before local laws had defined and delineated anti-social behavior, the founders administered justice. According to Charles Terry's account book, in one instance Boren was required to carry out the wishes of "thirty men," a kind of jury, when an Indian was caught entering and stealing money and goods from Dr. Joseph Williamson's mercantile store.

Terry's notes read: "One Indian received twenty-five lashes by C. D. Boren." In another incident, Sheriff Boren saved an Indian from being lynched because he was "under suspicion" in the murder of a white man. (Two other Indians had been found guilty of the same crime.) He locked the man in his own home until the crowd became unruly and then personally transported him to the jailhouse at Steilacoom, south of Seattle along Puget Sound.

In early 1855, Boren joined several prominent citizens, including Dexter Horton (1825-1904) and Charles Plummer (?-1866), in exploring wagon and future railroad routes over the Cascade Mountains. Gold discoveries in Eastern Washington had stimulated traffic from Seattle through the passes. Boren's party went by way of Squak -- now Issaquah -- and Snoqualmie Falls where they divided into two groups. One group returned by the Green River, the other by the Cedar.

Boren Becomes a Recluse

While the little town of Seattle grew and welcomed newcomers virtually every week, Carson Boren withdrew into his forested reserve. In April 1855, Boren and his wife Mary Ann Kays Boren (ca. 1830-1905) sold their "downtown" holding -- one of the three original Seattle claims -- to Edward Lander and Charles Terry for $500, or $3.00 an acre. Boren's property had extended from 1st Avenue and Marion Street along the water to James Street, and then ascended the hill to include 320 acres. Why did he sell out, while others were making money right and left? Roberta Frye Watt points out that Carson had an unhappy home life. This compelled him to move deeper and deeper into the forest; to hunt and dream; and to shed most of his possessions.

The Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856, put everyone to the test, Indian and non-Indian. During an Indian attack, settlers poured into the town's only blockhouse when a howitzer began firing into the hillsides where Indian attackers had been seen. That ruckus was followed by batteries from the ship Decatur and a discharge of rifles from the Indians. During a midday lull in the battle, townsfolk crept out of the fort to retrieve food from their homes. Boren's home, about 100 yards from the fort, was apparently well stocked with sugar, flour, pork, and potatoes. Settlers took these supplies and carried them back to the fort.

Mary Ann and Carson Boren's marriage ended sometime after 1858. Boren remained close to his three children Levinia Gertrude Boren (1850-1912), William Richard Boren (1856-1899), and Mary Louisa Boren Denny (1858-1926). He died on August 19, 1912, at his ranch in Hollywood (now part of Woodinville).


Clarence Bagley, History of King County (Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1939); Murray Morgan, Skid Road New York: The Viking Press, 1951); Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in old Seattle (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1937); "One of Seattle's First Settlers Dead," Seattle Post Intelligencer, August 20, 1912.
Note: This biography was corrected on January 12, 2003, and again on February 8, 2006.

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