Pioneering: A Story by Nicholas V. Sheffer (1825-1910), Part 2: Indian Wars

  • Posted 10/10/2006
  • Essay 7976
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In 1909, Nicholas Sheffer (1825-1910) was Whatcom County's oldest pioneer. He prepared his reminiscences for The Lynden Tribune, which ran them in three parts in August of that year as "A Story of Pioneering: Being a Personal Narrative of Early Days in Northwest Washington, told to the Tribune by N. V. Sheffer, of 1854." was made aware of this account by Whatcom County family historian Susan Nahas, who connected Sheffer's information with the story of Julia Benson Intermela (1855-1907) the half-Duwamish daughter of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892). In Part 3, Sheffer settles his family in Whatcom County near Lynden, but is quickly drawn to look for gold in Canada. (Note: In this transcription Sheffer's original spelling is retained.)

A Story of Pioneering: Part 2

I made arrangements to go down sound to Seattle or Port Townsend where I would be sure to catch the next ship. There was a man with the uncommon name of Smith in Olympia -- half shoemaker and half carpenter -- who wanted to go to Seattle, and together we embarked in my canoe once more.

On the way to Seattle we passed the mouth of the Puyallup as far distant and as quietly as we could, for the banks under the hill where the city of Tacoma now stands was a large encampment of Indians.

Luckily we got off the main channel on the way to Seattle and missed the runners from up sound who were on their way to Seattle and other of the down sound camps to warn the settlers of the outbreak of the Indians, so received the news only after we had reached Mr. Denny's place at Seattle.

[Part 2 of the newspaper series starts here]

Mr. Denney gave me a warm welcome. So did the other whites though they were not so warm as that kind-hearted gentleman. After the greeting the situation was explained.

I saw that it would be madness for me to attempt to make Port Townsend alone. There were many camps of the hostile Indians between the two posts, and they would be looking for lone canoe travelers. I moved my things into Mr. Williamson's store, it being about the handiest place, and he being very willing. It was then that I learned of the first outbreak, that had caught my friends on the prairie near Olympia, unprepared.

The Indians had made their attack on Sunday [October 28, 1855] just at the close of the services in the Eaton Schoolhouse [Thurston County], before mentioned.

Mrs. Clark and another lady whose name I have forgotten and some children had come to church in Eaton's cart. The men had walked. After services, Mr. Clark, after lifting the little folks into the cart, untied the horse and was still at its head while his wife was getting in when the Indians made their sudden attack.

Mr. Clark fell dead at the horses' head. Though the women were both in their cart, they didn't have the line and the horse released from control, as if knowing just what to do started on the run for home, probably saving the lives of the women and children. The men, who were all armed, without the women to protect made a gallant fight and soon had command of the situation.

That the attack was premeditated was shown by the fact that hostilities began at the same time at all the other posts and settlements. A few Indians about Seattle did not join the war party. One of them was Curley Jim, father of the Indian woman who lived with Mr. [Henry] Yesler, the locator of Seattle town site. During the trouble which followed Curley Jim and other friendly Indians were of considerable assistance, bringing in fish of various kinds and clams when our stock of provisions began to run low.

The settlers were gathering in from all direction, and at once we began the construction of a fort or stockade to protect them. In that, I being a carpenter found plenty to do.

There were so many things happening in such a short time that it was impossible for me to recollect them in the order they transpired. Then too there has been so much printed about this Indian war, in the newspapers and elsewhere that are not as I recall events, that if I should tell them as I remember them it would be a direct contradiction in many cases. Therefore I will only relate things that occurred, in which I was a participant, or which came directly under my observation. Probably I will not get things in their exact order, but as the events come to mind.

There were some very good men in and near Seattle and they were equal to the emergency. First there was a preliminary organization and then almost at once there followed enlistment and military organization. I did not enlist, for I intended to go after my family at the first opportunity and didn't want to tie myself down to serve and length of time, and could not have gone otherwise without deserting -- it was a mistake on my part, however.

Although not regularly enlisted I did duty just the same and became man of all work. I was always ready to volunteer in any expedition and consequently when men were wanted to go to [Luther] Collin's place, up on the Duwamish River [Georgetown], with Maj. J. J. H. Van Bockin [Van Brocklyn], of Port Townsend in charge I went along. About that same time the mail boat came and went on to Olympia, and I was determined that I would go on her after my family when she returned. But when she came back Governor Isaac I. Stephens [Stevens] came with her, and we learned that he had previously declared martial law, and I was informed, politely, but firmly that I could not go aboard the boat or leave the territory. Consequently I, not very reluctantly, became one of the brave defenders. I was disappointed and a little bit mad at first, but I didn't know what at or who at, so I sneaked back to Collins and the major with his everlasting stock of good humor and wit soon had me in a tolerable frame of mind. I fell into the rotation of duty once more such as working on the block house all day, and standing guard half the night.

But, the block house was soon finished near the Collins claim on the Duwamish River at the north end of the present-day Boeing Field] and it then became monotonous. When anyone had to go to Seattle I was chosen. Dispatches, requisitions, reports or anything else that required dispatch found me always ready, and many times I went without any particular business. Maybe I was a little foolhardy but I didn't feel the fear on the Indians that many manifested. I often heard it remarked in the stockade that the Indians would not kill Mr. Denny or me. Mr. Collins was a whole souled man and done and offered everything that was in his power to do or give for our comfort. Mrs. Collins was a kind motherly woman who tried to make everyone feel at home, and the daughter, Lucinda, about 16 years of age, was a good help about cooking. The three constituted the family.

One day when I was at the Seattle fort, Mr. [David] Denny was going over to his place [at the location of the present-day Seattle Center] which he did every day or two in spite of protestations, and I proposed to go with him. We were about half way and I was in the lead when Curley Jim so suddenly appeared in front of me that it startled me for a moment and I threw my gun to my shoulder before I recognized who it was. He put up his hand as a sign for us to stop and approached Mr. Denny. In a low voice he told him there was a large number of strange Indians all through the woods that had come from the other side of the mountains to help the salt water Indians kill off the whites. Denny did not appear to be much frightened but we made schedule time back to the stockade.

Jim was much excited for an Indian, when he left us. I guess he had an idea that it was all up with the Bostons, as the Indians called the white men, and the news we carried to the camp caused no less excitement among those in the place.

With an escort, for they wouldn't let me go alone, I immediately set out for the fort or blockhouse at Collin's place and we arrived safely. The news created a considerable flurry I remember that Mr. Collins had always contended that Jim was a spy, but when he found the friendly Indian the first to give us the information that the Yakimas had arrived and were surrounding us, he changed his mind.

The news caused us to increase our watchfulness if that was possible. All during the war we were ever careful and alert, taking every possible precaution to guard against attacks, to which I attribute the few killings in and around Seattle.

During the war and at about this time the U.S. man-of-war Decatur cast anchor in the bay off Seattle and spread her protecting wings over Seattle. I think she had eight guns, if I remember aright, three on each side and one aft and one in the bow -- all cast iron cannons. They looked awfully good in those days though I suppose they were laughing at us now.

The Indians were pressing us pretty close and it was considered the part of wisdom to put the women and children aboard the war ship. I was in Seattle that day [January 20, 1856]. Mr. Yesler's woman [Susan] did not take kindly to the idea of going on the ship to live, but was at last prevailed upon to do it on account of the baby girl [Julia] of which the father was very fond. Yesler was a good man, never making himself conspicuous, never crowding himself forward, but his opinion or advice when given was generally about right. He was not married to the Indian woman but when his wife came he did not do like many others, drive the girl back to her tribe. He provided for the Indian woman and looked out for her welfare and for that of his daughter by her. He gave the daughter as good an education as circumstances would permit. I had the pleasure of meeting the daughter about two years ago. She is married to a very nice gentleman who is one of the foremost citizens in the city and county where they live. She is a perfect lady and is respected by all who know her. Mrs. [Sarah] Yesler, when she came and found Mr. Yesler the father of the little daughter, took the little one to her home and treated her as her own child.

There were many noble men and women among the first settlers, for it took a brave noble spirit to face the trials, troubles, privations and dangers that were encountered from start to finish. It seems to me that the self-sacrificing spirit for the good of others, has degenerated into selfish greed. Some look upon us old pioneers as an encumbrance, rather than as the instruments through which a kind Providence has made it possible for them to be here today. They call us old moss-backs. Yes we are "old moss backs" and we are proud of the moss. Would to God that they could grow a crop of moss on as self sacrificing backs, but I am afraid that it would not sprout -- that it would find no nutriment and that it would wither up and blow away. I don't think they would stand the privations of the old moss backs.

Except fish and potatoes, provisions were hard to procure. No meat and no grease such as lard, tallow or butter. Very little flour and sometimes none. It was potatoes and fish for breakfast, fish and potatoes for dinner and so on around until the small of boiled or roasted fish raised my gorge. About the time Maj. Van Bocklyn [Van Brocklyn] was sent over to Port Townsend. He found a vessel there that had come for spars or piling and, of course, went on board. Being a good talker he prevailed on the captain to let him have a few pounds of salt pork and a few pounds of firkin butter. He asked for lard or tallow and the captain told him he had none. The cook overheard the conversation and reminded the captain that there were two small barrels of broken up dip candles down in the hold. The captain protested that the major wouldn't be likely to want anything like that, but the major assured him he would be very glad to get the broken candles and so he was presented with them.

The major got his candles ashore, had them boiled, the wicks pressed out and the tallow made up into cakes which he brought back with him. He was very exact in issuing the tallow so that it would go around, and it was every particle eaten with thankfulness. The major eat his share of it though I don't think he generally let the others know where the tallow came from or in what condition he had found it. It made fish taste different and potatoes go down smoother and it greased the griddle for our flap jacks. The pork and butter went to the women and children, as they were at all times our chief consideration.

As soon as Uncle Sam's boys in blue began to arrive things took a change for the better, for Uncle Sam's boys have a knack of having provisions with them or following close after. Then we were able to get sugar, tea and coffee, which had been almost unheard of luxuries. Everything was put under stricter rules too, and I was not allowed to run around so much as I had been. Still I was obstinate about enlisting and had to endure a good many jibes.

I finally had my problem solved for me. I was advised that as I could not go to my family I had better send for them to come to me. I wrote for them to sell our property and to come to Port Townsend. I informed Mr. Hastings of what I had done and asked him to look out for them when they came.

That was an easy way to think of, but in the performance it was tedious for first they had to sell the property, then the deeds had to be sent to me for signature and it all took several months.

During that time I remained at the Collins block house helping all I could and getting to Seattle infrequently, so I did not get acquainted with many of those who came in late. I knew a few of them by sight, but not by name, and I don't see how many of them could have known me by name, for I was called "Indiana" by everyone.

If we had been prepared to prosecute the war more vigorously in the beginning it might not have lasted so long, though there would possibly have been more fatalities. The Indians had an idea they could starve us out, but when we began to receive quantities of supplies by large vessels that they could not attack in any hopes of success, and seeing as reinforced by regulars they began to understand the hopelessness of longer fighting. They were poorly supplied with provisions, their foraging grounds were limited as we kept them from their fishing grounds as much as we could. They got poor in flesh and were no longer very troublesome, because they had to spend most of their time hunting for something to eat.

There were numerous rumors about the circumstances leading up to the treaty of peace, some of which were true and some were false, but anyway brought great rejoicing when it was finally officially announced. At once there was great preparations to go to many deserted homes -- on the part of those who had homes left, and preparations to build new ones where the Indians had destroyed the old. It was in those days that such men as Mike Simmons, Nathan Eaton, of Olympia, Yesler, Denney, Williamson, of Seattle, L. B. Hastings, Petegrove, of Port Townsend and Roeder and Eldridge of Whatcom showed their worth by extending helping hands to those in need. There were others as generous but they did not come under my observation. Everyone was so anxious to get away that they scarcely took time to bid their friends good bye. I waited a few days for the major to finish up his work, as he and another man accompanied me in my ever ready canoe to Port Townsend. We carried all of our traps with us and were as happy as men could be. When we arrived in Port Townsend we found all of the settlers gathered and we had a great jollification.

[Part 2 of the newspaper story ends here.]

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