Port Angeles settlers jump the federal reserve and claim squatters' rights to lots on July 4, 1890.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/19/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8217

On July 4, 1890, local residents begin settling illegally on a federal reserve that occupies much of the land that will soon become downtown Port Angeles. The 3,520-acre reservation has been largely off limits for development since Port Angeles was founded 28 years earlier as a "national city" laid out by the federal government at the urging of town father Victor Smith (1827-1865). With population booming and land prices climbing in the late 1880s, Port Angeles residents urge the government to open up the reservation that leaves their town land-locked, but get no response. Urged on by lawyer John C. Murphy, the settlers take matters into their own hands on the Fourth of July by moving en masse onto the federal land, where they begin cutting the thick timber and laying out lots. "Jumping the Reserve" soon gets the government's attention and the squatters are eventually allowed to stake legal claim to their lots.

The "Second National City"

The existence of the controversial federal reserve was a result of Port Angeles's unique status as the so-called "Second National City" (after Washington, D.C.) to be created by the federal government. The reserve was the brainchild of Victor Smith, an Ohio newspaperman and Republican party worker who followed former Ohio governor and senator Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) to Washington, D.C. when the latter was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).

Seeking opportunity in the nation's capital, Smith learned of Port Angeles, a fine natural harbor on the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula, protected by the sand spit of Ediz Hook jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the time there was only a handful of American settlers living among the Klallam Indian villages on the harbor, but they had formed a land company touting Port Angeles as a "natural Cherbourg" (Cherbourg being a well-known French naval base). Smith and perhaps Chase invested in Port Angeles property, and Chase appointed Smith Collector of Customs for the Puget Sound District that included the harbor.

When Smith arrived in Washington Territory, he temporarily transferred the Customs Port of Entry from Port Townsend to Port Angeles and began lobbying to have Port Angeles officially established as a national city. On June 19, 1862, President Lincoln signed an executive order setting aside 3,520 acres on Port Angeles harbor as a federal reserve for lighthouse, military, and naval purposes. Ten acres on Ediz Hook were for the planned lighthouse, while the remaining "military" reserve was to be a federal townsite. Smith and Chase had persuaded the president that developing Smith's planned city and selling the federal land would raise money to help pay the military costs of the Civil War then in progress.

Congress confirmed the federal reserve at Port Angeles by passing legislation five months later that authorized the government to establish federal reservations and sell townsites. The law was formally applied to Port Angeles on March 10, 1863 (it would be used only once more, for Anchorage, Alaska).

However, Smith's projection that lot sales would raise thousands of dollars for the war effort proved grossly exaggerated. When lots were auctioned in 1864, only a handful of lots, mostly along the waterfront were sold, bringing the government a mere $4,570.25 -- at a cost of $37,800 in survey and auction costs. After Smith died and the Customs House returned to Port Townsend, Port Angeles languished and hardly any more lots were sold over the next 25 years. Far from drawing settlers, the reserve had the opposite affect, placing most of the Port Angeles area off limits to homesteading -- just entering the reservation made one liable to arrest as a trespasser -- while in most of the rest of the territory, settlers could make donation land claims and gain title to land without having to buy it.

Jumping the Reserve

By the late 1880s, all of Washington Territory was booming and land prices were rising. The Puget Sound Co-operative Colony, a short-lived utopian experiment, attracted many new idealistic and energetic settlers to the Port Angeles area. As more settlers arrived and found no land available in the city, they chafed at the fact that some 3,000 acres remained locked up in the federal reserve, a tangle of dense old-growth timber that hemmed in the small settlementĀ along the waterfront and stymied development. Noting that the government had not responded to requests to open the reserve, John C. Murphy, an Irish American lawyer who moved to Port Angeles from Olympia in 1890, came up with the plan to force the issue by jumping the reserve.

Murphy urged residents to open the reserve themselves by moving onto the government land to stake out and occupy lots. The squatters picked July 4, 1890, to begin their land rush. They "literally picked their beds up off the beach and walked into the timber" (Welsh, 13). Each squatter claimed two 50 by 140 foot lots, on which they felled the timber, burned the brush, grubbed out the stumps, planted gardens, built fences, and set up some tent or shanty so they could "prove up" the claim by living on it.

To keep things orderly, the settlers formed the Squatters Aid Association of Port Angeles, headed by George Venable Smith (1843-1919), who had been the co-founder and initial leader of the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony. A second squatters association, headed by another Puget Sound Co-operative Colony alumnus, John Henson, was formed later as the process of legalizing the claims dragged on.

Jumping the reserve worked as Murphy had predicted. Less than a year later, on March 3, 1891, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) signed legislation opening the reserve and allowing the squatters to receive title to two lots each on which they had homesteaded. Three years later, beginning on January 1, 1894, the remaining lots were auctioned off.

Sources: Thomas T. Aldwell, Conquering the Last Frontier (Seattle: Artcraft Engraving and Electrotype Company, 1950), 20; Charles Pierce LeWarne, Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975), 48; Paul J. Martin, Port Angeles, Washington: A History (Port Angeles: Peninsula Publishing, 1983), 11-29, 55; William D. Welch, A Brief History of Port Angeles (Port Angeles: Crown Zellerbach Corporation, 1968), 12-14.

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