Spithill, Alexander (1824-1920)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 11/22/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8779
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Alexander Spithill was an early Puget Sound pioneer, arriving in October 1856 and settling initially at Utsalady on Camano Island. In 1861 he started what was probably the first logging camp in the Marysville area on Allen Slough, and later in the 1860s and into the early 1870s worked on the Tulalip Reservation. Spithill moved to Mukilteo in 1877 and farmed there for a dozen years. He permanently relocated to Marysville in 1890, was one of the incorporators of the town in 1891, served on the town council for a number of years, and worked in real estate and timber during his 30 years in Marysville. 

A Man Who Sailed to Sea 

Alexander Spithill was born May 24, 1824, in Greenock, Scotland.  He was the son of John Spithill, a sea captain engaged in the merchandise lumber trade between Quebec and Scotland for more than three decades. Evidently young Spithill acquired his father’s seafaring tastes, because shortly before his 17th birthday in 1841, he too sailed to sea. 

Spithill spent the 1840s working on the oceans with his father, and lived for a time in Australia. In March 1849 he arrived in San Francisco.  It was the height of the California gold rush, and he stayed for several years; then, between 1854 and 1856, he worked for a Scottish company that was exploring for guano (which had recently been discovered to be an excellent fertilizer) in the North and South Pacific Ocean. 

Spithill sailed north in the autumn of 1856, and landed at Port Orchard (Kitsap County) on October 6, 1856. He briefly worked as a mail carrier, carrying mail by boat (operated by Spithill and five Native Americans) between various Indian reservations and United States military posts. But in November 1856 he went to work for Grennan & Craney in Utsalady (Island County), on the northern end of Camano Island. Grennan & Craney, in the parlance of the day, was in the business of “getting out spars” (Prosser), or manufacturing round timber poles which could be used as a mast, yard, or boom on sailing vessels, primarily for the French government, though the English and Russian governments were also customers. 

Logging Days

Early in 1861, Spithill established the first known logging camp in what would later become Marysville (Snohomish County), located on Allen Slough, about a mile north of today’s (2008) downtown Marysville.  Meany writes that Spithill’s firm, Spithill & Long, cut the first boom of logs that was towed out of the Snohomish River.  In describing the first days of logging in 1861, Spithill said that only the best trees, near the shore or river banks, were cut.  Loggers used oxen (supplied at $200 to $300 a pair by area farmers) in the camps for the heavy work.  Initially no one paid attention to ownership of the land. Then government inspectors arrived and charged loggers 25 cents per thousand feet for logs cut on government land, though the lumbermen were skeptical as to how much of that money actually made it to the federal treasury. But this era soon passed, and within a year or so mill companies began acquiring title to the timberlands.                       

Spithill ran his lumber business for a number of years. In 1862 he became the first road supervisor in Snohomish County, and in 1869 he was appointed by the federal government to work on the Tulalip Reservation. His duties were to teach the Native Americans to clear land and to do carpentry work. (He worked in a similar capacity on the Makah Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula.)  In the summer of 1872 he left the reservation shortly after his contemporary, James Comeford, arrived to take a position as Indian agent. (It’s unclear whether Comeford replaced Spithill or took another position. Comeford’s duties in his years on the reservation were considerably more substantial than Spithill’s had been.)  For the next four years Spithill worked at Priest Point at the mouth of the Snohomish River, managing interests of various logging and steamboat companies. 

Making His Mark in Marysville

In 1877 Spithill homesteaded in Mukilteo and successfully farmed there until 1889, also serving as a justice of the peace in the little village for a decade. In 1889 he moved to Everett, but in 1890 relocated to Marysville, arriving in time to become one of the town’s incorporators in 1891. Spithill, a staunch Republican, served as a member of the Marysville town council for a number of years, and was active in real estate (particularly buying and selling timberlands) for many of his years in Marysville. He enjoyed good health and a long life, and remained active until shortly before his death on February 11, 1920. 

Spithill married three times. Little is known of his first wife, though they had at least one son. In March 1857 Spithill married a Native American, Hessie Turner, at Utsalady; together they had four children.

After her death Spithill married another Native American, Anastasia Newman (1853?-1932), in February 1870, at Tulalip. They had nine children. The Spithills lived on the corner of 8th and Beach streets in Marysville until Anastasia died in 1932, and were known for their hospitality in Marysville’s early years for providing meals and a place to sleep overnight for travelers passing through at a time when there were few hotels in town.

Sources: William Farrand Prosser, A History of the Puget Sound Country: Its Resources, Its Commerce and Its People Vol. 2 (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903), 410;  Herbert Hunt and Floyd Kaylor, Washington: West of the Cascades Vol. 1 (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1917),  404;  Maude Barrett and Pat Olson, Reflections Of Marysville (Marysville: City of Marysville, 1991), 44 ;  “Alexander Spithill, Puget Sound Pioneer,” The Marysville Globe, February 20, 1920, p. 1; Anastasia Spithill, Marysville Pioneer, Dies in Portland,”  Ibid., January 21, 1932, p. 1.

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