Denny, Arthur Armstrong (1822-1899)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 10/28/1998
  • Essay 921

Arthur A. Denny is considered the leader of the party of immigrants who first landed at Alki (West Seattle) in 1851 and then founded the city of Seattle in 1852.

Born near Salem, Washington County, Indiana on June 20, 1822, Arthur Armstrong Denny learned to look out for himself and others at an early age. John Denny (1793-1875), Arthur's father, had been a Kentucky volunteer in the western battles of the War of 1812. Young Arthur cared for his invalid mother and attended school half days in a log schoolhouse. He learned carpentry and later taught school, studied surveying, and became county supervisor for Knox County, Illinois.

The Westward Adventure

Arthur Denny married Mary Ann Boren (1822-1912) on November 23, 1843, during the period he served as official surveyor of Knox County. Eight years later, he, Mary Ann, and other Denny and Boren family members outfitted four horse-drawn wagons, and with several dogs, saddle horses, and head of cattle, began their westward adventure from the little town of Cherry Grove on April 10, 1851.

The new Donation Land Law had recently passed and favorable descriptions of the climate, soil, and terrain of Oregon had been filtering eastward.

Members of the party were:

  • Arthur Denny, his wife, Mary Ann, and their two daughters, Louisa Catherine (b. 1844) and Margaret Lenora (1847-1915);
  • Arthur's parents, John Denny and Sarah Latimer Boren Denny (1805-1888), and their six-weeks-old child, Loretta Denny (1851-1907);
  • Arthur's four unmarried brothers, James Denny (1824-1855), Samuel Denny (1827-1897), Allen Wiley Denny (1834-1901), and David Denny (1832-1903);
  • Mary Ann (Boren) Denny's brother, Carson Boren (1824-1912), his wife Mary Boren (1831-1906) and infant daughter, Gertrude Boren (1850-1912); and
  • Louisa Boren (1827-1918), sister to Mary Ann (Boren) Denny and to Carson Boren.

Some Sound Advice

The Denny party's overland trip from Illinois to Portland and Puget Sound included stops at Council Bluffs, Iowa; sites along the Platte River; and Ft. Laramie, in what is now Wyoming. The party saw Independence Rock, Soda Springs, and Fort Hall in what is now Southern Idaho.

At Burnt River, a Mr. Brock from Oregon City advised them to forego the Willamette Valley and head north to Puget Sound. Brock must have been a convincing companion because the party, after resting in Portland to recover from the "ague," (malarial fever) sent John Low (1820-1888), David Denny, and a few head of cattle northward.

"Come at Once"

After an arduous journey to the Puget Sound, Low returned to Portland -- walking most of the way -- and delivered a letter from David Denny to Arthur: "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."

Boarding the little schooner Exact, the party sailed to Alki, arriving on that sandy, rain-soaked beach on November 13, 1851. Upon looking around, Mary Ann Denny, Arthur's wife, sat on a wet log with her baby in arms, and wept.

Exploring the Other Shore

After quickly building a roofless log cabin, the entire party moved in. Eventually, they put a roof on the first building and erected other shelters. A ship or two landed goods, and the men cut down trees for shipment to San Francisco for much needed hard cash. In early 1852, after experiencing rain and constant winds and coping with a poor ship's landing site, members of the party, including Arthur Denny, began to explore the Duwamish River, the mouth of the Puyallup River, and Cascade mountain passes.

Their curiosity led them to explore the eastern side of Elliott Bay. They found deep water, an abundance of timber on the nearby hillsides, and a small meadow and stream (today's Yesler Way). They decided to stake claims on the new shore. On February 15, 1852, Arthur Denny claimed the middle portion, William Bell (1817-1887) and David Denny claimed the north, and Carson Boren claimed the south. This event would later be known as the official founding of Seattle.

While other settlers, including the colorful Henry L. Yesler (1810-1892) and David "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873), were arriving in the tiny hamlet, Arthur Denny set to the task of building a home and seeking new business opportunities.

Leader of Seattle

Recognized as leader of Seattle -- a town named after his friend Chief Seattle (d. 1866) -- Denny found time over the next 40-plus years to serve as a delegate to the Monticello convention, which asked for the separation of today's Washington from Oregon; to serve as a King County commissioner and as Seattle's first postmaster; and to represent King County in the first Washington Territorial Legislature. He used his position in the legislature to locate the Territorial University in Seattle. Arthur Denny also donated land for the establishment of the university.

Denny served as land commissioner in Olympia and was elected a delegate to Congress in 1863, representing the Republican (formerly the Whig) party.

Abstemious Personal Life

Arthur Denny was a lifelong teetotaler. He was also a political conservative, an ascetic, and very cautious in his personal habits and business investments. He fervently practiced his Christian faith, and opposed legislative divorces. In early 1866, Denny erected an imposing residence at 1st Avenue between University and Union streets.

Arthur Denny passed away, after a long illness, on January 9, 1899, at the age of 77. Since his day through to the present time, members of the Denny clan have continued to live in the Puget Sound basin and to serve the community.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County(Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929). Also see: Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1931); Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan Company, Publishers, 1950); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past to Present (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1976).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You