Nagle, John H. (1830-1897)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 1/23/2010
  • Essay 9268
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John H. Nagle was a Seattle pioneer whose 161-acre donation land claim is now part of the Broadway neighborhood on Capitol Hill. He was born in Germany. His family emigrated first to Hagerstown, Maryland (1833), then to Pennsylvania, and in about 1850, to Indiana. Nagle (pronounced “Nail” and sometimes spelled Nagel) arrived in Seattle in his early 20s in 1853 and participated in the founding of Seattle's first church, Methodist Episcopal, known as the "little white church." He served as King County assessor in the 1850s and early 1860s and also as a King County council member.  His younger sister, Catherine Anna Nagle (1833-1894), joined him in Seattle in 1864 or 1865. She married Alexander Murray Gow (1822-1894) in 1866 and moved south to the White River area, where the Gows farmed.  In 1874, the King County Probate Court committed John Nagle to the new Washington Hospital for the Insane at Fort Steilacoom. He spent the remaining 22 years of his life there. He died in 1897 and is buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Seattle.  Most of his land was platted and sold at auction in 1880 and 1890 to pay his expenses.  The balance, known as the “Nagle Tract” was sold to the City of Seattle after his death for Lincoln Reservoir and Lincoln Park, now Cal Anderson Park.

Early Years

John H. Nagle was born in Germany on June 15, 1830. His father, Johannes Michael Nagle, of Frankfort-on-the-Main, and his mother, Dorothea Roth, of Alsace, fled Europe for America because of religious persecution. Nagle’s father was a scholar as well as a stonemason. He  read several classical languages and spoke a number of modern ones. 

By the time he arrived in Seattle in 1853, John Nagle was a well-educated, well-read bachelor and seems to have shared the family interest in Christian religious participation. Nagle had been trained as a paper maker. After he arrived in Seattle, he did odd jobs for a few years and then became a farmer.

John Nagle's Seattle

On February 8, 1853, Washington Territory was separated from Oregon Territory, and soon after, King County was designated. The Board of King County Commissioners was organized on March 5, 1853.  In the summer or fall of 1853, a federal census was conducted of the counties of the new Washington Territory. King County had a white population of 170 people, 111 of whom were males over 21 who had resided in the territory for six months and were citizens (eligible to vote).  John H. Nagle was not listed in King County.

We do not know for certain how John Nagle traveled to Seattle or exactly when he arrived.  It is possible that he was one of “about 20 bachelors” reported by Clarence Bagley to have been part of the Bethel Party which left Princeton, Illinois, on April 20, 1852, traveled across country, and arrived at Salem, Oregon, on September 21, 1852. Bagley himself took this journey as a child with his parents and later in life researched the trip. Bachelors, apparently, were considered of no account at this time. Research gathered by the Seattle Genealogical Society notes that “John H. Nagel arrived in the Territory 12 Oct. 1852”  (SGS, Seattle, 51). In 1852, “Territory” referred to the entire Oregon Territory, and Nagle may have arrived in Oregon by another of the numerous wagon trains to make that trip in 1852. He could also have arrived by ship.

The Salem, Oregon, area was home to an early group of Methodist missionaries that welcomed the Bethel Party and other Methodists when they arrived. In the spring of 1853, only Dexter Horton (1825-1904) and Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) from the Bethel Party are reported to have come up to Seattle from Salem, walking to Steilacoom and then going on to Seattle by boat, returning later for their families. It is possible that John Nagle traveled with them, meeting Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899) and Mary B. Denny (1822-1912) when he arrived early in the summer of 1853, and also that he joined Dexter Horton in working at Yesler’s mill when he first arrived, perhaps staying at “Bachelor’s Hall” or the Latimer Building near Front (1st) and Cherry streets, where Reverend David Blaine (1824-1900) held his first services in Seattle.

In a meeting of the County Commissioner Court on Monday, November 5, 1853, “J. H. Nale” (J. H. Nagle) was appointed, among others, to serve as a grand juror. This is the earliest record we find of Nagle in Seattle.

The Reverend Blaine and his new wife, Catharine P. Blaine (1829-1908), traveled from New York to Alki, arriving on November 26, 1853. They moved across the bay to Seattle with the Arthur Denny family in 1853 and served as missionaries, building the first church in Seattle and teaching the first school until they left in 1856. In their letters home during this period, the Blaines do not name many of their acquaintances, but in 1854 Catharine mentions that the Reverend Blaine spent many evenings with “his young German.” While John Nagle was not much younger than David Blaine, and had been living in the United States since he was 3 years old, it is possible that he was this “young German.” In any case, John H. Nagle was one of the four founders of the first church in Seattle (Methodist Episcopal) in January 1854, along with David and Catharine Blaine and Arthur and Mary Denny. The church building was dedicated on May 12, 1855. It was known as the “Little White Church” and was located on the corner of present-day 2nd Avenue and Columbia Street.

It is possible that Nagle was a Methodist before embarking on the trek across country. He may have known Reverend Bagley before leaving the Pennsylvania-Illinois-Indiana country, or he may have been introduced to Methodism on the journey or at the Methodist mission in Salem.

Civic Participation

In the early summer of 1855, gold was discovered east of the Cascades, and Seattle’s settlers were anxious to find a better pass through the mountains. In 1853, Captain George B. McClellan had been appointed to carve out a military wagon road through Naches (Nachess) Pass just north of Mt. Rainier, which served, poorly, wagon trains from Walla Walla bound for Fort Steilacoom. Then, as today, Naches Pass (Naches Pass Trail 1175/684) was considered unsatisfactory and a pass-exploring expedition, led by Judge Edward Lander, set out from Seattle on July 23, 1855. Participants included Carson Boren, Franklin Matthias, Charles Plummer, John Nagle, A. F. Bryant, Dr. Bigelow, Charles Walker, and Dexter Horton. Their explorations resulted in the use of Snoqualmie Pass as a better wagon route and, later, as the railroad route into the Puget Sound area.  (This route is now Interstate 90.)

On July 13, 1857, Nagle was elected King County Assessor and served until January 1859. He was elected again in July 1860 and served until July 1861. During the year he was not working as an assessor, July 12, 1858, until December 5, 1859, Nagle was elected and served as a county commissioner with Henry Yesler (1810-1892). At this time, the role of the King County Assessor required taking a county census as well as assessing taxes. Nagle was clearing land and farming as well as serving as assessor, for which he was paid expenses. 

John Nagle, Homesteader

On September 24, 1855, Nagle settled on his donation land claim for 161 acres and became a farmer. This was Donation Land Claim No. 233, located on today's Capitol Hill. The claim is  bounded by Harvard Avenue on the west, a half block east of 14th Avenue on the east, Union Street on the south and Thomas Street to the north. His claim was just east of those of Arthur and Mary Denny and just east and south of those of David Denny (1832-1903) and his wife Louisa Boren Denny (1827-1916). The Dennys were his closest neighbors, more than a mile away through dense woods. His claim afforded no view of Elliott Bay and no inkling of Lake Washington to the east.

Nagle raised cows and cultivated fruit trees along with the usual hay and vegetables. On September 23, 1865, the Seattle Weekly Gazette reported that the “King County Agricultural Fair” was to be held on October 11 in Seattle. J. H. Nagle was reported to be on the executive committee and also was included as a judge for fruits with C. Clymer and David Denny. (In 2009 a grove of very old cherry trees was cleared from property across the street to the north from Nagle Place and Denny Way. These may have formed part of Nagle’s original orchard.)

Nagle's Seattle Family

According to family history, sometime in 1863 or 1864, Nagle wrote to his younger sister, Catherine Anna Nagle, who was living in Baltimore, asking that she come to Seattle to keep house for him. (Her name is given variously in the records as Anna Catherine, Catherine A., and Kate. Her daughter Ida Helen Gow calls her "Anna" in her “A Bit of Family History.”)  Reverend Daniel Bagley was traveling east to New York and Catherine Anna Nagle joined him there and traveled with him and his wife’s niece, Edna Ann Whipple (1843-1893), to Seattle. Edna Ann and Catherine Anna became lifelong friends during the three-month journey by ship with a rail journey across the Isthmus of Panama.

In July 1864, Alexander Murray Gow arrived in Seattle by ship from California where he had been fruit farming. He kept a diary of this time in his life. On July 26, 1864, he describes his first walk around Seattle: 

“Visited all the places in town. It contains 1 sawmill, 2 grist mills, 2 hotels, 4 stores, 1 drug store, post office, 2 saloons, 1 University, 1 brewery, 1 tannery, 2 bakeries, 2 butcher shops, and about the usual amount of private residences for such an amount of business. I forgot the primary school” (U.W. Gow Papers, Seattle, 2).

Early in his visit to Seattle, he described visiting “Mr. Nail” about a mile out of town at his homestead. Alexander Gow, however, chose to homestead south of Seattle in King County and filed a claim in the fall of 1864 for a property on the east side of the White River valley about three miles north of what is now Kent. Gow served as a King County Commissioner from August 1867 to May 1869 with Henry Yesler and James Bush (1825-1894).

On March 6, 1866, John Nagle received a patent from the U.S. government and took over ownership of his donation claim. His sister Catherine married Alexander Murray Gow on March 18, 1866. Although Gow had finished a road and a rough cabin on his White River Valley claim in 1864, he was working at Yesler’s sawmill in 1869 when their first baby was born in the Bagley’s Methodist parsonage at 2nd Avenue and Columbia Street in Seattle. Gow had turned down Nagle’s offer to sell him part of his claim west of Broadway because he felt it wouldn’t farm profitably. The Gows raised three three daughters (Lizzie Dora, b. 1869; Ida, b. 1871; and Margaret, b. 1876) and farmed in the White River valley until they retired to Sumner.

From 1866 until 1874, this writer found no record of John Nagle. It is likely he continued to participate as a Methodist in the “Brown Church” on the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue and Madison Street founded by Daniel Bagley in 1860. In their memoirs of this time, both Charles Prosch (1850-1915) and Arthur Denny speak of the difficulties of being settlers in Seattle between 1860 and 1875. Population increase had slowed to a trickle,  times were hard, and farmers were hard-pressed to feed their families. John H. Nagle remained a bachelor.

Nagle's Mental Illness

On July 13, 1874, the King County Probate Court allowed David Kaufman and David Morris to take John H. Nagle into custody, and on July 14 records were filed in the court including certification by G. A. Weed, M.D. that Nagle was "in my judgment a dangerous man and should be carefully guarded" (Note in King County Probate Court file). Nagle was removed to the Washington Territory Insane Asylum on July 13. On July 17, 1874, the court appointed David T. Denny as guardian and trustee for J. H. Nagle’s estate at the request of Nagle’s only relatives living in Washington Territory, his sister Kate Gow and her husband Alexander Gow.

Concern had been raised in the late 1860s about the care of the mentally ill in Washington, and an 1869 visit and investigation by nationally renowned reformer Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) focused the controversy. In January 1870 the Washington Territorial Legislature bought the garrison buildings of Fort Steilacoom for $850 from the federal government for an "Insane Asylum for Washington Territory." On August 19, 1871, 21 patients were transferred to the new facility, to which Nagel was committed three years later.

A dual-management procedure hampered care of these patients: A contractor hired by the state supervised the finances while a physician provided the care. In April 1874 Congress approved the donation of 373.75 acres of Fort Steilacoom to Washington Territory for "an asylum for the insane ... and for no other purpose." Doctors Stacey Hemenway (1836-1914) and H. D. Willison, each of whom had served as resident physician; the new territorial medical society; and The Daily Pacific Tribune of Olympia, a newspaper owned by Charles and Thomas W. Prosch, all urged the legislature to reform management of the asylum. In response, the 1875 legislature created a board of trustees to manage the facility, which it named the "Hospital for the Insane in Washington Territory," and care began to improve.

By 1877, under the supervision of superintendent Rufus Willard (ca. 1840-1905), changes in treatment were under way. Superintendent Willard was also a Methodist. Dr. Willard's 1877 report to the Legislature mentions the planting of 300 fruit trees and the cultivation of several acres of gardens. It is possible that John H. Nagle and his brother-in-law Alexander Gow were involved in this activity, as both were known to be fruit farmers.

John Nagle's Death

John H. Nagle died at Western Washington Hospital for the Insane on February 8, 1897, of "exhaustion due to acute mania" ("Letter dated February 8 ...").  He was 66 years old. He had lived there for 22 years, 6 months, and 26 days.

His body was brought to Seattle where his death was registered the following day in King County. He was buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. John Nagle never married and his heirs were "minors," possibly the daughters (in their 20s) of his sister and brother-in-law, Catherine Anna and Alexander Murray Gow, who had died in Sumner in 1895 and 1894 respectively.

The Property

David Denny served as guardian and trustee for Nagle's estate. The homestead of his donation claim was probably located on what was later described as the “open tract” in J. H. Nagle’s First Addition platted in 1880. This was one block east of Broadway to the east side of 12th Avenue, and from the north side of Gould Street (now Pine Street) to the south side of Hawthorn Street (now Denny Way).

This was the part of Nagle's claim that would later become the reservoir and park (Lincoln Reservoir and Lincoln Park, later renamed Broadway, later still renamed Bobby Morris Playfield and Cal Anderson Park). Because of its later significance, park historian Don Sherwood suggests that the fact that Denny held on to this part of the property "clearly indicates that this tract was being considered for something big." However it is likely that Sherwood was reading too much into Denny's motivation. It is unlikely that David Denny knew of the need for a reservoir in 1880, since it was the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 that stimulated the reservoir plan. More likely, Denny was preserving the homestead and home farm component of John Nagle’s estate in the eventuality that Nagle would recover and come home.

David Denny kept meticulous records of his guardianship and trusteeship, which are now part of the King County Probate Court Territorial Probate Court case files (Case No. 66-79). During his guardianship from July 17, 1874, through May 4, 1897, Denny tried a variety of strategies to use Nagle’s land to finance his care and taxes. He managed this until 1880, leasing portions of the property to farmers and in 1877 even, Clarence Bagley reports, leasing a portion of the farm (“near Denny Way and Tenth Avenue North”) to the Seattle Amateur Rifle Association for a range.

By 1880, these strategies were not adequate and, with the probate court’s permission, David T. Denny platted and sold the lots of J. H. Nagle’s 1st Addition at public auction ("Plat of An Addition to the City of Seattle 23 Oct. 1880").  His 2nd Addition was platted in 1890, leaving an open tract, known as the  “Nagle tract.” At Nagle's death, this "Nagle tract" was sold to the City of Seattle by David T. Denny under direction of the Probate Court and with participation by a court-appointed representative for the interests of the minor trustees of the estate (the documents do not show who these were).

The Legacy of the Nagle Tract

After John Nagle died in 1897, Seattle purchased 11.133 acres of the open tract that Denny had retained out of the plats of 1880 and 1890, the "Nagle tract." (Nagle Place and 11th Avenue, now 11th Avenue E,  were platted and the realtor was free to plat and sell the balance of the "open tract.") On its land the City build a reservoir and a hydraulic pumping station (both put into use in 1901). The new city park acerage was assigned to the Olmsted Brothers in 1902, as part of the City's park planning process. The unused part of the park was improved as a playfield in 1908. The reservoir and park were named Lincoln Reservoir and Lincoln Park and in 1922 renamed Broadway Playfield to avoid confusion with the new Lincoln Park in West Seattle.  

In 1980, the playfield was renamed Bobby Morris Playfield, after a beloved Capitol Hill coach who also served as King County Auditor. In 2003, the entire site was named Cal Anderson Park in honor of Washington state's first gay legislator. The Bobby Morris Playfield kept its name. Between 2003 and 2005 the reservoir was lidded and the Cal Anderson Park was extensively remodeled. The official re-opening and dedication of Cal Anderson Park took place on September 24, 2005. It sits on John Nagle's original donation land claim.


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