John Pinnell builds a Seattle brothel in 1861.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2738
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In 1861, John Pinnell (or Pennell, in some sources), the proprietor of several lucrative brothels in San Francisco, arrives in Seattle, Washington Territory, and establishes a brothel. He builds it just south of present-day (2014) Yesler Way. Seattle is a rough logging town with few women among the non-Indian population, and Pinnell's first prostitutes are Indian women. This marks a significant moment in Seattle's becoming an "open town" -- open, that is, to saloons, brothels, and gambling -- which will define local controversies and politics for many years to come.

In Those Naughty Ladies of the Old Northwest, Gary Meier and Gloria Meier write:

"Soon after his arrival, John built a large rectangular building of rough boards, housing a dance floor, a long bar, and a number of small private rooms where the primary business would be conducted."

Pinnell called the bordello Illahee, a Chinook Jargon word meaning "Home Place." The 1870 U.S. Census of King County designated the 11 inmates of John Pinnell's establishment in the following way: "Occupied by Indian women kept by one John Pinnell as Hurdy-Gurdies" (Rhodes).

A few years later he imported a dozen filles de joie from San Francisco. They stepped off the boat and headed for the Illahee, rather a shadow version of Asa Mercer's "Mercer's Belles," who were marriageable young schoolteachers brought by ship from New England in 1864.


Gary Meier and Gloria Meier, Those Naughty Ladies of the Old Northwest, (Bend, Oregon: Maverick Publications, 1990), 107-108; Murray Morgan, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (New York: The Viking Press, 1951), 59-61; King County Censuses: 1870 U.S. Census and 1871 Territorial Census for King County, Washington Territory ed. by Marjorie Rhodes (Seattle: Marjorie Rhodes, 1993), p. 33.
Note: This essay was corrected on February 9, 2014.

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