Roscoe Sheller of Sunnyside gave this talk about Yakima and Ellensburg pioneer Ben Snipes (1835-1906) to an April 1958 meeting of the Spokane Westerners. The talk was published in the Fall 1959 issue of The Pacific Northwesterner and is posted here with the permission of the publisher.
Ben Snipes was born in North Carolina in 1835, the second son of Elam and Asenath Snipes. Two or three moves later, the family landed in Iowa when Ben was 12 years of age. Ben's schooling was normal for the period and place, consisting of short terms in winter when farm work permitted, in one-room log buildings where one teacher taught classes one to eight in "chummy" quarters. Trudging through deep snows, cold and storms, for miles, morning and evening, was accepted procedure. Ben's inquiring mind absorbed everything taught.
From the first day stories of gold discovery in California filtered back to Iowa, Ben started a one-boy campaign to persuade his family to move to California where rumors pictured gold lining the streambeds and was to be taken by anyone able to scoop it up. Ben's plans and hopes met with a definite "no" from his father, but that did not lessen Ben's determination to go West to the land of gold.
Ben lacked a few months of reaching his 17th birthday when he heard that a neighbor was preparing a train for Oregon and had said he would be happy to take Ben along, passage free, in return for his help on the long trek. Ben soon had the job proposed. The covered-wagon train with Ben attached left Iowa in the spring of 1852, with Ben soon making himself the "right-hand-man" of the train. Because of his excellent care of the stock entrusted to his care, they came through to Oregon in fine condition with little or no loss as compared to losses suffered by other trains making no better time. The train arrived in the Willamette valley in late fall, and they settled near the present site of Salem.
As soon as Ben thought he could decently leave, he began seeking ways of reaching the California gold fields. He soon found a job with a mule pack-train headed that way, and within a few days, was given charge of the lead mule, equivalent to having charge of the caravan. Reaching the gold fields, he purchased a pick, shovel, and miner's pan, and set out to find the gold for which he had traveled so long and so far to reach. On his third day he sold his prospect for $500 in gold dust and now had more money than his father had ever owned at any one time, and a job at several times the wages his father had ever drawn. He went to work for the purchaser of his prospect.
When the pocket ran out, Ben found a job with a butcher who was doing a booming business buying at a small price and selling at a high figure. He learned every phase of the business and soon opened a shop of his own. The other butcher soon closed his place and left when the winter stopped mining operations. But Ben extended credit despite the fact that many of his best customers overlooked the favor and left the country. Ben in the end lost everything.
At this stage of the game, news of a big strike on the Fraser River, British Columbia, reached Ben, who immediately mounted a lately acquired Cayuse and headed for that area. He arrived too late. Every likely spot was taken. Prospectors numbered in the thousands. Food was scarce, especially beef, with none being obtainable in the district. Ben now had a thought and headed at once for Oregon. The thought driving him back -- why not supply the Fraser beef demand?
Arriving back in Oregon that purpose was fixed when he secured a job with a cattleman who proposed a drive across country to the Fraser. Ben agreed. Driving north with the herd from the Columbia River, he looked down into the Yakima country and found himself gazing down upon what appeared like a cattleman's paradise. The country appeared waiting for him to exploit and thereby realize upon his recently experienced dream of becoming the cattle king of an empire. Crossing the "Horse Heaven" country on his return from the drive he wondered if anyone could ever conceive of there being enough cattle and horses to eat all the grass on the wide expanse of hill and plain which at the time lay before him. Ben Snipes is credited with giving the name of "Horse Heaven" to the area.
Having now found both a market and a range where an almost limitless number of cattle might be fattened, Ben faced his third problem, that of financing his proposed cattle kingdom over which he hoped to rule in a time not too remote. The question fronting him was: Just how does a 19-year-old youth with neither money nor property get hold of a foundation cattle herd? His former employer who had financed the Fraser drive appeared to be the answer. The price demanded was high, but Ben had reached a decision. His proven reliability won over this cattleman to his side in the end. Terms reached were that Ben would do all the work as well as yield one-half interest in the results of the venture. Ben now had his initial herd and with Indian boys as helpers he and they were soon headed for his stock heaven. The herd thrived and multiplied and fattened.
By the spring of 1856, his initial herd saw 102 head ready for market. With an Indian boy, Ben started north for the Fraser country. Dropping down from the Okanogan lake country into the Kamloops and Thompson River country, Ben sold his cattle at the flat and general rate of $125 the head, the herd netting him something better than $12,000. This for his first essay into the cattle business seemed like fortune already made. Half of the gold received was his, the other half passing to his backer.
Settling his note at The Dalles, he now had the glorious feeling that he was now in the cattle business and alone. Counting his dust, he decided that he had enough for another drive when it would be ready. He felt he was now on his way to being the cattle king of he Columbia-Yakima valleys. He now found himself so situated that he could move to the place in the Yakima Valley he had longed for since his first view of the valley. This was at the base of a mountain, which later became known as Snipes mountain. Here he built a log cabin home, the first white man's home in the valley. This came in about 1859.
From the time of his settlement in the valley, drives were made in ever increasing numbers not alone into the Fraser, but also into the Cariboo country. News of his success spread abroad and within a few years other cattlemen settled in the Klickitat Valley as well as in the Yakima Valley. By the fall of 1861, Ben had accumulated so many cattle and so extensive were his holdings that he had become known throughout the Northwest as the Cattle King. Estimates of his cattle holdings varied from 25,000 to 40,000 head, with some even going higher. With this, Ben neither agreed nor disagreed for he simply did not know how many he had carrying his brand.
Severe winters with deep snows seemed to be the order of the seasons after 1861. Better than a foot of snow fell during the early part of that winter to be followed by rain, which in turn was succeeded by intense cold, to be followed by a second two feet of snow followed by rain drizzles. By the closing days of December there was an ice-cap of this character about three feet in depth. Animals fortunate enough to reach river or creek bottoms could live scantily off tree twigs. When Chinook winds came in February, about 10 percent of the cattle remained alive. Gullies were deep with decaying carcasses, where the cattle, seeking each other's warmth and companionship in their suffering, died together when the Chinook failed to come soon enough.
Meanwhile, the weather marooned Ben at The Dalles. As soon as he could get through, he started for the Yakima valley fearing the worst. All the while he was wondering if there would be any of his riders left. But his men proved to be in good health. The sight of the thousands of dead animals strewn about him wherever he rode was staggering. The steel nerves and the stout heart of a cattle king were being further tempered in the furnace of catastrophic disaster. Ben proved to be the kind who could take disaster in something like a stride.
Ben took an inventory of his assets and found he still had between 2,500 and 3,000 cattle. Seven years prior to this he owned but one Cayuse horse and with that start he had climbed to being a cattle king, accumulating more cattle and horses than any other man in the entire Northwest. He possessed that which no freezing winter or anything else could take from him -- a loyal crew built up over the years. He'd find a way to keep these men, somehow.
Waiting only long enough to arrange for his men to take matters over, he went to Portland where he was able to borrow $50,000 on his open note. With this loan he bought at a ridiculously low price all the animals he could find in the valley from ranchers who had resolved upon leaving at all costs. They sold at a fraction of what they had been held the previous fall. In the end he owed a lot of money, but as the season progressed it looked as though he would have enough marketable animals to see his way out in the end.
Ben proved to be almost the sole supplier in the market and returned with almost enough gold dust to clear his loan and could once more think of himself as the Cattle King of the Northwest. Again Nature inflicted a second severe winter. Cattle were again in reduced supply. Population centers along the coast began rapid development. Cattle boats appeared on the Columbia. Drives were over. The medium of exchange became coins instead of the gold dust. The Northern Pacific Railway was building rapidly toward the Northwest, passing through his valley ranches in 1884. To Ben this was clearly the end of the range cattle business. Other investment opportunities must be found.
He felt that the time had now come when other investments must be found for any further activities on his part. As events moved along, he had already acquired better than a hundred acres of land in what is today's busiest section in the city of Seattle. In Seattle he had built a truly palatial home. His bank accounts were steadily growing larger; he was financing others, mindful of the past when he needed help; he built a flouring mill at The Dalles to take care of the wheat grown in the tributary country not far from where his earlier cattle interests lay.
Snipes felt that he was ready to branch out still further and he noted that Ellensburg had no bank. The lack of such an institution came to him as a challenge; to do something for the community by giving it a bank. He looked upon it as a place to put his cash as well as a good loaning source if faced with unlooked-for needs. He could find no suitable building for such an institution. Accordingly, he erected a three-story structure of stone, the first in the little city. Into this the bank moved on February 22, 1889.
A few months later, on July 4, 1889, a fire started at one end of town, which soon became a holocaust. The street on which the bank stood was leveled, including Ben's fine building. Only a pile of rubble remained. The bank opened in temporary quarters and a new building was immediately constructed to house it. This building yet stands in Ellensburg. He soon decided that the same tactics that had won him success in the cattle business would work in the banking field. He could see no reason for failure. Accordingly he opened a branch in Roslyn. He now had two banks to say nothing of his cattle herds, individual cattle numbering in the thousands all doing well, while his palatial home in Seattle was all that a man could desire. He owed a penny to no one in the world. Admiration and respect was his on every hand. He was widely known and possessed more money than he had found thus far usable for his own needs and that of his family. At this point in his career his story was truly of the storybook character -- the story of a penniless youth becoming a cattle king and rising thereby to millionaire status.
If the story could end there all would be well but it cannot do so. It must be told that during his last years he was pitched, tossed and buffeted about by forces he was unable to control. Life for him closed with nothing of what might be called the glamour with which it had been lived during his most prosperous years. Fortune in the end was not too kind to him. But through it all he left an inheritance for good for those who might choose to follow in the light of his example and accomplishments.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.