Seattle’s Pioneers of Fremont: John Ross

Ross Park, the former site of the old Ross School, is on 3rd ave NW at NW 44th Street in western Fremont.

Ross Park, the former site of the old Ross School, is on 3rd ave NW at NW 44th Street in western Fremont.  Photo by Valarie.

Fremont, a neighborhood in north Seattle, was named by property investors from Fremont, Nebraska.  Prior to the development’s receiving its official name in 1888, there were other nearby neighborhood reference points, such as the community of Ross.  Today the former site of the Ross School is a park at NW 43rd Street and 3rd Ave NW, about one mile west of the business center and bridge on Fremont Avenue.

On this blog, Wedgwood in Seattle History, I mainly write about northeast Seattle neighborhoods, but because I also enjoy Fremont history I am telling some of its stories here.  One of the earliest Fremont-area land claimants was John Ross, a name which is now little-known.  In this blog post we will puzzle over John Ross’s pioneer story.

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Seattle in the 1850s

Fremont was a successful early community because of its advantageous location at one corner of Lake Union.

Fremont was a successful early community because of its advantageous location at one corner of Lake Union.

Seattle’s earliest-arriving white settlers came with the desire to extract natural resources such as timber and coal, and build up the city with a port, canals and railroads.  They were so visionary that some of their plans were not fulfilled for more than sixty years.  The pioneers saw what they wanted to do, but they lacked the money or the technical means to make it happen.

So it was with the Lake Washington Ship Canal which was finally completed in 1917; its creation had been foretold by Thomas Mercer at a Fourth of July picnic at South Lake Union in 1854.  It was at that picnic that Lake Union received its name, for Thomas Mercer explained that it would be possible to link Lake Washington to Puget Sound by means of a canal passing through the uniting smaller lake.

It is likely that twenty-six-year-old John Ross was present at that Fourth of July picnic and heard the prophecy of a ship canal.  Ross arrived in Seattle in 1853 and filed a land claim along The Outlet, a stream which flowed out of the northwest corner of Lake Union and which the pioneers thought to enlarge into a canal for floating logs to mill.  Ross’s land claim later became part of the north Queen Anne and the Fremont neighborhoods of Seattle, on either side of today’s ship canal.

Seattle’s pioneer white settlers who arrived first, claimed the best lands on the downtown waterfront and other sites on bodies of water.  Waterways were the best travel routes as the Indians did, by canoe, and were the best way for transporting heavy items such as logs.

Some of Seattle’s earliest white settlers became rich by selling land to railroads or by other commercial ventures.  But even though John Ross was one of the earliest-arriving Seattleites and got very advantageous land claims, ultimately he did not prosper.  This blog post will explore the reasons why.

Who was John Ross?

The Mutual Life Building (at left) is in Pioneer Square on the former site of Yesler's Cookhouse.

The Mutual Life Building (at left) is in Pioneer Square on the former site of Yesler’s Cookhouse.  Photo by Valarie.

John Ross was a typical pioneer of Seattle in that he seemed to come out of nowhere, with no background, and yet by virtue of his very early arrival, he was able to get a good land claim.  Leaving his parents home in Ohio at age 25, John Ross crossed the plains as a single man hired to protect a wagon train.  He spent some time in Salem, Oregon, the destination of the wagon train, before making his way to Seattle in 1853 to see what prospects the young city had to offer.  One of the few sources of info about the background of John Ross is a memoir by his daughter, Ida (see source list at the end of this article.)

In Seattle in 1853 Henry Yesler had set up his sawmill at the Seattle waterfront, present site of Pioneer Square.  The sawmill provided plenty of employment, as well as a bunkhouse and cookhouse for the men, and John Ross settled into the life of this community.

John Ross chose a land claim which today is the site of Seattle Pacific University at West Nickerson Street between 3rd and 6th Avenues West, on the north side of Queen Anne hill, where there is a gently sloping area.  Based upon the Donation Act of l850, as a single man Ross could have 320 acres and he was required to reside there and cultivate the land until, after four years, he would be awarded full ownership.  But at the same time that Seattle settlers were claiming land, native peoples throughout Washington Territory began pushing back.  There were scattered instances of cabin-burnings and even killings as white settlers were driven away from their land claims.

Seattle settlers took refuge in a blockhouse on January 26, 1856. Painting by Emily Inez Denny courtesy of MOHAI.

Seattle settlers took refuge in a blockhouse on January 26, 1856. Painting by Emily Inez Denny courtesy of MOHAI.

John Ross had already built a cabin on his land claim when in early January 1856 he was warned by a friendly Indian that unfriendly Indians were on their way to wipe out the town of Seattle.  Almost before he was out of sight of his cabin at north Queen Anne, he saw that it had been set on fire.  (Source of info: a memoir by Ida Ross, see source list.)

John Ross ran all the way to Seattle and joined the other settlers who had built a blockhouse at First and Cherry Streets for protection.  The Puget Sound Indian War culminated in the Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856, when the settlers were fired upon by attackers from behind the tree line which was then at Third Avenue.  The unseen attackers were repelled by cannon fire from the warship U.S.S. Decatur, moored in Elliott Bay.

John Ross was one of the men who returned rifle fire on the day of the battle, and after that day there were no further attacks.  Some of the settlers spent the entire winter in the blockhouse because their homes had been burned down and they weren’t sure if it was safe to go out and rebuild.  A number of people left Seattle via passenger ships, John Ross among them.  His departure was understandable, because the few remaining residents of Seattle would be cooped up in the blockhouse for the rest of the winter.  For Ross as a single man, it would have been a long tedious winter with nothing to do, so he returned to Oregon, the place where he had first landed in the Pacific Northwest, and took a job at a sawmill in Salem.

Mary Jane McMillan Ross 1843-1916

Mary Jane McMillan Ross 1843-1916

The census of 1857 recorded that John Ross was back in Seattle working for Henry Yesler as a millwright, meaning the mechanic who maintains and repairs the mill equipment.  It may have been that Ross had come back to survey the conditions in Seattle as to the economy and whether it was safe to return.

In Salem, Oregon in 1858, John Ross, age 30, married the sawmill owner’s daughter, Mary Jane McMillan, age 15.  Since it was safe to return to Seattle, Ross and his bride came and lived in a house at First & Madison Streets while John once again worked at Henry Yesler’s sawmill.  The Ross’s first son, William, was born in Seattle in 1859.

Seattle in the 1860s and 1870s

Arthur Denny, founding father of the group of Seattle’s first white settlers, wrote in his memoir that as of 1856 every sort of progress and economic investment in Seattle had been wiped out by the Puget Sound Indian War.  Settlers were afraid to come to Seattle and investors withheld funds, waiting to see if the Indian unrest would return.  Finally after nearly ten years, some efforts at Pacific Northwest regional expansion began again.  In 1865 John Ross was hired as part of an exploration party which also included Arthur Denny, to find a suitable pass through the Cascade Mountains where a road could be built.  Ross’s participation was recorded in early accounts and is mentioned in the book, Four Wagons West, about Seattle’s early days.  Seattleites of the 1860s wanted to create a corridor for commerce over the mountains, so they raised funds for the survey and for a road-building contract.  It was in this way that the first road over Snoqualmie Pass was built.

In 1866 John Ross was one of the men who organized the Lake Washington Coal Company.  They began developing the mine at Coal Creek (Newcastle, east side of Lake Washington) but the problems of getting the coal to market from there, were nearly insurmountable.  There were as yet no railroads, and coal, being heavy, was very difficult to transport.  In Four Wagons West, a book about the early years of the Seattle settlement, the author described the coal venture of 1866:

“Their troubles were many.  First they had to build an expensive wagon road through the forest from the mines to Lake Washington.  When that was done the coal was brought by wagon to the lake, then taken across on a barge, and landed on the western shore near the eastern end of Jackson Street, and then hauled by wagon over the steep hills to Elliott Bay.”  (Page 332, Four Wagons West by Roberta Frye Watt.)

Ultimately the coal transport was too expensive for the Seattle promoters, and the venture was bought out by San Francisco investors.  In 1872 the new coal company brought in a small locomotive which was the first train ever to operate in Seattle.  Coal from Newcastle was barged across Lake Washington, moved via a tram to get across the Montlake area, then barged across Lake Union.  Train tracks ran from South Lake Union where the coal was loaded, and traveled along Westlake Avenue.  At Pike Street the short-haul train completed its journey to downtown Seattle, all the way to the waterfront.  Trestles were built out into Elliott Bay so that the coal could be loaded directly onto ships bound for San Francisco.

By the end of the 1870s coal had supplanted lumber as the top export from Seattle to San Francisco.  The successful development of the coal mines caused an economic uplift in Seattle.  Jobs were created in mining and transportation and the increased bustle of the town caused a more positive economic outlook and confidence in Seattle’s future greatness as a port city.  But as of 1873 John Ross was no longer a part of coal and investment, exploration and expansion projects in Seattle.  He chose to turn his back on the city and move his family to what was then the countryside, out to their homestead claim property on north Queen Anne where a creek called The Outlet flowed westward toward Ballard and then out to Puget Sound.

The Ross family moves from town to farm in 1873

When they moved out to the remote north Queen Anne area, the Ross family had a schoolroom in their house. Photo courtesy of Seattle Public Library Historic Photos Collection.

When they moved out to the remote north Queen Anne area, the Ross family had a schoolroom in their house. Photo courtesy of Seattle Public Library Historic Photos Collection.

In 1873, after about fifteen years in Seattle, John Ross moved his family out to his claim property on the north slope of Queen Anne hill, at about the site of today’s Seattle Pacific University.  John Ross would begin again to “prove up the claim” with the required four years’ residence.  By that time the Ross family included six children, and one of the greatest concerns for their mother, Mary Jane Ross, was for the children to be able to continue to attend school.  Over the next ten years Mary Jane tried every strategy, with varying success, to see that her children got an education.

At first the four oldest Ross children, two boys and two girls ranging in age from 14 to 7, commuted into town to attend school.  They walked to the shore of Lake Union at what is now Fremont, and took a canoe across to South Lake Union.  Today, few of us would allow four children, headed up by a fourteen-year-old, to get in a canoe (without life jackets) and paddle across Lake Union.  In early Seattle it was common for people to travel by water because there were few roads and the terrain was “in the way.”  In other words, the best way to get from the Ross homestead at north Queen Anne, was not to walk up and over the hill but to circumvent it via waterborne transportation across Lake Union.

Once the Ross children arrived at South Lake Union they followed a rough path alongside the coal train tracks on Westlake Avenue, all the way to the school building at Fourth and Madison Streets in downtown Seattle.  The process would have to be repeated at the end of the day, and Mary Jane Ross soon saw that it was too far for the children to go back and forth, especially in bad weather.

At times Mrs. Ross tried arranging for the children to board with families in town during the school year, but she greatly missed having her children at home.  Next she tried hiring a teacher to live in their home and teach all of the children.  In the 1870s there was no public school system in Seattle; all schools were “by subscription” with parents paying tuition for the teachers’ salary.

Growing up on the Ross farm

In her memoir of growing-up years, Ida, the third-born child in the Ross family, recounts that life became more difficult when they moved to the homestead property.  In addition to the problems of adequate schooling for the children, John Ross was obsessed with developing a farm with all of the hard work which that entailed.  When the four oldest children, the two eldest boys with Ida and her younger sister, traveled back in to Seattle to school, the schoolteacher complained of the cow smell which clung to the boys’ clothing – they had had to milk the Ross family’s cows in the morning before school.  Before long the boys refused to go to school at all and even after a teacher was hired to work in their home, the boys had lost interest and they were also under pressure from their father to do farm work.

This 1906 photo shows how the creek had been enlarged into a canal large enough to send logs floating to mill, before the creation of the present-day ship canal.

This 1906 photo shows how the creek had been enlarged into a canal to send logs floating to mill, before the creation of the present-day ship canal. Photo from UW Special Collections, Asahel Curtis.

Ida told how she became the chief baby-tender because her mother had to work so hard on the farm and John Ross did not want his wife to “indulge” the children by sitting and spending time with them.  Ida loved the freedom of the out-of-doors and she would usually take her younger siblings out of the way of their parents, down to play at the creek.  She described it as “the most delightful, beautiful little stream winding in and out among the trees and overhanging brush, and filled with all kinds of little fish and bugs and frogs that sang a lovely little song evenings in the spring.  It was all a paradise to us children.”

This was the natural environment of The Outlet, the creek which existed before the creation of the present-day ship canal.  The Outlet flowed from the northwest corner of Lake Union toward Ballard which was at a lower elevation where there were tidal flats.  Ballard did not yet exist when the Ross family first lived at north Queen Anne, but in her memoirs Ida uses it as a point of reference since the creek flowed in that direction.

Ida told of one day in 1875 when she was twelve years old and she again had been given charge over all of the younger children, which included her two sisters next to her in age, two-year-old brother John, and baby Kate, the seventh Ross child, who was about three months old.  Ida wrote,

“The tide came up near our home and we had a small canoe tied there.  We all got in just for fun and the tide was going out so we floated along having a jolly time until we got to Ballard.  Then the tide left us stuck in the mud flats.  I got out and tried to shove off but my load was too heavy.  We had to stay there until the tide came in, and with that help, floated off and we started home.  Then I saw Mother standing on the bank watching us coming along slowly.”

The new house

In 1916 the original Ross Creek became the Ship Canal, wide enough and deep enough for ships to pass through.

In 1916 the original Ross Creek became the Ship Canal, wide enough and deep enough for ships to pass through.  Photo by Valarie.

From 1873 when the Ross family lived on their farm property on the south side of The Outlet, John Ross began working on a larger house made of finished lumber to be situated on the north side of the creek.

In her memoir Ida Ross described the new house as built with five bedrooms, living and dining rooms and all rooms having a fireplace, besides a wood stove in the kitchen.  She told of her father’s excellent carpentry and woodworking skills:

“The lumber for this home was brought around the lighthouse point and up through Salmon Bay (at Ballard) in a scow.  It took Father and the boys days to bring it up to the building place for they had to come up the Bay with the tide.  They couldn’t have gotten it there any other way for there were no teams (of horse and wagon) to bring it over Queen Anne hill.  The lumber was wet and Father built a dry kiln and it took months to dry it out.

Father used one of the big rooms downstairs for a shop with a workbench.  He brought in from the woods curly maple for the stair banister and he also made all the mantles for our numerous fireplaces.”

It is believed that the Ross family moved to the new house, north of Ross Creek, in about 1875.  The house (no longer extant) was on NW 42nd Street nearest to 6th Ave NW.  This is about a mile north/northwest of the center of Fremont Avenue, and at that time no one else was living in the area.  The neighborhood names of Ballard, Fremont and Queen Anne were not invented until about 1888 but I am using them here as reference points.

Ross School circa 1903

The new Ross School building in 1903.   Photo courtesy of Seattle Public Schools.

After the Ross family moved, a room in their new house was again used as a schoolroom.  Gradually within the next ten years as more families moved to Fremont, they formed the Ross School District.  Property on 3rd Ave NW at NW 43rd Street was designated for a school, across the street from the William Crawford family.  The Crawfords along with John Ross and William Ashworth worked together to build a two-room wooden school building in 1883.

As population in the neighborhood increased, in 1902 a larger, eight-room school was constructed (pictured here) and was used until 1941, after which time students went to West Woodland School.  The old Ross School site on 3rd Ave NW is now called Ross Playground.

From coals to Newcastle

Newcastle is today an incorporated city on the Eastside, located south of Bellevue and east of the southern end of Mercer Island.  By virtue of his very early arrival in Seattle, John Ross had been in on the earliest explorations of coal resources and was one of the men who filed land claims for it.  By the 1870s John Ross still had his Newcastle land claim and in her memoirs, Ross’s daughter Ida told of excursions made by the whole family over to Newcastle.  They walked to Lake Washington and took a canoe across, around the southern end of Mercer Island, and then walked again to a cabin on the property.

John Ross 1827-1886

John Ross

Ida’s memoir told of the increasing conflicts which John Ross began to have with other pioneers who were perhaps more progressive than he was.  After the new coal company took over in 1870, they began building a better way to bring out the coal from Newcastle.  They built a tram, which was tracks for rail cars but not with an engine; the cars were to move via gravity or sometimes were pushed-pulled.

The coal company men may have approached John Ross about acquiring his property or perhaps they didn’t bother, and they just started laying tracks without checking to see who owned the property.  Since John Ross could not stay there to “guard” his Newcastle property all the time, on one of their excursions the family arrived to see that the coal tram tracks had been laid across a clearing on Ross’s land.  Ross responded by chopping down some trees and felling them across the tracks to block the coal cars.

Ross’s actions are recorded in Frontier Justice files.  These legal cases from before Washington became a state in 1889 are listed on-line at Washington Digital Archives, and the actual files are kept at the Puget Sound Regional Archives in Bellevue.  In 1877 the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company sued John Ross for obstruction of railroad tracks, and Ross counter-sued for damages to real property.

We can guess that John Ross probably did not want to sell his Newcastle land claim, but at this point he probably needed cash.  He had moved his family to their Fremont-area land claim which he owned, and he was no longer working for Yesler’s Mill.  Having no employment, the only way to raise cash was to sell the Newcastle property.

An article in the Daily Intelligencer newspaper of November 20, 1879, stated that the coal company had bought out the Ross claim.  In the enthusiastic piece about the benefits of coal mining to the economy of Seattle, it was written that “progress and prosperity are the watchwords of the mines.”  I wondered if the newspaper was making a veiled allusion to the fact that John Ross had tried to hold up “progress.”

Progress and prosperity (or not)

This map of land claims shows the name of John Ross and to the right, off of the map, is Lake Union. The name of William Strickler is at the site of present-day Fremont.

This map of land claims shows the name of John Ross at the right corner of Salmon Bay. Farther to the right, off of the map, is Lake Union. The name of William Strickler, to the right of John Ross, is at the site of present-day Fremont.

It is amazing to think of how much property John Ross once owned, including at Newcastle, north Queen Anne and acreage in western Fremont, and what he could have done with it to become more prosperous, but he seemingly did not manage his lands in that way.  In her memoir, Ida Ross said that her father’s one ambition in life was to have a farm, that he wanted to be left alone and that he objected to “progress.”  He did not seem to envision, as some of the other pioneers did, that Seattle was destined to become a great port city with roads, railroads and various kinds of industries.

Another conflict which John Ross got into was in 1883 when men came to enlarge the creek and create a deeper canal for floating logs to mill, westward toward Ballard.  The Ross family was living in their house at today’s NW 42nd Street, on the north side of the creek which divided their property.  The south-side acreage where they had first lived, was being used as a pasture for their cows and horses.  John Ross had built a footbridge made of a split log with rail sides so that the Ross family could get across the creek to tend their farm animals.

When the canal workers first started enlarging The Outlet at the northwest corner of Lake Union, a burst of water came down and washed out the Ross’s footbridge.  The Lake Washington Improvement Company, as it was called, offered to rebuild the bridge but John Ross seemed to be difficult to negotiate with.  It is recorded in Ida’s memoir, as well as in Frontier Justice case files of the years 1883-1884, that Ross ran down to the creek with a rifle and drove away the workers.

John Ross owned the property on both sides of Ross Creek, north and south, and he had gone to court to prevent the canal company from coming through his property.  The judge ruled against John Ross, saying that the public works project of the canal would not damage Ross’s property but would actually be of benefit to him.  The Lake Washington Improvement Company had legally “appropriated” a right-of-way on the creek, but just as had happened in the coal train episode in Newcastle in 1877, John Ross would not give way.  All he wanted was for people to keep off of his property.  His first reaction was to defend his territory and perhaps he was difficult to reason with, if he did not agree with the advance of “progress” to create a wider canal.  Legal cases recorded the filing of a restraining order by the Lake Washington Improvement Company, because John Ross had threatened the canal workers.  (See: summary of the court cases in the source list at the end of this article.)

Knowing as we do at this point of the story in 1883, that John Ross would have less than three more years to live, may give us clues to his behavior.  It may be that in addition to being a difficult person he was now experiencing the decline in health which led to his death in 1886.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Ross became increasingly hard to live with.

The last straw:  the eighth Ross child

Ross divorce complaint

Mary Jane Ross divorce complaint.

After an interval of more than nine years since the birth of Kate in 1875, in December 1884 Mary Jane Ross gave birth to her eighth child, a boy.  Sometime during the year of 1885, John Ross moved out of the house and Mary Jane Ross filed for divorce on September 29, 1885.

At the time of the new baby’s birth in December 1884 the two oldest Ross sons, William age 25 and Elmer age 23, were no longer living at home.  Their father had driven them away by harsh treatment although he had allowed Elmer, who got married 0n October 26, 1884, to live with his new wife in the Ross family’s old house at First and Madison Streets which they still owned.

In her divorce complaint Mary Jane Ross stated that when her eldest son, William, came home to visit her and see the new baby, John Ross had threatened William with a pistol and told him to stay away.  Mary Jane, having recently given birth, was unable to get up and intervene.  She was badly frightened and feared for her own life as well as that of her children.

Ross divorce case summons

Divorce case summons to John Ross

Mary Jane further complained that her husband kept his family in poverty while bragging that he had plenty of money stashed away somewhere, and that he had, over the years, continually interfered with the children’s education.  Probably Mary Jane was referring to the farm work and that she would have liked her children to get advanced education but they could not.  Her two eldest sons never even finished through the eighth grade which was considered basic education at that time.  Some of the other children, including third-born Ida, went to high school but never finished, either.  In her memoir Ida told that she had boarded in Seattle with her Aunt Mariah (sister of Mary Jane Ross) so that she could attend high school, but that her father had brought her home again to work on their farm and help take care of the younger children.

patent medicinesIda wrote in her memoir that her father drank bottled patent medicines by the caseload.  In the days before pure food and drug laws, anyone could bottle some stuff and sell it as medicine, and these elixirs may have contained as much as 40% alcohol.  John Ross never visited a doctor because he had his own ideas about medical cures.  We may speculate that Ross was experiencing pain in his body due to some undiagnosed physical condition, and that he had begun taking “medicines” purported to cure or at least give relief.  His increasingly erratic behavior could have been due to the effects of the “medicine.”

The Ross divorce case

Statement by Mary Jane Ross

Mary Jane Ross complaint

The divorce document of September 1885 contained a statement of complaint by Mary Jane Ross, who was 42 years old and had been married to John Ross since she was 15.  There was a request for division of property and for Mary Jane to receive full custody of their children who were still under-age.  The statement began with the description of the events at the time of the birth of their son Rex Lewis Ross in December 1884, and John Ross’s threatening behavior.

The original documents of the Ross divorce case are on file at the Puget Sound Regional Archives (see source list below.)  It was interesting to me to see how carefully the divorce documents were prepared, the names of the attorneys and other officials involved in the case, and that John Ross seemed to cooperate in the proceedings.

Attorneys and officials during the Ross divorce case

The attorneys for Mary Jane Ross were Thomas Burke, age 35, and G.M. Haller, age 31.   Over the years of his career Burke formed several different law partnerships and in 1885 his partner was G.M. Haller, the son of Col. Granville Haller, a retired U.S. Army man.  Col. Haller’s younger son, Theodore, owned land in what later became Haller Lake in north Seattle.

Judge Thomas Burke

Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) Image courtesy of MOHAI #1559

In 1885 Thomas Burke was one of the foremost names in the city of Seattle.  He had become rich through savvy property investment, and even more successful schemes were yet ahead of him, such as the Pontiac brick plant which went into production just at the right time during rebuilding after the Seattle Fire of 1889.

Burke’s organizing to establish a railroad company, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern, was also underway in 1885.  We may speculate that Burke was very interested in settling property issues which were impeded by John Ross, making it impossible for Burke to put through his railroad line.

It was said that Thomas Burke had benefited from representing wealthy Seattle citizens in legal cases, but it was also known that he did pro bono work.   We don’t know whether Mary Jane Ross paid a fee to the Burke & Haller law firm or if they handled her case at no charge.  The final divorce decree ordered that John Ross pay the court costs.

The attorneys representing John Ross were Orange Jacobs, age 57, his son Hiram Jacobs age 24, and Charles K. Jenner, age 38.  Orange Jacobs had previously served as a justice on the Territorial Supreme Court, and in 1879-1880 he had been mayor of Seattle.  Jacobs & Jenner were all attorneys of good repute and it seemed that Ross cooperated with them and followed their advice, for he did not dispute the divorce action.  One of the documents prepared in the case and signed by each set of attorneys, stated that their clients were in agreement about the divorce, custody of children, and division of property and that there was no reason to take the matter to trial.  Compared with John Ross’s former belligerence (such as chasing away canal workers with a rifle) he seemed to have calmed down some.

John H. McGraw Statue near Westlake Center in Seattle. The Monorail is in the background.

John H. McGraw Statue near Westlake Center in Seattle. The Monorail is in the background.

Other officials involved in the case were people whose names would later become prominent in Seattle history.  John McGraw, sheriff, age 35 in 1885, had arrived in Seattle in 1876 and started out with a job as a hotel clerk.  He became Chief of Police in Seattle and then was elected King County Sheriff.  He studied law with Judge Roger S. Greene, then went on to become governor of the State of Washington in 1892.

McGraw was a man of courage who stood firm, facing down a mob during the days of the anti-Chinese riots in Seattle on February 7 and 8, 1886.  McGraw also showed fearlessness in the case of John Ross as it was the sheriff’s court-ordered assignment to serve Ross with the divorce papers and a restraining order, and relieve Ross of his weapons – two Colt pistols and a rifle.

James T. Ronald, age 30, had become Prosecuting Attorney of King County at about the same time as the Ross divorce case in 1885.  He went on to become mayor of Seattle in 1892 and then served many years as a judge.  J.T. Ronald dearly loved his own wife, Rhoda, and together they raised three daughters who were given schooling up through university level.  This may be an indication of J.T. Ronald’s views on education as well as his regard for women.

James T Ronald mayor in 1892District Attorney J.T. Ronald expressed veiled contempt for the behavior of John Ross in the document he wrote regarding the Ross divorce.  In his statement of recommendation to Superior Court Justice Roger S. Greene, District Attorney Ronald wrote that he was acquainted with the facts of the case and with the defendant, John Ross.  “There can be no successful defense made, and plaintiff (Mary Jane Ross) is therefore entitled to a divorce,” he wrote.

Judge Greene signed off on the Ross divorce on February 6, 1886, awarding the homestead property, farm animals, farm implements and the house on the north side of Ross Creek to Mary Jane Ross, as well as custody of those children who were not yet of-age.  John Ross kept another piece of property which he owned and the house at First and Madison Streets in downtown Seattle, where, at the time of the divorce in 1886, he was living with his son Elmer and Elmer’s wife Mary.

John Ross’s Last Will and Testament

Four Wagons West book coverOn February 26, 1886, John Ross signed a new will which his attorneys, Jacobs & Jenner, had drawn up for him.  We may speculate that by this time, Ross knew that something was wrong with him and that he might not live much longer.  Ross appointed as executor of his will, his friend George F. Frye.  Frye was another very early resident of Seattle and along with John Ross, he had fought in the Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856.  In one of the earliest marriages in Seattle, in 1860 Frye married the eldest daughter of Seattle’s founding father Arthur Denny.  Two of the Frye’s daughters, Roberta Frye Watt and Sophie Frye Bass, wrote books which I have often referenced on this blog, Four Wagons West and When Seattle Was a Village.

In his will John Ross omitted his ex-wife from the bequests, as well as ignoring his eighth child, Rex Lewis Ross.  To the other children he bequeathed $1 each.  To Elmer, his second-born son, John Ross left all of his estate including the house at First and Madison Streets where Ross spent the final months of his life with Elmer & Mary.

John Ross died at age 59 on May 2, 1886, and was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery (Mt. Pleasant, on Queen Anne hill.)  The death notice published in the Daily Intelligencer newspaper on May 4, 1886, said that John Ross had died of consumption; the usual meaning would be tuberculosis, or perhaps pneumonia was meant.  The notice in the newspaper said that “he led a sober, industrious, blameless life.  Being of an unobtrusive disposition he never was much engaged in public affairs…  and to a large degree he possessed the confidence and respect of those who knew him well.”

May 1886 probate of the Last Will and Testament of John Ross

May 1886 probate of the Last Will and Testament of John Ross

John Ross’s will was carefully probated by William D. Wood, Clerk of Probate in Seattle.  Like J.T. Ronald, Wood had benefited by arriving in Seattle with a law degree already in hand, and he was able to get this good job right away.  It was said that his job in probate brought him into contact with wealthy citizens of Seattle, the ones who had properties and who would write wills.  Wood quickly became involved in property development ventures such as Green Lake.  Wood became mayor of Seattle in 1896 but he resigned in July 1897 because of the Yukon Gold Rush; he went into the business of building ships for gold miners to travel to the Yukon.

Still trying to make progress?

On May 5, 1886, the day after John Ross’s death notice was published, the Daily Intelligencer newspaper printed an article about the continuing canal work, which said:  “F.H. Osgood, one of the head men in the company which has taken in hand the cutting of a canal between lakes Washington and Union, states that the company hopes to have steamers plying between the lakes through the canal in three months from this time.”  Once again the visionary Seattleites were ahead of themselves.  The Montlake Cut and a canal system with locks large enough for ships was not completed until 1916.

In 1894 Ross and Fremont were shown as place names with railroad stops.

In 1894 Ross and Fremont were shown as place names with railroad stops.

There may be some other meanings to read “between the lines” in the newspaper article of May 1886 about making progress in canal work.  One intent of the article may have been to indicate that white men were now doing the work of digging the canal with picks and shovels, since almost all of the Chinese (except a few household workers) had been driven out of Seattle just two months before, on February 7 & 8, 1886.

Although John Ross probably did not interfere with the canal which was being created from the east side of Lake Union over to Lake Washington, he certainly had interfered with the work from Fremont westward to Ballard.

Once John Ross was gone, some other kinds of progress began to take place, free of his obstruction.  One of the first events after John Ross’s death was that Daniel Gilman, co-organizer of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad along with Thomas Burke, came to see Mary Jane Ross to ask for a right-of-way for railroad tracks.   This meeting between Gilman and Mrs. Ross was witnessed by daughter Ida Ross, which she wrote about in her memoir.  Stops on the SLS&E railroad were spaced about one-and-one-quarter miles apart, so a stop crossing the Ross property, was named Ross between the stops at Ballard and Fremont.

Ross becomes a place name

Ross Addition plat of 1888

Ross Addition plat of January 1888

As soon as there was a railroad stop named Ross, other nearby businesses began to adopt the place name.  On July 30, 1888, the Ross Post Office opened on the south side of the creek, making it possible for residents to list their address as simply Ross, and pick up mail at the post office.

In order to derive income Mary Jane Ross began to sell portions of her property for development as residential house lots.  Since it was common to name a new plat in honor of the previous land owner, we see two plats filed in the year 1888 with the name Ross.

In January 1888 H.T. & Elsie Scott filed a plat called the Ross Addition. The plat was bordered by NW 42nd Street and from 3rd to 6th Avenues NW, on the north side of today’s ship canal.

In May 1888 Alfred and Elmyra Nickerson, having bought the Ross property on the south side of the creek, filed the Ross Second Addition plat.  They named one street in the plat, Ross Street (now 6th Ave West at W. Nickerson Street, along the western border of Seattle Pacific University.)

In 1903 Mary Jane Ross filed a plat of the last portion of land which she had retained.  It included her homesite, and she named the plat the Ross Home Addition from 6th to 8th Avenues NW, NW 40th to 42nd Streets.  The lots in this plat were to be developed by Mary Jane’s son-in-law, James Sparkman (husband of Ida Ross), a real estate agent.

What happened to the Ross family?

Elmer Ross and Mary Weedin were married on October 26, 1884 at the Weedin home at Green Lake in Seattle.

Elmer Ross and Mary Weedin were married on October 26, 1884 at the Weedin home at Green Lake in Seattle.

At the time of Mary Jane Ross’s death in 1916, six of her eight children were still living.  Her eldest son, William, had moved to Kent where at age 41 in 1901 he was shot and killed by a neighbor in a dispute about a fence.

Second-born son Elmer had permitted his father to live with him until John Ross’s death in May 1886 (although Elmer may not have had much choice, because John Ross owned the house).

Later in the year 1886, Elmer’s young wife, Mary, died in childbirth.  She was the daughter of Robert Weedin of Green Lake.  Robert Weedin and his brother William were Civil War veterans of Missouri who came to Seattle in the 1870s to make homestead land claims.  Robert Weedin’s claim was at Green Lake and William’s was at Wedgwood Rock.

Elmer Ross had obtained the benefit of inheriting his father’s estate, including the homestead claim land which today is on the south side of the ship canal and includes the area of today’s Seattle Pacific University.  After his wife Mary’s death, Elmer began to divest himself of property.  He sold the Ross land to Mr. & Mrs. Alfred A. Nickerson who filed the Ross Second Addition plat in May 1888.  In December 1888 Elmer purchased property in Bothell.  Elmer Ross started a dairy farm and eventually remarried.

Ida Ross, third-born of the Ross children, did not marry until she was 27 years old in 1891.  Perhaps she was admonished by her mother, Mary Jane, not to marry too young, as Mary Jane had done.  In 1909 James & Ida Ross Sparkman provided a house for Mary Jane Ross to live in on the same block where they lived on Queen Anne Hill, and Mary Jane lived there for the rest of her life.  Mary Jane’s eighth child, Rex, married in 1906 and lived in Wallingford.  He became a doctor, the only one of the Ross children to go all of the way through to college and a professional occupation.

Pioneers, progress and prosperity:  reflecting on the life of John Ross

In his book, Too High and Too Steep, author David B. Williams speculates upon the reasons why, from earliest years, Seattleites wanted to rearrange the landscape.  Instead of accepting Seattle’s hills and valleys, rivers and tidal basins as-is, the inhabitants of Seattle made plans to level the hills and replumb the lakes.  It was this way from the very beginning of white settlers’ exploits, when at Seattle’s Fourth of July picnic in 1854, Thomas Mercer proposed to dig a canal which would “improve” the environment to promote commerce.

Ross grave marker at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne hill in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Find A Grave.

Ross grave marker at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne hill in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Find A Grave.

We can speculate upon the reasons why John Ross did not catch the “rearranging” bug and why he resisted “progress.”  For all we know, he may have been an early environmentalist who wanted to preserve the charming stream which flowed out of one corner of Lake Union, westward toward Puget Sound.  We also know that he did not develop his property holdings to get in on the wealth of industries like coal, canal-building or railroads, nor did Ross make money by dividing his property into residential house lots.  He could have become wealthy in any of these ways since he’d had the huge advantage of acquiring properties in Seattle’s earliest years.

We may puzzle over John Ross’s desire to have a farm – in Seattle.  Most other early Seattleites had no such illusions, because Seattle was not a farming area.  The soil was not suitable, nor was the terrain.  Early arrivals such as the Dennys eyed Seattle’s good harbor and they measured its depths for access by ships.  They surveyed for resources such as coal, and they dreamed of building a great port city with canals, roads and railroads.  John Ross had no such vision, and so we remember him as the pioneer who did not prosper.


Looking south across the Fremont bridge to the steep hill of Queen Anne.

Looking south across the Fremont bridge to the steep hill of Queen Anne.  Photo by Valarie.

Birth, death, marriage dates:  Washington Digital Archives.

Directory listings (addresses) from Polk’s Directory of Seattle, available on the 9th and 10th floors of the downtown Seattle Public Library, at Special Collections at the University of Washington and at the Municipal Archives in Seattle City Hall.

Daily Intelligencer newspaper: on microfilm, Downtown Seattle Public Library, 9th floor.  There is no index to this early newspaper but one can find events by looking for the date, such as the listing of the death of John Ross.

Four Wagons West by Roberta Frye Watt, 1931, Seattle Public Library.   Reprinted copies of this book are available for purchase at the University Bookstore.

George F Frye

George F. Frye 1835-1912 was an early resident of Seattle who married a daughter of Arthur Denny. Frye was named as executor in the will of John Ross.

Frontier Justice Files:  Divorce and custody case of 1885, John & Mary Ross; John Ross Probate of Will in 1886.   The case file numbers are listed on-line under “Frontier Justice” on Washington Digital Archives but not the contents of the cases; the original documents are kept at the Puget Sound Regional Archives in Bellevue.  

Frontier Justice — Canal cases:  Here is a summary of the court cases pertaining to the canal work on Ross Creek by the Lake Washington Improvement Company (LWIC).  Our thanks to B.J. Cummings and her research assistants for compiling this list:

Case No. 3303: LWIC v Ross (defendant)– 1882 (limited records, provided for background only)
(1) Transmission of Certified Report re: John Ross land appropriation for Lake Washington Improvement Company canal, May 1883
(2) Motion for default due to expiration of time to object to report, June 1883
Case No. 3398: Ross (plaintiff) v LWIC – 1883
(1) Finding of assessors re: damages to John Ross property from appropriation of land for canal, May 1883. Conclusion: None, “for the reason that in our judgement, the benefit to Mr. Ross from the cutting of the canal, will exceed all damages caused thereby.”
(2) Petition of John Ross for injunction to restrain Lake Washington Improvement Company from discharging water of Lake Washington through Lake Union and into the stream through his property, August 1883;
(3) Plaintiff’s response, October 1883. Denies all allegations, including descriptions of Ross’s land and natural stream outlet and impact of canal, and asserts legal right to canal right of way for construction.
(4) Assorted other filings
Case No. 3737: LWIC v Ross (defendant)– 1884
(1) Lake Washington Improvement Company petition for Restraining Order, March 1884, – Reason: “The defendant Ross threatens to kill the surveyors, engineers, and servants of the plaintiff herein, who may attempt to enter upon, pass over, survey, or undertake to construct said canal through said land or any part thereof.”
(2) Restraining Order (granted – very poor copy);
(3) Sheriff’s service confirmation;
(4) follow up appeals and filings.


Clarence B Bagley 1843 to 1932.Photo courtesy of MOHAI

Clarence B. Bagley, 1843-1922. Photo courtesy of MOHAI.

History of King County, Washington, by Clarence B. Bagley, Volume 1, 1929.  Seattle Public Library, 979.7.  On pages 107-108, Bagley tells about the family background of Mary Jane McMillan Ross.  Bagley wrote that his parents, Rev. & Mrs. Daniel Bagley, had known Rev. & Mrs. McMillan in Illinois.  The McMillans went Out West in 1852, a little before the Bagleys did, and lived in the Salem, Oregon area.

One McMillan son, Thomas H., became an early steamboat captain on Puget Sound.  Bagley wrote of the four McMillan daughters:  “His daughters married respectively John Ross, Harry Hitchcock, James E. Whitworth and M.J. Blair.  They have many descendants in King County.”  For more info about the Bagley family and their contributions to Seattle, see HistoryLink Essay #3470.

Land records:  In early years, Seattle’s Daily Intelligencer newspaper often ran lists of land transactions.  On page 7 of the December 9, 1888, edition, it was recorded that on December 4, David C. Bothell had sold Lot 11, Block 4 in the town of Bothell to Elmer J. Ross for $85.  We know that Elmer Ross had already sold his father’s land holdings in what is now the area around Seattle Pacific University; Elmer’s wife Mary had died and it appeared that Elmer was getting ready to start over and make a new life in Bothell.

Memoirs of a Daughter, unpublished memoir of Ida Ross Sparkman, 1938; it is an eighteen-page typed narrative.

Pioneer Days on Puget Sound by Arthur A. Denny, published 1890; available at Seattle Public Library.  Denny tells of early days in Seattle and mentions many of the early Seattle settlers.

Plat mapsKing County Parcel Viewer.

Seattle Facts – Seattle Municipal Archives has population figures, lists of city officials, etc.

Notes on neighborhood names:

It is interesting to learn how Seattle neighborhoods got their names.  Many were officially named by real estate developers, such as Ballard and Fremont.  Other neighborhoods gradually acquired names through popular usage, such as Wallingford.  John Wallingford was the father-in-law of William D. Wood, and together they did many land developments.

The Edgewater plat is just east of Stone Way, between Fremont and Wallingford.

The Edgewater plat is just east of Stone Way, between Fremont and Wallingford.

The Edgewater plat pictured here was filed by William Ashworth and Corliss P. Stone in June 1889, just two weeks after Seattle’s Great Fire.  Many plats were filed in the summer of 1889 when newcomers poured into Seattle, looking for jobs in the rebuilding after the Fire, and property developers saw that they would be able to sell lots for houses and businesses at higher prices than before the Fire.

The Edgewater community had a post office and a rail stop, but Edgewater faded away as a neighborhood name and was supplanted by Fremont and Wallingford.

William Ashworth immigrated from England in 1872 to work in the coal mines at Newcastle (ironically named for a place in England) near Bellevue on Seattle’s Eastside.  It is possible that the Ashworths met John Ross there when Ross visited his Newcastle property.

By 1883 the Ashworth family, with their five-year-old daughter Margaret, were living near the Ross family in today’s Fremont, and school history records say that they participated in the building of Ross School.  Later, the Ashworth family moved to the east of Fremont as indicated by this Edgewater plat map.  The Ashworth’s house was two blocks east of Stone Way at Ashworth Avenue and North 35th Street, present site of the North Transfer Station for garbage and recycling.

Ross as viewed from 3rd and Ewing North Trunk sewer line.SMA photo 6114 of 2 August 1912

As viewed from Third & Ewing on the Queen Anne side, on the north shore we see the community of Ross, a western portion of Fremont.  In the foreground workers are constructing the North Trunk Line under the ship canal which still exists today.  The canal in this photo is the old one before the creation of the present ship canal which is much wider.  Photo #6114 of the Seattle Municipal Archives, 2 August 1912.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
This entry was posted in Fremont neighborhood in Seattle, Land records and surveys and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Seattle’s Pioneers of Fremont: John Ross

  1. maggie says:

    Wow, this is an amazing piece of research! Thanks so much for writing it. John and Mary Jane Ross are my great-grandparents. I’ve visited that headstone many times, but I never knew anything about either of them as actual people. Ida Ross and James Sparkman are my grandparents, though they were both gone before I was born. I’ll share this article with as many Ross descendants as I can think of!

  2. Scott Ross says:

    I am part of The Elmer Ross’s progeny that went to Bothell. Great read, thank you!

  3. You are welcome, I am glad you enjoyed learning more of the story.

  4. Pingback: Stroll 2: 100 Years from Ross to Fishermen's Terminal - Queen Anne Historical Society

  5. David Metcalf says:

    Valarie — I am the great grandson of John Ross and was so thrilled to read your account of his history. I am preparing a family history of John and Mary Jane for our family members and your account is a wonderful source. I will give it full credit of course! My mother was a daughter of Rex Ross, Mary’s youngest son. Thank you for all the obvious hard work and effort that you put into this post. You are a wonderful writer and dogged researcher and a true treasure to all of us who yearn to remember.
    Dave Metcalf

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