The Preston Brothers: from Maine to Seattle

After the Denny family arrived and became the founders of the (future) City of Seattle in 1851, in 1852 Henry Yesler came to inspect the site of the future city and see if it was suitable for setting up a sawmill.  Yesler was given land at what is now Pioneer Square in Seattle, and Yesler’s sawmill began operating at the Seattle waterfront in March 1853.

An 1895 view of ships loading lumber at Port Gamble’s mills. Photo 4960 of UW Special Collections.

Some of the other earliest-arriving white settlers in the Pacific Northwest were lumbermen from Maine who wanted to find easily accessible supplies of timber.  Later in the year 1853 Yesler’s mill in Seattle was visited by ten men from Maine who were in search of a place to set up a lumbering operation.  Led by Captain William C. Talbot, the men purchased heavy timber pilings from Yesler to start building a mill at their chosen site, Port Gamble in Kitsap County, across Puget Sound from Seattle.

The Port Gamble mill operations of Pope & Talbot were so successful and grew so rapidly that the operators went back to Maine on recruiting trips. The Pope & Talbot mill operators were from East Machias, Maine.  It may be that this is how the Preston brothers of Dennysville, Maine, located only a few miles from East Machias, first heard about the frontier opportunities in the Pacific Northwest.  In the 1860s and 1870s a total of six Preston brothers came from Maine and settled in the Seattle-to-Everett area.

Copyright notice:  text and photos in this article are protected under a Creative Commons Copyright.  Do not copy without permission.

Maine men in the Pacific Northwest

The Preston family established a home and lumbering business in Dennysville, Maine, in the year 1800, where the Preston family patriarch, Nathan, received a land grant after the American Revolution.  He lived to be 91, dying in 1844.  Perhaps Nathan Preston’s initiative to launch out and claim new lands was passed down to his grandsons.  In the 1860s and 1870s a total of six brothers, grandsons of Nathan Preston, left Maine and settled in the Pacific Northwest.

Machias, Maine, a seaport town.

Census records of the Pope & Talbot lumber mill in Kitsap County (on Puget Sound west of Seattle) show that the first-arriving group of three Preston brothers may have started out working there circa 1860.  The mill recruited experienced workers from Maine, often in the autumn because Maine sawmills would close for the winter.  Pope & Talbot workers at Port Gamble would sign a six-month contract and many of the workers then left employment in the spring.  The mill had trouble retaining enough employees because men wanted to launch out to make their own land claims in the vast unsettled areas along Puget Sound.

Photographer Edward S. Curtis frequently photographed native peoples such as these Tulalip women of Snohomish County in the year 1898. Photo courtesy of UW Special Collections.

Census and court case records of the early 1860s in King and Snohomish Counties show that the three Preston brothers, Charles, Perrin and George, went to live in Snohomish County near what is now Everett (about forty miles north of Seattle), at the outlet of the Snohomish River.   The brothers worked together at logging and they also set up a trading post north of Everett, near the present Tulalip Indian reservation.

A trading post is a store which will accept goods in trade, such as fish or furs in exchange for consumer goods such as food, clothing, tools and equipment.  The Preston’s trading post stocked clothing, cookware and other household items as well as logging chains, ammunition and fishing supplies.

Legal troubles: the Frontier Justice files

The early court cases of Washington Territory before statehood, called Frontier Justice case files, contain records of the legal difficulties of the Preston brothers.  In one case in 1864, Charles (age 38) Perrin (29) and George (27) were charged with illegal timber-cutting near the mouth of the Snohomish River, on land that belonged to the US Government.  The Prestons were ordered to pay damages.

In another case, the three Preston brothers were sued by a mercantile firm of Port Townsend, for non-payment.  The brothers had bought logging equipment and goods to stock their Snohomish County trading post.  The court decided this case in favor of the Prestons based upon payment records of most of the amount owed to the Port Townsend merchants.  The remainder could not be collected because the mercantile firm had not filed charges until June 1871, after Charles Preston had already filed for bankruptcy in April 1871.

Perrin and Peggy Preston’s marriage certificate of 1879

After 1871 the three brothers went their separate ways.  George emigrated to Canada; Perrin continued to live in Snohomish County; and Charles moved to Seattle.

Perrin Preston had married a native American woman, Peggy Clark.  In 1878 Perrin was prosecuted for the relationship under confusing and conflicting marriage laws passed by the legislature of Washington Territory that year.  Territorial Supreme Court Justice Roger S. Greene then resolved the difficulties by ruling that a marriage was legal if entered into willingly by both partners, and that the legality of the marriage was not dependent upon a paper registration.  Nonetheless, to make sure, Perrin and Peggy were married by a Snohomish County Justice of the Peace in February 1879.  The names of their two children, George and Marthy, were listed as witnesses to the marriage.

By 1872 Charles Preston, age 46, had moved from Snohomish County to Seattle where he got into legal trouble again.   Along with Henry Edwards who was also from Maine, the two men were charged with illegal timber-cutting at what is now the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle.  The property was then known as the Strickler claim, filed under homestead laws in 1854.  As of the 1870s William A. Strickler was missing and presumed dead, however the legal issues regarding ownership of Strickler’s land claim had not yet been resolved.  For that reason no one lived on the Strickler property which still had stands of trees.

Court injunction in the illegal tree-cutting case in 1872.

Perhaps, seeing all that tantalizing untouched timber so near at hand, Charles Preston and Henry Edwards thought that no one would notice if they cut down some trees on the Strickler property.  We don’t know who “reported” them, but it is likely that Henry Yesler, who owned the only sawmill in Seattle at that time, inquired as to the source of the logs which Preston and Edwards brought in.

Since Yesler was also the appointed administrator of the Strickler estate, he may have reported Preston and Edwards for illegal timber-cutting, and then action was taken to bring the issue to court.  According to the records of the Frontier Justice case in 1873, Charles Preston and Henry Edwards had to pay money to the estate of William A. Strickler for the value of the timber which they had cut illegally.

Three more Preston brothers arrive in Seattle

Census and Seattle City Directory listings of the 1870s show that three more Preston brothers, Nehemiah, William and Otis, had arrived from Maine.  The eldest, Nehemiah, was 50 years old and may have waited to leave Maine until after his father died in 1874. Nehemiah brought his wife and some of his adult children to Washington Territory, and his son worked with his Uncle Perrin in Snohomish County at the trading post business.

Nehemiah established his home at the northeast corner of Ninth and Stewart Streets in Seattle and the other two brothers, William and Otis, were listed in the Seattle City Directory as living nearby with their families.  The description of “lumbermen” for their occupations may have meant that they worked at cutting trees or they worked at Yesler’s mill on the downtown Seattle waterfront.

Western Lumber Mill at South Lake Union. Photo circa 1891, UW Special Collections LAR303.

By 1885 the home of William Preston, age 45, was at Fourth Avenue North and Aloha Street, which was on the eastern slope of Queen Anne hill close to the southwest corner of Lake Union.

We may speculate that William Preston might have been employed at Western Mill, a lumber company established in 1882 at the present intersection of Westlake and Valley Streets.  This was the first major lumber mill outside of the downtown Seattle waterfront.

In the 1880s William Preston’s occupational listing in the Seattle City Directory changed to “carpenter” which would have been primarily house-construction.  Seattle’s population was expanding northward into Queen Anne and South Lake Union, and William Preston might easily have found work in building houses. Gradually in the 1880s, areas on the north shore of Lake Union were opening up to residential housing, as well.

The creation of Fremont in 1888

In 1887-1888 all of the legal issues regarding the Strickler estate property (present-day Fremont neighborhood) were finally settled.  Investors Edward and Carrie Blewett of Fremont, Nebraska, bought the property and, working with business partners in Seattle, they gave the neighborhood its name and opened it up to settlement.

The Denny & Hoyt’s plat map was filed in May 1888. The top line is North 39th Street. The southern boundary is Florentia Street which today is just south of the Fremont Bridge. On the west, the plat boundary is 3rd Ave NW and on the east, Albion Avenue.

The defined area of Fremont was the plat called Denny & Hoyt’s, named in thanks the banking partners who facilitated the sale of the property to the Blewetts.  The boundaries of the plat were from Florentia Street which is now on the south side of the ship canal (would be 29th if it had a number) to 39th Street as the northern boundary, and from 3rd Avenue NW on the west, to Albion Avenue on the east (not quite as far east as Stone Way.)

The total size of the Strickler land claim which became the Denny & Hoyt’s plat had originally been about 214 acres, before sections were taken out for a railroad line (Thomas Burke) and a reservation of space for a preliminary hand-dug canal (Yesler and the canal committee of the 1880s).  Some work was done in the 1880s to widen Ross Creek to create a “canal,” but the present ship canal was not created until 1911-1917.

From the time of the Strickler homestead land claim of 1854 until 1887-1888 when the estate case was finally settled, no one had been allowed to live within the boundaries of the property, which today is the main business district of Fremont.   After the estate issues were resolved and the neighborhood was named by the Blewetts, in the summer of 1888 the Ward & Griffith real estate agency ran ads in the Seattle Daily Intelligencer newspaper, announcing that the new Fremont development was open.  The photo below shows their real estate sales sign marking the development for people who would have arrived at the new Fremont via boat across Lake Union.  Westlake Avenue, running up the west side of Lake Union, had not yet been put through.  As of 1888 the only way to get to Fremont was by boat.

Fremont’s real estate jump-start

Seattle photographer Asahel Curtis (brother of Edward S. Curtis) took this photo of the real estate sign at the new suburb of Fremont in 1888. Photo courtesy of UW Special Collections, Asahel Curtis #482.

House lots in the new Fremont were to be sold for $1 to the first one hundred applicants.  This offer was made to jump-start business and residential growth since Fremont was a completely undeveloped site with no buildings of any kind.   The real estate developers knew that once a cluster of homes, businesses and community assets such as schools and churches were established, the value of land in Fremont would increase and they could sell lots at increased prices.

To facilitate the clearing of land for houses and businesses, the Fremont investors formed a corporation to set up the Fremont Milling Company.  The company was located at about the present site of the Fremont Bridge, where logs could be floated to the mill at the northwest corner of Lake Union.  Trees (cleared legally from Fremont’s hillside, this time) were cut into lumber at this local mill, to increase the convenience of building new houses in Fremont.  The mill also provided jobs so that many of the first people to live nearby were mill workers.

William Preston becomes a Fremonter

In September 1888 William Preston, age 48, bought a house lot for $1 in the 3600 block of Whitman Avenue North, where he built his own home.  Like others, his lot purchase was listed in the Seattle Daily Intelligencer newspaper that summer, and that is how I obtained the date of Preston’s purchase with the lot number showing where he would live (info on newspaper microfilm is at the library, see source list below).  Located about one block to the northeast of the present Troll statue, Whitman Avenue North has many older homes, but the house built by William Preston is not there any more.

Shown here is the log pond of the lumber mill in Fremont, at the northwest corner of Lake Union. Frank LaRouche photo, UW Special Collections.

William was the only Preston brother to settle in Fremont.  For the next twelve years until his retirement, William prospered as a carpenter in Fremont, building some of the very first houses in the neighborhood.

William Preston’s older brother Charles, who had been prosecuted in 1872-1873 for illegal timber-cutting in the future Fremont, had died in Seattle in 1887, before the creation of the Fremont neighborhood.  Charles Preston did not live to see the advancement of his younger brother William, who, unlike Charles, was never entangled in any court cases.  William Preston gained residence in Fremont to become one of its founding community members.

Source list:

A Maine Family’s History, prepared by Karen E. Smith-Howell, 2016.

The Fremont neighborhood in Seattle is located at the northwest corner of Lake Union. Map courtesy of HistoryLink.

Census and city directory listings, Seattle Public Library downtown, 9th floor genealogy resources.  Seattle Public Library on-line resources include city directories of selected years.

Find a Grave:  Gravesites with biographical information.  Preston family listings by Laurie Cepa, and consultation with Ms. Cepa via e-mail September 25, 2017.  Ms. Cepa is a descendant of Perrin & Peggy Preston.

HistoryLink essays:

#286 “Henry L. Yesler (1810-1892)”, by John Caldbick, 2014.

#4250 “South Lake Union,” by Walt Crowley, 2003.

#5505 “Port Gamble Thumbnail History,” by David Wilma, 2003.

#5486 “Captain William Talbot establishes a steam sawmill at Port Gamble,” by David Wilma, 2003.

#10218 “Lake Union Lumber and Manufacturing is incorporated on March 9, 1882,” by Jennifer Ott, 2013.

Books and other local resources:

Origin of Washington Geographic Names, by Edmond S. Meany, 1923.  Seattle Public Library 929.4.  Note on Preston, WA:  The town of Preston is located on Interstate 90 about 22 miles east of Seattle.  It was named in 1888 for William T. Preston from Illinois, a civil engineer who was associated with other operators of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad.  From the rail stop at Preston, supplies were sent via horseback to mining camps in the area.  William T. Preston was not related to the William Preston of Maine discussed here in my article.  The snagboat William T. Preston, used to remove navigational hazards from the waters of Puget Sound, was named for W.T. Preston because he was the only civilian to serve as Seattle District Engineer for the Corps of Engineers.  The boat is now on permanent display at the Maritime Heritage Center in Anacortes, WA.  Here is more info about snagboats, including the W.T. Preston, which worked to clear debris (and even cows!) from waterways.

Peace Weavers: Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages, by Candace Wellman, 2017.  Seattle Public Library 305.80097

Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA.  Many, many thanks to the archivists for their guidance on this project.

Frontier Justice case files listed by year:

1864:  Unlawful Timber-Cutting, Case number KNG-1162, Charles, Perrin and George Preston, defendants; United States, plaintiff.

1871:  Civil Collection, Case number KNG-1198, Charles, George and Perrin Preston, defendants; Solomon J. Katz and Sigmund Waterman of Port Townsend, plaintiffs.

1872:   Damages, Real Property, Case number KNG-789, Charles H. Preston and H.H. Edwards, defendants; Estate of William A. Strickler, plaintiff.

1878:  Criminal Case SNO-139 of Snohomish County, defendant Perrin C. Preston charged with living with an Indian woman.

See also:  the articles on this blog about original homestead claimant William A. Strickler have lists of the Frontier Justice court cases pertaining to the estate issues.

Other sources:

Regional Archives at Bellevue

The Puget Sound Regional Archives is on the campus of Bellevue College.  Original property records and Frontier Justice files are stored here in temperature-controlled vaults.

Roger Sherman Greene,” (1840-1930), Wikipedia essay.

Pope & Talbot/Port Gamble update:  Article in the Seattle Times newspaper of April 2, 2022, outlines the history of the mill and how the land is presently being reclaimed.

Seattle Daily Intelligencer newspaper, September 22, 1888:  listing of land transactions including William L. Preston, Lot 5, Block 23, Denny & Hoyt’s Addition, $1.  Accessed on microfilm, Seattle Public Library (downtown) genealogy department, 9th floor.

Washington Digital Archives:  Territorial census, birth, death, marriage and Frontier Justice case listings.


About Wedgwood in Seattle History

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

2 Responses to The Preston Brothers: from Maine to Seattle

  1. bluebrightly says:

    I should come here more often and learn something! 😉 Your research efforts are admirable, as is your writing – I like “tantalizing untouched timber so near at hand” – so much PNW history is spelled out right there! $1 Fremont house lots looks like an impossibility from here, doesn’t it?

  2. Thanks! Yes, it’s true that the original developers of Fremont did amazing things and the neighborhood also was founded at an opportune time in Seattle history. I am enjoying the research.

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