When I (Valarie) was growing up and attending Wedgwood School in northeast Seattle, city and state history was part of the curriculum of fourth grade. That was when I first heard the amazing stories of “the pioneers,” Seattle’s first white settlers including the members of the extended Denny family.
The Dennys made an incredible journey of courage as they left their homes in 1851 and launched out into the unknown. They traveled across the USA in a wagon train to come to a place which had no name: what is now the city of Seattle.
One of my interests is in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. In exploring Fremont’s vibrant history, I learned the name of the original homestead claimant, William A. Strickler. He filed a land claim in 1854 for the area which is now the main business district of Fremont and the Fremont Bridge over the ship canal, which used to be only a small stream. I learned that Strickler disappeared in 1861 and no one ever found out what happened to him.
Delving into the history of the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle
In this blog post I will tell about the time in which William Strickler lived (the 1850s and 1860s) and the people he associated with in Washington Territory. Some of the people who knew William Strickler were Arthur Denny, Henry Yesler, David Phillips, Selucious Garfielde and James Tilton. I searched the available historical records of these early residents of Washington Territory, looking for references to William Strickler or references to events at which he was present.
One disclaimer: In this blog article I have not included info about the Indians who lived in the Pacific Northwest and who were instrumental in helping the Dennys and others to get settled in their new homes. The reason is that in tracing the life of William Strickler, I did not find any indication of his interactions with the local Indians and so they are not mentioned here in this article.
For info about early Seattleites interactions with the Indians they encountered, I refer my readers to a wonderful new book by David Buerge called Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name. This book, along with Native Seattle by Coll Thrush, are the best sources for looking at Seattle’s pioneer period from the perspective of the local Indians.
Another recently-written book, Peace Weavers by Candace Wellman, tells of white men who took wives from among the Indians of Skagit and Whatcom counties. A second volume of Ms. Wellman’s research, called Interwoven Lives, was published in 2019.
Land-hungry early settlers arrive in Seattle in the 1850s
Students of Seattle history know the story of Arthur Denny and his interrelated group who were the first white settlers to stake land claims in Seattle. Arriving in November 1851, the group lived on Alki in West Seattle for the winter. In the spring of 1852 most of the group moved over to Elliott Bay at the site of today’s downtown Seattle.
In Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, Arthur Denny’s memoir published in 1890, he wrote that when he arrived in 1851 he anticipated explosive economic growth on the West Coast, but that he could not have anticipated all of the obstacles which would impede the growth of Seattle. He and his family held on through all of the crises and setbacks from the 1850s to the 1890s, and it was not until nearly the end of his life (he died in 1899) that Arthur Denny saw Seattle truly become established and prospering.
Arthur Denny’s legacy lives on today in many facets of our city, including the original street grid of downtown Seattle and the first street names: twelve streets in alliterative pairs beginning with Jefferson & James, Cherry & Columbia.
Another early Seattle settler whose name is well-known is Henry Yesler. Yesler suddenly showed up in Seattle in October 1852 with a proposal to put a sawmill at the site of today’s Pioneer Square. Once the sawmill was up and running in March 1853, the news got out and people began to arrive in Seattle to take advantage of the economic opportunities. For many years the sawmill was the chief economic engine of Seattle, providing employment and a source of cash to homesteaders to clear their land and bring the logs into the mill for payment.
There are many other early Seattle settlers whose names are less well-known, even though their accomplishments still impact us today. One of these is a man named William A. Strickler who, at age 30 in 1854, filed his land claim for what is now the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle.
In addition to being an early land claimant in Seattle, Strickler was involved in civic issues in the early formation of Washington Territory. He was one of the first delegates from Seattle, along with Arthur Denny, to the territorial legislature in Olympia. Strickler served in the land office in Olympia and in 1855 he led the first land survey in King County. The land survey team created a grid which has come down to us today as the outline of streets in Township 25 of north Seattle, which is a six-mile-square township extending from Pioneer Square out as far as 85th Street.
For some Seattle pioneers, not as much has been written about them as we would have liked. We wonder, where did they come from, why did they come to Seattle, and were they successful in achieving their dreams? Like many of Seattle’s early settlers, William Strickler seemed to come out of nowhere, appearing in Seattle as one of the land-hungry men who hoped to make their fortune in the new city. Strickler’s early involvement in the first land survey of Seattle had to do with the desire of white settlers to properly mark out their homestead claims.
This blog post will tell about the background of William Strickler and his accomplishments in the years 1854-1861 in Washington Territory. In order to find out more about this man, I searched the stories of people Strickler would have known such as Arthur Denny and Henry Yesler, to see whether they ever mentioned him in memoirs, letters, or legal records.
Arthur Denny’s early adventures in Seattle
Arthur Denny (1822-1899) is considered the founding father of Seattle, leader of the Denny Party of his relatives who were the first white settlers to come and stake land claims. Before coming Out West, Denny had served for eight years as County Surveyor of Knox County, Illinois. As such he was experienced in land surveys and the skills needed to measure out land claims.
One of the skills needed in surveying would be the ability to keep from getting lost, by using compass measurements and landmarks to find one’s way home again after a survey expedition out in unmarked territory. Despite his years of experience as a surveyor, Denny once made a serious mistake while he was absorbed in explorations of his new home in Seattle. In his memoir, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, Denny told a story on himself of going out on an exploration and not being able to get back home before nightfall.
After spending the winter at Alki, in the spring of 1852 the early settler group decided to move across Elliott Bay and stake land claims at what is now downtown Seattle. They knew little about surrounding areas and were told by the Indians of land features like the big lake to the east (Lake Washington).
The Seattle settlers were planning to bring cattle to graze but did not know of a place to put them where there would be sufficient grassland. After consulting with the local Indians, Arthur Denny learned that there was a prairie or meadow to the northwest, so one day in December 1852 he and his brother David set out to find it. Probably they should have paid one of the Indians to guide them to the place, but the Dennys didn’t have much money and they must have thought that they could find the place themselves.
Arthur and David Denny hiked in a northwesterly direction, probably keeping close to the shoreline of Elliott Bay so that they would go around, rather than over, hills like Queen Anne. We may guess that they passed through what is now the Interbay neighborhood to the west of Queen Anne hill.
The two brothers came to a place where there was a stream and they spent considerable time exploring to see whether the water was fresh and suitable for cattle to drink. They found that the water was salty and they realized that the stream was a tidal area which would flow out to Puget Sound, even though they could not see the Sound from there. Later naming of the site was Shilshole and Salmon Bay, at the western end of what is now the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Arthur Denny wrote in his memoir that he and his brother were so absorbed in their explorations that they stayed too long. It got dark and they were forced to stay-put overnight, without any supplies of food, blankets or fire-making material.
In morning’s light, Arthur and David Denny started back toward home. On the way they were met by William Bell who had been sent out to look for them, and who had brought some biscuits for them to eat.
Arthur Denny wrote in his memoir, “This was our first knowledge of Shilshole Bay, which we soon after fully explored and were ready to point newcomers in that direction for locations.” (page 49, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound).
Denny listed people who came to Seattle the next year (1853) and who staked land claims along what is now the ship canal, which was then a creek flowing from Lake Union westward out to Puget Sound. The neighborhoods of Fremont and Ballard are along this line. Prior to creation of the ship canal in 1916, the creek was known as Ross Creek for John Ross, one of the first to settle there. In his memoir Arthur Denny listed four young single men whom he directed to the available land along the creek: Edmund Carr, Francis McNatt, John Ross, and William A. Strickler.
Establishment of Yesler’s Mill causes population growth in Seattle in 1853
These four young men, along with many other people, may have come to Seattle because they heard about Yesler’s Mill. As soon as Yesler’s sawmill was up and running in March 1853, the news spread and newcomers began arriving in Seattle. They knew that they might find employment at Yesler’s Mill and would also receive payment for any logs brought in from homestead claim properties.
In an interview by historian Clarence Bagley, Henry Yesler told of the summer of 1854 when the above-named four young men who had staked claims along the creek, worked together to cut down trees, roll them into the water and float the logs out toward Puget Sound. They succeeded in getting the logs out by “rafting” them, tied together with ropes or logging chains. They then tried to tow the logs with canoes, paddling southward on Puget Sound to Yesler’s Mill which was at the present site of Pioneer Square (at First Avenue and Yesler Street). Yesler told that,
During the first five years after my mill was started [March 28, 1853] cattle teams for logging were but few and there were no steamboats for towing rafts. A great deal of the earliest logging on the Sound was done exclusively by hand, the logs being thrown into the water by hand spikes and towed to the mill on the tide by skiffs…..
I remember on one occasion Carr, McNatt, Ross and Strickler lost the product of a season’s labor by their raft getting away from them and going to pieces while in transit between the mill and the head of the bay. My booming place was on the north side of the mill and wharf. There being no sufficient breakwater thereabouts in those times I lost a great many logs as well as boom chains by the rafts being broken up by storms.” (quote from pages 245-246, History of King County, Washington, by Clarence Bagley, published 1929.)
William Strickler seeks civic and political involvement
After the exhausting physical exertion of logging in the summer of 1854, William A. Strickler, age 30, never seemed to spend much more time on his land claim property near Lake Union. Strickler turned his efforts to civic issues. He was one of the first elected officers of King County and then was elected as a representative to the territorial council in Olympia, located about 100 miles south of Seattle, which today is the capital city of the state of Washington.
In 1855 Strickler made a request for the first land survey in King County, which included the Seattle area. The purpose of the survey was so that settlers could make land claims referencing the marker points as measurement.
With a five-man survey team including co-leader David Phillips, in the summer of 1855 the team walked out six miles to north Seattle, from downtown as far as today’s 85th Street. The six-by-six mile unit created a township of 36 square miles called Township 25. This first township is the foundation of the street system which north Seattle has today. The grid lines later became streets, and for many years 85th Street was the northern boundary of the City of Seattle.
Arthur Denny and William Strickler went back to Olympia for the second session of the territorial legislature in January 1856. Strickler and Denny were in Olympia when, on January 26, 1856, Seattle was attacked by Indian warriors, a day which became known as the Battle of Seattle.
Within the next few days steamships arrived in Olympia carrying settlers who were fleeing Seattle. One ship brought a letter which William Bell had written to Arthur Denny. Bell told of the attack and that Denny’s family and other families were safe inside a defensive structure, a blockhouse at the southwest corner of First and Cherry Streets.
Arthur Denny returned to Seattle as soon as he could, about one week after the Battle of Seattle, to be with his family and help defend the settlers from any further warfare. The one-day Indian attack on Seattle had been repelled by cannon fire from the warship Decatur which was moored in Elliott Bay, but the settlers had to remain in the blockhouse for the rest of the winter because their homes had been destroyed, crops and cattle taken.
William Strickler remained in Olympia. Since he was a single man and had no family in Seattle, perhaps he thought that he ought to stay and continue to serve in the legislature in Olympia. Records of the territorial legislature of February 1856 show that he was present, participating in discussion and voting on issues. Then on February 18, 1856, the Pioneer & Democrat newspaper of Olympia published a notice that Strickler had been appointed Register of the Land Office (at Olympia) for Washington Territory. The news note said that “having received the appointment as Register of the Land Office of this territory, W.A. Strickler has resigned his seat in the council. All that we could hope for, or wish, is, that as good and true a democrat may be elected in his place.”
For the next two years, from 1856 until Strickler’s resignation from the land office in 1858, there were no personal mentions of Strickler in the Olympia newspaper, but there were public notices issued by Strickler at the Land Office and printed in the newspaper, giving notice to settlers to file their land claims. The officers of the Land Office were listed as Strickler as the Register, and a co-worker as Receiver.
Strickler and Tilton
From the time that William Strickler led the land survey of north Seattle in 1855 through the years 1856 to 1858 in the land office in Olympia, he was closely associated with James Tilton, Surveyor-General of Washington Territory. Tilton compiled the surveys that had been completed so that the U.S. Government could see the land layout and the potential resources of Washington Territory, and see where a railroad route might run.
Tilton was an ambitious person who leveraged his contacts in military service in the Mexican War for later political appointments. Tilton had served in the Mexican War in 1846-1847 along with future Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. Other Mexican War associates of Tilton’s were General George Pickett who later commanded the U.S. troops on San Juan Island during the Pig War of 1859, and General Franklin Pierce who became U.S. President (1853-1857).
Franklin Pierce rewarded Tilton for his help in Pierce’s presidential campaign by awarding him the position of Surveyor-General in Washington Territory. Tilton was re-appointed to the position under President James Buchanan (1857-1861) who had been U.S. Secretary of State during the Mexican War.
We may speculate on the relationship between William Strickler and James Tilton. We wonder if Strickler hoped that his association with Tilton would help Strickler advance in some way and perhaps gain appointment to paid positions like that of the territorial surveyors. However, there is no record that Tilton was ever interested in promoting Strickler. Tilton was completely absorbed in trying to find advancement for himself and in trying to find jobs for the many people who were dependent upon him.
Tilton arrived in Olympia on March 24, 1855, with his wife and children, his brother Hanson and two half-siblings including Tilton’s widowed half-sister who was dependent upon him. Tilton put his brother Hanson and half-brother Edward on the payroll as surveyors of Washington Territory. After the survey of north Seattle (Township 25) which William Strickler led, Strickler never again worked as a surveyor, and this may be because Tilton had so many other people clamoring for jobs.
During the Puget Sound Indian War of 1855-1856, James Tilton was Adjunct Commander of the militias formed by local men. In Seattle, Arthur Denny was commander of Company A, who continued to patrol and guard farmers during the uneasy year following the Indian attack on Seattle in January 1856. In the spring of 1856, Tilton ordered that Company A go to Snoqualmie to help build a military road over the mountains. Denny wrote back to Tilton explaining that it was necessary to stay on guard in the Seattle area. Denny’s granddaughter wrote in her book, Four Wagons West, that:
“Spring  came and still there was fear and danger of an Indian attack. Farmers on the Duwamish returned to their claims for the spring planting under the protection of the armed volunteers… men took turns at the plow and with the gun… This planting was most vital to the life of the little group. Trade on the Sound was paralyzed, thus cutting off their supply of provisions outside their immediate settlement. Arthur Denny said, ‘There was sufficient ground cultivated in the lower valley to supply the few families that remained with vegetables for next winter.” (Four Wagons West, pages 252-253)
James Tilton responded to this explanation by “firing” Arthur Denny, relieving him of command of Company A. The men of Company A subsequently rebelled and refused to follow the order to go to Snoqualmie. As volunteers, they continued to guard their home area. The government refused to give them an honorable discharge from war service, and they never received any pay as militia.
William Strickler had worked closely with both Arthur Denny and James Tilton. We may wonder what Strickler thought of these events of 1856 and the clash between the two men, which increased the unpopularity of Tilton as an unfeeling bureaucrat who did not understand local conditions.
Strickler was not a military person himself and he had not served in the Seattle militia. Instead, he stayed in Olympia during the period of unrest in 1856. As a resident of Olympia, at least most of the time, from 1856 to 1858, Strickler may not have felt that Seattle was really his home, although he did have a land claim there. It could be, however, that Strickler had hitched his wagon to the wrong star. The clash between Tilton and Denny was just one of the incidents between them which divided the settlers of Washington Territory. Tilton was resented as an “outsider,” and in 1865 when Tilton and Denny ran against one another for the position of delegate to Congress, Denny was elected by an overwhelming majority.
Conditions in Washington Territory in 1855-1860
Arthur Denny wrote,
“I came to the Coast impressed with the belief that a railroad would be built across the continent to some point on the northern coast within the next fifteen or twenty years, and located on the Sound with that expectation. I imagined that Oregon would receive large annual accessions to its population, but in this I was mistaken, mainly by the opening of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement. The bitter contest which arose there over the slavery question had the effect to attract and absorb the moving population to such an extent that very few, for several years, found their way through those territories; and a large proportion of those who did pass through were gold seekers bound for California.
Then came our Indian war, which well nigh depopulated Washington Territory. This was followed by the great rebellion [Civil War] all of which retarded the growth of the Territory…” (Pioneer Days on Puget Sound pages 15-16.)
After the Puget Sound Indian War in 1855-1856, quite a few Seattle-area settlers gave up, abandoning their farms and land claim property. Then things got even worse in the Seattle area due to national events. Arthur Denny noted that, instead of traveling to the West Coast, migrants went to the territories of Kansas-Missouri-Nebraska. The problem was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which gave these territories the right to determine for themselves whether they would form a state which did or did not permit slavery.
Organized factions on either side of the slavery issue funded migrations to try to populate the Kansas territory, because of the law that when a territory had 60,000 people living in it, it could apply to become a state. People in either faction (slave state or free state) tried to bring more supporters into the territory on their side of the issue. Tensions over the slavery question flared into large-scale killings of abolitionists versus slaveholders, leading to the expression “bleeding Kansas.” These killings were reported in lurid detail in newspapers across the USA.
People in Washington Territory certainly were aware of national events like Kansas and the slavery question, though they hoped to keep out of it. Although I don’t know how many Washington Territory people were on each side of the slavery issue, some newspapers of the 1850s in Washington regularly printed editorial comments critical of “southerners,” such as complaints about the outsiders who were appointed to important offices in Washington Territory.
In the 1850s U.S. President Franklin Pierce and his successor, President James Buchanan, tried to placate their supporters by naming southerners to political positions. After Isaac Stevens who was the first territorial governor, Washington’s second territorial governor was Fayette McMullin from Virginia, and the third territorial governor was Richard Gholson from Kentucky. Richard Gholson was yet another officer who had served with Franklin Pierce, Isaac Stevens and James Tilton in the War with Mexico, 1846-1847.
After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election for U.S. president, Richard Gholson resigned as territorial governor of Washington, saying that he refused to serve under President Lincoln’s administration. Gholson left Washington Territory to return home and encourage Kentucky to join the Confederacy.
At the height of pre-Civil-War tensions in 1860, James Tilton, Surveyor-General of Washington Territory, was thrust into the news because he had brought a slave boy with him to live in Olympia. Tilton claimed that the boy, Charlie Mitchell, was the slave of a relative of Tilton’s and that Tilton was only “employing” him.
On September 24, 1860, then-twelve-year-old Charlie Mitchell stowed away on a ship docked at Olympia, whose black crew members had encouraged him to make a run for his freedom. Charlie was successfully transported to Victoria, British Columbia, where he was taken in by the community of free blacks.
Once Tilton found out what had happened, Tilton wrote an indignant letter contending that the British authorities of Victoria had violated the sovereignty of his rights as a citizen of the United States. This was a very bad public relations error; Tilton did not seem to realize that he would make himself even more unpopular in Washington Territory by publicizing that he had brought a slave to Olympia. There was contempt toward Tilton’s argument that he was only “employing” a boy who belonged to his relatives in Maryland.
Who was William A. Strickler?
Against the background of pre-Civil War tensions in Washington Territory, William Strickler was working in the land office in Olympia from 1856 to 1858, where he had close contact with James Tilton and other officials appointed to the territorial government. We can speculate that Strickler had wanted to rub shoulders with important people. He may have aspired to be appointed to a higher government office, but instead, Strickler left his position in the government land office at the end of the year 1858. His letter of resignation, addressed to President James Buchanan, did not give the reason for wanting to conclude his service. We wonder if he did not like the job, if he wanted to do something else or if he was planning to go somewhere else to live.
William Strickler’s family background in Virginia
William Strickler was born in 1824 in the Shenandoah Valley of Page County, Virginia. He was descended from Abraham Strickler, one of three Swiss-German brothers who came from Europe to Pennsylvania in about 1720. William Penn, founder of the colony, advertised in Europe for settlers who wanted peace and freedom to own land and practice their religion, so a number of different groups came to Pennsylvania. Today the largest branches of Strickler descendants in the USA can trace their ancestry to Pennsylvania.
Abraham Strickler was a traveling merchant trader. When he came from Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia he was struck by its beauty, and he bought land to settle there. Abraham Strickler gave his place the name “Egypt,” meant to convey that his new home was in a river valley with rich soil, yielding abundant crops.
A century later, descendants of Abraham Strickler were still living on the site in the Shenandoah Valley and they were prospering, up until the Civil War.
Census listings show that William Strickler’s father was a miller, operating a grist mill for neighboring farmers to come and grind their grain. The household of William Strickler’s parents listed from three to five slaves in residence. With that small number, we assume that the Strickler family did not have a farm; the slaves might have helped with household work such as cooking, laundry, and maintaining the family’s vegetable garden, and with the work at the grist mill.
During the Civil War from April 1861 to April 1865, the Shenandoah Valley was subjected to intense pressures from the presence of both Union and Confederate armies who marched through at various times. The valley presented a natural byway to and from battlefields such as Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to the north, and the valley was a source of both food and water.
Supply lines did not keep up with the armies, so after a day of marching, hungry men swarmed over local farms, digging up crops in the fields, picking fruit from the trees, catching chickens and cooking them to eat. Sometimes the soldiers appropriated horses, tools and clothing belonging to civilians. There was some outright destruction, as well, such as when General Stonewall Jackson marched through the Shenandoah Valley and ordered the burning of buildings.
Census records show that in the Civil War period, some of William Strickler’s siblings scattered to areas such as Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. After the Civil War, the Stricklers recovered and some of them resumed living on the family homesite in the Shenandoah Valley. One thing we can see by comparing the records of William Strickler to his siblings, is that he was the only one who ever traveled so far Out West, and we don’t know what motivated him to leave his Shenandoah Valley home.
We know that William Strickler had always kept in touch with his family, because letters for him kept arriving in Seattle after his disappearance in 1861. That was how, in 1868, Henry Yesler began the process of contacting Strickler family members to determine who would inherit the land claim.
During the Civil War years of 1861 to 1865 William Strickler’s family would have been concerned about not having heard from him, but they would have accepted that the war was disrupting mail service. About six weeks after the start of the war in April 1861, mail service was cut off between the Union and Confederate states. It would have been nearly impossible for mail to be carried from William Strickler in Washington Territory, back to a Confederate state like Virginia. After the war, the Strickler family resumed the writing of letters and they learned at that time, that no one in Seattle had seen William Strickler since 1861.
William Strickler goes Out West
We don’t know exactly when, or by what route, William Strickler first traveled Out West. He may have crossed the continent in a wagon train ending in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, or he may have sailed with a ship of gold-seekers to California. What we do know, via land records, is that Strickler filed a land claim in the Hillsboro area of Oregon (west of Portland) in February 1848. There he may have come in contact with other people who were moving on to “north Oregon,” which became Washington Territory.
Strickler sold his Oregon property and arrived in Seattle in 1853. We know that he arrived by or before June 1853 because his name was listed as an affiant (witness) on the land claim filings of other Seattle-area residents that summer. In June 1853 Strickler signed as an affiant on the land claim of John Holgate of Beacon Hill, along with Joseph Foster, Dexter Horton and David Maurer. In July, Strickler signed for William Heebner of the Duwamish area south of Seattle, and Heebner’s neighbors Luther Collins and David Maurer also signed on as affiants. Very often the affiants on a notarized land claim document were the claimant’s neighbors, which helped to show that there was no dispute about the boundary lines of their adjoining claims.
In February 1854 William Strickler paid cash for his land claim of 214 acres located in today’s Fremont, just to the west of Lake Union, as it was later named. The affiants on his claim document were David Denny and Denny’s brother-in-law Carson Boren, both original members of the Denny Party settler group of 1851-1852. Below is a page from the land claims summary showing how the Land Office later listed them as verified.
In the summer of 1855 when William Strickler and David Phillips led a survey of north Seattle, one of their notations was that at present-day Fremont, there was a stream narrow enough to step across. This was at the present site of the Fremont Bridge over the ship canal, where there was once only Ross Creek, a small outlet from Lake Union. In this, Strickler acquired an advantageous land claim site with a fresh water source.
We may wonder what, if anything, Strickler planned to do with his land claim property. We know only of Clarence Bagley’s interview with Henry Yesler telling that Strickler and his neighbors had tried to bring logs from their property into Yesler’s Mill in the summer of 1854, but that the logs had floated out Puget Sound on a strong tide.
The lost years: 1859-1861
After William Strickler submitted his letter of resignation from the land office, he likely stayed in Olympia until his replacement arrived, which was at the end of the year 1858 or early in January 1859. I found this reference to the date of when the new appointee was to take office, but I have not found any information about what William Strickler did after that date. I don’t know if he stayed in Olympia and took another job there, or if he returned to Seattle. Although the Seattle economy was very depressed in those years, Strickler could possibly have returned to Seattle and gone to work at Yesler’s mill.
Another possibility is that Strickler was bitten by Gold Fever. On the same day as Strickler wrote his letter of resignation, March 28, 1858, the Olympia newspaper ran letters from James Tilton and other people, with testimonials about the supposed wonders of the Fraser River Gold Rush. The background story was that Tilton was a co-investor of Sehome in Bellingham, along with George Pickett and Edmund Fitzhugh. They promoted Sehome as a stepping-stone to the gold fields at the Fraser River in British Columbia.
David Phillips, who co-led the survey of Township 25 in 1855, was another one of the early Seattle residents who knew William Strickler and who may have had some influence upon him as an adviser. David Phillips arrived in Seattle in the spring of 1853 and was an “older man,” a widower over the age of fifty. He served in civic offices and was trusted by others as a person of integrity as he entered into business partnerships with Dexter Horton and Arthur Denny. The store which the three men established evolved into the Dexter Horton Bank, the ancestor of Seattle First-National Bank. (info from pages 16-17 of Pioneer Days on Puget Sound.)
David Phillips did not take a land claim in Seattle, but instead he seemed to be looking for the best places to start commercial enterprises. To do that, Phillips observed the population patterns to see which community on Puget Sound would ultimately gain dominance. When the Fraser River Gold Rush started in 1858, there was a sudden shift of population to Bellingham because Tilton, Pickett and Fitzhugh were promoting their Sehome site in Bellingham as a jumping-off place to British Columbia. Phillips went to investigate it, and he wrote the following letter describing the Sehome development as “humbuggery.”
David Phillip’s 1858 letter has been preserved in the Bagley historical files in the Special Collection archives at the University of Washington Library in Seattle. The letter (below) does not have a salutation, so we don’t know for sure who David Phillips wrote to. It could have been that Arthur Denny and/or Dexter Horton were the original recipients of the letter because they were in commercial partnership with David Phillips beginning in 1854. They would have been interested in the investment potential in Bellingham and whether that city would outstrip Seattle in growth.
We may wonder if William Strickler succumbed to James Tilton’s gold rush booster speeches, or if Strickler listened to the cautionary counsel of David Phillips that the so-called gold rush was a promotional scheme only. In the letter Phillips referred to “speculators” and though he did not say “Tilton,” Phillips might have been referring to him. Here is a partial transcription of the letter:
“July 30, 1858. My own opinion with regard to the Frazier River gold mines is that they are not very extensive and mostly confined to Frazier River and very little gold will be found on Thompson River. In comparison to the California mines they will not produce more than one fourth of gold of California mines annually.
I think three fourths of the wild excitement that now prevails is hummbugry and got up by speculators for no other purpose but to make money out of townsites. Lots and town property will be one-half lower in one year than now, I mean Bellingham Bay & Victoria and particularly Bellingham Bay town.”
The disappearance of William Strickler: 1861
The “seven year rule” of missing persons is a very old principle inherited from English law. The legal action challenging Strickler’s land holding was prompted by two men, Woodward & Edwards, in the year 1868, seven years after anyone had last seen William Strickler. Woodward & Edwards filed a presumptive claim, meaning that they wanted to take over the property on the presumption that Strickler had not fulfilled the claim requirements. It had to be determined whether Strickler really had legal ownership of the land on Ross Creek or if Strickler had abandoned the land claim.
In that year of 1868, Henry Yesler was the town official appointed to be Judge of Probate, meaning that if there was any question about land ownership and the estate of a deceased person, the Judge of Probate would protect the rights of the heirs. The title, “Judge of Probate,” was not meant to imply that the office holder had a law degree or was officially a judge; it meant only that the town officer would secure the property of a deceased person. Ironically it had been William Strickler himself who was the first Judge of Probate in King County in the year 1854.
What happened to William Strickler?
In the above legal document of 1868 which was filed for Yesler to be administrator of the estate of William Strickler, Yesler did not say whether he knew where Strickler might have gone. If only Strickler had said something like, “I’m going over to Whidbey for dinner,” then we would at least know where to start looking for him.
Henry Yesler gave the Strickler case to Judge John J. McGilvra to pursue the legal issues. In 1868-1869 missing-person notices were posted in newspapers in Washington Territory, and Judge McGilvra corresponded with William Strickler’s relatives, but no information about Strickler’s whereabouts was ever obtained.
Over a long timeline of legal actions, the Land Commissioner in Washington, D.C., ruled that they were satisfied with the evidence that Strickler had paid cash for his claim and that his heirs had a legal right to it. On another article on this blog I have traced that story and the timeline of how Strickler’s land became today’s Fremont in Seattle.
In searching for William Strickler, I looked in records of the people he would have known in the 1850s, historical records of the events of his time in Seattle, and any evidence connected to missing-persons searches circa 1861. My quest could be subtitled “ways to die in early Seattle.”
Ways to die in pioneer days: ships going down
The little steamers which chugged up and down Puget Sound took on passengers without asking any questions, such as names. I read newspaper accounts of ships which went down in Puget Sound and for which there were unidentified dead bodies. Sometimes people traveled on Puget Sound via canoes paddled by Indians, or they took canoes out by themselves, risking the threats of wind and weather.
Death via conflict with Indians
Tales of pioneer years noted people who went somewhere and never returned such as Joseph Fanjoy and O.M. Eaton, who had lived on the Black River at the south end of Lake Washington. In the summer of 1855 they headed for the Colville Gold Rush in eastern Washington, but they never came back and no one ever knew what had happened to them. It was later surmised that Eaton and Fanjoy were likely killed by Indians. The disappearance of these men and others on the way to Colville was among the first warnings of the Puget Sound Indian War in which there was push-back because of the taking of Indian lands.
A place where I found an inordinate number of reported deaths due to conflicts with Indians, was on or around Whidbey Island. In the book Peace Weavers about marriages between white men and native women in Skagit and Whatcom counties, author Candace Wellman recounts the problems that local Indians had with the more warlike, aggressive tribes from farther north, including Vancouver Island. The northern Indians came on raids down Puget Sound to capture and make slaves of Indians of other groups. Northern Indians, such as the Haida, would also attack people who happened to be out on the water in canoes, overturning the canoes and taking goods while leaving the occupants to drown.
In my research I found several such accounts which took place near Whidbey Island as well as other types of conflicts which were between whites and Indians. The killing of Col. Isaac Ebey in August 1857 by northern Indians who came to Whidbey Island, was considered the last of the Puget Sound Indian war, as the killing was done in retaliation for the loss of life during the war.
Strickler and the Ebey family of Whidbey Island
One of William Strickler’s friendships was with the Ebey family of Whidbey Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. I speculate that in 1861 Strickler might have gone to visit the Ebeys and was killed by Indians, or that Strickler drowned while on the way over the water to Whidbey.
On January 5, 1857, Strickler wrote the following letter to Winfield Ebey, brother of Col. Isaac Ebey who was killed by Indians only a few months later, on August 11th. While the letter is an “official” one which Strickler wrote in his capacity as Register of the Land Office at Olympia, the letter’s warm tone indicates prior friendship.
In the letter Strickler replied to Winfield Ebey’s inquiry about land surveys, to say that the settlers on Whidbey Island should just mark the boundaries of their claims for the present, and wait for the government survey. After the survey that Strickler & Phillips had done in north Seattle in 1855, no more surveys were done in the Seattle area until 1858, due in part to fear of Indian attacks.
Here is a transcription of the letter, which is in the Winfield Ebey papers in Special Collections at the University of Washington Library in Seattle:
“January 5, 1857, Dear Sir: Yours of the 30th was received yesterday. I have since seen Mr. Hall, clerk in the Surveyor General’s Office and was informed by him that Mr. Hunt has no appointment from the Surveyor General as claim surveyor of Island County, consequently his changes are such as may be agreed upon between himself and settlers. There is no necessity of settlers having their claims surveyed until such time that it can be done permanently. All you need do now is to get the course and distance from one of your corners to a corner in the government survey so as to be able to notify this office whenever requested to do so for the precise location of your claim in the government survey. The proof required when claimant has resided upon and cultivated his claim for one year and desires to enter it, is the same as the proof in his notification. I am of the opinion that this claimant should prove continuous residence up to the time he desires to enter. Your Friend and obs. Servant, Wm. A. Strickler.”
Surviving the Civil War years in Washington Territory
When we hear that William Strickler disappeared in the year 1861, the first thought is that he might have left Washington Territory to fight in the Civil War which began in April of that year. Although Washington Territory did not send troops to fight in the war, some individuals did leave and go back to enlist with a unit from their home state.
General George Pickett, who had been living in Bellingham, resigned his U.S. Army commission and joined the Confederacy. His friend and co-investor in the Sehome development, Edmund Fitzhugh, delayed getting involved in the Civil War but eventually, after Gettysburg, he served in Pickett’s unit in the Confederate Army. Like William Strickler, both Pickett and Fitzhugh were from Virginia.
I searched Civil War records of both the Union and Confederate armies, looking for William Strickler, but did not find any indication that he had enlisted. It seemed to me that if he had decided to join the war effort, Strickler would have gone home to Virginia or at least let his family know where he was; he had always kept in touch with them since coming Out West circa 1848.
Taking a “leave of absence” during the Civil War
During the Civil War, things got hot and uncomfortable in Washington Territory for anyone who was from a slave-holding state, had a southern accent or who was suspected of Confederate sympathies. James Tilton remained in Olympia and seemed to spend the war years writing letters to newspapers to defend himself as “a loyal American.” The heat was too much for some people, and they found places of refuge such as Victoria, British Columbia.
One of the associates of William Strickler who I tried to trace, was a slippery fellow named Selucious Garfielde. Garfielde had served in the land office with William Strickler and had a varied career as he seemed to constantly be looking for better positions or for investment schemes. He was known as “the silver-tongued orator” and even Arthur Denny seemed to place some trust in him, hiring Garfielde to go around and make speeches on Denny’s behalf during his Congressional campaign for election.
Garfielde spent the Civil War years in Victoria. Knowing that Garfielde had invested in gold mines in the Fraser River and Cariboo areas of British Columbia and that Hanson Tilton, James Tilton’s brother had also gone mining in 1861, I wondered if William Strickler had gone there too. But I found no written record of William Strickler connected with the gold mining area, nor any census or death records in British Columbia for the gold rush areas.
Historical records tell of the tensions of the Civil War era in Washington Territory and the hostility toward Confederate sympathizers:
Although far removed from the scene of the Civil War, the residents of Washington Territory were not ignorant of what was going on, nor were they indifferent to possible outcomes. They read the news…..and took sides on the slavery issue. Out in the isolated gold camps, a war of profane words was fought on more than one occasion between the supporters of the Union cause and the “Se-Cesh” [secession] element. (Page 144-145, “Settlers in Peace and War,” Dryden’s History of Washington.)
William Strickler’s land claim was left behind
It is my belief that if William Strickler had intended to go somewhere (such as joining the Civil War) he would have settled his affairs in Washington Territory first. Perhaps he would have sold his land claim to get money for travel or for other ventures such as gold mining. It has not been possible to find out whether Strickler died in the gold rush areas of British Columbia in the 1850s and 1860s, because there was no census and no death records were kept. Many men perished while trying to navigate the rivers and other hazards.
Strickler disappeared from Seattle without disposing of his land claim; his family back in Virginia never knew what happened to him; and no one in Washington Territory ever came forward with reports of seeing Strickler or of having information of his whereabouts.
These clues lead me to believe that William Strickler was not planning to leave Seattle permanently, and that something untoward happened to him. I believe he met with an accidental death of some kind, such as drowning, or perhaps he was murdered, either by Indians or he was killed in an argument about the issues of slavery and the Civil War.
I hope that as I continue to read and study the history of Seattle, and as more records become accessible, I may find some clues to solve the mystery of the disappearance of William Strickler.
Archival and on-line sources:
David Phillips letter of July 30, 1858, Clarence Bagley papers, Box 5, Folder 15, Special Collections, University of Washington Library in Seattle.
Frontier Justice case files at the Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA: Probate file, administration of estate of William Strickler, 1868, case KNG-7469; the document appoints Yesler as administrator of the estate of William Strickler, in Yesler’s capacity as Judge of Probate in Seattle. Gardner Kellogg who also signed the document, was postmaster and as such was the town notary in that year of 1868.
Genealogical Forum of Oregon: Pioneers and Early Oregonians Provisional Land Claims: Abstract of William Strickler.
U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, Field Office Appointment Papers, Item 5915752, William A. Strickler – Olympia Land Office letter of resignation.
Washington State Archives – Digital Archives: Miscellaneous Family History: Washington Territory Donation Land Claim Patents, pages 119-120, William A. Strickler.
William Strickler letter of January 5, 1857, Winfield Scott Ebey papers, Box 3, Folder 58, Special Collections, University of Washington Library in Seattle.
Dryden’s History of Washington, Cecil Dryden, 1968.
Forerunners: A History or Genealogy of the Strickler Families, Their Kith and Kin, by Harry M. Strickler, 1925. Page 219 lists the family of Joseph Strickler II of Page County, Virginia, including son William born 1824, who “left a landed estate near Seattle, WA.”
Four Wagons West: the Story of Seattle, Roberta Frye Watt, 1931.
Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master, by Lorraine McConaghy and Judith M. Bentley, 2013. This wonderful little book portrays James Tilton, the Surveyor-General of Washington Territory, and the pre-Civil War tensions over the issue of slavery.
History of King County by Clarence Bagley, 1929.
Pioneer Days on Puget Sound by A.A. Denny, published 1890.
Washington Territory by Robert E. Ficken, 2002.
Washington Secretary of State, on-line historical newspapers:
Pioneer and Democrat newspaper: Note on February 18, 1856 that W.A. Strickler had resigned his seat in the legislative council because he was appointed Register of the Land Office for Washington Territory.
Pioneer and Democrat newspaper of May 28, 1858: letters from James Tilton and others about gold being found at the Fraser River, British Columbia mining sites.
Puget Sound Herald of Steilacoom, December 24, 1858: Mr. Rankin is the newly appointed Register in the land office, succeeds W.A. Strickler.
Pioneer and Democrat newspaper of Olympia, February 17, 1860: Complaint against the Land Office alleging that William Strickler did not properly file and record land claims, and that his successor W. B. Rankin was often absent from the office.