EDMUND SYLVESTER’S NARRATIVE OF THE FOUNDING OF OLYMPIA
Pacific Northwest Quarterly, v. 36, (October 1945) 331-339.[Transcribed verbatim, including errors, by Ed Echtle and Roger Easton, 2003. Text in [brackets] inserted to aid in searching.]
When Hubert Howe Bancroft came to write the History of the early settlements on
the lower Columbia River and Puget Sound, one of the manuscript sources that he
acknowledged as particularly useful was Edmund Sylvester’s narrative of the
“Founding of Olympia.”
This manuscript, which Bancroft asserted to be “one of the most valuable
authorities on Washington Territory,” was much more than a record of the
establishment of the capital city. It included that, to be sure, and since
Sylvester was known chiefly as one of the founders of Olympia, that event was
perhaps important enough to give the title to the whole piece. But Sylvester’s
narrative gave the substance of an interview that Bancroft had with him in 1878,
thirty-five years after the Washington pioneer first came to the Pacific
Northwest. It was his statement not only of his own experiences, but also of
what he knew about the early history of the territory. Into it he put many
descriptive details not readily found elsewhere. He told how western
frontiersmen came out over the Oregon Trail to mingle with New Englanders who
had sailed around the Horn to the Columbia. He described the way the settlers
secured clothing and other necessities by exchanging salmon for them in the
Sandwich Islands or by supplying lumber to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at
Nisqually. He related their experiences when, during the excitement of the
California gold rush, they left their claims in the north and struck out for the
Sacramento mines by pack horse and ox team.
The rest was more personal. He explained how he came to select the site of
Olympia for his home, and admitted his disappointment that the city had not
grown more rapidly. After thirty-two years of “waiting for something to turn,”
he had to confess that “Olympia is yet in the future.” He was thirty years too
soon, and even when the railroad came, it passed him by; the trading centers on
the Sound were located elsewhere. Yet he was loyal to his community and
protested that he was never satisfied anywhere else.
These personal reminiscences and sidelights on the life of the early
Washington pioneers are what made Sylvester’s account valuable to Bancroft. They
make it no less interesting to readers today, particularly in view of the
succession of centennials that Washington communities will be celebrating during
the next few years.
The full text of the document is presented in the following pages by courtesy of
the Bancroft Library, University of California, in which institution the
original manuscript is preserved. It should be noted that Sylvester very
apparently did not write it himself, but told his story informally and allowed
it to be written down by someone else. The unpolished phrasing and errors of
spelling, which are preserved as they appear in that transcription, should not,
therefore, be charged to Sylvester, but should be attributed to the
circumstances under which the writing took place, and to the fact that the man
with the pen was not acquainted with the names of the persons and places to
which Sylvester referred. -EDITOR.
Time & Place – Sylvester’s Shop, Main St. Olympia, Sunday June 9th, 1878.
Present – Sylvester, Bancroft, Rabbison, & A. B. [A. B. Rabbeson]
Mr. Sylvester said: I crossed Columbia river bar in 1843. Came around Cape Horn
in the bark Pallas from Newbury-port. She brought Yankee notions for the
Columbia river trade and settlers. John M. Couch of the Newbury port had a
trading post in Oregon started about 1840; but he was back home. He had been
out in the bark Chenamus (?), and was home when I came out. My brother had
command of the bark. While my brother was out here he went back to the Sandwich
Islands and sold his bark to a party in Mazatlan. She carried the mail between
the Sandwich Islands and Mazatlan, and was lost on the Margarita Islands after
that. I met a man two or three years ago who was on board of her when she was
cast away there. A man by the name of Higgins. The Margerita Islands are right
off Santa Barbara. I came on the coast when I was 22 years old. I am now in my
58 year having been born on the 2nd of March 1821. Oregon Falls, where Oregon
City now is was called “Tumwater” also. That is the Indian name; It is Falls
like “Deschutes” in French. Our vessel lay off above the Island below Portland.
We had bateaus that we got from the Hudson Bay Company and lightered our cargo
up in bateaus over Clackamas Rapids to Oregon City, and then had to pack
everything up to the shore on our shoulders. I think there has been a sailing
vessel up as far as Milwaukee. Johnson an Englishman had a claim at the Island above Portland at the time.
The bigger part of the people were right from our own state, people that I
had been acquainted with. They seemed almost like home people but in a new
country. There were very few houses (?) in Oregon City, at that time.
Pettigrove and Foster were both from Maine; they both had houses there. The
Oregon people were mostly
from New England at that time. This is when I first arrived, but there was an
emigration came there that season of Western people, frontiersmen mostly. They
came in 1843 in October some of them.
I find that very few get things as they really took place. I was young
then, everything was new and the incidents are fresher in my mind than those
that took place in late years. Something will occur in the streets and three or
four persons will make different parts and neither one will have it entirely
correct. The only way I can explain it is that one was looking at one part and
another at another part at the same time.
That vessel took salmon away. I know we put three or four hundred barrels
on the Clackamas. It took them to the Sandwich Islands. Outside of that I do
not recollect what the freight was to the Islands. She brought back trade for
the settlers. Governor Abernethy could tell the particular freight she had
back. It was eastern goods brought there by Capt Couch’s vessels. I helped to
build the two first houses at Portland one for Pettigrove and for Couch.
Pettigrove bought the claim from a man named Bill Overton. He took up the claim
first. He sold his settlers right to Pettigrove. They selected that site
because it was the head of navigation. There was a natural clearing there, a
very pretty place in the bend of the river. I think Petticrove bought with a
view to lay it out as a town because he went right to work and had a road made
between that and the Tu [a] latin [Tualatin] Plains. The Tualatin river comes
in above Oregon City on the West side; The place always went by that name since
I came into the country. Lunt, I think, I will not be positive, took the lower
part. Daniel H. Lansdale was next to Pettygrove. He started a tannery right in
back of what is called Tanner’s creek today I think. I went back there and
helped him to put up his buildinng. He started in with wooden knives for
currying. He was quite a genius. He was there for a long time. He took that
claim right back of Portland. Above Portland was what they called the Johnson
claim. Right opposite was the Stevens claim, and right below the Stevens claim I
owned it myself, a mile down the river. I sold that when I came over here.
There was a town called Linnton started but it died out five or six miles
below Portland. It was started by Gen. McCarver who afterwards died down here
at Tacoma. He took this Tacoma claim. That was started about the same time as
Portland. An emigration came in in 1844, and Portland was started in 1844 with
two log houses. Mr McCarver came in 1843. The emigrants coming down the river
made a landing there (Linnton) and cut right through to Tualatin Plains. I
think it was done in 1843. I knew all the emigrations at that time, nearly
everybody. It is not a good site. Vessels can come right up and go 5 or 6
miles above it. Then the location was nothing.
As soon as they started back a little they had to take right up a hill. It was
nothing near so favourable a place as Portland was. Portland seemed to be a
natural point. They could not go above it much.
We stopped at Astoria as we came along. It was a trading place, a man by
the name of Burny, employed by the Hudson Bay Company employed at that time.
There were only a few Indian houses & trading houses outside of his house. He
got a claim after he left Astoria on the North side of the river, and about 8 or
10 miles above Astoria. He was an old Hudson Bay man. It is right opposite
Cathlamet Island on the North side of the river. They commenced at Oregon City
before I arrived in the country. There were a few houses there when I came in.
Cushing had a trading post there. It was Caleb Cushing and Co. of Newburyport.
Cushing and Johnson, I think the firm was. Couch was in Johnson’s employ, and
he had started this trading post at Oregon City. We were consigned to him. I
think Canemah right above Oregon City on the East side was started whilst I was
there. A man by the name of Hedges started it; that is right above the Falls on
the East side of the river. I do not know the history of that since then. It
has not grown much but it has a showing. I left there on account of my health.
I did not have the ague but I was just losing my health and strength so that I
could not work. There did not seem to be anything ailing me except that I lost
my strength and became puny. I went down to Astoria and in two or three weeks I
got just as stout and rugged as ever. I was raised on salt water. I just made
up my mind that if I was to live in Oregon I must have a location on salt water.
So I came here to this country January, 1846. I do not know what attracted my
attention this way except that I was destined to settle here I suppose. The
first time I ever heard mention of this place was: Simmonds (sic) [Simmons] started and settled here, and a man named Charley Eaton came over in 1845. He
came back & told me about this country. He was an old settler here & died about
a year ago. His name was Michael T. Simmons. He took the Falls up here called
Tumwater now. He selected that place on account of the water power. It is
called the Crosby claim now. The old original claim comes a quarter of a mile
down the Sound. He sold afterwards to Cro[s]by [Crosby] & Co in Portland. He
had 84 feet of fall in a quarter of a mile in three different falls. It is a
great water power. We built a saw mill there in 1847. The whole eight of us.
We used to send lumber to Nisqually principally. Dr Tolmie was there at that
time in charge of the trading post; it is about 20 or 25 miles by water. We did
not send lumber any distance. We just took it down there in rafts, 25,000 feet,
at a time. We used to supply the settlers around; and in 1849 the barracks were
established there and we supplied the barracks. They had ready sale for all the
lumber they could make. The first vessel that came here & took our lumber was
the old Hudson Bay Company’s steamer Beaver I think.
That used to run up North. I do not know where they took it to. I know we took
a big raft of it down here and sold it [to] Tolmie and he had the steamer come
up and take it. That must have been in 1848. We built the mill in the Fall of
1847. I think the old mill is all rotted down & taken away.
Fort Nisqually was only a trading place, they had a landing down at the
bay & a store house there. The landing was called Nisqually landing; there was
nothing but a storehouse there and then back about a mile was the Fort, where
their trading house was for trading with the Indians- a regular Hudson Bay Fort,
and block house of hewn logs. They are all on the same principle.
Simmonds [Simmons] was the first settler on the Sound. I was the second-
that is immediately on the Sound. There was quite a number, three or four or
five families, that came with Simmonds, [Simmons] and settled on what is called
Simmonds [Simmons] Prairie, and Bushes Prairie- old man Kindred, McAllister, Jones
& Bush those were the families; and some single men were with them.
After Tumwater the next claim taken up on the Sound was this one, the town
site of Olympia which was taken up by me. What directed me this way was the
location as to the advantages of trade with the shipping and with the
improvements these Falls would bring in here in time. This was good soil and
just as good as ever lay out of doors. It was heavily timbered but then I knew
in time it would be worth something to me. I was satisfied these Falls would be
improved and would bring shipping in after lumber and they could not go above
here; so that I would be right handy to a market for everything I could raise.
That was my object in being or the salt water more than anything else. I was
raised in a stones throw of it. My market would be with the shipping that came
in here for lumber.
I had no idea of a town here at the time I took up the claim. I had no
idea of it until 1850, after I came back from California. I came up in the brig
Orbit. I think she was the first American vessel in here for lumber & piles.
Swan took up the next claim adjoining me- John M. Swan, he is over here
now. It is called Swantown now, that is the Eastern addition to Olympia. The
line runs right up the Bay, between my land and his. Before I went to
California there was a little opening here from the New England house down,
about an acre, naturally. Oregon City was our nearest flour mill; the Cowlitz
settlement was the nearest place we could get any peas & wheat. That is what we
had to live on all the time. Sometimes we went to Nisqually for peas & wheat.
We used to go to Nisqually for our clothing. We made shingles here on a flat
boat. We took them to Nisqually and got
clothing for them. They would limit us to our actual wants for fear we would
trade with the Indians. Coming along back we used to camp and wait until the
tide went out and got clams for breakfast. If we bought a shirt too often they
would think we were trading with the Indians.
There is an incident worth mentioning which occurred to four of us. We
put a yoke of oxen apiece to a wagon and went through to California, the four of
us on the same wagon; and we are yet living here. That was 28 or 29 years ago.
I was talking with them yesterday, with two [of] them. As they used to say of
the Missourian, he would go anywhere with a wagon that you could go with a
packhorse. Dr Tolmie used to say that of us. We went through to the Cowlitz
and built a flat-boat. We took our yokes & provisions down the river on the
flat-boat, and drove the oxen down by land and on the old Hudson Bay trail. We
crossed the Columbia at Knighton’s place, St Helens. The gold excitement broke
out in 1848 and everybody went to the Mines in 1849. The party was made up of
four wagons, but this one wagon belonged to four of us, men who are still living
now & in good health. With wagons was the only way we could go & take our
provisions with us. Charlie Eaton and a party went through from here with pack
horses. They are not near so convenient as wagons. You can take quite a load
on a wagon, and it would have taken a great many horses to pack the same load.
And then when we got to California we had our wagon & cattle there to do
teaming. Our load consisted of provisions. Our wagon & cattle were worth a
great deal more when we got through there than they were here. Bacon was the
mainstay; we had some flour, tea, coffee & such things.
We went up the West side of the Willamette, from there to Cowlitz
landing; down to Monticello; and up to what is called Sauves [Sauvies?] Landing
inside of Sauves Island.–I think that is the name of it. There is an upper &
lower mouth of the Willamette. The lower mouth comes out at St Helens. What is
called Sauves Landing is back of that Island.
We started from there to the Tualatin Plains on an old road that is
cut through there. We went to California along what is called the old emigrant
route. Wagons had been through ahead of us. Within a few days travel I suppose
there were camps all the way through, trains going to the mines. The state now
goes by way of Shasta Butte & Redding. We went away up around Klamath Lake and
came in on the old emigrant route, that came in from the States & was opened a
year or two before. It is what is called the old emigrant road. We were only
three days from the snow going down the Sacramento Valley where we arrived on
the 1st of July. I was thirsty and
put my hands on the rocks to take a drink and my goodness I took them off as
quick as if I had been shot. They burn your hands they were so hot. The whole
plains were covered with steam, it was so hot. It is a wonder that it did not
kill the whole of us. Twenty one of us went up the Yueba and within a week
Twenty of us were down with fever. Of those four men I am the oldest. Then
there was A. B. Rabbison, [Rabbeson] Jesse Ferguson (?) and Joe Borst; these are
the four men named in the order of their age. Borst took a claim on the Skookum
We went from there down to Sacramento where we all scattered and the next
time we met we met up here. And I tell you we were a sorry looking set when we
got up here. There did not any of us have any hair on our heads. I arrived
here on the 1st of January 1850 on the brig Orbit. In Sacramento four of us
that lived here bought her. And we hired old Capt Dunham to sail her up here.
He was afterwards killed out here & his son came out about a year ago & occupied
his claim. It was reserved for him by the Government. We could buy vessels
cheap there then. Twenty-Five hundred dollars was all we paid for this brig.
When we got into the Valley we went to Fosters bar. There is where we
were all taken sick. Foster had a trading post there.
We left here on the 2nd of April and got into Sacramento Valley about the
2nd of July. We were all that length of time going by ox team. About the 1st
of September we got in Sacramento. We could not mine much; we were all sick.
There were no towns started there. Sacramento was just starting then as a
camping town. There were trading posts then in Marysville; it was an old post I
think. We bought some things there & went away down the Sacramento. Our idea
in going back was health; we would all have died there if we had not come North.
We came back in ballast. But from here down she took lumber to San Francisco.
She was the first American vessel that was I think up here for lumber. It was
the first American vessel that ever was up here. It was the brig Orbit. When I
got back I found things just as I had left them. I had my log cabin here and
went right into it. I had a big cedar tree that I made the whole cabin of. I
packed the material out on my back. this was the first house in the capital of
Washington Territory. It was 16 ft square. I put a partition in, and a floor
over-head, and made shingles & all out of the same tree. I soon after that
layed this off into a town–and went on clearing & working. I used to supply
logs for the mill. I built up that corner where the New England house is.
I came first to think about a town–a man named Simmonds [Simmons] & Col.
Eby (sic) [Ebey] were here, and amongst them they thought this site was the
location for a town and put me in to the mind of laying it off. We
got the name from the Olympic range. The mountains were named when I came here.
Charles Smith who came up here on the Orbit. He was the man who first suggested
the name to me. He remained here, and talked about a town with us. He was an
aquaintance of Capt Dunham’s, and was from the same place, Eastport Maine. he
and Mike Symmonds [Simmons] started a store here, the first trading post that
was started here. In suggesting to me to have a town laid out here they gave
that as a name. They gave me their reason–the Olympic range here, so that it
would be proper. That is the only name in the United States I believe of
Olympia. The Indian name here was not suitable; it was one that could be
converted into blackguard meaning. It was “Schictwood” signifying Bear. It
happened to be a great place for hunting bear. I had a scow afterwards that I
gave that name to. Tumwater was called “Stitclas” by the Indians. They were
not proper names. We layed off the town and had a map made. A man by the name
of Dr Fraser from Oregon City surveyed it first. I was full owner. I made Col.
Eby [Ebey] interested here for a while in starting it. He did not do me any
good. But on the contrary was a load for me to pack. I took his interest
Stillicomb [Steilacoom] started after that. I think Stillicomb
[Steilacoom] started in 1851. Lafayette Balch took up the claim there, at
Stillicomb [Steilacoom] proper. A man named Chapman started the upper place.
There is only one farm there now on the point. He was the father of John
Chapman who works over here in the mill now.
The United States started a Station & Fort there in 1849 about a mile and
a quarter back of where the Asylum is now. I think Chapman located in 1850 at
the upper Stillicomb [Steilacoom]. The Government leased his claim. Heath
belonged to the Hudson Bay Company, and had kept stock and afterwards died at
Fort Nisqually. I was driven down there in 1846 and he was living there then &
I was at his house. He had stock–sheep & cattle; he had an interest in the
The Government rented the place from the heirs of Heath and put men there
to afford protection from the Indians. Stillicomb [Steilacoom] was made a
landing afterwards. The first landing was right at the mouth of Stillicomb
[Steilacoom] Creek. It is below Stillicomb [Steilacoom] proper. I think there
is a flour mill there right at the mouth, built by old man Thomas M. Chambers.
He is dead now but the boys are there.
There are no other towns around here. but below there was a milling
station. Port Ludlow was I think the first milling station. Then followed Port
Gamble. Ludlow was started I think about 1851 because I know I directed the man
that started it, a man by the name of Sayward. He was from the same State, of
Maine, Rockland. I was keeping a boarding house & he stopped with me. He said
he was going down Sound to locate a place for a mill and I told him to go there
& look at that place by all means before he started
anywhere else. He went & examined it and took it up from my recommendation. I
recommended it for a harbour & for convenience, water, and everything. It is a
wonderful place. Large ships can go in & go right back out of sight amongst the
little Islands. The passage is narrow, but you can take in all the ships you
like & hide them–a whole navy, I guess. I had been in there in canoes. It was
one of [the] best places on the Sound.
After that Port Gamble was located by the Puget Mill Company. After that
Fort Madison and Port Blakely were located. I think they started in 1851.
The first American steamer on the Sound was the old Major Tompkins,
brought up here by John M. Scranton and Hunt, I think Thomas. They came up in
the Summer of 1854.
Everything was new and there was plenty of money and a good time
generally. That was the situation in general. Nothing particular that I know
of outside of locating this place occurred within my knowledge. I think Olympia
is yet in the future. I have been here for 32 years waiting for something to
turn, and I think the growth of it has been very slow. But my idea is just
this. It is an out of the way place and hard to get to, and all the
intermediate places will settle up first. All this interior will settle up and
then the trade is bound to come here, and the heavy capitalists will be here on
the Sound. How long it will be is a question, but that is my idea, and I think
that is the general idea. When they start to build the railroad across the
Cascade Mountains to tap the interior and then this Sound country will go ahead.
And here is where the main shipping point is going to be–some place on the
Sound. I do not know where that place is going to be.
The Sound is mostly a timber country. The agricultural lands lie back.
But all these rivers making into the Sound have rich bottoms, and they are going
to have rich settlements. The timber is all conveniently placed along the
waters edge. nature could have not done more for a country, as far as lumbering
country is concerned. They have not commenced at the lumber more than a mile
back yet. In Maine they go back 200 miles. It is just commencing on this Sound
now. I would like to have started in about where the country is now and been as
well fixed as I am now and of the same age as when I started, and I think I
would live to see a future. I was thirty years too soon. I never was satisfied
anywhere else then at Olympia. The very first time I ever heard this place
mentioned I wanted to come here and I have been satisfied ever since. If I had
a million of money I would settle right in Olympia–unless it was in the
Sandwich islands. I think that is one of the pleasantest climates for a man to
wind up his days in, if he had plenty of means.