A Historic Resource Study for the Seattle Unit of the
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

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"By-and-By": The Early History Of Seattle
"In a sense, Seattle itself arrived on the steamer Portland."

Ross Anderson, The Seattle Times, 1997

Founding the City

Seattle has a long history of profiting from gold rushes. Beginning with the stampede to California in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing through the Klondike craze of 1897-1898, Seattle business interests were quick to spot economic opportunity. The California Gold Rush rapidly expanded the development of San Francisco in the early 1850s, opening a market for the lumber that grew in abundance in the Puget Sound region. Seattle's first business was a sawmill located at the foot of what is now Yesler Way. "You have the timber up there that we want and must have," one California miner advised an early Seattle resident. "By selling us lumber ... you'll soon be rich." [1] The city's founders swiftly recognized the potential value of the area's natural resources. They named their initial settlement in what is now West Seattle "New York-Alki," reflecting their ambition that "by-and-by" it would enjoy a prosperity rivaling that of the large cities on the eastern seaboard. [2]

The Denny party, which included 24 people led by former Illinois resident Arthur Denny, first settled on Alki Point in 1851. They arrived aboard the schooner Exact on a dreary November day. As many historians have recounted, some of the party's women responded to the wet, unfamiliar landscape by weeping. [3] This site proved to be unsuitable, prompting Denny, Carson Boren, and William Bell to explore the sheltered shoreline of Elliott Bay to the east. Here, in February of 1852, they chose a new location for their town, calling the site "Duwamps," after the nearby Duwamish River. That summer, they changed the name to Seattle, after the Indian leader Sealth. [4]

The new settlement consisted of an eight-acre island bordered by a saltwater lagoon to the east, and tideflats to the south. The settlers' initial claims ran from the foot of what is now Denny Way south to the island, near the intersection of First Avenue and King Street. The island's high point was located between Jackson and King streets on First Avenue. Throughout the nineteenth century, Seattle residents filled the surrounding tidelands, which today stand approximately 12 feet above the high-water level. [5]

Shortly after the members of the Denny party had staked their claims, Dr. David Swinson (known as "Doc") Maynard arrived. Perhaps the most colorful of Seattle's pioneers, he headed west from Ohio in 1850, hoping to escape a bad marriage and to strike it rich in the California gold fields. [6] "The first entry in his travel diary," observed historian Murray Morgan, "expressed the intention of many another man who eventually settled in Seattle: 'Left here for California.'" [7] A personable, gregarious, and "hard-drinking" man, Maynard was also a "buyer and a seller." In 1852, he settled in Seattle, where he opened the first store. He established a 58-block tract that included part of the island and the lagoon, and joined other settlers in donating land to Henry Yesler for the creation of a sawmill. [8] Maynard served as a physician, justice of the peace, and the town's first booster. [9] As historian Roger Sale explained, he "was willing to do anything to make Seattle grow." [10]

Yesler's business became the hub of Seattle's economy, and the new town's labor force expanded. Workers skidded enormous trees down Mill Street -- or "Skid Road" (now Yesler Way), to be cut into lumber. In 1854, Yesler constructed a wharf, and he began depositing sawdust from his mill into the bay and saltwater lagoon, thus increasing the land base along the waterfront. He also built a cookhouse, which became Seattle's first restaurant, along with a hall that became the town's meeting place. [11] By 1860, Seattle's population had reached approximately 150 residents. The commercial district on First Avenue South ran four blocks, from Yesler's mill to King Street. The city, incorporated in 1865, began to address the transportation problems created by the wet climate, which turned dirt streets into impassable bogs. Road crews planked Third Avenue with wood, marking the eastern border of the town. [12]

Seattle, 1856
Seattle, 1856.
[Source: Calvin F. Schmid, Social Triends in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1944)]

In 1869, when Seattle received its first charter, Yesler became mayor. Like Maynard, he hailed from Ohio. In contrast to Maynard, however, he remained "dour and tight-fisted," eventually selling his sawmill to pursue a more lucrative career in real estate. In Sales' estimation, had Seattle been settled mostly by people like Yesler, it would have evolved into little more than a company town rather than the largest city on Puget Sound. [13]

From the outset, Seattle's character differed from that of other early communities on Puget Sound, such as Port Gamble. According to numerous historians, Arthur Denny embodied the nature of this difference. A man with "an innate business sense," he had left his home in Illinois to take advantage of the opportunities that the West presented -- and he realized the economic connection between Seattle and San Francisco very quickly. During the early 1850s, ships arrived from California loaded with merchandise to be sold on commission in Seattle. Denny found a way to keep the profits by building a store on the corner of First Avenue and Washington Street, and purchasing stock directly in San Francisco. His entrepreneurial activities helped "reduce San Francisco's hold on Seattle." [14]

Throughout the remainder of his life, Denny engaged in a variety of businesses, ranging from banking to producing building materials. He also surveyed and platted much of the downtown area, donating land for establishing a university. Perhaps the best example of Denny's foresight was his interest in the railroad and his efforts to expand Seattle's transportation system, described below. Taken individually, these activities were not unique in burgeoning western communities. What set Denny apart was the extent of his "energy and vision." When he saw a need in the community, he stepped in to fill it, sometimes turning a handsome profit in the process. Even so, he was motivated by more than money, "feeling the growth of his own property to be a part of the growth of Seattle." Denny's activities led to "a decreasing dependence on the outside world for Seattle's essential livelihood," paving the way for future development. [15] He thus represented the vitality and the entrepreneurism that would characterize Seattle later in the century -- qualities that would place the city in an advantageous position during the Klondike Gold Rush era.

Seattle, early 1865
Seattle, early in 1856, from Main Street and First Avenue South, looking north.
[Source: Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time
(Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916]

Founding the City | Early Local Industries
The 1890s | Gold Fever Strikes

Chapter: Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Table of Contents

Last Updated: 18-Feb-2003