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.]



p331

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.


p332

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. 


THE NARRATIVE 

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 


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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. 


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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. 


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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


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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 occured 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 


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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 
Chuck.
	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


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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 
afterwards.
	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 
Company.
	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 


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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.
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