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Skagit River Journal

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Edmund T. Coleman's preparation for
the first climb of Mount Baker in 1868

(Intro to Harper's)
This is the introduction panel to the 1869 Harper's article. The caption reads: "Mount Baker from Cedar Hill, near Victoria, British Columbia.

      Ed. note: Mount Baker is the farthest north in the United States of the volcanic mountains known as the Ring of Fire. Just 15 miles south of the International Boundary with Canada, it is the landmark of note for the north Puget Sound as Mount Rainier is for the south. When English Capt. George Vancouver explored the Georgia Straits and the north Puget Sound in April 1792, his Third Lieutenant Joseph Baker sighted the symmetrical cone on April 30.
      Back in 1979-80, the local bet was that Mount Baker would blow its beautiful top before Mount St. Helens, as neighbors in Whatcom county watched the mountain blow steam on a regular basis. Captain Henry Roeder, founder of Whatcom, reported the same observations back in the 1850s as did horticulturist John Bennett. According to Lelah Jackson Edson, in her important book, The Fourth Corner [1951], the earliest newspaper record of volcanic activity here was in the Dec. 28, 1860, edition of the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat: "Mt. Baker is in a state of eruption, throwing off clouds of steam and smoke. The Washington Sentinel of Aug. 1, 1863, reported: "Mt. Baker is reported in a state of eruption."
      Edmund T. Coleman was an experienced Alpine climber and he wrote a long article, Mountaineering on the Pacific in the November 1869 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. This initial excerpt covers the period, starting in 1866, when Coleman familiarized himself with the lay of the land in the present counties of Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island counties. Skagit did not split off from Whatcom county until 1883. Although Mount Baker is located in Whatcom county, the Baker river that rises on the mountain's slope and flows nearly southerly to its connection with the Skagit river at Concrete, has always been an important connecting waterway to Skagit county. In upcoming issues, we will share further excerpts of the actual ascent of Mount Baker in 1868 and Coleman's subsequent exploration of Puget Sound. You can click on the underlined links to learn more about the subject, and then click back to the text.


Mountaineering on the Pacific
Part One, By Edmund T. Coleman
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1869
      In these times of volcanic activity, when from all quarters we have accounts of the heaving and rending of the earth's surface, and the whole Pacific slope is agitated with the throes of earthquake, some account of the first ascent of Mount Baker, which has been active within the memory of man, may not be uninteresting. At a time, too, when the Alpine Club finds its occupation gone, the opening out of a new field for exploration deserves attention. For though Mounts Shasta and Hood have been several times ascended, they do not present the peculiar difficulties encountered in sealing the great peaks of Switzerland. Both of these are easy of approach, and almost devoid of glaciers.
      Mount Baker is the most northerly of those great cones which dot the Cascade range, and is only fourteen miles south of the great boundary line cut through the forests which divide the American and English possessions. It forms the most striking feature in the attractive scenery around the Fuca Straits and the Puget Sound. Amidst numerous groups of islands (the Western Cyclades) and pine-clad heights, like another "Snowy Olympus," it towers above, the silent sentinel of a solitary land. The author, having satisfied himself with Mont Blanc and the surrounding scenery, determined to leave the beaten paths of the European ice-fields for the unexplored heights of the West. He took residence in Victoria, Vancouver Island, with this object in view. Although it is eighty miles distant, a very fine view of the mountain is here presented; and the recollection of peaks and passes overcome in the Alps stimulated him to the ascent. this account is therefore, the result of observations made in two previous attempts and the final success.
      The mountain may be approached on the southeastern side by the Skadgett [sic, Skagit hereafter] River, taking Utsalady, on Puget Sound, as the starting point; on the western side by the river Lummi, which flows into Bellingham Bay, taking Sehome as the starting-point; and on the northern side by a trail from Fraser river, taking Fort Hope as the starting-point.

Initial journey in 1866
(Mount Baker)
Mount Baker from Lake Ann Trail. Photo courtesy of Phil Armitage. You can see his beautiful photos of Mount Baker and many other mountains at this website. And this website has more photos and many facts about the mountain.

      The first approach was chosen for the initial attempt [1866], which was made in company with Charles B. Darwin, Judge of the District Court of the United State, and Dr. Robert Brown of Edinburgh. We then arrived at a point about fifty miles up the Skagit, when, owing to the opposition offered by an unfriendly tribe of Indians, the journey was abandoned. For the next attempt [later in 1866], the second approach, by the Lummi River, was selected, at the suggestion of the Hon. Edward Eldridge, late Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Washington Territory.
      On this occasion Messrs. Tennett [sic, actually John Tennant] and [John] Bennett, enterprising settlers in the district, joined in and we reached a point near the summit. But we were compelled to return by reason of an overhanging cornice of ice which barred the way, and the fact that we had neither sufficient time nor provisions to make another attempt.
      In the following year [1867] the utmost exertions were unable to get up a party; but next year [1868] the author was encouraged to proceed by the willingness of Mr. Thomas Stratton, Inspector of Customs at Port Townsend, Mr. Tennent and Mr. David Ogilvy of Victoria, [a British jurist from Victoria on Vancouver island], to accompany him, when the approach by the Lummi was again chosen.

1868: Third time is the charm
      General McKenny, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory, kindly placed four trustworthy Indians at my command. These were selected by Mr. C.E. Finkboner [sic, actually Finkbonner, a pioneer merchant from the 1858 Fraser River gold rush days], who has charge of the Lummi Reservation. To the official sanction thus given, and the fitness of our dusky companions for their duties, were we indebted for our security in ascending the river. We can not forget the expertness displayed in many difficulties by Squock and Talum. Squock is son-in-law of Umptlalum, the principal chief of the Nootsak [sic, Nooksack] Indians. Though a Flathead, Squock is very handsome and, with his swarthy face and long thin limbs, resembles an Arab.
      Sure of such good company, I determined to start from Victoria on Aug. 4, 1868. On the occasion of the second attempt I took the steamer which runs between Victoria and Port Townsend, forty miles distant, and went thence to Bellingham Bay, sixty miles more. But as this was traveling the two sides of the triangle, I now made the journey direct by canoe. This route leads by the island of San Juan, the famous bone of contention between England and America, each end of which is held by a garrison representing these countries.
      I had engaged some Indians to come from Bellingham Bay for me, but discovered that they had traveled by the ship channel farther to the south, in their dread of the northern Indians, with whom the Lummis have an old feud. Indeed, these Northerners, and particularly the Hydahs, are the pirates of these parts. Of late they have boldly attempted higher game, and have attacked schooners and trading-vessels. In one instance the Growler, of Port Townsend, was entirely destroyed by their ravages in search of possissee and skookum chuck — blankets and whisky — which form their ideal of the chief good. In another the sloop Thornton was set upon by three canoes, and the master and crew were only saved through the good services of a Henry rifle. The Black Diamond also came in for a share of their black deeds; and others have been frightened, if not hurt.

Comforts of camping
      Apart from such casualties, traveling is very enjoyable in these inland waters. The bottom of the canoe is spread with small branches and twigs, and then covered with matting of native manufacture. One's blankets are placed against the thwarts and form a soft cushion, against which he can recline and be as comfortable as in a first-class railway carriage. When camping on shore at night the mats are spread out on the beach, and with one's blankets make a soft bad.
      Gliding along in our canoe, away from the noise and bustle of the busy world, the spirit revels amidst the beautiful scenery of the archipelago. Island after island is passed, all wooded to the water's edge with the cedar, the fir, and the tender green of the arbutus. The mossy banks are here covered with bushes, and there relieved with bold groupings of rocks in picturesque forms. As we look down through the clear and limpid waters, the silvery fish are discerned disporting themselves among the most beautiful forms of sea-weed and shell; while away in the distance, bounding the horizon are the snow-capped mountain ranges of British Columbia and Washington Territory. All these combine to form a succession of charming pictures, and tempt one to exclaim with the poet: "Oh! that the desert were my dwelling-place, With one fair spirit for my minister."
      In passing along we noticed the camp of the English garrison on San Juan Island and were struck with the singular beauty of the scenery around it. In the foreground is the level green-sward with a noble tree rising from its center, and fringed with spreading maples. Up through these there are winding walks to the officers' quarters, and beyond, a lofty hill, on which a summer-house has been erected, where the surrounding shores are seen to advantage. Between this and the American Camp, seven miles off, lie farms in a high state of cultivation, the proprietors of which declare it to be the "best land they have struck," since there are no rents, no sheriff's officers, no taxes, and no prisons.
      Having passed San Juan, and steering through a narrow passage near to Orcas Island, we observed a long pole with a crosspiece to it at the top. It is the native arrangement for catching wildfowl. A net is spread on the cross-poles, fires are lighted at night, and the wildfowl seeking at this time their food, and not seeing the net, fly against it with such force that they drop down, and are seized by the Indians before they have time to recover themselves. Vancouver gives a plate of similar poles in his work, and was unable to discover the use of them.

Deer in the headlights
      Another interesting method of securing game is practiced by the settlers. They go at night with torches and armed with shotguns to hunt the deer. These animals then come down to the shore to lick the salt off the stones, and are so thoroughly spellbound by the lights that they easily fall victims to the hunters. I also observed that our Indians had each a pole armed with prongs, lying by their side while they paddled, with which they occasionally transfixed the fish as it darted along.
      When skirting Orcas Island, a curious instance of superstition was manifested. I noticed a shining marine plant floating in the water. Endeavoring to seize it, by missing my grasp, I motioned to the Indians to catch it. They firmly refused, alleging that if they touched it warts would spring out upon their hands. I could not but respect such a particular care of the person, especially on the part of Davy, surnamed Crockett, who to his tribe is king, priest and judge. He is the theocratic head of the Lummis, and very exemplary he is in the performance of his multifarious duties: ringing a bell, calling his flock twice a day to prayers, and continually enforcing upon them the inferiority of all other tribes, and the great privileges they enjoy from condescending to be born under his own administration — the peculiar year of grace.
      Before leaving these islands we cannot but refer to the peculiar features of civilization manifested within them. So plentiful is game that an hour's hunting suffices to catch a deer weighing from 75 to 150 pounds. Their skins are sufficient to keep the settlers in tobacco and flour until they have cleared the ground for potatoes and grain. Thus the necessities of life are easily gained; in fact, no man need starve in Washington Territory. Many of these settlers live with Indian women, and find a charm in this free and independent life which reconciles them to the discomforts of roughing it in a new country. These attachments generally last for life, and the question is surrounded with peculiar difficulties. the alliance secures immunity from the savage tribes around; the position is one which the more tenderly nurtured maidens would not accept, but I have often had occasion to ask whether the term squalid might not appropriately be spelled "squaw-led."

Bellingham Bay and the coal mines
      We now enter Bellingham Bay, thus named by Vancouver. The bay proper is a noble sheet of water and is an irregular circle of about six or seven miles in diameter. It is the finest natural harbor of the Puget Sound district, and there are the fleets of the world might ride in safety and manoeuvre [sic] with ease. If the Northern Pacific Railway should be constructed through any of the passes in the cascade range, this bay would be the best terminus. Already two towns have been located upon its shore — Seahome [actually platted and spelled as Sehome], and Whatcom.
      Seahome is the outpost of American civilization, being the most northerly town in Washington Territory. Coal was discovered in its neighborhood by Captain Pattle in 1852, having been employed by the Hudson Bay Company to get out spars and lumber. While thus engaged he saw coalseams at Unionville, two miles off. A company attempted to work the seam, but without success. More recently another company was formed to work a seam disclosed by the uprooting of a tree during a storm at Seahome.
      The seams run north and south, and are inexhaustible. Indeed, they underlie the bay, and stretch away to the Fraser River and the hills beyond. The vein is a solid one of fifteen feet, with two clay divisions, and lies in the sandstone formation — the predominant one in this section of the country. Miners say that it is one of the most regular seams in existence. The yield is about 12,000 tons a month, and it finds a ready market in San Francisco. A. Hayward, Esq., the enterprising capitalist of San Francisco, is the principal shareholder; and the system of working reflects great credit on R.E. Meyer, Esq., the courteous and energetic superintendent.
      A tram-way has been made which extends about three-fourths of a mile, and is, as the superintendent humorously observed, the first link of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In making the excavations for this I observed the finest instances of fluting and grooving, evidences of glacial action, that I have seen on this coast; they were 90 feet in length, running north and south, according to the theory of Professor Agassiz.
      Altogether, when completed, these will be the most substantial works on the coast, and unsurpassed in permanence and strength. They reflect great credit on Mr. Meyer , as well as the spirit displayed by the Company. I was provided with an introduction to Mr. Meyer, and those who are equally fortunate will not readily forget this home in the wilderness, nor the sill of Jim, the Chinese cook. Jim gabbles away in a lingo which is one-tenth English and nine-tenths Chinese and Chinook [jargon], and grins with delight if you only nod your head occasionally and say, "Cumtux" [Kumtux], or "I understand" [in the jargon].

Town of Whatcom
      About a mile from Seahome is Whatcom, famous for the expectations formerly entertained of its speedy greatness. Its history is a striking instance of the readiness with which cities rise and fall in a mining country. During the excitement in 1858, when gold was discovered on Fraser River, it was expected that it would become the great depot and forwarding place for supplies to the mines. A town was rapidly laid out, two piers were commenced, intended to be one mile long. For about three months there were 10,000 people camped around, and it was quite a common occurrence for half a dozen ocean steamers, and over a dozen square-rigged vessels, to arrive from San Francisco.
      Surveyors might be seen with theodolites and tapes in hand, up to their waists in water, marking off the lots of the future city, and capitalists eager to exchange their bags of gold for the sites laid down. Among others the California Navigation Company offered $5,000 for a plot to build a wharf on, but finding that they were unable to come to terms with the land-owners, took their money to Victoria and invested it there. About the same time sir James Douglas, Governor of British Columbia, gave an order that no miner should work on Fraser River without a license, which could be only taken out in Victoria. This, in conjunction with the high rates charged for the sites, occasioned the downfall of Whatcom.
      The lumber trade around is reviving, and if the terminus of the North Pacific railroad be located here, the winter of its discontent may soon become glorious summer, and Whatcom, now deserted and forlorn, arise like a phoenix from its ashes. And certainly it has many advantages; the bay abounds with dogfish, the oil of which can be sold to the mills around for 50 cents a gallon; the country contains more good farming land than any other west of the Cascade range; there are numerous streams, in one of which I know that mountain trout, weighing from two to three pounds can be caught as fast as the fly can be thrown; the climate is mild and salubrious, having the sea-breezes and westerly winds from the Gulf of Georgia by day, and at night gentle land airs from the snow-capped mountains which refrigerate and purify the atmosphere.
      The winters are not severe and sickness is almost unknown. The creek on which the mill is situated has a character of its own, tumbling over huge boulders in a succession of leaps, and overhung by bushes and by ferns, strongly reminding one of a Welsh mountain stream. Indeed, the scenery around has many and varied elements of the beautiful. When standing here at early morn, looking out upon the tranquil scene, in the distance the Olympian Mountains bathed in mist, and nearer the grand outline of Orcas island looming up like some great fortification, imagination pictures the future, not perhaps far-distant, when these silent shores shall be lined with wharves and resonant with the throng of busy multitudes.
      Before leaving Whatcom we must not omit to notice a block-house, or old fort, which may be seen on the brow of the [Sehome] hill. It was erected for purposes of defense during the Indian war of 1856. At that time great apprehensions were entertained for the safety of the place, as it was exposed to the attacks of the Indians. All the able-bodied men, being entered as volunteers, were organized into companies, and sent up Snohomish river; but a detachment of fourteen was reserved to guard the settlement, with Mr. Eldridge as lieutenant in charge. About one mile distant [northeast] is the residence of the Hon. Mr. Roeder, member of the [territorial] legislature. [An explanation of this fort will be provided below].
      We made direct for Squallicum [actually spelled Squalicum], the residence of the Hon. Mr. Eldridge already mentioned, who has always taken a warm interest in the Mount Baker exploration, and whose house, remembering former hospitalities, we had appointed the rendezvous for the present start. We found that [Thomas] Stratton [of Port Townsend] had anticipated Ogilvy and myself, and that Mr. Eldridge had assembled a party to witness our departure. Like the hero of Excelsior [from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow], fain would we have lingered; but duty urged us on.
      When the maidens fair bade "good-by," I asked them to pray for us; but one, more lively than the others, observed that we should be so much nearer heaven we ought to pray for them. Starting in company with our dusky friends [on Aug. 10, 1868], under the command of "Squock," and our canoe loaded with a month's provisions, it appeared that the fates had combined to render our journey interesting, for the spectacle that burst upon our view that night was grand in the extreme. For miles around, the forests were on fire. No illuminations ever kindled for crowing of king or news of victory could be more brilliant. From numberless pines, the coruscations darted up to heaven, their refulgence reflected in the gleaming waters.

The Lummi Indian reservation
      In making our way to the Reservation we observed an old fort, which was garrisoned after the Indian war in 1855, but forsaken when the difficulty occurred relative to San Juan in 1859, the troops being ordered thither. The Reservation is at the mouth of the Lummi creek, around which a delta is gradually being formed. [See explanation about the blockhouse and fort.]
      Washington Territory is parceled out into five reservations, at each of which there must be a resident agent, a schoolmaster, a doctor, a blacksmith and a farmer. In consideration of the Indians giving up their land the [federal] Government provides these reservations for their use, besides paying them for their land. These payments cover a period of twenty years, being greater at first, when they are more helpless, regularly diminishing, and ceasing in the twentieth year, when they are supposed to be able to provide for themselves. Very wisely they do not given them the money, but lay out the amount stipulated in agricultural implements, blankets, dresses, medicines, etc.
      This reservation is a branch of one at Tulalip, below Seattle [actually north on the northern shore of Port Gardner], on Puget Sound, to which 5,000 Indians belong. Owing to its distance from Tulalip — about sixty miles — this branch was formed here, with a farmer in charge, as being more convenient for the Lummis, who are a hunting and fishing tribe, and taking into consideration their attachment to the place of their birth, which often prevents those living at a distance from availing themselves of the advantages offered them.
      The land reserved for them is about eight miles long and from two to four wide and contains from 15,000 to 20,000 acres, most of which is fertile and valuable for lumber and agricultural purposes. It is, in fact, one of the best reservations in the Territory and sufficiently isolated to prevent the encroachments of white settlers. the Indian town is in the form of a triangle, built around a large wooden crucifix and flag-staff, with an ensign bearing temperance mottoes, and contains forty-eight good, substantial board dwellings, as well as a church, and a number of the old Indian "rancheries" for smoking and curing salmon. The Indians here are very orderly and improved in mechanical skill. This very much owing to the good influence of Mr. C.E. Finkboner [actually spelled Finkbonner], for many years the farmer in charge of the Reservation, and the Catholic priests who occasionally visit them. Indeed, the Indians conduct morning and evening service in a commendable manner, old Davy Crockett being their leader.
      They have already abandoned their ancient barbarous habits, and have adopted those of civilization, temperance and religion. They have also given up the practice of polygamy, flattening heads, holding slaves, and gambling, as well as their belief in "Tomanusos," or medicine men. Mr. Finkbonner, who is with them and for them, believes that in time they will become civilized like white men, if looked after.
      The priests make an annual visitation for the purpose of confirming, exhorting, and otherwise keeping them in the straight path. On these occasions Mr. Finkbonner sends up and down the river for the Indians, and they pour in from all quarters. Two years ago, on leaving Mr. Eldridge's for Victoria, I could not get Indians to take me, as Bishop [F.N.] Blanchet, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Idaho, Oregon and Washington territories, with Father Baudre of the Tulalip Reservation, was making a visitation; and the Indians would not do any work until the Bishop had left. Indeed, Father Baudre had scarcely time to eat his meals, so anxious were the poor creatures to confess to him.
      The following exemplifies the religious teaching of the priests: Mr. Stratton was one day walking along the shore of Lummi Island, and met an Indian woman quite alone. There were steep banks, so that she could not turn back or get away into the woods. She showed some signs of alarm, and as Stratton drew near pulled out a crucifix, and held it up as he passed. It was evident she had been taught that this was a symbol the white man would respect, and that the possessor of it should come to no harm. I observed that the Indians detached for our expeditions regularly retired every night, and kneeling in a row, said their prayers. I could not but contrast their condition favorably with the poor of my own and other densely populated countries. The loveliness of the scenery around, the comfort and ease with which they gain a subsistence, the gentleness and dignity of their manner, nurtured amidst the freedom of their native haunts, all combine to remind one of that pastoral life of the olden time which painters have delighted to illustrate and poets to sing.

End of Excerpt one

Coleman, post-Mount Baker climb
      You can read more about Coleman's mountain-climbing at the Journal website about William Cox Ewing, the first publisher of the Skagit News newspaper of Mount Vernon. A cousin of Ewing, P.B. Van Trump, was personal secretary in 1869 to the Washington territorial governor Marshall Moore, who was also his brother-in-law. Van Trump soon became a friend with Hazard Stevens, son of the first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens. Hazard Stevens was then serving as a tax collector. Stevens also had dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier, which probably dated back to his childhood in Washington, and Van Trump shared the same dream.
      Kevin Bacher, an official with the National Park Service, has studied the Mount Rainier climbs extensively and he contends that the two men

      . . . probably met Coleman on the lecture circuit in 1869. Coleman had corresponded with Governor Moore before his ascent of Baker in 1868, which is probably where Van Trump first heard of him. In August of 1869, he came to Olympia for a couple of weeks and made some trips up into the mountains, hoping to climb Rainier at that time, but he couldn't line up a suitable guide.
      In 1870, Stevens, P.B. Van Trump, and Coleman all left Olympia together, guided partway by James Longmire, who also helped them to find an Indian guide along the way. Longmire then returned home and the three mountaineers headed for Rainier. Coleman, however, had trouble with the terrain and his pack; he ended up dropping out and returning to base camp before the end of the first day out from camp, while Stevens and Van Trump continued and ultimately successfully reached the summit of Rainier.
      Edmund T. Coleman was an experienced alpinist from England who was, at the time, living in Victoria, British Columbia. He visited Olympia in August of 1869, then delivered lectures in Seattle about his travels throughout the Puget Sound region in March of 1870, before setting out with Stevens and Van Trump [on the first successful ascent to the Mt. Rainier summit] in August of that year.


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Story posted on April 16, 2005
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