Arthur Denny: Pioneer Recollections

  • By Arthur Denny (1822-1899), entered
  • Posted 10/01/2000
  • Essay 2639

Seattle Pioneer Arthur Denny (1822-1899) wrote an autobiographical sketch in November 1890. It was printed verbatim in William Prosser's 1903 book, Puget Sound Country and is here reproduced in full.

Autobiographical Sketch of Arthur Armstrong Denny

I have been of late so frequently solicited for a sketch of my life that it has become a source of annoyance, more especially as it has never occurred to me, and does not now, that my life's history is of any importance or calculated to be of any special interest to the public at large.

In my life work I have simply endeavored to meet the obligations to my family and discharge my duty as a citizen to my country and the community in which I have lived. It has not occurred to me that I have accomplished anything above the ordinary, and, if so, I should feel humiliated to claim it for myself. My life has been a busy one and I have not taken time to think of the estimate which those who are to come after me may put upon what I have done, or whether they will consider it at all. Having reached a time when what I can do, or what I may think or say is of but little moment to the active world, the hard and annoying thing to me is the seeming disposition to dissect the subject before death. It is not, therefore, for self-exaltation that I have undertaken to make as brief a sketch as possible, but to relieve myself of the annoyance referred to, and for the satisfaction of my family.

Arthur Armstrong Denny
Seattle, November 25th, 1890

Some Notes

The Dennys are a very ancient family of England, Ireland and Scotland. I trace my branch from Ireland to America in my great-grandparents, David and Margaret Denny, who came to America before the Revolution, and settled in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where my grandfather, Robert Denny, was born in the year 1753. In early life he removed to Frederick County, Virginia, where he, in the year 1778 married Rachel Thomas, and in about 1790 removed to and settled in Mercer County, Kentucky, where my father, John Denny, was born May 4th, 1793. On August 25th, 1814, he was married to Sarah Wilson, my mother, the daughter of Bassel and Ann Wilson. My mother was born in the old town of Bladensberg, near Washington City, February 3rd, 1797. Her mother's name was Scott, but I cannot trace the families of my maternal grandparents beyond America, but they, doubtless, came to America in very early times.

Both of my grandparents rendered service in the Revolutionary war, and my grandfather Wilson belonged to Washington's command at Broddock's defeat.

My father was a soldier in the War of 1812, and belonged to Colonel Richard M. Johnson's regiment of Kentucky Volunteers. He was also an ensign in Captain McAfee's company. He was with Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, when Proctor was defeated and the noted Tecumseh was killed. He was a member of the Illinois legislature in 1840-41, with Lincoln, Yates, Baker and others, who afterwards became noted in national affairs. He was a Whig in politics, and a Republican after the formation of that party. For many years he was a justice of the peace, and it was his custom to induce litigants, if possible, to settle without a resort to law; I do not think he was ever himself a party in an action at law. He died July 28th, 1875, in his eighty-third year. My mother died on March 25th, 1841, in her forty-fifth year. For her I had the greatest reverence, and as I now look back and contemplate her character, it seems to me that she was as nearly perfect as it is possible to find any one in this world.

About the year 1816 my parents removed from Kentucky to Washington County, Indiana, and settled near Salem, where I was born, June 20th, 1822. When I was about one year old they removed to Putnam County, six miles east of Greencastle, where they remained until I was in my thirteenth year, when they removed to Knox County, Illinois. The first land entered in Putnam county by my father was March 12th, 1823. My impression is that he went there and made the selection at that time and moved the family some time in the summer or fall of the same year.

My education began in the log school house so familiar to the early settler in the old west. The teachers were paid by subscription, so much per pupil, and the schools rarely lasted more than half the year, and often but three months. Among the earliest of my recollections is one of my father hewing out a farm in the beech woods of Indiana; and I well remember that the first school I attended was two and a half miles distant from my home. When I became older it was often necessary for me to attend the home duties one-half of the day and then go to school, a mile distant; but by close application I was able to keep up with my class. My opportunities, to some extent, improved as time advanced, but I never got beyond the boarding school and seminary. I spent my vacation with older brothers at carpenter and joiner work, to obtain the means to pay my expenses during the terms of time.

On November 23, 1843, I was married to Mary Ann Boren, to whom I am very largely indebted for any success which I may have achieved in life. She has been kind and indulgent to all my faults, and in cases of doubt and difficulty in the long voyage we have made together she has always been, without the least disposition to dictate, a safe and prudent advisor.

I was eight years county surveyor of Knox County, Illinois, and resigned that position to come to the Pacific coast. On April 10, 1851, I started with my family across the plains, and reached The Dalles, August 11, and arrived in Portland August 23. On the 5th of November we sailed for Puget Sound on the schooner Exact, and arrived at our destination on Elliott's Bay, November 13, 1851.

The place where we landed we called Alki Point, at that time as wild a spot as any on earth. We were landed in the ship's boat when the tide was well out; and while the men of the party were all actively engaged in removing our goods to a point above high tide, the women and children had crawled into the brush, made a fire and spread a cloth to shelter them from the rain. When the goods were secured I went to look after the women, and found on my approach that their faces were concealed. On a closer inspection I discovered that they were in tears, having already discovered the gravity of the situation; but I did not for some time discover that I had gone a step too far. In fact, it was not until I became aware that my wife and helpless children were exposed to the murderous attacks of hostile savages that it dawned upon me that I had made a desperate venture. My motto in life was to never go backward, and in fact if I had wished to retrace my steps it was about as nearly impossible to do so if I had taken the bridge up behind me. I had brought my family from a good home surrounded by comforts and luxuries, and landed them in a wilderness, and I do not now think that it was at all strange that a woman who had, without complaint, endured all the dangers and hardships of a trip across the great plains should be found shedding tears when contemplating the hard prospect then so plainly in view. Now, in looking back to the experiences of those times, it seems to me that it is not boasting to say that it required quite an amount of energy and some little courage to contend with and overcome the difficulties and dangers we had to meet. For myself, I was for the first several weeks after our landing, so thoroughly occupied in building a cabin to shelter my family for the winter that I had not much time to think of the future. About the time we got our houses completed our little settlement was fortunately visited by Captain Daniel S. Howard, of the Brig Leoness, seeking a cargo of piles which we contracted to furnish. This gave us profitable employment, and, although the labor was severe, as we did it mostly without a team, we were cheered on with the thought that we were providing food for our families. A circumstance occurred just at the close of our labor which for a few hours caused us the greatest anxiety and even consternation, but resulted in considerable amusement afterwards. We finished the cargo late in the afternoon, and it was agreed between us and the captain that he would settle with us the next day. The vessel was anchored near the Point, and that night there was a stiff gale from the south, which caused the anchor to drag, and carried the brig before it until the anchor caught in mud at Smith's Cove. The Indians soon discovered it and came and reported that the ship had "clatiwad" (left), which caused in our little settlement great astonishment and concern. We were forced to the conclusion that the captain had absconded to avoid paying us for our hard work and the time we had put in on the cargo was not counted by eight-hour days, but from daylight until darkness. The ship's unexpected departure added a sleepless night to our arduous toil. In the morning, when it grew light enough to see, to our great joy, we discovered the brig getting under way and she soon returned. The captain came on shore and gave a most satisfactory explanation, and he was ever afterwards, to the day of his death, the especial favorite of every one of our little community.

In Feburary, 1852, in company with William N. Bell and C. D. Boren, I made soundings of Elliott's Bay along with the eastern shore and towards the foot of the tide flats to determine the character of the harbor, using for that purpose a clothes line and a bunch of horse shoes. After the survey of the harbor we next examined the land and timber around the bay, and after three days' careful investigation we located claims with a view of lumbering, and, ultimately, of laying off a town.

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, all of which retarded the growth of the territory, and for a long time prevented the construction of the railroad upon which I had based large hopes. In the spring of 1852, when we were ready to move upon our claims, we had the experience of the fall before over again in building our cabins to live in. After the houses were built we commenced getting our piles and hewn timber mostly for the San Francisco market; but occasionally a cargo for the Sandwich Islands. Vessels in the lumber trade all carried a stock of general merchandise, and from them we obtained our supplies.

The Captain sold from the vessel while taking in cargo, and on leaving turned over the remainder to me to sell on commission. On one occasion my commission business involved me in serious difficulty. The captain of one of the vessels with whom I usually dealt, carried a stock of liquors, but he knew that I did not deal in spirits, and disposed of that part of the cargo himself, or kept it on board. On one occasion, as he was ready for the voyage from San Francisco with his usual stock, something prevented his making the voyage himself; he put a young friend of his just out from Maine in command and gave him general directions, but when they came to the whisky, the young captain said, "What am I to do with that? I will not sell it." "Well," he replied, "take it to my agent, Mr. Denny, and if he will not dispose of it, turn it over to a friend of mine at Alki Point, who is in the trade." The vessel arrived and the new captain came on shore with a letter explaining the situation. I told him, "All right, Captain, take it to Alki; I have no use for it." In due time the cargo was completed and the captain came on shore and informed me that the man at Alki had on hand a full stock of his own and would not take the stuff; and he would throw it overboard if I did not take it out of his way. My obligation to the owner would in no way justify me in permitting so rash an act, and I told the captain to send it on shore with the goods he was to leave, and have his men roll it up to the house, and I would take care of it until the owner came. I was cramped for room, but I found places to store it under beds and in safe corners about my cabin. It was a hard kind of goods to hold onto in those days, but there was never a drop of it escaped until the owner came and removed it to Steilacoom.

I continued in the commission business until the fall of 1854, when I entered in copartnership with Dexter Horton and David Phillips, in a general merchandise business, under the firm name of A. A. Denny & Co. Our capital was very limited; it would hardly purchase a truck of goods now, but we did for a time, in a small, one-story, frame building on the corner of Commercial and Washington Streets, afterward occupied by the bank of Dexter Horton & Company, the leading business of the town.

When the Indian war came on in 1855, the firm dissolved and I went into the volunteer service for six months.

I served as county commissioner of Thurston county, Oregon, when that county covered all of the territory north of Lewis County, and when Pierce, King, Island and Jefferson counties were formed by the Oregon legislature I was appointed a commissioner of King county. In 1853 I was appointed postmaster and received the first United States mail in Seattle, August 27, 1853. On the organization of Washington territory I was elected to the house, and continued a member of either house of representatives or of the council for nine consecutive sessions, and was speaker of the house the third session. I was register of the United States land office at Olympia from 1861 to 1865, when I was elected territorial delegate of the thirty-ninth Congress.

On the 16th of June, 1870, my old friends and business partners, David Phillips and Dexter Horton, founded the bank of Phillips, Horton & Company, and at the death of Mr. Phillips, which occurred on March 6, 1872, Mr. Horton, although alone in business, adopted the firm name of Dexter Horton & Company. I entered the bank at this time as executor of the Phillips estate, and, after closing the affairs of the estate, I took a half interest in the bank under the existing firm name, which Mr. Horton offered to change at the time, but, being fully satisfied with the name, I declined to allow the change.

I have been identified with the fortunes and interests of Seattle from the day of its founding, and during the active period of my life it has been my earnest endeavor to promote and protect those interests to the best of my ability.

My work is practically over. If it has been done in a way to entitle me to any credit, I do not feel that it becomes me to claim it. Should the reverse be true, then I trust that the mantle of charity may protect me from the too harsh judgment and criticism of those now on the active list; and that I may be permitted to pass into a peaceful obscurity, with the hopes that their efforts may be more successful than mine.


Arthur Denny's Autobiography is printed in William Farrand Prosser, A History of the Puget Sound Country; Its Resources, Its Commerce and Its People (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903), Vol. 2, p. 2-6.

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