Robert W. Patten, an eccentric New Yorker who'd traveled widely, arrived in Seattle in the 1890s with enough tall tales -- and perhaps even a few true ones -- to entertain his new townsfolk for years. He regaled listeners with exciting Civil War stories and anecdotes about scouting the Wild West, casually dropping the names of old friends including Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), and Kit Carson (1809-1868). Easily recognized on the streets of Seattle with his bushy white hair, shaggy beard, and unique umbrella-enhanced headgear invention, Patten lived in a Lake Union houseboat, worked odd jobs, sold newspapers downtown, and drew further attention providing folk weather forecasts on request. Patten became such a conspicuous local fixture that in 1909 a cartoonist at The Seattle Times began employing his image as an icon in his daily weather forecasts. As Patten's notoriety grew, the unmistakable "Umbrella Hat Man" image was featured on popular postcards and other commercial products. Eventually memory of Patten faded, but when a 2014 documentary film about the history of cartooning in the Pacific Northwest was produced, it included him, as did a promotional poster.
Tales of Early Adventures
Almost nothing about Robert Patten's life-saga -- as he often told it -- can be accepted at face value. He seems to have been a natural storyteller, and grand embellisher. In other words, exactly the type of fellow who easily draws attention and willing listeners. Although he was fond of claiming that he'd been born in New York in 1811 -- a rare instance of an adult wanting to be thought of as older than he was -- it is known that Patten's actual birth date was February 24, 1832.
Patten himself once told The Seattle Times (for an article that would be syndicated across the nation) the basic contours of his improbable life story, beginning with being a runaway age at the tender age of nine due to "friction with his stepmother," after which:
"With the assistance of his grandmother he made his way to where Chicago now stands. For some time he lived with a French trader, but was later adopted by Big John of the Winnebago [Ho-Chunk] Indians. With him he wandered over the greater part of the Northern Middle West, living the life of a native. His companion was the chief's daughter, Waupacks, a child of his own age. Together they roamed over the plains -- fishing, hunting and leading a happy existence. Young Patten learned to read English from a Bible at one of the frontier settlements. Later, when he was about 18 years old, he accompanied the tribe to the northern part of Wisconsin. Here a bloody war was waged between the Winnabagos [sic] and the Chippewas, and Patten bears a scar on his head which he claims was received from a tomahawk ...[Later, for] saving a settlement from annihilation by giving timely warning to a garrison of soldiers, he was made a Second Lieutenant in the regular army ... being detached as a scout. During the same time he traded in furs and saved some money. ...
"When he was 20 years old he was ordered to report to Kit Carson, at the place where Sioux Falls, S.D. now stands, and with him proceeded westward to the Rockies. On the way they met a trader known as 'Old California Joe,' and the trio hunted and traded for many long years, having numerous thrilling adventures and hairbreadth escapes" ("Ancient Scout ...").
As Patten told it, they fought and he was wounded during the Indian Wars (approximately 1830-1870s), and he personally killed Sauk warrior Black Hawk (1767-1838) -- who in fact had died after an illness way back when Patten was 6.
Patten also spun a story about how he was once captured by the Sioux and tied to the stake, but was luckily rescued by strangers -- although he liked to show a facial scar that he said was caused by the bonfire's flames. Another time he was the purported hero, when he saved the lives of wilderness explorer John Fremont (1813-1890) and his men during a fierce snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains -- and that, in gratitude, his pals President Abraham Lincoln and Commanding General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant named him Chief U.S. Scout up until 1865 when he was superseded by Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1914). Well, not quite. Cody actually served the Union Army from 1863 into 1865, was discharged, then rejoined in 1868, and finally became Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry during the 1870s Plains Wars against Indian tribes. Beyond all that Patten also claimed that he fought in the Mexican War (1846-1848). In his spare time, Patten also settled in Wisconsin and married a woman named Elizabeth.
The Civil War
What is verifiably true is that Patten did serve with E Company of the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry during some portion of the Civil War (1861-1865). In an interview in 1909 he claimed that during his service U.S. Secretary of State William "Bill" Seward (1801-1872) tasked him with delivering dispatches to U.S. Army General George Henry "Pap" Thomas (1816-1870) in Nashville and shuttling his written replies back to Washington, D.C. Asked once by a reporter if he was ever wounded in battle, Patten shot back:
"Wounded? Well, I should say! When I was with the Third Wisconsin at the battle of Antietam [September 17, 1862], I was shot nine times. But later they got me proper at Beverly Cord, Va. -- the slaughter pen, the boys called it. Why they shot me up so bad that I had to be drafted [hauled by wagon?] back home" ("Umbrella Man Who Made ...").
After healing a bit, Patten said, he reenlisted, but the doctors rejected him for health reasons so he contacted Governor James T. Lewis (1819-1904), who sympathized and activated Patten as a scout for the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry. Contracting rheumatism in 1862 while serving in Maryland, Patten was finally discharged on July 14, 1864. His military service, and general disability status, then provided him with a modest pension, which helped boost his meager earnings.
Patten arrived in rainy ol' Seattle, boasting to anyone who would listen that he was an expert in two areas: the Civil War -- or the "War of the Rebellion" as he termed it -- and, significantly, the weather (Suffia). Well, he came to the right place to pontificate on the latter topic, and was clearly well-prepared to deal with the abundant precipitation for which the town was famous. Upon his head he sported a one-of-a-kind rig, to which he'd affixed a small rain-shielding umbrella. He explained to the curious that it was his very own invention -- one sparked by necessity earlier when he'd been doing some prospecting in Yucatan, Mexico. The swarms of voracious mosquitos had been so bothersome that he just had to find a means of deterring them. His solution was to rig up a small silk umbrella covered with fine netting that also tucked into his shirt to keep the insects off his face. "Patten devised the headgear as protection against them and against the tropical heat. He found the umbrella shape cooled his head and prevented sunstroke. When winter come [sic] he attached ear flaps, and has worn the novel style headgear ever since" ("Ancient Scout ..."). Today, of course, such "bug helmets" are sold widely in recreation stores -- albeit sans the umbrella portion.
Interestingly, no less an authority than Popular Science Monthly published a feature on Patten's famous hat in 1917. That essay noted the invention's physical design characteristics:
"The hat is mounted on a frame which fits closely around the head and branches out in ribs like those of an umbrella. ... The umbrella portion could be tilted to any direction. Although not as wide as an ordinary umbrella, when used with an all-enveloping raincoat, the umbrella hat keeps off the rain as well as if it were larger. The idea has been adopted in a modified degree by farmers" ("The Umbrella Hat).
A Colorful Character
Patten -- a rather large man with a wild shock of white hair and unruly beard, attired in a increasingly shabby dark coat, vest, pants, and heavy boots, with a walking cane, tobacco pipe in hand, and that hat -- must have stood out on the downtown streets of Seattle like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a raggedy Santa Claus. Which was fine, since one of this colorful character's first jobs locally was hawking newspapers at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Union Street.
Not everyone was thrilled by his odd presence, according to a pair of 1902 reports in The Seattle Times. On June 21, the proprietor of the Owl restaurant at First Avenue and Pike Street supposedly "came to the door and made faces at him and in other ways" taunted him ("Made Faces ..."). So "the 'old umbrella hat man' shied a brick through the plate glass window" and was arrested:
"Patten is one of the most unique figures seen on the streets of Seattle ... and claims to have a remarkable history. He started to tell a good part of it yesterday afternoon in police court, but was stopped by Judge George. However, before he was finally made to quit talking he succeeded in explaining the whole window breaking affair to the court.
Judge George listened as best he could and at least succeeded in stopping the flow of language" ("He Goes to Jail").
Unimpressed by Patten's justifications the judge imposed a $25 fine and committed the offender to jail. Still, the Times noted, Patten "is, so he says 91 years of age" ("He Goes to Jail") "and is considered to be an inoffensive person" ("Made Faces ...").
Some years went by and, around May 1907, Patten decided to head down to California to try to pick up some work helping revive the San Francisco area after the big earthquake there the year before. On August 27, he wrote back to one of his Seattle friends, cigar-shop owner Joe Schlumpf. In that letter he noted that he was "aufle busey" [sic] working at repairing broken tombstones and marble statuary in area cemeteries, but he'd also experienced some new problems: First his belongings were stolen by baggage thieves, then he had to pawn his diamond ring, then he tried selling some cement mix at a public market but had no license and "the pillice [sic] got after me," but he finally crossed paths with the criminals again and "we got the thieves easy" ("Umbrella Man Is Detective").
Settled in Seattle
Returning to Seattle, Patten soon earned a reputation for providing, by request, weather predictions based on his visceral sense and accumulated folk knowledge -- to the extent that he was popularly deemed what used to be called a "human barometer." A few years later The Seattle Times would assert:
"Patten is without a doubt the most familiar character of all of Seattle's throng of citizens. He long ago became an object of interest because of his miniature umbrella hat. This eccentricity made him so conspicuous that practically all Seattle came to know him by sight" ("Umbrella Man Stricken ...").
Settled into a houseboat on the southern shore of Lake Union, Patten fished for perch for his meals, and began taking on a range of odd jobs -- the strong, burly man "was known for lifting mired wagons out of the muddy streets" -- and he also worked as a fix-it man specializing, most fittingly, in repairing umbrellas (Droker, 57). His experiences -- that of having "been down on the waterfront a whole lot of times" and living at Lake Union, "which made him more or less of a maritime character," inspired Patten to seek the post of Seattle's harbormaster, a request that was declined by the city government ("Umbrella Man Who Made ..."). The Seattle Times noted on April 17, 1910, that:
"The old man has lived in Seattle so long that he has become a person of unlimited privileges. For some years he plied the trade of crockery mending and sold a glue of his own mixing, but in his last years he has depending chiefly upon his pension and the generosity of Councilman Joe Schlumpf and others philanthropically inclined" ("Umbrella Man Stricken ...").
In that story, which dominated its front-page headlines, the Times reported that while fishing from his houseboat on the 15th, Patten, who the paper described as "without a doubt the most familiar character of all Seattle's throng of citizens" had suffered a stroke, which then greatly impacted his ability to live independently ("Umbrella Man Stricken ..."). Initially treated at Providence Hospital in Seattle, he was first transferred to the Soldiers Home facility in Orting, Pierce County, on April 29 and later moved to Santa Monica, California, where he spent his last few years at the U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers before his death on April 19, 1913.
A Cartoon Icon
Well before that, by 1909 Seattle's "human barometer" had caught the attention and imagination of John Ross "Dok" Hager (1858-1932), a staff cartoonist for the Times. On November 1, 1909, his cartoon image of a grinning Patten standing in the rain made its debut, forecasting "Rain tonight and Tuesday. Moderate southeast winds" ("The Weather"). And thus began a multi-year daily weather-forecasting series usually published on a lower corner of the paper's front page.
Nicknamed "Sport" -- or alternatively "the Umbrella Man" -- this character was typically shown dispensing folksy wit, homespun wisdom, and occasional political jabs while a flag banner atop his umbrella hat offered single-word clues as to the paper's official weather forecast. In time, Hager added a sidekick character, a duck named the Kid who also rocked his own umbrella hat.
This series, which ran well into 1925, proved to be popular with readers. Weeks after it began, the soggy town's newspaper noted Patten's social standing by describing him as "the one and only man that Seattle weather has made famous. Nobody else wants to be, under the circumstances" ("Umbrella Man Who Made ..."). The Times also saw an opportunity to market the new mascot with a series of postcards drawn by Dok. One such card depicted a banner with the word "Salisbury" on it -- a reference to G. N. Salisbury, the director of the Seattle Weather Bureau, someone who Hager often targeted by having his Umbrella Man lob playful verbal barbs at the official.
The Times and Hager continued to milk Patten's notoriety and the fondness Seattle had for him for years after his passing. Around the time of World War I the newspaper commissioned production of some plaster-of-Paris figurines -- the basic equivalent of today's bobblehead toys -- made in the Umbrella Man's image, some of which were given out as gifts to the paper's legions of daily delivery boys. For his part, Hager went onto publish two charming cartoon books: 1911's The Umbrella Man and 1913's Sport and the Kid.
Books, Silver Spoons, and the Silver Screen
The Umbrella Man had become such an icon of Seattle's culture that his image was adopted by other local marketeers. In 1911 Frank Calvert's book The Cartoon: A Reference Book of Seattle Successful Men featured an image of Patten. Much later, in 1956, Gordon Newell's Totem Tales of Old Seattle included cartoon images by Don Sherwood, including the Umbrella Man shown prominently on the cover.
Back in about March 1912 esteemed Seattle jewelers Joseph Mayer & Bros. Co. -- comprised of three immigrants, Markus, Albert, and Joseph Mayer, who had arrived in the city from Germany in 1897 -- produced one of a series of collectible souvenir silver spoons with a likeness of the Umbrella Man. It showed Patten -- pipe in hand and a banner/flag atop his hat reading "Fine" -- accompanied by the Kid peering out from between his big boots.
Finally, several years ago Seattle filmmakers Ron Austin and Louise Amandes set out to produce a documentary film tracing the long rich history of cartooning and comics in the Pacific Northwest. Along the way they interviewed numerous prominent artists from recent decades -- including David Horsey, Brian Basset, Ellen Forney, Jim Woodring, Shary Flenniken, Peter Bagge, and Pat Moriarty -- as well as a couple of historians (including, full disclosure, this writer). Around the same time, two other artists, Frank M. Young and James Gill, happened to produce an irreverent graphic novel (Good Heavens! It's the Umbrella Man!) about Patten's life, and the Umbrella Man became an important icon for the film project. The end result was the 2014 feature Bezango, WA, which was promoted, in part, with a cool poster -- designed by Moriarty -- depicting the Umbrella Man and his hat-wearing duck buddy.