The Pickett House, located at 910 Bancroft Street in Bellingham's Lettered Streets neighborhood, has a long and winding history dating back to the beginnings of Whatcom County. Built in 1856, the house was the home of U.S. Army Captain George Pickett (1825-1875) and his family in its first years, and was later home to the inimitable William "Blanket Bill" Jarman (1820-1912) before becoming the home of the Strother family for nearly half a century. The house became a museum in 1941, offering a fascinating array of artifacts, pictures, and stories of Bellingham's early history.
Cedar Plank House
The settlement of Whatcom, which later became part of Bellingham, dates to December 1852 when Henry Roeder (1824-1902) and Russell Peabody (ca. 1820-1868) built a sawmill on Whatcom Creek near Bellingham Bay. As the nascent community began to grow, it was often attacked by Native Americans, particularly members of the Haida Tribe. (Though the tribe's territory encompassed northwestern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska, Haida warriors frequently raided their southern neighbors, including the Semiahmoo and Lummi tribes.) The settlers built a blockhouse on the hill northwest of Whatcom Creek, but this provided only limited protection. In the summer of 1856, the U.S. Army sent Captain George Pickett and 68 men of the Ninth Infantry, Company D, to Whatcom with orders to build a fort on Bellingham Bay to help protect the locals and to establish a more substantial American presence in the area.
Pickett and his men arrived at Bellingham Bay on August 26, 1856, and built what became known as Fort Bellingham on a prairie above a bluff along the northern end of the bay, about three miles northwest of Whatcom. About the same time, construction began on a two-story cedar plank house for Pickett. The house was built with lumber from the Whatcom mill and was located on the northwestern edge of the little settlement, on top of its own bluff, with a commanding view of Bellingham Bay to its west.
The original structure measured 15 by 25 feet on its first floor and consisted of two rooms -- a study in the front room (facing the bay) and a bedroom in the back. A ladder provided access to the two-room second floor, but accounts differ whether these two rooms were originally additional bedrooms or if they were used for storage before subsequently being remodeled. A narrow flight of stairs later replaced the ladder. The house's kitchen and dining room were outside in a lean-to connected to the west side of the building, and the lean-to contained a chimney made of mud and sticks.
The Pickett Family in Whatcom
Pickett didn't own the house that is named after him -- in fact, he probably didn't spend much time there -- but he nonetheless made his mark on its history. After his arrival he married a Native American woman said to be from the Haida tribe, and she joined him in the house. Some accounts give her name as Morning Mist while other accounts suggest this may be a romanticized name, as it was hardly uncommon for early non-Indian pioneers to give their own interpretation to Native names, accurate or not. However, all accounts agree that they had a son together, James Tilton Pickett, who was born on December 31, 1857. It was a difficult delivery that his mother never recovered from, and she died soon after.
Pickett was assigned to San Juan Island in the summer of 1859 when trouble brewed between British and American occupants of the island (both countries claimed ownership of the San Juans) over the shooting of a certain infamous pig, and he was rarely in Whatcom after that time. War with England was averted, but for Pickett the reprieve was only temporary. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Pickett, a native Virginian, left Washington Territory to join Confederate forces in the East, leaving his son in the charge of friends. During the four-year war, he became famous for the disastrous maneuver that became known as Pickett's Charge at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, which some consider the turning point of the Civil War.
Pickett never saw his son again, though he did provide for him financially. James Pickett, known as Jimmie, grew up to be a much different person than his father. Quiet and introverted, he took up art as a child and became quite adept at it; as a young adult, he worked as an artist for both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later the Portland Oregonian. (In the 1880s technology to publish photographs was just becoming available, but it wasn't yet in widespread use. Newspapers and magazines usually retained artists to sketch pictures.) According to the Pickett Society, several of James Pickett's paintings survive today in museums in the state, and reproductions of some his paintings, as well as pictures of both James and George Pickett, are displayed in the Pickett House.
Blanket Bill and the Strothers
Jimmie Pickett died in Portland at the age of 31 in 1889. That same year, Robert Strother purchased the Pickett House. The house had been through at least nine different owners or occupants since Pickett's departure nearly 30 years earlier, including William "Blanket Bill" Jarman, an especially colorful character from Whatcom County's early history. Jarman's life is described thusly by Lelah Jackson Edson in her 1951 book The Fourth Corner: "Sailor, deserter, trader, hunter and fisherman, fur dealer, Indian slave, tribesman, squawman, homesteader, ship master, telegraph linesman, army courier and mail carrier, interpreter, bartender, accused murderer, gold digger" (Moles).
Though perhaps not quite as memorable as Jarman or the Picketts, the Strother family would live in the Pickett House for nearly half a century, by far the longest of any of its occupants, and they would make their own mark on its history. Strother was a Confederate veteran who moved to Northwest Washington after the Civil War. His two daughters, Willie and Hattie, were both dressmakers. They set up shop in the little house, and one of the upstairs rooms was later converted and named the Hattie Strother Sewing Room. Joining the family for most of their years in the house was Mary Smith, a domestic identified as a "mulatto" in the 1910 U.S. Census.
Hattie Strother, the last surviving family member, willed the house to the Washington State Historical Society and all of its furniture to the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington, Whatcom Chapter 5. But while the historical society assumed ownership of the house in 1936, it was the Daughters of the Pioneers who took the lead in maintaining it. A 1938 Seattle Times article noted that the Whatcom chapter was actively collecting pictures, furniture, books, linens, and silver used by local residents in the nineteenth century to display in the house. One of the house's more noteworthy acquisitions was an organ owned by famed poet (and Washington's first poet laureate) Ella Higginson (ca. 1862-1940).
National Register of Historic Places
Various renovations were made to the house over the years. Pickett's bedroom in the back of the house was later converted into a dining room. The lean-to next to the house was incorporated into the rest of the building, and a newer kitchen was built in the lean-to while the original kitchen was converted into a bathroom. Pickett's study became the house's living room. Electricity and plumbing arrived later, and a front porch was added that was eventually enclosed. Shingles over the house's exterior were also added in the early decades of the twentieth century. Even with all the modifications and additions, the house remained small by today's standards -- less than 1,000 square feet.
The house was designated a museum in 1941, and in 1965 the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington assumed ownership. In 1971, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's not only the oldest building in Bellingham, but also the oldest documented wooden structure on its original site in Washington. As of 2018, the Daughters of the Pioneers offered public tours the second Sunday of each month between 1 and 4 p.m.