Arthur Denny and Mary Ann Boren Denny were members of the Denny Party, arriving at Alki Point (West Seattle) on the schooner Exact on November 13, 1851. They were among Seattle's first EuroAmericans settlers. Arthur, a pregnant Mary Ann, and children Catherine and Lenora traveled from Illinois over the Oregon Trail. Mary Ann was the typical pioneer wife. She endured hardship, bore six children, carried out strenuous domestic duties, and supported her husband, who made the decisions. Arthur was energetic and enterprising, developing his homestead, starting a general store, and investing in Henry Yesler's sawmill. His donation land claim at the center of future downtown Seattle made the family wealthy. Starting in 1854, he served in the Washington Territory Legislature. From 1861 to 1865, he worked as General Land Office registrar in Olympia. For two years he was the Washington Territory Delegate to the United States House of Representatives. Upon returning to Seattle in 1867, he dealt extensively in real estate, and for two decades was co-owner of the Dexter Horton bank. He was a founder of the University of Washington and an advocate of bringing the transcontinental railroad to Seattle. He is sometimes called the father of Seattle.
Life in the Midwest
Mary Ann Boren was born on November 25, 1822, in Tennessee. She was the first-born of Sarah Latimer Boren (1805-1888) and Richard Freeman Boren (1788-1828). Her father was a cabinetmaker and a circuit-rider Baptist preacher. The family moved several times between Tennessee and Illinois, until, when Mary Ann was about 8, her father died. Sarah moved the children back to Tennessee to live with her father. In 1834 they moved to Knox County, Illinois, where Sarah raised her three children in a log cabin.
Arthur Denny was born on June 20, 1822, near Salem, Indiana, the fourth child of John Denny (1793-1875) and Sarah Wilson Denny (1797-1841). A year later the family moved across the state to Putman County. In about 1834 they moved to Knox County, Illinois. Arthur was about 19 when his mother died. Of his childhood Arthur remembered "my father hewing out a farm in the beech woods of Indiana." He attended school two-and-a-half miles away. He would do his home chores for half a day and then go to school. "[B]y close application I was able to keep up with my class” (Prosser, 3). To earn money Arthur did carpentry with his brother and later became a land surveyor.
Mary Ann and Arthur married on November 23, 1843. Both were 20 years old. In 1848, Mary Ann's widowed mother, Sarah, married Arthur's father, John Denny (1793-1875). After the Denny Party arrived in the place later called Seattle, her younger sister, Louisa Boren (1827-1916), married David Denny (1832-1903). These were two entangled families.
To the West
Mary Ann had her first two children, Louise Catherine and Margaret Lenora, in Illinois. During the grueling four-month crossing of the plains on the Oregon Trail, she was pregnant with Roland and also cared for her two girls, ages 4 and 7, both of whom came down with whooping cough. Upon their arrival at Portland, both she and Arthur became ill with malaria. Roland was born there on September 2, 1851. By the time the party arrived at Alki on November 13, 1851, Mary Ann, in poor health, could not produce milk and Roland was fed clam juice.
The arrival at Alki was not auspicious. It was cold. It poured rain. Arthur's brother, 19-year-old David and Denny Party member John Low (1820-1888) had gone ahead to build a cabin. The cabin was there, but it lacked a roof. The Exact anchored and the women and children were rowed ashore in a small boat. The men grappled with bringing supplies to shore. A passenger on the Exact who was going on to Olympia, said:
"I was sorry for Mrs. Denny with her baby and the other women ... it rained awful hard that day ... and the wind blew, and every one of 'em their bonnets with the starch took out of them went flip flap, flip flap, as they rowed off to shore, and the last glimpse I had of them was the women standing under the trees with their wet bonnets all lopping down over their faces and their aprons to their eyes .... their long calico frocks plastered to their forms" (More Than Petticoats, 27-28).
They were soaked to the skin and shivered with cold. Mary Ann with her two little girls, struggling to warm her infant, sat on a log. Assembled under the trees were five women and 12 children, three of them infants. The women cried.
In the next day or so the men completed building the cabin and then a second cabin and things began looking better. Native people crowded in and assisted the newcomers. In January 1852 three of the married men started looking for a location to establish their homesteads. On February 15, 1852, after exploring along the central Puget Sound shoreline, they chose a stretch of land that ran from the future King Street to Denny Way, and divided it into thirds, with Arthur Denny taking the middle third. By the summer of 1852, the Denny family was living on its 320-acre homestead.
Starting a Town
On October 20, 1852, Henry Yesler (1810-1892) arrived looking for a place to set up a steam-powered sawmill. According to one account, "Arthur Denny invited the stranger home to dinner, and Mary and Louisa [Boren, Mary's sister] welcomed him to the little cabin and did their best to cook a good dinner with their meager fare" (Four Wagons West, 74).
In early 1853, Yesler's milling machinery arrived by ship from California, and in short order he got his mill working. Yesler's Mill was Seattle's main industry and for a time its only industry. By late summer 1853, Seattle had 20 buildings made from Yesler's Mill lumber.
In late 1853, Arthur established a 20- by 30-foot general store at the northwest corner of Washington and Commercial streets (now 1st Avenue S). He sold goods supplied by ship captains on commission. About a year later, recent arrivals Dexter Horton (1825-1904) and David Phillips joined the store business, which became Denny, Horton and Phillips. They started making annual trips to San Francisco to buy stock, bypassing middleman ship captains. Arthur left this firm in late 1855. In 1861 Horton bought out Phillips and operated the store until 1866, when he moved to San Francisco.
The Treaty War
Outraged by the sites and sizes of the reservations imposed on South Puget Sound tribes by the Medicine Creek Treaty, warriors from several affected tribes, led by Leschi (1808-1858), took up arms. On October 28, 1855, the Treaty War came west of the Cascades. The new settlers built blockhouses and organized militias.
Arthur Denny joined a militia company as a Lieutenant. In June 1856, while stationed in the Duwamish Valley, Lieutenant Denny was ordered to lead his company to Snoqualmie Pass. He refused. He felt that if he did so, the settlers of Seattle would lose protection. Most of his troops also refused. They were all dishonorably discharged.
From the earliest days, Arthur Denny was active in the political and civil life of the community. He was appointed or elected to the following positions:
- Knox County (Illinois) Surveyor, 1843-1851.
- Thurston County Commissioner, 1852.
- First Seattle Postmaster, 1853-1855.
- Washington Territory House of Representatives, 1854-1861; Speaker 1857. In 1854 Denny introduced a bill to give women over age 18 the right to vote. Had it passed, Washington would have been the first Territory or State to grant woman suffrage. It failed.
- King County Auditor, 1856-1860.
- King County Superintendent of Schools, 1860-1861.
- United States Land Office Registrar, 1861-1865.
- Washington Territory Legislature Council (i.e., Senate), 1862-1863.
- Washington Territory Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, 1865-1867.
- University of Washington Regent, 1868-1875, 1881-1888.
- Seattle City Council, 1877-1878.
Territorial University (University of Washington)
Arthur Denny and other Seattleites decided they wanted the Territorial University at Seattle. The 1860-1861 Territorial Legislature approved the location, and Arthur and Mary Ann donated nearly all the land needed for the 10-acre campus. To fund the construction of university buildings, the legislature approved selling up to 46,000 acres of land at $1.50 per acre. When the federal government created the Territory, it had set aside this land for the use of a Territorial university.
The campus site was cleared of trees and undergrowth and on May 20, 1861, the cornerstone of the main university building was laid. By November 4 the university, composed of three completed buildings, opened its doors for the first day of classes. It originally served younger-than-college-age students.
In March 1861, Denny, along with his son-in-law, George Frye (1833-1911), purchased one-third interest in Yesler's sawmill. The eight-year-old sawmill was renamed Yesler, Denny and Company Mill. The operation, which dominated Seattle's economy, included the sawmill, a flour mill, Yesler's wharf, a general store, and the Yesler cookhouse. At one time or another, nearly every Seattle EuroAmerican and many Native American men worked there. Some lumber was used locally, but most was shipped to San Francisco. At times the mill ran nonstop. At other times, it sat idle.
For three years Denny attempted to sell his interest in the mill, perhaps because he felt Yesler was a poor businessman or because he disliked the boom-bust cycles of the lumber business or because he took a new position in Olympia and found it difficult to look after his Seattle investments from there. Both Denny and Frye sold their interest in Yesler's mill in February 1866.
On May 9, 1861, the Lincoln administration appointed Denny as the registrar of the Olympia General Land Office. Within a month, the Denny family, with their six children, including newborn Charles, moved to Olympia and Arthur assumed his duties. These included processing and tracking all homestead claims, including donation land claims. The only other position in the office was the receiver, who handled money and did the bookkeeping.
Initially the land in Washington Territory was tribal land. After treaties were approved, non-reservation land was transferred to the federal government. Then, through homesteading and grants, the land was transferred to private hands, to states and territories, and to entities such as railroads.
The Olympia Land Office, established in 1855, was in disarray. A historian found that "the registrars and receivers at Olympia, in the first ... six years, were unusually incompetent" ("Public Land Disposal in Washington," 118). Records were poorly kept and embezzlement was suspected. A Territorial Legislature report estimated it would take a clerk two years to clear up the backlog of 1,500 land claims. Arthur had to make sense of it all. In March 1862, an Olympia newspaper stated "Mr Denny is a practical surveyor and possesses more than ordinery [sic] clerical skill" ("Land Office Business").
The same month, Denny wrote a friend, "I am so crowded with business and confined to this office that I fear my health will fail, but I hope to have more leisure when every body goes to the [gold] mines" (A. A. Denny to T. Mercer, Olympia, March 17, 1862). He was referring to an ongoing gold rush to the Salmon River in Eastern Washington.
The family struggled. In March 1865, Arthur wrote to another friend, "Our children from eldest to youngest are down sick, except Rolly, but I hope not seriously. Lenora is bedfast at present." A week later he wrote, "Nora [Lenora] is sick with inflammation of the lungs, and I fear will not be well soon, if ever ..." (Denny to Daniel Bagley, March 11 and 19, 1865). After all, Lenora did recover.
The expenses of the Civil War (1861-1865) squeezed the federal budget. By March 1862, after working for nine months, Denny had not received any salary. Further, in May 1862, Congress reduced the salaries of registrars and receivers. The following year Denny stated that his annual salary was again reduced 60 percent to $900. He wrote, "we have been robbed by the Government at the very time we were working like slaves for it" (Denny to Daniel Bagley, December 8, 1863, quoted in Ficken, 70).
Given the Civil War raging in the East, the Land Office received an order and Arthur communicated it to newspapers, that to receive a homestead certificate, persons had to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. In other words, they could not be supporters of the Confederacy.
Delegate to U.S. House of Representatives
In 1865 Washington was still a territory and could send only a non-voting member to the House of Representatives. Denny, still living in Olympia, was approached to run. He accepted. Eleven days after he was nominated for the Union (Republican) ticket, he began campaigning. He was a reluctant candidate and a poor speaker. He invited fellow Republican Selucius Garfielde (1822-1883) to accompany him. They campaigned in 25 towns in 30 days. Likely Denny said a few words after which Selucius would give a rousing stump speech. On June 5, 1865, Denny won in a landslide. He resigned his position as registrar and in early July 1865 moved his family back to Seattle. He departed Seattle on September 21 and arrived in Washington D.C. five weeks later.
His main responsibility was to assist Washington Territory residents in navigating the Federal bureaurcy. The matters involved such things as getting paid for land taken for the Tulalip Indian Reservation or getting federal mail contracts to deliver mail by steamboat. He had no assistants. He wrote to Daniel Bagley "I shall try to answer all letters which looks like a great under taking from the pile I have before me" (Denny to Bagley Nov 23, 1865). He had a difficult time. To a Puget Sound resident he wrote, "It's very hard to get action on any unimportant matter as the [legislative] members are so generally engaged with National questions" (Denny to Marshall Blinn, April 15, 1866).
When Congress adjourned for the summer, Arthur returned home, an arduous five-week journey. He had not seen his family for 11 months.
He returned to Washington D.C. and served out the rest of his term. The 39th Congress concluded in March 1867. Denny accomplished little and did not run for a second term. An historian wrote:
"It turned out that Denny was not up to the job. In truth, he had not aggressively sought the office and had been pressured into running .... Within his first few weeks in Washington, he wrote ... that the job was more than he could handle, confessing that all he wanted to do was go about his business and resume his life back home. It was patronage and pestering of solicitous office-seekers that bedeviled him" (Confederacy of Ambition, 179).
The Dexter Horton Bank
Dexter Horton returned to Seattle in 1870, again in partnership with David Phillips, to establish a bank at the location of the former general store. In March 1872, after Phillips's death, Arthur assumed half interest in the Dexter Horton bank. During the next decade this was virtually Seattle's only bank.
Banks were unregulated. They were privately owned and depended on people trusting them with their money. Depositors had good reason not to trust. For example, in 1875 the Puget Sound Banking Company opened in Seattle. A year later its owner suddenly left town, taking the deposits with him. People did trust the Dexter Horton bank and put down their money. Seattle became Puget Sound's financial center. By 1875 the bank had built a stone building at the location of the old general store. It had six employees, including Denny and his sons Rolland and Charles. During the bank's existence to the end of the century, it seemed to be involved, via real-estate loans, with most every piece of land in Seattle and environs.
In 1887, the firm incorporated as a state bank. About then Denny and Horton sold 85 percent of their interest in it and reduced their responsibilities, although Arthur remained vice president. Business took off: In October 1887 the bank had $750,000 in deposits, which doubled in a year.
Dreaming of a Railroad
To have the Northern Pacific Railroad locate its transcontinental terminus in Seattle -- giving the town access to eastern markets -- was the fervent desire of Arthur Denny and, it seemed, every other Seattleite. Between 1870 and 1873, Puget Sound towns vied with each other to offer the Northern Pacific the best deal. On June 24, 1873, Seattle held a town meeting and offered the railroad company "450 townlots, 4,800 waterfront acres, 6,500 additional acres in detached parcels, and some $50,000 in gold bullion" (Orphan Road, 36). Denny offered outright half of all his land! As the railroad played one town against the other, Seattle convened a second meeting, offering even more. The Northern Pacific chose Tacoma.
Seattle was incensed. The town also badly needed a better way to haul coal from coal mines east of Lake Washington to Elliott Bay.
Two days after the Northern Pacific snub, an aroused and infuriated Seattle held a meeting, attended by most of the population, with the purpose of building its own railroad. The land, cash, and other resources gathered and declined by the Northern Pacific were put toward a proposed Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad. Eight trustees were elected, including Yesler and Denny. From there things moved fast. The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance granting the proposed railroad all tideflats south of King Street; the Territorial Legislature approved the grant. Fundraising began. The survey began. On May 1, 1874, the town emptied as its citizens went three miles south to start constructing a right-of-way for the railroad. Male citizens began wielding picks and shovels. The women cooked and served noon dinner -- ham, chicken, pickles, biscuits, pie, and coffee -- after which the work continued, a historic day for Seattle when "the first mile of the Seattle & Walla Walla was cleared, grubbed, graded, and ready for the ties" (Orphan Road, 52).
The small enterprise flagged despite the exertions of Arthur Denny and others. Denny even went to Washington D.C. to ask Congress for a subsidy, but this was a failure. Finally a skilled mechanical engineer and lumber entrepreneur, James M. Colman (1832-1906), took over the railroad and helped to make it run. One of the first engines was named the A.A.Denny. The railroad never did reach Walla Walla, but it did haul coal to Elliott Bay to ship to a coal-hungry San Francisco, and in other ways stimulated the economy.
In July 1880 Denny and the other investors sold the railroad to the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. In September 1883, the Denny family, ever-optimistic, traveled to western Montana to attend the golden spike ceremony celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific's transcontinental line to Puget Sound. But it wasn't until the late 1880s that Seattle finally got the terminus.
Arthur Denny died on January 9, 1899, at the age of 76.
Mary Ann Boren Denny
Mary Ann supported her husband in all he did. Toward the end of his life he wrote, "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" (Prosser, 3). After they became affluent, she gave to many charities. "Her generous hand," reported one obituary, "was ever in her pocketbook to assist those upon whom fortune had frowned, and especially was she fond of making presents to children" ("Woman Founder of Seattle Has Heard Last Call").
Like her husband, who opined that Indians were no better or worse than white people, but who, late in life, continued to call them "savages," Mary Ann harbored both condescension for and interest in the Indigenous people whose land they had usurped. At age 88, she told a reporter: "The Indian women were absolutely useless as servants, as they did not know the first thing about civilized ways of doing things ... They could not wash or iron" (The Seattle Spirit, 16). But she also reminisced on how Natives paddled to Olympia to retrieve their mail (which they called "talk paper"): "I would always know when they were coming by their singing as they paddled up the bay. It was delightful to listen to those plaintive Indian melodies" (The Seattle Spirit, 15).
Mary Ann Boren Denny lived her last decade with her daughter Lenora, at Lenora's "palatial" Seattle residence at 1216 Boren Avenue (Blazing the Way, 318). She died at age 88 of chronic kidney disease on December 30, 1910. She left her properties worth a million dollars to her six children. She left a fund of $50 a month to her brother, Carson Boren, and to her sister, Louisa Boren Denny.
Arthur and Mary Ann's Children
Louisa Catherine "Kate" Denny (1844-1924). She was born in Illinois and as a child came across the plains with the Denny Party. In 1860, at age 16, she married 25-year-old George Frederick Frye (1833-1912). They had six children, two sons and four daughters. After her husband's death, she managed his businesses.
Margaret Lenora "Nora" Denny (1847-1915). She was born in Illinois and came across the plains with the Denny Party. She was one of the original students at the Territorial University. On May Day 1864, at the university, she was crowned Queen of May. She inherited wealth and was active in philanthropy involving schools, churches, and in preserving the history of Seattle and its pioneers. She was a trustee for the Pulmonary Hospital of Riverton, a vice president of the Young Women's Christian Association, and active in the state historical society. She headed the M. L. Denny Land Company and owned extensive tracts in and about Seattle. She died in a car accident on March 30, 1915, on the way home to Seattle from a meeting of the Washington Historical Society in Tacoma.The car plunged into the Duwamish River and she and three other prominent Washingtonians lost their lives.
Rolland Herschel Denny (1851–1939). On November 13, he arrived at Alki as a two-and-a half-month-old infant. He married Alice M. Kellog (d. 1940) on November 1, 1871; they had three daughters. He was a banker in the Dexter Horton Bank, a real-estate speculator, and helped to develop irrigation in the Yakima Valley. "But," wrote a historian in the early 1920s, "he long ago gave up active business, and when he is not traveling with his family, enjoys life on his beautiful estate on Lake Washington" (Mirrors of Seattle, 117).
Orion Orville Denny (1853–1916). Orion Denny was the first non-Native boy born in Seattle. He worked as chief engineer aboard the steamer Eliza Anderson, and after his father died, became president of the Denny Clay Company. He was a yachtsman and a prime mover the Seattle Athletic Club. He was married three times, to Florence Elva Coulter (d. 1919), with whom he had two daughters, and who sued him for divorce on grounds of cruelty and nonsupport; to Narcissa Lenora Latimer (1849-1900); and to Helen V. Stewart Cole (d. 1922), who remarried after Orion's death and committed suicide in Los Angeles.
Arthur Wilson Denny (1859–1919). Married Catharine Orr (1866–1926). His obituary states, "He had lived quietly ever since he retired from busines many years ago" ("Son of Seattle's Founder Dead").
Charles Latimer Denny (1861–1919). He attended the Territorial University, dropping out after his junior year to work at the Dexter Horton Bank. He was a charter member of the Young Naturalists Society and served on the Seattle School Board. He was an early member of the Rainier Club. In 1887 he married Viretta C. Chambers (d. 1951). His obituary states that "He had not been well for several years and had been forced to travel in California and Mexico for his health" ("Charles L. Denny, Pioneer, Is Dead").