Denny, David (1832-1903), Louisa Boren Denny (1827-1916), and Family

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 1/28/2022
  • Essay 21324
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In 1851, soon after crossing the Oregon Trail from Illinois with the Denny Party, David Denny and Louisa Boren settled at Alki Point (West Seattle). They were among the first EuroAmerican settlers in King County. They married on January 23, 1853, and moved to their homestead, which stretched from south Lake Union to Elliott Bay. Louisa and David had eight children, of which seven lived to adulthood. During the next four decades, David built seven family residences. They farmed the homestead for 20 years and thereafter developed it into a residential neighborhood. During the 1880s and 1890s, David cut timber and cleared land. He operated a lumber mill, water company, streetcar lines, a bank, and a real-estate office. He constructed the first canal between Lake Washington and Lake Union. David and Louisa were leaders in the community with David holding many civic offices. Louisa worked on the farm and in the household and grew large and admired gardens. She and David were involved in the Prohibition movement and in Woman Suffrage. They were devout Methodists. They both had a deep attachment to the natural world, often taking the family on hikes and picnics.

Domestic Life: The Denny Homes

In Illinois David had worked as an apprentice in cabin building. In the West, his carpentry skills served him well. 

Homestead, 1853. In the weeks before David and Louisa's marriage on January 23, 1853, David built a one-room log cabin on the couple's 320-acre homestead. They were married in the Blanchard Street cabin of David's brother and Louisa's sister, Arthur (1822-1899) and Mary Ann Boren (1822-1910) Denny. Native Americans transported the newlyweds to their cabin via canoe. In this home, and in all their future homes, Louisa planted a large garden, including sweetbriar roses. She had carried some of her seeds across the plains from Illinois.

Downtown, Marion Street, 1853-ca. 1859. They moved downtown from their homestead, due to "Indians being troublesom [sic]." In August 1853, David purchased lumber from the Yesler sawmill and built a 16- by 20-foot house at 1st Avenue and Marion Street (present-day 900-908 1st Avenue), likely with assistance from Duwamish Indians. The Duwamish had a camp located at the foot of Seneca Street.

On December 23, 1853, their first child, Emily Inez, was born. David did odd jobs in carpentry and worked at the Yesler sawmill. Briefly, in 1856 during the Treaty War, the family lived in the blockhouse, called Fort Decatur. There, Madge Decatur was born on March 16, 1856.

Homestead, 1854-1871. In the spring of 1854, Denny built the second cabin on the family homestead. He located the one-story log house near the southeast corner of present-day Mercer Street and 4th Avenue N. The Dennys called it their house in the swale, "a large tract of open boggy land ... overgrown largely with willow and swamp shrubs" ("David T. Denny Is Dead"). North of the cabin was a dense forest. It took David and his neighbor Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) two months to cut a one-fifth-mile-long trail between their homes.

From the 1850s into the 1860s, the family split its time between the swale and their downtown residences. After the Treaty War, David either increased the size of the log house on the swale to four rooms or built a four-room cabin nearby. There Louisa gave birth to Abbie Lena, born August 29, 1858; John Bunyon, born January 30, 1862; and Anna Louisa, born November 26, 1864. On May 6, 1867, she gave birth to twins, Jonathan, who died that day, and David Thomas II. Their last child was Victor Winfield Scott, born August 9, 1869. During the 1860s and early 1870s, the Dennys also raised Louisa's nephew William R. Boren (1854-1899).

The family was quite musical, In 1867, David attended singing school. He "had a fine ringing tenor voice," Inez said, "and could carry a tune very well. It was a treat to hear him as he sawed or chopped in the great forest singing verse after verse of the grand old hymns" (quoted in Newell, 93).

Downtown, Seneca Street, ca. 1859-1868. Around 1859, David built a larger downtown house. Located on the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue and Seneca Street (present-day 1201-1209 2nd Avenue), it was a four-room, one-story white cottage. For the next few years, the family wintered there. A settler who arrived in 1859 described Seattle as a town of trails with few if any streets. There were about six houses located north of Mill Street (now Yesler Way), David and Louisa's house being the farthest north.

There they planted an orchard: apples (85 trees), pears (12), plums (10), and cherries (two). Louisa planted her garden. An historian stated, "Visitors to Seattle were said to exclaim in wonder at the beauty of Louisa Denny's garden" (Strachan, "D. T. Denny"). Louisa's brother Carson Boren (1824-1912) brought her pink mission roses from Olympia. She also exchanged seeds and plants with friends and added native plants. Inez stated, "The garden surrounding our cottage in 1863 overflowed with fruits, vegetables, and flowers." The daughters, likely Anna and Madge, sold fresh vegetables and flowers door to door "in pretty light print dresses and white hats" (Newell, 88). 

In 1864 David worked for a subsidiary of the Western Union Telegraph Company hauling telegraph wire being strung on poles to connect Seattle and San Francisco. That year he cut and brought to the house Seattle's first Christmas tree. Louisa trimmed the Douglas fir with bright red Lady apples and sticks of candy.

The family outgrew the downtown cottage, sold it in June 1868, and took up year-round residence on the farm.

Homestead, Republican Street, 1871-1889. In 1871 David Denny built the fifth family home, located five blocks east of the swale farmhouse at approximately present-day 754 Republican Street. The two-story, 12-room house sat on a knoll near the original Lake Union shoreline. Historian Clarence Bagley called it "one of the most commodious and important houses in the city" (History of King County, Vol. 1, 68). An apple orchard and Louisa's gardens surrounded the house. With the help of Native Americans, she grew an even larger flower garden. 

On March 25, 1872, Puget Sound's first steam railroad was completed, built to haul coal from south Lake Union to Elliott Bay. To celebrate the day, the company offered free train rides. A brass band provided entertainment. A steam engine named "Ant" pulled eight coal cars fitted with seats for the 30-minute round trip. "By the end of the day" reported the Puget Sound Dispatch, "the larger portion of the population, old and young, had passed over the rail; many who had never ridden upon a railroad before ..." ("A Gala Day").

David Denny, a school district board member, led a group of students on the train ride. "While all [students] were bubbling over with happiness, perfect order and decorum were maintained" ("A Gala Day"). For the next six years, until 1878, sounds of the Ant could be heard while making about five trips per day.

During this period, David left farming to become a capitalist.

The Denny Mansion, 1889-1898. By 1889, Denny, by then one of the richest men in Seattle, built a mansion, which, with its grounds, took up an entire city block. It was located east of Temperance (now Queen Anne Avenue), between Mercer and Republican streets. They named it Decatur Terrace after daughter Madge Decatur, who died at age 22 on January 17, 1889. 

Here, on January 23, 1895, David and Louisa celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary. The many guests included the couple's five surviving children and nine of their 10 grandchildren. The reception room had a replica of their original cabin, lined with newspapers and decorated with such items as a bullet pouch, a calico sun bonnet, and a hunting shirt. The food replicated that of the early 1850s: salmon, boiled potatoes, sea biscuits, and clams. Mementoes were placed here and there: the bible from which Inez had learned her letters, the enormous antlers of an elk shot by David Denny, and a family bible David's father had purchased in 1829 in Putnam County, Indiana.

The Fremont House, 1898-1901. In 1893 an economic depression devastated the United States. The Dennys lost their businesses, their landholdings, and their residences. For three years they lived in a small house in Fremont. While there, David worked in the Cascade Mountains on the Snoqualmie Pass Road and at a gold mine.

Licton Springs house, 1901-1907. In November 1901, David and Louisa moved to Inez's house in Licton Springs at 9702 Densmore Avenue N. David had built this house in 1883. He lived there for his last two years, suffering from kidney disease and cared for by Louisa and Inez. The day before he died, his son John, then an attorney in Alaska, arrived home. Surrounded by his family, David Thomas Denny died on November 25, 1903. 

Louisa and Inez lived there for another four years. 

Capitol Hill, 1907-1919. In 1907 Louisa and Inez sold the Licton Springs house and moved to 2828 Broadway Avenue on Capitol Hill. Some nine years later, Louisa had a stroke. She lived for three days before she died on August 18, 1916. Her town gave her a massive send-off, with 72 automobiles in her funeral procession.

Inez lived there until her death on January 17, 1919. 

Rambles in the Woods 

Louisa loved to learn and had great interest in the sciences, especially chemistry, botany, and astronomy. The family often went hiking and canoeing, with Louisa passing on her love of nature to her children. "The wildflowers and birds interested us deeply" Inez said, "and every spring we joyfully noted the return of bluebirds and robins ... the high banks [along Seattle's waterfront, before the regrades flattened them] ... were smothered by greenery and hung with banners of bloom ...." (quoted in Newell, 88).

Farming the Homestead 

After the Treaty Wars, the family returned to their homestead in the swale and farmed there for a quarter century. David, with the help of hired Native Americans, cleared and drained the land. By 1861, they had cleared 20 acres. They pastured 20 cattle, raised eight hogs, and grew six acres of timothy hay. Downtown, at Seneca Street, they planted their orchard.

What was Louisa Denny's role in all this? In her book Blazing the Way, Inez described how her mother cleared farmland and gathered and burned brush. Her further duties were "to milk the cows, feed the horses, chop wood occasionally, shoot at predatory birds and animals ... plant a garden, and ... trade with the Indians ..." She also dressed fish and clams, dug potatoes, and plucked ducks and grouse. And she "made, mended, and re-made [clothes], cooked, washed, and swept ... all the time instructing her children" (Blazing the Way, 279, 283).

During the mid-1860s David and Louisa participated in the King County Annual Agricultural Fair. Over the years, David won prizes for catawba grapes, sorghum, draught horses, and a bull and a heifer. Louisa won a prize for a bouquet of flowers. In 1866 David judged poultry and fruit and Louisa judged embroidery, quilts, shirts, knitting, braiding, and crochet.

By 1870 the farm had doubled in size to 40 acres. Denny traded with local indigenous people and continued to employ them as farmhands. They became well acquainted. Instead of communicating in Chinook Jargon, which consisted of about 700 words, Denny was one of the few EuroAmericans who learned southern Lushootseed, likely becoming fluent. He served as translator during trials involving indigenous Lushootseed-speaking people.

As the Denny children reached about age 6, they started doing farm chores. They worked in the garden, picked and helped preserve fruits and vegetables, brought in the cows and helped with milking and with domestic chores.

For a number of years starting in 1877, David leased some of his farmland to Ah Chung. Locals called it China Gardens. Inez wrote, "It was a fine garden in an excellent state of cultivation ... one of the cheap sources of supply" of produce for the city (Blazing the Way, 211). 

By 1880 the Denny family was coming to the end of farming. They had cleared 80 acres, but were farming just 46 acres. In 1879 they harvested 100 bushels of apples and 40 tons of hay from 12 acres of hayfields. They owned livestock, poultry that produced 144 dozen eggs annually, two work-horses and a pair of oxen. For half the year they employed farm hands. By 1883 the Dennys had ended their farm operation to focus on selling land.

David Denny, Capitalist 

In 1879 David Denny told a King County census enumerator that he was a capitalist. His business enterprises were extensive and touched nearly every aspect of land development. He had acquired more than two square miles, mostly untouched forest. In the spring of 1869, given news that the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad Company planned to establish a terminal somewhere on Puget Sound, he went to the United States General Land Office in Olympia and purchased nearly 300 more acres. Historian Clarence Bagley ran into him there, saying, "'For heaven's sake. What are you buying more land for when you already own from Elliott Bay to Lake Union, when you are in need of the ordinary conveniences of life and haven't had any meat for years that you haven't brought down with your rifle?' Denny replied, 'Don't worry, it will be valuable some day'" (Conover, Mirrors of Seattle, 149). The Dennys also purchased land north of Green Lake.

In 1869 they had their 320-acre homestead surveyed for streets and city blocks, each containing about 12 lots, for use as residential development. The blocks numbered from 1 to 110, which included some 1,300 lots. Based on this survey, over the next two decades they recorded seven plats and began selling lots. As lots sold, David and Louisa would go downtown together, sometimes accompanied by their children, to a real-estate or attorney's office to sign deeds. In 1886 the D. T. Denny and Son (John Bunyon) real-estate office was established. During the 1880s their real-estate business took off, in 1882 averaging four sales a month, which increased to 12 by 1888. 

Denny continued to clearcut the land. In 1883 he purchased a sawmill, Western Mill, on Lake Union. An article stated, "The Western mill is running at full speed and their lumber is consumed as fast as supplied" ("Lake Union Items"). Eventually the mill employed more than 300 men, mostly loggers.

In 1883 Denny established the Washington Improvement Company to construct the first canal connecting Lake Union and Lake Washington (now Montlake Cut), to access the immense timber stands encircling Lake Washington. In March 1883 a crew of 50, using picks and shovels, began the work. It was continued in 1885 by a crew headed by the Wa Chong Company. The Chinese left the dig by the end of the year. (Due to lack of funds to pay them? Due to anti-Chinese agitation then going on?) A third crew completed the job.

On October 28, 1887, Denny received word that the canal was to be completed that day. He raced to the site by horse and buggy. As he approached, he saw workmen running away from the canal. "An instant later the two kegs of powder under the bulkhead exploded, blowing that obstruction weighing many tones [sic], high in the air. The force of the shock caused the waters to momentarily recede, when they came with a rush, and in two minutes there were seven feet of water in the canal" running into Lake Union (Daily Post-Intelligencer, October 29, 1887). From then on logs could be floated from Lake Washington into Lake Union.

Denny was the main investor in the North Seattle Bank, which supplied mortgages to future homebuyers and builders. He also invested in the Seattle Street Railway, initially a horse-drawn trolley, to provide transportation for the future residents of houses built on lots he sold. It was later electrified and the name changed to Seattle Electric Railway and Power Company. In 1891 Denny bought out the streetcars, and also incorporated the Rainier Power and Railway Co., a line to the soon-to-be-built University of Washington. Over time the streetcar electrical plant also supplied electric lights to the houses.

In 1882, Denny established the Union Water Company to pipe water to the homes. At the Western Mill, furniture was fabricated to sell to Seattle residents, including those living in houses purchased from the Dennys.

The companies that Denny established had many incorporators and participants, but in large part they were Denny-family-operated business, including his sons and his wife, Louisa. Historian Clarence Bagley, who had known the Dennys since the 1860s, stated that Louisa "proved a true helpmate, working side by side with her husband with hand, heart, and brain, and assisting him materially by her energy and thrift in building up a considerable fortune" (Bagley, History of Seattle, Vol. 2, 706). 

Civic Activist

David Denny was active in civic life and served in many positions, both elected and appointed. 

  • Seattle Precinct election judge or inspector (many years from 1854-1889). The first King County election took place in 1854.
  • First King County Treasurer, 1856-1860, 1863-1865. 
  • King County Probate Judge, 1857-1858, 1869-1872.
  • Town of Seattle Board of Trustees, one of five, 1865-1867.
  • Territorial University Board of Regents, one of three, 1866-1868.
  • Seattle School District Board, one of three, 1867-1873, 1876-1879.
  • Territorial University of Washington, Treasurer, 1868-1871, perhaps longer
  • City of Seattle Board of Alderman. Appointed, 1891-1892


Over the decades the Dennys made many donations of land, cash, and volunteered labor to charity. They made significant contributions to various churches. They donated land to the Ladies Relief Society, Seattle's first organized charity, for the Orphan Home. 

Louisa lent her hand to many charities "for the needy and suffering" (Blazing the Way, 282). She was called upon to visit the sick and to be present at surgical operations. 


The Dennys belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church. From 1861 to the late 1890s David served as a church trustee. At David's funeral, his pastor stated, "David has done more by his gifts for extending Methodism in this city than has any other man" (David T. Denny Laid at Rest"). Another eulogy called him, "An absolutely upright, conscientious, and Christian man" ("David Denny Is Dead").

He was a tolerant Methodist. He believed there were good Christians in all churches. He even believed that belonging to a church was not essential. Beyond this he was undogmatic when it came to Native Americans, stating in a letter, "In my life here my acquaintanc[e] with the natives has been quite extensive ... I have arrived at the conclusion that they ... doing by nature the thing contained in the [Christian] law are a law unto themselves. In other words, there is redemption for them ..." (Letter, D. T. Denny, April 30, 1896, in Newell, 118-119). 

David Denny established the Oak Lake Cemetery (later renamed Washelli), to "furnish a burial place for those who need the same irrespective of nationality, color, or previous condition of servitude, where the rich and the poor will be on an equality..." (Plat of Oak Lake Cemetery).

The church touched all aspects of life. During the Civil War, in 1864, three Denny daughters -- Inez, Madge, and Abby -- walked down the aisle dressed in red, white, and blue, carrying signs that read "Freedom for All" and "Slavery for None." The Dennys were on the Union side of the war. The church was also involved in the Temperance movement (abstinence from alcohol), and later in Woman Suffrage.


Both David and Louisa advocated temperance. In 1866, they helped found the Independent Order of Good Templars Lodge, Seattle's first temperance organization, with 37 charter members. Over the next three decades membership ranged from the Denny family and a few friends to about 300 members.

When the Dennys began selling lots from an 1872 plat adjacent to Lake Union, the deeds included the following restriction: "No spirits or malt liquor or wine of any kind ... shall be manufactured or sold or given away on the premises ... forever" (King County Recorder, Vol. 6 of Deeds, p. 636). Upon breach, the land plus improvements would revert to the Dennys or to their heirs. This is undoubtedly the first social restriction placed on real estate sold in King County.

Woman Suffrage 

Louisa and David also advocated a woman's right to vote. In November 1883 bells rang and guns boomed after the all-male Washington State Legislature voted for woman suffrage. Women were also given the right to serve on juries. 

On April 14, 1884, the first King County Jury including women was empaneled. Louisa Denny served as one of six women jurors. (The judge overruled a defense lawyer's challenges to their being seated.) The Grand Jury investigated 47 criminal cases including robbery, murderous assault, grand larceny, forgery, gambling, and operating brothels. It issued 39 indictments. 

June 16, 1884, was an auspicious day for women in the territory, allowing them for the first time to register to vote. On that day, Louisa and John got in line to register. The following day David and Inez registered, followed by Madge a few days later. By the time registration closed, 759 Seattle women had registered to vote.

In 1887 the Territorial Supreme Court ruled woman suffrage unconstitutional (due to the jury-serving aspect). A group of Seattle women, including Louisa, organized a large meeting in protest. Following this the Territorial Legislature reenacted woman suffrage, leaving out the jury-serving part. Following this the Territorial Supreme Court ruled woman suffrage unconstitutional once again.

David and Louisa's Children

Emily Inez Denny (1853-1919). Inez was an artist (MOHAI holds many of her works). She wrote the book, Blazing the Way, telling the story of her family and other pioneers. She remained single and lived with her parents for most of her life. 

Madge Decatur Denny (1856-1889). Madge was born during the Treaty War and named after Fort Decatur. She attended the Territorial University and was said to be "perfect in deportment and industry" (Puget Sound Dispatch, October 31, 1872). She died of pneumonia at age 22, a year after sister Anna Louisa died.

Abbie Lena Denny-Lindsley (1858-1915). Abbie married Edward L. Lindsley (1854?-1933), a pilot on a coal-carrying steam barge on Lake Union, on May 3, 1877. They had a son and three daughters. Abbie was a painter and a writer contributing to Seattle newspapers. She used the pen names Chelana and Sagebrush. 

John Bunyon Denny (1862-1913). John became a lawyer. In 1887 he married Carrie Palmer (1863-1891), who died at age 28. They had a daughter. In 1892 he married Carrie Crysler (1863-1962). He was an officer in many of David Denny's companies and also worked as an attorney in Juneau, Alaska.

Anna Louisa Denny (1864-1888). In 1888 David, a delegate to the Methodist Episcopal Church national conference, took his family to New York City to attend. Shortly after the conference started, Anna became ill and died. The conference resolved: "We offer him our earnest sympathy and prayers: And as he brought his whole family East for a month of pleasure and profit, but now takes up his dear dead and goes the width of our Continent to bury ..." (Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 102). The Dennys brought Anna home to Seattle in a casket.

Jonathan (twin, b. and died on May 6, 1867).

David Thomas Denny II (twin, 1867-1939). Tom Denny became an electrical engineer and was involved in David Denny's electrical streetcar lines. In 1891 he married Nellie Graham (1871-1956) and they had a daughter and a son. He was a firefighter in Seattle's first fire department and a solo cornetist in the Wagner Pioneer Band.

Victor Winfield Scott Denny (1869-1921). Victor married Lillie Jane Frankland (1867-1931). They had two daughters and a son. Victor was involved in the lumber business for most of his life.


Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West: The Story of Seattle (Portland, Oregon: Binfords and Mort Publishers, 1931); Emily Inez Denny, Blazing the Way: True Stories and Sketches of Puget Sound and Other Pioneers (Seattle: Rainier Printing Company, Inc., 1909); Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle (Portland, Oregon: Metropolitan Press Publishers, 1937); Angie Burt Bowden, Early Schools of Washington Territory (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford Company, 1935); Gordon Newell, Westward to Alki: The Story of David and Louisa Denny (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977); Kay Reinartz, Queen Anne: Community on the Hill (Seattle: Queen Anne Historical Society, 1993); Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle from 1850 to 1897," (typescript, 1901-1902), University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 2  (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916); Robert L. Ferguson, The Pioneers of Lake View: A Guide to Seattle’s Early Settlers and Their Cemetery (Bellevue: Thistle Press, 1995); Margaret Collins Denny Dixon and Elizabeth Chapman Denny Vann, Denny Genealogy Third Book (Richmond, Virginia, 1951); Edith G. Prosch, "Pioneer Dead of 1915," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No, 1 (January 1916); C. T. Conover, Mirrors of Seattle Reflecting Some Aged Men of Fifty (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford Company, 1923); "Sixty Acres More" Seattle Daily Chronicle, April 15, 1884, p. 4; "Lake Union Items," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 9, 1883, p. 2; Ibid.October 29, 1887, p. 3; Abbie Denny-Lindsley, "The First Wedding in Seattle and How it Came About," Ibid.,  May 19, 1907, Magazine Section, pp. 5 and 8; "Death of Miss Denny," Ibid. January 18, 1889, p. 8; "David T. Denny Laid at Rest," Ibid., November 29, 1903, p. 6; David T. Denny Is Dead," The Seattle Times, November 2?, 1903; "David T. Denny [Tom Denny] Funeral Will Be Tomorrow," Ibid., October 6, 1939, p. 3; Margaret Pitcairn Strachan, "D. T. Denny," Ibid., October 8, 1944; "John Denny, Native of Seattle, Dead, Aged 51," Ibid., June 26, 1913, p.4; "Abbie Denny Lindsley Dies at Chelan Home," Ibid., October 7, 1915, p. 11; "Victor W. S. Denny, Son of First Settler, Dies," Ibid., August 15, 1921, p. 1; "Lindsley Rites Set Tomorrow," Ibid., September 6, 1933, p. 7; "Lindsley-Hunter Wedding," Ibid., April 13, 1919, p. 38; "A Gala Day," Puget Sound Dispatch, March 28, 1872, p. 3; Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, New York, May 1-31, 1888 (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1888); Plat of Oak Lake Cemetery, Records of King County, Recorded in Vol. VII of Plats, p. 80.

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