Washington History: Central Themes -- Land, Cities, Women -- A Talk by Brewster Denny

  • By Brewster Denny
  • Posted 5/07/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3262
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This is a talk given by Brewster Denny (1924-2013) to the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington on November 2, 1996. Brewster Denny was the great grandson of Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny (1822-1899). The talk is here reproduced in full.

Brewster Denny's Talk

"It's a special pleasure to address this special group. My first experience with addressing a pioneer meeting is worth mentioning. In 1941 as a tyro high school orator I won the City Wide Sons of the American Revolution Oratorical Contest with a speech on an historical theme -- the Founding of Seattle. I gave this speech around town several times, but most memorably over at Alki Point to the Daughters of the Pioneers. When I finished a rather stern old lady came up to me and said: 'Young man, I am your cousin Sophie Frye Bass, and it is certainly good to hear one of the Denny men speak up.' And so, revered lady, here I go again.

"Through the years as I have studied and thought about Seattle's history and thought about the development of the western part of our country, more and more I have come to the conclusion that it comprises three main themes which should have the greatest emphasis -- Land, Cities and Women -- themes so often distorted by historians and popular writers.

"Pioneering was the story of land. Crossing it, taming it, surveying it, claiming it, building human settlements and human institutions on it. From Plymouth rock in 1620 to Alki Point in 1851 where 10 direct descendants of the pilgrims landed to start yet another community on the edge of a wilderness, land had been the theme. The Northwest Ordinance, our Constitution, the Lousiana Purchase, the Donation Claim Act of 1850, and the Diplomacy of America's early presidents were also about land, recognizing the size and expanse on which, at first, very few people would live.

Madison and Jefferson saw our potential size, that is, lots of land, as the assurance that representative government -- a republic -- could work for the first time in history. The prohibition in the Federal Constitution against ballot issues stems directly from the land theme. Thus, the very republican principle was based profoundly on the issue of size -- land. Sent by Jefferson to explore those vast new lands, Lewis and Clark carried out not only an exploration but a scientific survey of what was out there -- the transportation routes, the climate, the flora and fauna. They brought scientific samples back to Jefferson. John Quincy Adams foresaw and put in solemn treaty form the promise of a continental nation -- from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Manifest Destiny, indeed.

"In the end, however, the eternal historical questions are Why and How, which is where cities and women come in. The pioneers were mostly the descendants of pioneers, who generation by generation had already moved west -- west across the Atlantic ocean, west across the narrow and, by our standards, scrawny mountains of the eastern seaboard, west into the old Northwest, Indiana and Illinois, then on across the plains, along the rivers and finally to some real mountains and down a really big river to the sea. Why? Gold? I don't think so. The gold rush was on in 1851 when the Four Wagons set out for the West Coast. At the division point in the Oregon trail between Oregon and California, our four wagons broke off from the main longer caravan and headed north -- despite the ministrations of early representatives of the California Chamber of Commerce, promising gold and sunshine, and perhaps tours of movie stars homes, or, a glimpse of O.J.'s house.

"But why? Farming, no, not our guys really. Land speculation, no. They didn't do that -- later waves of immigrants did, our founders didn't. Read and think and dig though I have into motive, I've just never been able to find anything except that they followed the setting sun until they had crossed all the land, until they got to the sea, until they found a beautiful setting to build a city. And they found it. And they built it. Cousin Sophie Frye Bass described this fabulous spot when she wrote that as a little girl what she liked best to do was to sit on Grandmother's porch on 1st Avenue and Union Street and look out at the whole wide world.

"I'm indebted to my colleague Richard White at the University of Washington for a profound historical insight: Despite all the pictures of cowboys, covered wagons, ploughs, horses, cattle, and desolate farm houses on the prairies, the real western pioneers were city builders. And the Denny party came here to pick a place to build a great city.

"Picking the particular piece of land from a vast array of possibilities, was serendipitous, based on little evidence -- a man along the trail who told about Puget Sound as a possible trancontinental railroad terminus; David Denny's plaintive message from Alki: "Come soon there's room for a thousand settlers." No environmental impact statement, no public hearings, no consideration of alternatives.

"Oh, there was some serious investigation! The sophisticated New Yorkers with seacoast and harbor savvy among them thought that a nice flat piece of land without bluffs and hills like Alki Point would be a great spot to build a city. Arthur Denny, who had never seen salt water before -- and didn't know it went up and down and in and out and took your goods off the beach during the night -- thought it was a little windy over there at Alki if they were going to have docks and ships and railroad trains. So he took Mary's clothesline, a few horsehoes and checked out the bottom and the headlands and looked for naturally protected harbors, from Commencement Bay to Port Susan, spotted a niche in the Cascades where a railroad could go through, a niche we now call Snoqualmie Pass, picked Elliott Bay with its Duwamish Head protection from the South West Wind.

"He quietly announced to those just beginning to be camped comfortably at Alki Point that he would stake his claim at the center of what turned out to be the finest natural harbor in North America, and one of the two deep water ports on the West Coast. The New Yorkers for a time stubbornly stayed at Alki. So it is about vision, and luck, and faith and determination and betting big on the future -- in short the elements of which really great things are made.

"At each step land played a critical role. Land to build a City. In the very first years, land was used to attract the businesses and professions. The first settlers gave some of their land to Mr. Yesler to build a mill, Seattle's first business. Gave land to attract Seattle's first Dr. and Seattle's first drunk--same guy. They used land to establish Seattle's first churches: Arthur and Mary Denny gave precious pieces of their land to establish both the First Methodist Church and the Plymouth Congregational Church.

"And they used land to establish Seattle's first educational building to give to the University what a real estate appraiser recently said is the finest piece of urban real estate in America. And then they built in an extravagant and ebulient bet on the future a University before there was a primary school building, before there was a high school building, before there was a School Board, before there were any university level students in the whole territory -- except the one they made the first President! "They used land to attract Seattle's first bankers and store owners and ministers. When visitors saw they had a University Building, and a bank, and several churches, and a Saw Mill in this small settlement they started to believe that these folks must be serious. How they used the land sent a message of promise, a message that was probably the most important recruiter of new settlers and new investment.

"Land and Cities. Remember that, even before the Constitution, Jefferson had established the principle that the vast public lands should be used to establish public education in this country. Thus, when the Territory of Washington was formed, very large quantities of land belonged to the Territory -- in Trust -- for the Common Schools and for the university. The people in the rest of the Territory of Washington -- many living in larger settlements than Seattle -- didn't want us to have the University but had to give in. But they made it very difficult for the University to sell any of its lands to get the cash to build the building on land which had to be privately donated from the prime land of the pioneers.

"Arthur Denny and Daniel Bagley found that our only hope was to get control of the office of Superintendant of Public Lands in Olympia -- a Presidentially appointed office in the Territory. Here the profession of Arthur Denny's father -- politician -- became a great advantage to his surveyor, and politician, son. So enter John Denny, a pioneer who served in three different legislatures in his life -- Illinois, Oregon, and Washington -- had been a close associate of Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature. He called on his old friend -- now the President of the United States -- to appoint his son Registrar of Public Lands for the Territory of Washington.

"Daniel Bagley was able to sell some lands to help build the brand new University Building, where the Olympic Hotel now stands. Some of those public lands, about a hundred thousand acres, still belong to the University although two Governors and two legislatures a few years ago took the income from them away from the University and assigned the revenues to the General Fund, an act of thievery consistent with the annual state rip off of in excess of one million from the Metropolitan tract and the erosion of support from Olympia for the University. Olympia now supplies less than 20 percent of the University's budget. The current move to replace state support of the University with ever higher tuitions, putting higher education beyond the reach of the children of families who can not afford to send their children to college is a great tragedy in the making. The land/education relationship needs to be nurtured and protected. It is a precious legacy, often threatened, even as we speak.

"As we move more into our times, the land issues have been about stewardship. How well do we guard the great natural beauty and God's gifts to us? How do we discharge the Trust of our heritage? It's a mixed record, of course. We blew it with not finishing the Olmsted Plan, with rejecting the Bogue Plan, building the malls, paving the the Duwamish Valley, with suburbia all the way to Cle Elum, and voting down rapid Transit three times, voting down the Commons, and the County take over of Metro. But we did get some big things right.

"Warren Magnuson in his last public speech, a posthumous celebration of Senator Jackson's 75th birthday May 31, 1987, put the broad issue in this perspective. He said: 'Scoop and I leave you a legacy -- the River, the Mountains and the Sound. We worked together to save the River, he saved the Mountains, and I saved the Sound. It's a great legacy, don't ever let any harm come to it.' It's probably just as well that Maggie and Scoop didn't live to see a majority of the Washington Congressional delegation and a state wide initiative determined to destroy all three elements of that legacy along with two initiatives designed to destroy public education and more than one candidate for state office with the same objective.

"But the same man who introduced a Bill establishing the University of Washington in Seattle in the first Territorial legislature in 1854, also introduced a bill to give women the right to vote. Which brings us to my third theme.

"Last month, for the first time in many years -- I think since I took the Portland Rose in World War II -- I visited the Columbia Gorge, this time from the North Side. As we made our way up that great river, passed Bonneville Dam, along the points which were once wild rapids, my thoughts increasingly concentrated on that year, 1851. Seattle's founders left Illinois in April of 1851 -- Mother, Father, two little girls, younger brother, sister in law. Mother -- pregnant mother. Two thousand miles on foot, or rattling in a wagon, or helping to pull that wagon over the Blue Mountains, feeding two small children, carrying another in her womb. And then came the Columbia, a wet and stormy night in late August -- a wild ride over the rapids -- white water rafting it's called today, and now it's a sport. No sport then. Over the rapids, down the rest of river on a tiny steamer. Then civilization, a little village called Portland, sick with prairie fever. Then, that little red headed boy born, just a couple of days after that wild ride. I knew that boy, my great uncle, Rolland H. Denny -- what a story. And I haven't even got them yet to the beach at Alki on a wet November morning, with no shelter -- Seattle's first homeless.

"But so it has been in this great city. Strong women. Able, determined, courageous. Making the homes while the men filed the plats, and shipped fish and logs, went to Olympia to represent our interests and get a university. And this community -- I have no way of knowing if it was unique in this country, probably not, was blessed by several generations of able, determined, often well educated women who made so much of this place. And yet on that wonderful monument at Alki Point, it names the people, including the full names of all twelve children, the Children but it says, Arthur A. Denny and wife, Carson D. Boren and Wife, John N. Low and wife, William Bell and wife. Now there's a project for the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington. Fix it!

"As I grew up in Seattle, I had the privilege of knowing a number of great women who follow worthily in the tradition of the Denny and Boren girls and the other pioneer women. A group of professional women, mostly around health care, social services, the Arts, business in a couple of cases, and teaching came along in this community. It's quite a list. Some of you will recognize some of them. Mabel Seagrave, Florence Heliker, Nellie Burden, Mother Rhyther, Lady Willie Forbus, Mrs. F.F Powell, Martha Castberg, Bertha Landis, Nellie Cornish, Marie Lund, Zella Allen, Cecilia Shultz, Emma Leavenworth, Ethelyn Fisher, Frances Penrose Owen, Roberta Taylor, Elisabeth Bannister, Dorothy Bullitt, and Mrs. H.A.Stub.

"And there were truly great teachers like Grace Norton and Borghild Lee. I only name ones I know, and people here could add so many. but what knowing them has meant to me is that the males who wrote Carson D. Boren and wife on the monument to Seattle Founders, just didn't get it. And they still don't! But more than the powerful feminist message or than simply crediting wives with so much of the success of "their men" -- a rather sexist way of putting it and not the special distinction of any of those on my list -- we need to understand our history, and ourselves, that women have provided not only the professional and business and public sector leadership but also the compassion, the vision, the courage, the nurturing sense, the values which a free people must hold and defend. If the popularity of family values as a political issue stems from a serious understanding of our society for the fundamental needs of human development, then maybe we are learning something. It does, to use a current phrase, take a village not only to raise and nurture children, but to make a city and a community. And women make a village.

"And so it has been, a story of land, city, and women. It may have been men who conquered the land and built an economy on it, but it was women who civilized it. No story attests more to that great history than ours.

"So as I always must in these talks about Seattle, I return to Alki -- New York Alki, New York By and By, or some day. Alki. That symbol that those hardy pioneers had finished one very difficult journey to start upon another, the building of a great city. It is a tradition which we must keep.

"I close with some words that celebrate all three themes -- land, women and cities. Words that Arthur Denny wrote about that moment on Alki beach, November 13, 185l.

'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. [It finally] dawned on 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 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.'"


Talk by Brewster Denny, given to the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington, November 2, 1996.

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