Dr. Thomas T. Minor, former mayor of Port Townsend and Seattle, drowns after embarking on duck-hunting expedition to Whidbey Island on December 2, 1889.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/13/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5730
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On December 2, 1889, Dr. Thomas T. Minor (1844-1889) and two companions, G. Morris Haller and Lewis Cox, attempt to canoe 12 miles from Stanwood to Whidbey Island on a duck-hunting expedition. They are not seen alive again. The canoes and the bodies of Haller and Cox are eventually found but Minor's body is never recovered. Only 45, Minor had been for many years a prominent civic and political leader in Port Townsend and then Seattle. He is the only person to have been elected mayor of both cities.

The Minor Family

Thomas Taylor Minor was born on February 20, 1844, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) off the coast of India, where his parents, Eastman Strong and Judith Taylor Minor, were missionaries. The Minors were a leading Connecticut family, producing many ministers and tracing their ancestry to a British officer who arrived in Connecticut in 1630, reportedly helping to found the ports of Stonington and New London.

In an interesting historical footnote, Thomas’s older half brother was William Minor (1834-1920), whose story is told in Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. Both William (born to Eastman Minor’s first wife Lucy, who died three years later) and Thomas served as surgeons in the Union Army during the Civil War, but their lives then took very different turns. William Minor suffered a mental breakdown, killed a man in London in 1872, and was confined for most of the rest of his life to the notorious Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. There, despite his incarceration, he became one of the most important volunteer contributors to the massive Oxford English Dictionary.

Eastman Minor returned to Connecticut with his family when Thomas was a young child and the boy attended school in New Haven. In 1861, when he was 17, the Civil War began and he enlisted in the Union Army as a private. Minor rose to the rank of captain and served as hospital steward and then surgeon. After the war he completed medical studies at Yale University. Following graduation, Minor obtained a government appointment as physician for the Winnebago Indians in Nebraska. Along with his medical work, Minor devoted much of his time in Nebraska to collecting ethnological and natural history specimens for the Smithsonian Institution.

Port Townsend Civic Leader

In 1868, with help from Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird, Minor joined the revenue cutter Wayanda on a survey expedition to Alaska, which the United States had purchased the previous year, serving as ship’s doctor while collecting for the Smithsonian. Returning from Alaska, the Wayanda called at Port Townsend, where Minor met Dr. George Calhoun. The older doctor, who owned the Marine Hospital, then the largest in the Northwest, invited the 24-year-old Minor to join in a partnership with him. Minor agreed, settling in the town by the end of 1868.

Despite his youth, Dr. Minor quickly took an active role in Port Townsend civic affairs. He was an accomplished orator and drew public attention when he gave a New Year's Eve address within weeks of his arrival. By 1870, Minor had bought the Marine Hospital from Calhoun and was one of the leading doctors on Puget Sound. In 1872, he organized the Puget Sound Telegraph Company to bring telegraph service to Port Townsend. Six years later Minor set up the first telephone line in the city, operating between his office and the hospital.

Minor made many friends in Port Townsend, including Collector of Customs Harry Webster; Major Granville O. Haller, who had earlier commanded Fort Townsend; his son, lawyer G. Morris Haller; and James G. Swan (1818-1900), like Minor an avid ethnographer and well-known booster and chronicler of Port Townsend. Minor married Sarah Montgomery in 1872. They had two daughters -- Bessie, born in 1875, and Judith, born in 1877.

Thomas Minor became a leader in the Republican party, regularly attending the party’s territorial conventions and representing the territory at national conventions in 1876, 1880, and 1888. In 1880 he was elected (by 98 votes out of 107 total) to the largely ornamental post of Mayor of Port Townsend. He was re-elected the following year to a second one-year term.

Move to Seattle

In 1882, Minor gave the oration at Seattle’s Fourth of July celebration. His friend Morris Haller had moved to Seattle in 1881, and in 1883 Minor moved his family and medical practice to the larger city. The Minors immediately became as active in Seattle civic life as they had been in Port Townsend. Sarah Minor was a co-founder of the Ladies Relief Society and Thomas Minor became a leader in Seattle’s recently established Chamber of Commerce.

Minor worked with the Seattle boosters seeking to bring regular transcontinental railroad service to Seattle. They lobbied Northern Pacific tycoon Henry Villard (1835–1900) to extend service from Tacoma. When Villard lost control of the company and the Northern Pacific appeared to ignore Seattle, Minor joined Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) and others who organized the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad to connect Seattle to the Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental line.

In 1886, Minor was part of a group of conservative Seattle business and civic leaders who organized a "law and order" party known as the Loyal League in response to the labor unrest and anti-Chinese riots of 1885-1886 and the city’s depressed economic condition. Their candidate for mayor, Seattle founder Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899), was defeated in the 1886 election. In the following year’s election, the Loyal League supported Minor, who won the mayor’s office with a substantial majority. Minor’s one-year term as mayor appears to have been successful, helped no doubt by the fact that Seattle was on its way to economic recovery.

In addition to his term as mayor, Minor served three terms as president of the Seattle school board. He presided over the start of a major school-building program and initiated reforms in school management.

With Washington territory preparing to become a state in 1889, Minor spent the summer as a delegate to the convention that drafted the new state’s constitution. He was touted as a likely candidate for statewide office. However, soon after the statehood celebrations in November 1889, Minor and his companions set out on their ill-fated duck hunting trip.

The Fatal Trip

Minor, his friend Morris Haller, and Haller’s brother-in-law Lewis Cox hunted near Stanwood for several days without much success, so on December 2, 1889, they decided to cross Saratoga Passage to Brann’s Point on Whidbey Island, a distance of 12 miles. Not finding a sailboat to tow their canoes across, the three hunters set out across the often-treacherous passage paddling a large Indian cedar canoe and a smaller canvas one. They were not seen alive again. Search parties set out when they had not returned within a few days.

Once the empty canoes were found washed up on a Whidbey Island beach, it was apparent the men had drowned. Seattle came to a standstill on Sunday, December 15, as huge memorial services and a procession were held in honor of Minor and Haller. Morris Haller’s body was found on January 4, 1890, and Lewis Cox’s body a month later. Minor was never found.

The names of Seattle’s Minor Avenue and T. T. Minor Elementary School both honor Thomas Minor.


T. M. Pelly, Dr. Minor: A Sketch of the Background and Life of Thos. T. Minor, M.D. (1844-1889) (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford Company, 1933); History of Seattle, Washington, With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers, ed. by Frederic James Grant (New York: American Publishing and Engraving Company, 1891), 235-37, 481-82; Seattle and Environs 1852-1924, ed. by C. H. Hanford (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1924), 206-211; City of Dreams, ed. by Peter Simpson (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1986), 171-72; Heather MacIntosh, "Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad Company," HistoryLink.org Cyberpedia Library (www.historylink.org); Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (New York: HarperPerennial, 1999).

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