Davis, James S. "Cashup" (1815-1896)

  • By Randall A. Johnson
  • Posted 3/19/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7279
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Randall A. Johnson wrote this article about Palouse pioneer James S. “Cashup” Davis in 1968 for The Pacific Northwesterner, the quarterly publication of the Spokane Westerners Corral. Johnson was born in Washington and graduated from Washington State University with honors in advertising and art. He worked as the advertising supervisor for the Washington Water Power Company in Spokane. The article, "Cashup Davis," The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Fall 1968), pp. 49-57, is posted here with the permission of the publishers.

Cashup Davis

This is essentially a story about a man and his family during the homesteading period. Cashup Davis's career was illuminated by facets of unusual brightness, but it was equally significant in that it also included that which was ordinary and typical of the times.

James Davis was his real name and he was born on November 16, 1815, near Hastings, Sussex County, England, to William and Frances Smith Davis. He was their first of nine children. They gave him no middle name or initial, but after he came to America, he assumed the middle initial "S" in order to straighten out the delivery of his mail. He little dreamed, at that time, that he would one day own a distinctive and expressive nickname that would be a household word all across the territory and would, indeed, be in common use a century later by people who would never recognize the name, James S. Davis.

The town where James was born was a port on the east coast of England near the spot where William the Conqueror won his famous victory. During James' boyhood, the town of Hastings, in a remarkable early example of urban renewal, was moved in its entirety to a nearby site and renamed St. Leonard, the name it bears today. It was one of the first "planned communities," and a popular health resort because of its pleasant coastal climate.

James's father seems to have been a well-established lumber dealer. He was also a well digging contractor, was franchised to cut timber from a nobleman's estate, and taught his son stone masonry. The father was kept busy with the building of the new town and died in 1853 at age 50 on the job in a well cave-in. Shortly after his death, his family began migrating to America. The mother remarried later in this country.

Back to James. Carefully kept family records show that he attended "common school' until age 15. This was a notable attribute in times when such schooling was mostly for the well-born or the nobility. He was a good student and later taught penmanship for a time. An uncle, Colonel William Short of the East India Company, seems to have taken a liking to his young nephew and secured some favorable opportunities for him. He had him assigned to the Royal Riding School where he trained to drive a team of Shetland ponies, which had been presented to Lady Erskine by the Sultan of Turkey.

To America

On August 8, 1840, James and his younger brother, Sevier, boarded the vessel Quebec and sailed for New York, a 14-day voyage. From there they proceeded up the Hudson via the Erie Canal to Buffalo, across Lake Erie to Sandusky, Ohio, and finally to Scipio, where their Uncle Miller lived. They were mightily impressed by the luxurious home that was built without a single nail.

The baggage James brought was anything but the usual immigrant bundles. He brought a fine driving team, an elegant surrey and a pair of hunting hounds, a treasured sword, and his fine hunting rifle. He was already a man of some means, financially able to select any place for a home. Some people came to America to escape starvation, but James Davis came because he liked the American concept. At this point it is appropriate to quote this passage, found, handwritten, in some of the old family papers: "From choice and preference and not by accident of birth or without wish or will this adopted son of royal birth selected America for his future home."

Men who could dig and line a well were in demand in Ohio. James and another brother, Trayton, plied their trade here. Local history gratefully names the "Messrs. Davis" as the ones who provided the three 65-foot-deep public wells and relieved a serious water shortage. James moved to near Columbus, and on September 4, 1844, he married Mary Ann Shoemaker of that city. Her ancestors had come from Heidelberg, Germany, to the wilderness of Pennsylvania in 1686. The area is now known as Bradford County. Her mother, Susan, as an infant, was the sole survivor of an Indian massacre.

The newlyweds moved to LeRoy, Wisconsin. Later they went to Sparta, where James bought land and farmed. During the 22 years in Wisconsin, 11 children -- 7 boys and 4 our girls -- were born to the family. All survived the common perils that beset infancy and childhood in those times. Each lived to be 49 years or more of age. All but one of the girls eventually came to live in the Inland Empire.

In 1868, the family moved to Sumner, Bremer County, Iowa. Three years later, in 1871, they made the big move west. The trip was a typical pioneer journey, complete with hardships. One of the children, Henry, has passed down the stories of the horses and covered wagon. Only the young ones rode. Older members of the family walked all or most of the way.

Palouse Country

After a year and a half in Yamhill County, Oregon, James came to Whitman County, Washington Territory, seeking a homestead. He found a spot in the unsurveyed bunchgrass field near Thornton that was to his liking. Staking his claim, he went back to McMinnville, to get his family. On his return, he found that a man named George Newmeyer had jumped his claim. According to the old papers, this bothered James not at all. Lots of other good land was to be had, so he went a few miles to the west and took a claim at the spot that later became St. John.

This was 1872. There he housed his family at the foot of a low hill in a shelter that was part dugout and part sod house. There were two large rooms in this house with the partition consisting of a stack of sacked flour which had been hauled from Walla Walla, 100 miles away. In two years, James Davis had built his herd of cattle to more than 100. These he sold at a good price to a Mr. Long who drove large herds all the way to St. Louis for marketing. He then built the first house in St. John, a substantial l0-room frame structure. Here was a man, 60 years old, who had already had a full and successful life and was now proving himself to the challenge of the frontier.

A good idea of the uphill battle these settlers had to wage against nature comes from this letter written by one of Cashup's grandchildren:

"Father took up land. which was all bunch grass (no fences) at this time. Not far from the place where St. John, Washington now stands. He raised what stock he could, as they were hard to hold. Being no fences, the cattle and stock would not stay put very well. He began getting the tools and equipment which was possible at that time together and began to build small houses and barns and break up some bunch grass, so grains such as wheat and oats could be raised. There were no fences in the country so of course he had to rim herd on his small fields of grain so his stock or neighbor's stock wouldn't eat it up or ruin it. Crickets infested the country here in early days so my father with other pioneers plowed ditches around his crops, drove the crickets into the ditches as best they could, after the crickets fell into the ditches they couldn't get out, then the farmers burned them with straw. They had to be gathered every morning, but this got them. Supplies were first hauled from Walla Walla, a distance from where he lived, by wagon and horses. That was the nearest town. They hauled lumber for building, some wood posts, etc., was purchased out of the mountains." (Coeur d'Alenes).

"Then later Spokane Falls sprang up. It was a small trading center, then they used to drive to Spokane Falls (a distance of some 50 miles) by wagon, taking up butter, eggs, meat, or grains and trading them for groceries, or whatever they needed. Father sold this farm he first acquired and bought land six miles North of Colfax, Washington, on Dry Creek. On this farm he raised stock breaking up the bunch grass and in turn raising crops of grain on it. Father was a charter member on the first telephone line built out of Colfax, also saw electricity and the beginning of radio. In 1893 was a rainy fall, rained so much causing most every one to lose their crops. This was a year never to be forgotten by the pioneers. Father owned his own thrashing machine which was run by horse power.

He thrashed his own crop of wheat, then covered the sack pile with straw, is was the usual habit and went out to thrashing for neighbors (this was the general habit). It rained and of course after a good rain you couldn't thrash so Father would bring his horses home and haul wheat then when dry enough back to the thrashing again until another rain. This kept up all fall, until at last the last of Father's grain was hauled into the barn and was dumped in piles being turned each day and still it kept growing hotter and hotter until at last it was hauled out and dumped, in other words it was a complete loss. This was a great loss to my father as well as other farmers who were in the same state of affairs.

One year my father had sixty head of horses in the Big Bend country for winter pasture. He kept a man with them until he thought all danger of storms were over. Then he brought the man home and left the horses there, with the snow gone and plenty of green pasture. This was in March. After that time in the Big Bend there came a blinding snow storm. Drove the horses as far as they could go, up against the fences of course. The snow covered all the green feed and there the poor horses died of hunger. They said some of the manes and tails were eaten off the horses."

In 1875, the urge to move on overcame James again and he sold the St. John property. He loaded the wagons, lined up the youngsters and herded the live stock back onto the trail. They were headed for British Columbia, presumably because James was yearning for the company of others with English background. Mary Ann Shoemaker Davis was a dutiful wife and beloved mother, but she had a mind of her own and sometimes set limits. After one day on the trail she called a halt. One can almost hear her: "Stop the wagon, James!"

Stage Stop

They were at a spot called Cottonwood Springs, the place that is now Cashup. The land looked good to James and he put down stakes willingly enough. The towering butte just to the east fascinated him. This was railroad property, part of the Northern Pacific's land grant. James bought 1,600 acres for $2.00 an acre. Here he built another 10-room house which included a general store on the ground floor. Upstairs were some rooms for travellers and a recreation hall. Nearby was another house where the Davis family lived.

He built a large barn and corrals for a stage coach stop. There was a huge watering trough where an entire string of freight horses could be watered at once. Horses were changed here as they were at intervals of about 15 miles all along the route. The place became the best known stage station in the territory. It was ideally located between Walla Walla and Spokane Falls, the first stop north of Colfax. Because of James' outgoing personality and flair for innkeeping, it became more than just a resting spot and place to change horses. The general store of course, was an important attraction. From across its counters Cashup, as he was now becoming known, met virtually everyone in the territory who travelled or who could make the trip to his store for supplies.

His famous nickname grew out of the fact that he had hard money and was able to pay it to consummate a deal. Cash was rare in those times, with trade or barter being a more common form of transaction. By being in a position to say he would give so much, "cash-up," he made many advantageous buys from his money-starved customers. Such status was respected and his reputation and nickname became solidly established.

Later writings say that he not only paid, but demanded payment in cash. This is probably true, but it is pretty certain that the name was endowed by people who were impressed by this man who always paid off in real money. To be required to pay cash was painfully common. To be always able to pay it was worthy of distinction.

An excellent description of this period in Cashup Davis's career is found in excerpts from the writings of Professor Stokely C. R. Roberts of Pullman, Washington. This gentleman, now dead for many years, was an acquaintance of the writer. He was also a friend of the Davis family and often visited the home at the stage station. His recollections give us a graphic account of the pleasant and congenial atmosphere that seemed to be the rule around Cashup Davis.

"It was here at St. John that his manner of doing business secured for him his proud pseudonym of Cashup Davis, the name by which he is generally known to this day and when the Inland Electric railway crossed his fields, the company laid out a station there, called Cashup, even as the homestead has been called. But James Davis whom from this on, I shall call "Cashup," in all his life never had neglected play and recreation evidenced particularly by the list of treasures he had brought from old England, his dogs, his horses and his rifle.

"He was a crack shot and all his boys became veritable Nimrods, for game, including deer, bear and elk, abounded in the nearby foothills, and prairie chickens, grouse and pheasants were innumerable everywhere. Every domestic animal including chickens and other poultry, was petted and tamed. Not unusually coyotes, deer and bear were at home in the enclosure of the barnyard, thoroughly tractable from kind treatment. In such an atmosphere the spirit of comraderie pervaded the Davis family, not only in the parental home but in every newly developed one as the inevitable parting times arrived. All this I know at first hand, for on numerous occasions, as a teacher, on invitation, I have been the feted guest among the Davises over the week end."

Karl P. Allen, publisher of the Pullman Herald until the 1940s, told of the good times at the stage station in an article printed in that paper in 1919.

"A well-stocked store, with a spacious dance hall above, hotel accommodations for the travellers and a mammoth trough, filled with running spring water to quench the thirst of the jaded stage and freight teams, made the resort, known as Steptoe Station, a popular one. Both the young and the old of the entire countryside, from Colfax to Spokane Falls, flocked to the dance hall to step the minuet, the polka, the quadrille and the waltz to the music furnished by Cashup's orchestra, known as the best in the new country, and composed of Cy and Andy Privett of Colfax. A typical Englishman, short in stature, thin of face, with a close-cut stubby beard and hair as white as snow and as fond of his high silk hat as of his ‘alf and ‘alf. Cashup had a mania for company, and the longer they stayed, the better his mood. Full many a morning the strains of the 'Privett Brothers Stringed Orchestra' could be heard above the shuffle of many pairs of feet when the less frivolous settlers were arising to begin their day's work. Each swain and every belle came at dusk, prepared to dance until daylight. On occasions the merrymakers would find themselves snowed in, and would stay for days, or until the weather broke. Cashup the while playing his part as host right royally and making every minute of the prolonged festivities one of pleasure."

Those who wrote or told about Cashup all agreed that he loved crowds and gaiety, and that his favorite role was host and innkeeper. A letter from Miss Cretta Sweagle in 1883 tells of attending a dance that lasted "from dark 'til dawn and at which the guests were served oyster stew, free!"

An article by Mrs. Ivan Chase, published in the Spokesman-Review in 1922 said,

"Upstairs over the stage station was the best dance hall in the country and Cashup Davis was the jolliest of hosts. He could execute the sailor's hornpipe with many a nautical flourish and was a past master in dancing the Virginia Reel, the Money Musk and all the dances which were then a part of every program. He was a white-haired paitriach but his heart was young and he reveled in the hilarity of the gatherings at his place."

One Mr. F. T. Gilbert wrote about Cashup in 1882. An excerpt says,

"Mr. Davis is a member of I.O.O.F., Republican in politics, a spiritualist in religion and has wide and positive views on all subjects agitating the business, political and social world."


Cashup's ever-readiness to enjoy life made him no less a practical man. If nothing else would testify to this, a letter, written to his son William in 1873, should. It also impresses the researcher that Cashup had an easy, articulate way of expressing himself and that his enthusiasm for his beloved land would shame a chamber of commerce promoter.

"Whitman County, Friday, January 5, 1873.

"Dear Son: I received your letter and check dated December 15, and was very glad to hear from you and all of you. We are all well and in good spirits, now you wanted to hear something about this country. In the first place it is a vast rolling prairie. In some places it is hilly with beautiful valleys with beautiful springs and streams of water. The country is one vast pasturage of grass. Its fattening qualities are unsurpassed by any in the world. It matures on the ground. Cattle are fat all the year. I have eight horses, and I have not fed grain since I have been here and not more than 200 lb. of hay and do not expect to feed any, altho it snows now, but we expect it to be off in a few days now. These valleys run from 50 to 160 acres and from 5 to 50 miles long.

"There are some claims on each side of me just as good as mine, that I think are worth money. They are very pretty and level but they will be gone in the spring, if not before. The country is fast settling up. I have just got home my seed wheat and oats. I paid 90 cents per bu. for wheat, 75 cents for oats and 2 cents per lb for potatoes, the best potatoes I ever ate in my life. I expect to break up 100 acres this spring. Timber is scarce in some places, in some it is plenty. I have to go 8 miles some places, but you can get timber and prairie together.

"I like the country first rate. Sometimes we have to feed hay for 3 or 4 weeks during the winter and sometimes not any. Butter is 50 cents per lb., fresh pork, 11 cents. I think this a number one country. If I can get my money I shall be alright but do not persuade any of you to come, so if you should come, I shall not be to blame. I wrote the first column yesterday when it was snowing. Today it is all going away. My horses are all gone off to grazing and are getting fat. If any of you are coming here, you had better come as soon as you can or else the best claims will be taken up. Our spring opens about the first of February. Immigration will be coming in here very soon. If any of you come here you had better take a ticket to Colton, a station on the Northern Railroad.

"If David and you or Andrew or a part of you come, make it an object to buy a wagon if you wish and come through on the stage route. If David should come, he can ship his goods to Walula on the Columbia River, Washington Territory. It will cost him about $80 to ship 100 lbs. If they are well packed. The boxes must be well packed and closely pressed. The larger the bulk the more it will cost. When you get them shipped you must get a bill of lading, and put iron bands on your clothing and bedding. So much for your freight. Now for yourselves, your best way to come is to take a ticket to Walla Walla, you will come on the railroad to a place called Helton. Then you take the stage to Walla Walla. You must not bring any trunks by stage, one man brought a trunk weighing 60 lbs. and it cost him $40. If David comes, you had better send what things you have with him around to Portland, and now if you come and should not like it I do not want you to blame me.

"Now you figure on 500 sheep and their increase for 7 years, even calling the wool at 75 cents per head, and the increase one dollar in a country where you do not have to feed them all the year, with thousands of acres of pasture without even to pay taxes on, then you look at cows, your increase and your butter at $40 per week, and this in gold besides your calves say 15 calves out of 20 cows at $10, per calf, then your hogs from your grain and milk and your land for nothing nearly. Cattle and sheep must be high for years, the home market will demand the increase for years. Sheep are after shearing about $2 per head. Cows from $25 to $45. A two-year old calf is as large as your three year olds, and make splendid cows. Now tell the girls both of them we would all of us very much like to see them and their little babies. We have not heard from David or Andrew for a long time. I expect they write to Ferd and Ed for their information. I expect they are at Walla Walla which is 100 miles from me now. If any of you come we will meet you with teams at Walla Walla, if you let us know when you start and what way you come and your mother and children at home want to see you and all.

"They send their kind love to you all, and likewise myself.

"(s) James Davis (Cashup Davis)."

Although Cashup was fervent in his praise of land and climate, note his frequent disclaimers for responsibility should the invited settlers be disappointed. This, after all, was a frontier.

Nez Perce War

Cashup's colorful personality and activities dominate most of the writings on this subject. Not a great deal is recorded about his wife Mary Ann. Yet one of the most poignant and memorable of all these stories came to light in this letter to her family. it recalls some of the grim side of life in the early days and the terror and despair that gripped this pioneer mother seem, even today, to loom between the lines.

"Tucannon, July 22, 1877.

"Dear Children, I once more take my pencil for I've no pen. We are fleeing from the Indians. They have broke out and are killing settlers, about 40 miles from our house and people are fleeing for their lives. The roads are full of people leaving their homes and everything behind. We are on our way to Walla Walla, that is Ed, Mary, Lottie and Charley. We just got our bed and clothing with us, all the rest is behind. Your father and Clarence stayed home to watch the place. Our horses, hogs and cattle are behind. We got 32 head of horses and colts, and 100 head of cattle, and 100 head of hogs. The Indians are killing hogs and cattle by the hundreds and driving off all the horses they can find. We expect to hear of our house being burned and everything destroyed we have. We have 130 acres on with grain and it looks fine. I never saw crops look better, and my garden, we have worked so hard, and have to leave everything for the Indians to destroy. The men are moving their families to Walla Walla and then go back and fight the Indians. Last Saturday they had to fight with General Howard and he killed 70 Indians. I heard the Indians had crossed Clearwater, and more going to fight on Pine Creek or Palouse, that is near our house. Everybody that lives up there has left.

"The men have gone back to fight. Ferd went back yesterday. He moved down a family. Ed is here with me and the children. We are enjoying them. We are camped in a little grove about 40 miles from Walla Walla. I shall stay here until I hear from home. If we hear of danger we shall go to Walla Walla. The mail goes by here everyday, so you see I can hear if we all are well. If I go to Walla Walla, I will have our pictures taken and send them to you. I don't know what to write to you. It was dreadfully warm yesterday. We saw dead cattle and hogs on the road and the dogs would stop and howl, and some died. It was the warmest day I ever saw. I hope I never see one like this again. This was along the Snake River on the sand.

"We have the prettiest farm in the country. Everybody says so that passes by our place. I think so too. I had the nicest garden and everything in it and had to leave it and go without. I will tell you more when I write again. I have just commenced to make butter. We milk 28 cows. I guess there won't be much more now. My health is poor, my heart troubles me. I sure hope I get better soon. Dear children, shall we ever meet here again. I thought when I left there I would soon see you all. Oh dear, here comes the mail. I can't send the letter now. They had 3 battles with the Indians and the Indians beat twice, and butchered the soldiers, and had a war dance. My paper is full so goodbye until I hear from you.

"Your mother, Mary Ann Davis (Mrs. Cashup Davis).

Steptoe Butte

After the Indian wars, Cashup gave his attention to running the stage station, store, and his successful farming operation. These seem to have been good years. In 1883, the Northern Pacific completed its line into the area and the stage coach business dwindled and died. Cashup missed the people more than he did the business and he turned his mind to some means of again attracting the merrymaking people. The idea of building a hotel on top of Steptoe Butte may have been in his mind for some time, but now, in 1888, he made it a reality.

There is much that is interesting about Steptoe Butte. Geologists have called it "the lone outrider of the Selkirks," whose main range is about 200 miles to the north. It sticks its pre-Cambrian granite cone up through the volcanic ash and lava that make up the Columbian plateau. The general land level here is about 1,900 feet but Steptoe rises to 3,610; a tall beacon in a sea of rolling hills. The view is magnificent, with a colorful patchwork of fields extending to a background of mountains. On a day with clear enough skies, it is reported one can see Mt. Rainier. White men first named it Pyramid Peak, because it so resembled the ancient Egyptian monuments. Indians used it as a lookout and one can guess at how many signal fires burned on its summit. After Colonel Steptoe's battle with the Indians in June 1858 [ed. note: actually May 1858], the peak was renamed for him. It was a suitable gesture for this brave but little-honored soldier, but it gave rise to a confusion of names and places that persists.

One is surprised at the number of people (who should know better) who think that the battle occurred at or on the Butte. Once more, for the record, it should be stated that the battle was fought about 20 miles north of the Butte near Rosalia. It was a running fight, with a large force of Indians harassing Steptoe's dragoons while they withdrew along the rocky draws and creeks a few miles north of where the town is now located. By dark, the troops had been badly mauled and were near exhaustion. They dug in on a hill near the south edge of town, but a massacre was a strong possibility.

The expedition was saved by the use of clever deceptive tactics and a friendly Nez Perce chief who determined which routes were unguarded and, during the night, escorted the column safely across the Snake River. Doubtless they passed within sight of the Butte, but luckily for them, the fighting was over.

Dream house

The building of the hotel was a gigantic undertaking, but Cashup did it all on his own. One notation says that he spent $10,000, a fortune in those times. First a road had to be built to the top. This was a horse and scraper, pick and shovel job and a major engineering accomplishment. In some places the Butte is steep and rocky. It was a switchback trail and a long ways down if anything went wrong. One letter writer tells us how the children in the wagons would "hide their eyes in fright.

Cashup designed the whole project himself and one of the best descriptions of the hotel comes from an article printed during the 1890s in the Tekoa Sentinel:

"The building as planned by its founder was 66' by 66' and was arranged with every convenience. The lower floor was a spacious hall 40' by 60' including a stage and dressing rooms on either side. The entire hall being surrounded by a commodious gallery. Besides this was a kitchen and private reception room of Mr. Davis. The upper floor was occupied by bedrooms and a dining hall accommodating 40 to 50 persons. On the top of the building was a cupola 14' by 14' used as a reading room and observatory. In the observatory was a huge telescope which afforded the observer a view of objects 150 miles distant. This telescope is now in the possession of J. F. Davis and was used by Mr. Davis on the night of the fire."

The writer hiked up the Butte some years before the present road was built. At that time, parts of the old foundation were still in place and old square nails could be had for the taking. The old cistern was still there half-filled with rubble and weeds. Water was one of the big problems for Cashup since there was none on the top of the butte. His idea was to fill the cistern from rainfall and winter snow, but this was insufficient and water, like all other supplies, had to be laboriously hauled up.

This was truly Cashup's dream house and he spared nothing in equipping and decorating it. We might call it something less than the Taj Mahal, but in those days visitors were awed at the luxury and refinements of this oasis on the mountain top. Most of them were far more accustomed to shelters of rough planking or even sod and logs. Many walls and doorways were festooned with garlands of lush grains that grew so well in the fertile surroundings and which represented life and the future to the settlers.

The hotel was the talk of the territory and everyone who could manage the trip went to see it. Fine overnight accommodations, good food, and entertainment were available. The view alone, and a chance to see Walla Walla through the magnificent telescope, was worth the trip. Stage plays, concerts, and dancing were part of the bill of fare and Cashup was in his glory as the gracious host. He even had some sort of primitive magic lantern show rigged up as an added attraction. A balcony extended around the ballroom for the convenience of spectators.

The hotel's heyday was a brief one, however. It probably lasted only three or four years. Cashup was nearing 80 and in his final years it became plain to him that his great dream, into which he had put everything, was a financial failure. He stayed on though the crowds dwindled, to nothing.

George McCroskey of Colfax wrote:

"The demand for big freight teams was over. The old and battered stage coach passed over the old territorial road for the last time that year, and Cashup's, noted far and near over the Northwest, settled down to the regime of an ordinary farm home. Strictly farming, however, was too quiet a life for Cashup -- not enough people around -- so he turned his attention to making a resort of Steptoe butte, a mountain with an unobstructed view, made by the Almighty it would seem, for a special purpose; a panorama not exceeded in the world; a lighthouse in eastern Washington and northern Idaho like one on the seashore to warn the mariner of danger and guide him along the way home; a guide post in the pioneer days to travelers lost many miles from home in the hills or on the plains, known long ago as the "Silent Sentinel of the Palouse.

"The energy and interest he displayed in his new undertaking was wonderful to behold. He wanted a site where people could come from near or far away and view the scenic beauties of the land he loved so well. Without the help of anyone, he bought the butte, built a road to the summit and erected a splendid building with an observatory on top. There was included a little store and many good and well furnished rooms, a large auditorium where a display of the products of the country was installed, gathered by himself, that would do justice to any fair.

"Although the country was sparsely settled and roads and travel accommodations poor, hundreds visited the resort every season, but not enough to make the venture pay. But Cashup stayed on, at first with someone with him, but in later years he alone occupied the big house, a lonely and dejected figure, patiently waiting for the crowds which seldom came. When occasional parties ascended the mountain, he would brighten up and was glad, but when they began to leave tears would come to his old eyes. I used to go up often to see and cheer him."

He finally lived there in lonely splendor; his wife did not particularly like the place and stayed down at the ranch on the creek. She died in 1894. Finally, only a young lad lived with the old man to help and keep an eye on him. Cashup wanted to be buried on the peak he loved. He dug his own grave and left the spade standing beside it. He often pointed this out to friends, stressing his intention.

On a Monday morning, June 22, 1896, he died. The detailed story is told in a yellowed clipping from an unidentified newspaper:

"James S. Davis, commonly and generally known as 'Cashup Davis,' the proprietor of and resident on Steptoe Butte, died suddenly Monday morning between 7 and 8 o'clock. Mr. Davis was up bright and early Monday morning and seemed well and cheerful. After taking breakfast he and one of his sons proceeded some distance from the house down the side of the Butte, for the purpose of poisoning squirrels. After working for a brief period of time Mr. Davis complained of being unwell and started for his home. As he went around a bend and from the sight of his son, the latter thought he heard his father groan, but as this was not uncommon he paid little attention to it. Later, however, he thought he heard a call, and becoming alarmed, proceeded at once to the house. He found his father lying on a cot, apparently suffering great agony. Becoming frightened he leaped upon a horse and hastily rode to a neighbors to summon aid. When he and several others returned shortly after, Mr. Davis was dead. At age 81 he died alone, in the remarkable building that climaxed his remarkable career."

His family, moved by understandable circumstances, buried him in the Steptoe cemetery instead of on the butte. The funeral was held in the Davis schoolhouse and the sermon was preached by a Rev. E. H. Todd. The long procession was headed by a handsome hearse that would have satisfied Cashup's liking for pomp and formality.


Admittedly, the material used by this writer refers mostly to the period before Cashup's death. His son tried to maintain the place, but after five years of struggle, it was abandoned to the coyotes and bats. The lavish fittings and ornamental gingerbread were removed or stolen and the wooden building's ultimate destruction by fire could have almost been predicted. The fire that consumed his forsaken amusement palace was the biggest show ever seen by Cashup's public. It started at 9:30 the evening of March 11, 1911. Two teen-age boys are said to have accidentally set it while smoking. The name of at least one is known. Whether it was accidental or not, the fire was almost inevitable. A bonfire of that gigantic scope was bound to be irresistible to someone. By 10:30 the blaze lit the countryside and was seen for miles in every direction. Some said the conical peak resembled a volcano. Cashup's son Ferd, watched it through his father's telescope from Oakesdale and saw the boys clearly.

An old account from the Tekoa Sentinel tells the story in language as wild and florid as the flames themselves:

"Steptoe Landmark Destroyed by Fire. Inn Erected by J. S. (Cashup) Davis in 1888 Burns and Lights Historic Hill. Oakesdale, Washington, March 18, 1911.

"Steptoe Butte the landmark of the Palouse, long since made famous by the appliance of man's handiwork to nature's peculiarly formed topography, no longer lends the same marked significance to the minds of those whose memories revert backward 20 years. The building on the topmost crest of this huge mass of earth, 3800 feet above sea level and 1700 feet above the level of the surrounding country for 23 years, no longer stands out as the attraction to recall to the minds of the Palouse pioneers times of excitement, when the Palouse was yet in infancy.

The old relict built in 1888 by James S. (Cashup) Davis was destroyed by fire March 15, the origin of which is unknown. The bright blaze, which lighted up the heavens for many miles around reached its height about 10:30 p.m. and the fiery spectacle was viewed in silence by the townspeople of Oakesdale. J. F. Davis, a son of J. S. Davis living near Thornton, was called to the telephone, he undertook to locate the fire bugs by means of his telescope, but said the fire was too bright to discern anything near the building."

Family records are to the contrary and say the boys could be seen. In any case it is a minor point. Some years after the hotel burned, the property on the Butte was foreclosed by the mortgage holder. The road was made impassable by erosion and, for a long time, only those in the mood for a good climb or a rough horseback ride were able to enjoy the sweeping view of the Palouse.

Later, the land came into the possession of the McCroskey family of Colfax. This family and the Davises were contemporaries, the former having come to the Palouse in 1879. They made their own place in Inland Empire history. It is now well known how, in a generous act of stewardship by Virgil McCroskey, the Butte was given to the people of the State as a public park. Now a pleasant picnic ground lies at the eastern base and a fine paved road leads to the "antenna forest" on the summit. Take the trip sometime. Enjoy the view and think a kind thought about the little white-haired Englishman with the stovepipe hat. He dreamed dreams beyond his reach, but he wove some bright threads into the generally drab fabric of pioneers' lives. He gave them a needed portion of fun and happiness and, in doing so, he gave our Northwest one of its most colorful legends.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum. 


Randall A. Johnson was born in Washington and graduated from Washington State University with honors in advertising and art. He worked as the advertising supervisor for the Washington Water Power Company in Spokane.

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