Cowley, Michael M. (1841-1915), Spokane pioneer

  • By Benjamin H. Kizer, esq.<br> edited by David W. Wilma
  • Posted 8/06/2005
  • Essay 7334
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The author of this People's History, Benjamin H. Kizer, was a Spokane lawyer acquainted with local pioneer Michael M. Cowley. Cowley worked as a sutler (an Army storekeeper) and prospector, settled at Spokane Bridge, and finally became a respected Spokane banker. Kizer prepared this biographical sketch for The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 1965), pp. 25-31. It is here edited by David Wilma and reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Michael Cowley

Michael M. Cowley was born in Rathdrum, County Wicklow, Ireland, on May 9, 1841. His father, Hugh Cowley, was a merchant in that county. The son was educated in the monastery of Clondalkin, near Dublin, and as a boy of 15 made his way alone to the United States, coming to this country in 1856 on a sailing vessel that took 41 days for the journey. He had no money by the time he reached this country, but made his way to Rochester, New York, where he had an uncle who found a job for him.

Two years later, excited by stories about the gold rush in California, Cowley left Rochester for the great El Dorado. His money ran out by the time he reached Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but the U.S. Army was then outfitting an expedition to Utah, to put down a reported Mormon rebellion, and Cowley was employed as a teamster. On the way out to Utah he was promoted to act as sutler, as the army called its storekeeper and, thus employed, Cowley reached Beal's Crossing in Colorado, later known as Fort Mohave. Here he continued to operate the sutler's store for the Army until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He then went on to Placerville, California, where he clerked in a store for three years.


Once more the wanderlust seized Cowley and he concluded to try his fortunes in the mining region of Idaho, then a mecca for many thousands of would-be placer miners. He arrived there in 1862 where he placered during that summer. Then, with the gold dust he had accumulated, he started a trading post, which he operated in several mining camps of the Pacific Northwest until 1867.

Cowley was at historic old Florence when big-booted and flannel-shirted miners were rocking out millions in virgin gold. He also took part in the later rush to the Wild Horse diggings in British Columbia, then he settled in Bonner's Ferry in 1867, where he operated a trading post, and a ferry across the Kootenai River for the next five years. One hundred and five years ago, Horace Greeley, as editor of the New York Tribune, made a five-months trip from New York to San Francisco and back, He traveled the western half of this trip by mule team over what passed for roads, fording many unbridged rivers and creeks at high water, often in peril of life and limb. His account of that trip, published in 1859 under the title "An Overland Journey," is pungent and fascinating.

This was just one year after Cowley made the same trip and endured the same hardships and dangers, only, in Greeley's case, we have the day-to-day record, by a highly articulate journalist, of the difficulties and hardships of the trip, giving us a vivid picture of the risks endured by men in search of gold; for, at that time, 10 years after the beginning of the California Gold Rush, there was another great gold rush under way, in the belief that the sands of the Rocky Mountain streams in Colorado also carried gold. Just as Cowley did, Greeley stopped over in Colorado. Denver was then a small town, only a few months old, and Greeley had no idea of its future. What primarily interested Greeley were the hazards, the gamble or the luck that favored a few, punished the multitude of others, in their bootless search for gold.

In view of Cowley's career, first an Army sutler, later as owner of various trading posts in the mining areas, Greeley's statement of what constituted a stock of supplies for these trading posts that moved from camp to camp is enlightening. Greeley says of them that "the four necessities of mining life [were] whiskey, coffee, flour and bacon," to which he later added beans as fifth necessity. This was the simple life, with a vengeance.

A typical Cowley yarn, now nearly a century old, has come down to us. One day, a customer who owed Cowley money he couldn't pay, hailed Cowley from across the river, wanting to be ferried. Cowley shouted, "Have you got a dollar?" The reply was, "No, but I'll sure pay you as soon as I get it." Without reply Cowley turned and started back to his store. The would-be passenger let out a despairing yell, "Oh, for the love of God, Mike! I must cross the river." At this, Cowley turned around long enough to shout: "If you've got no money, you're just as well off on that side of the river as over here." A little later, when Cowley took a paying customer across the river, Cowley relented and brought back his insolvent passenger, but of course was never able to collect.

Spokane Bridge

In July 1872, Cowley moved his trading post to what was later known as Spokane Bridge. This trading post marked the first effort in individual commercial life in the then wild valley of the Spokane. The fur trading companies had gone, and the land had reverted to the wild. But before settling down at this location, Cowley journeyed to Walla Walla, where he had been several times before, and there married Miss Annie Connolly. Returning, he also engaged in the cattle industry, became postmaster, and was general factotum for this region.

When Cowley located at Spokane Bridge in 1872, there were fewer people in the Inland Empire than had been there 10 years earlier. The gold hunters had taken the cream of the rich placers and moved on. Times were dull and life seemed dreary after the intense experience of pioneer days. When Cowley came to this Pacific Northwest, Washington Territory ran to the summit of the Rocky Mountains, and the census of 1860 found only 11,594 people within its vast domain. Eight years after his coming, in 1870, the census showed but 23,935 people in Washington and 14,999 in Idaho.

When Cowley located at the bridge, or ford as it then was, in 1872, Spokane was but a "squatter's dream." Scranton and Downing had come to Spokane the year before and were erecting a little primitive sawmill on the river bank at the foot of Wall Street, and the few settlers then in the country thought them mentally unbalanced for "squattin'" here in the gravel and rocks.

Even with all his intimate knowledge and experience, Cowley shared that belief. Many years after when an imperial city had grown up around the Spokane falls, Cowley spoke amusedly about his lack of foresight and told with glee of his efforts to preserve his trading monopoly at the "bridge" by advising prospective rivals to "go down to the falls and see what Glover had to offer." Glover came in 1873, and paid his good Willamette Valley money for Scranton and Downing's squatters' rights.

Pioneers of Cowley's type had courage, but it was not of the bragging, vainglorious type. They were in daily contact with Indians, freighters, prospectors and, now and then, an outlaw from the distant settlements. They became shrewd students of human nature and Cowley, in particular, amased a store of practical philosophy of men and life.

In 1885, Cowley bought stock in the Traders National Bank at Spokane, and became a director. In 1889 he sold his trading post, rented his buildings, and moved to Spokane. Before his removal he had caused a new residence to be built for him at Boone and Pearl, which he and his family occupied for the rest of his life. This was the first home built in Spokane north of the river and east of Division. Cowley was then elected cashier of the Traders, and in January 1892 he was chosen its President, a position he filled until his retirement 14 years later. Cowley and his wife had two children, both girls, one of whom later married Dr. J. P. Reddy, then of Spokane, but later practicing in Medford, Oregon, while the other daughter married James Smyth, who for many years until his death operated the James Smyth Plumbing and Heating Company in Spokane. Mrs. Michael M. Cowley died in 1907, eight years before the death of her husband.


An incident in the panic of 1893 indicates how wise the directors had been in choosing Cowley as the bank's president. With a population of fewer than 25,000, Spokane then had eight banks where today [1965], with a population of eight times that number, it has only five banks. Those eight banks were relatively small and weak. The oldest of these was A. M. Cannon's Bank of Spokane Falls. It was the first to fall, and gave a great shock to other depositors, making them suspicious of the soundness of the remaining banks.

Accordingly depositors began withdrawing their money, which soon created a run on the banks. Six of the eight banks succumbed to these runs, but the Exchange, which was then the newest of the banks with quite a small number of depositors, and the Traders, which was the largest of the banks, managed to survive: It survived because of Cowley's shrewd and successful management.

Cowley was a faithful Catholic, a member of St. Aloysius Church, and was highly respected by the Church authorities. So he appealed to the Sisters of Providence at their Provincial headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, to come to the bank's assistance, assuring them that if they would help him with $25,000, he could survive the worst possible run. The money in gold coins was at once sent by express.

At that time, Graham B. Dennis was Spokane's capitalistic class. He alone on week days wore a long-tailed Prince Albert frock coat and a silk hat, walking with an arrogant swagger designed to impress all beholders with the idea that here was a man of wealth. Cowley explained to Dennis his means of rescue, and induced him to bring the money from the express office to the bank and make the deposit of it. Twenty five thousand dollars in twenty-dollar gold pieces is quite a formidable package, so it was placed in four big money bags, Dennis carried two of them, followed by a man from the express company with the other two.

At that time there was a long line of depositors, stretching out from the paying teller's window across the floor to the front door, and then down the street for nearly a block. The paying teller was very deliberate. The books were examined carefully to see that the right amount was to be paid out. It was a sight to freeze the marrow in the bones of the bravest banker. It was past this long line that Dennis made his way, escorted by two policemen. Dennis majestically strode up to the receiving teller's window of the bank.

These four bags were thrust across the counter of the opened cage, and Dennis announced in a loud voice: "Here is $50,000 in gold for deposit, as a testimonial of my faith in your bank, Mr. Cowley, and there's plenty more where this came from, if needed." Cowley gave the order that the gold should be piled up in many rows of shining gold behind the bank's steel caging, so that all could see. Twelve hundred and fifty gold coins make an imposing array; it created confidence where there had been terror.

Then Cowley walked along the lines of money-hungry depositors, and exclaimed loudly in his rich Irish brogue: "We've got the money for all of yez. We'll stay open till midnight to take care of yez." Faced with these great piles of gold, one by one the depositors dropped shamefacedly out of line and in a little bit the line had disappeared. This was the last run on the Traders and it survived until in the 1920s when it was merged with the Spokane and Eastern.

Due to his advancing years Cowley retired as president of the bank in 1906, but continued as a director. In his last years, after Mrs. Cowley's death and the marriage of his daughters, Cowley was confined to his bed most of the time. But he had always been in the thick of events, and his gregarious soul had periods of loneliness.

Our law firm was general counsel for the bank and Cowley had seen a good deal of me, in the drafting of agreements and papers as security for loans. So, on occasion in his last years, Cowley would telephone our office and ask if Mr. Kizer could be spared to come to his home and talk with him about his will.

Each time I would go out and, after inquiries about his health and about what was going on, Cowley would be reminded of a story and would launch into a series of them; for he was a prince of story-tellers. This would go on for an hour or two, stimulated by laughter and appreciative comment from me. Then Cowley would slump down in his bed, exhausted, and say, "Well, my boy. I'm too tired to do anything about the will today. I'll be seein' ye later about it." When the old man died, worn out by a long life of hardship and strenuous living and full of years, there was probated a perfectly good will, drawn by my partner, Will G. Graves, some years earlier, that answered every purpose quite adequately.

Cowley spent a busy life on the frontier, full of useful activities; and in his later years he had few equals and no superiors in contributions to the upbuilding of Spokane and its surrounding territory.

Cowley's Own Words

I now turn back, to two interviews with Cowley, published in our local newspapers, in which Cowley tells his own story of early days. In an interview in the Spokesman-Review on February 10, 1906, when Cowley was 65, he was quoted as saying:

"Thirty four years have wrought great changes in what is today the city of promise, prosperity and progress. There was an utter absence of this when I settled at what is now known as Spokane Bridge. There were only five persons in the settlement in those days ... There was Downing, his wife and daughter, a man by the name of Scranton, and John Campbell, the latter now a resident of Colville. I don't know where the Downings went to, nor have I heard from Scranton after he made his escape from a vigilante committee.

"There wasn't any particular trouble. Some of the cattlemen got it into their heads that Scranton was responsible for their losses of cattle and horses, but of course there wasn't anything to it, because he was as straight as a string. However, 30 or 40 of them gathered one night and when word came that they intended to take him, he left. It was shown afterwards, if I remember rightly, that Scranton, while innocent of any blame whatever, knew he had no chance against the committee, hence his hurried escape."

Cowley commented on the campaign waged by United States troops, commanded by General Oliver O. Howard against the Nez Perce Indians in 1877.

"I was postmaster at Spokane Bridge during those stirring days, and received the mail from the post riders, mounted on the hurricane decks of cayuses. The riders carried the mail sacks and their arrival and departure was watched with interest by the people of the settlement. Whether it was the cowboys' ride or the importance of the U.S. mail that impressed the people and the Indians most has always been an open question with me, but I do know that the Coeur d'Alene Indians, who were friendly, gave us information from two to three days in advance of our own dispatch riders.

"In this way we were able to keep in touch with the operations of the Indians. Stel-stel-lam, which means Big Thunder, used to come to the settlement, giving us the latest news, and it was generally accurate. One instance in particular shows that he and his tribesmen knew of the inner workings of the campaign. The Indian report came in: 'General Howard had sent an officer and ten men against the Nez Perce, on Campbell's prairie, and the white men were killed.' Of course, the report was discredited at the time by the friends of General Howard, who insisted that Chief Joseph was unable to outwit the trained soldiers, but it turned out to be true, as did Big Thunder's advices to us that all the forces were engaged on Camas Prairie. He told us, 'Joseph has the best of it.'

"We were more than ordinarily interested in the outcome of the engagement. There were two outlets for the Indians. One of them was by way of Spokane Bridge, and the other was by the Lolo Pass. We knew the Indians wanted our stores and we prepared, in a measure, to defend them, as well as the handful of people in the settlement. Believe me, it was with a feeling of relief that we heard the news from the Indian couriers that the Nez Perce were breaking for the pass. General Miles and his forces afterwards captured Chief Joseph near the Canadian border in Montana. 'This Howard man puzzles me,' said an Indian of the Nez Perce Tribe in council when the terms of the treaty were under discussion. 'He preaches peace and yet he fights like a warrior of old. I will see whether he is a Christian or a soldier.'

"Well, that Indian was a natural born strategist. He went to the Council and when told he was privileged to speak, he said: 'Who is going to put us on the reservation if we don't want to go?'

" 'I am.' Gen'l is quoted as having replied, with a showing of authority and a little impatience. The Indian then stooped to the outer edge of the circle and, picking up as much earth as he could hold in his hand, he shouted in defiance: 'When I am like that, you may do it, General Howard, but not before.' The Indian demonstrated that a man cannot be a warrior and a preacher of the gospel at the same time, and in this instance no one will dispute that General Howard showed himself the soldier, though he was at all times a Godfearing man as well as a good soldier."

This ends the Spokesman-Review interview, and is followed by an article written for The Chronicle by Herbert Gaston, and published on June 10, 1914, "Because M. M. Cowley didn't want people settling near his trading post at Spokane Bridge in the 1870s, he passed prospective settlers along to Spokane. Said Mr. Cowley,

"People used to come to my store up the valley and ask me where would be a good place to locate; I'd say to them: "Better go down to the falls; that's where the town is going to be." I was willing to have the town some distance from me.

"I didn't think there would be more than a village there for a long time to come, and I didn't want any village around my place. I was doing pretty well with my trade with the Indians and the whites who traveled through along the old pack trails. I thought other settlers would injure my trade and might bring in competition."

From his trading post on the Spokane River just this side of the Idaho line -- the point for many years known as Cowley's Bridge -- Michael M. Cowley watched the growth of Spokane practically from the day of its start until the city was destroyed in the great fire of August 4, 1889.

On that very day, because of the growth of Spokane, the assurance of its future greatness and the increasing demands of the time, of his own investments and interests in the city, he had moved his family from the home at Cowley's Bridge where they had lived for more than 17 years, to their present home at Boone and Pearl. From their new home the family watched the business portion of the city go up in smoke, and Mr. Cowley then joined the other public-spirited citizens who set to work with undaunted spirits and renewed energies to rebuild the greater Spokane. The rebuilding of Spokane is remembered by Mr. Cowley as the second chapter of his career in Spokane County. Busy as this period has been, it lacks the incidents of real pioneering which make the first chapter unique and full of interest to Spokane citizens.

"You know the name Spokane is a white man's invention, a corruption of two or three Indian words. The name of the Indians who lived on the lower river was Spokaynish. There is an Indian word used by his tribe pronounced Spokan-ee, with the accent on the final syllable. This word means sun or sunlight, and has nothing to do with the name of the tribe. But anyway, the spot by the falls, was a good picnic ground in '68 nothing else. I was with a pack train and camped a night or two, and then passed on.

"The country in the 1860s had many prospectors. Boise was an outfitting point for them. Pack trains went out from Walla Walla into Boise, and also from Walla Walla clear over the international boundary up into British Columbia, carrying supplies for fur traders, hunters and prospectors. With my brother who came up to this country with me, I located a ranch near Walla Walla and I left him in charge of it. I came in to town one day and found an auctioneer who went by the name of Tea Garden in the act of selling a horse. I had $20 to pay for one, and I got this one for $17.50.

"With my blankets and enough food for the trip I set out for Boise, then a placer gold camp. I spent the summer there working at ground sluicing and then returned to Walla Walla, where I sold the ranch and went into packing, which I followed for several years. We got as high as a dollar a pound for supplies of different kinds in the interior, and our route was through the Spokane country or into northern Idaho and down the Kootenai River across the international boundary to Wild Horse, British Columbia.

"The Hudson's Bay Company in the early days had a monopoly of the trading business in this country, but when I arrived the independent American traders were driving the Hudson's Bay men out of the territory. A pack train would consist of 30 or 40 mules or horses with a head packer and about five other men, including a cook for the outfit. The horses would carry about 300 lbs. each, the weight depending on the kind of merchandise. One trip I made too late in the winter and was caught by heavy snows and cold weather. Instead of turning my horses out on the Kootenai Meadows, I tried to make the journey back to Walla Walla. I bought feed for my horses at stations along the way for a dollar a pound, but they nearly all died. I started with about 40 and got into Walla Walla with seven or eight.

"In about 1867, I established a trading post at Bonner's Ferry on the Kootenai River in Idaho. With our axes, hammers, and nails we hewed out material and built a ferry boat which I operated there in connection with my trading post for five years. I bought furs from the Indians, and sold supplies to the miners. Many were then going to the mining districts on the lower Kootenai in British Columbia. I sold my business at Bonner's Ferry in 1872 and returned to Walla Walla, where I was married to Miss Annie Connolly. This year I came to Spokane Bridge, as it is known now, I set up a trading store on the north bank. I knew the Chinook jargon then and I talked to one of the leaders of the Indians. He said, 'What do you want here?'

"I said, 'I want a place to settle. I want to start a trading post.' 'That is good,' he said. 'My people will be glad to have you here. But you must learn to speak our language. If not you can do nothing.' 'That is what I will do. How can I learn the language.' 'You must get a little boy," he said, 'about so high' - motioning about the height of a boy five or six years old.

"So I took his advice. This man got a family to let me have a little boy about five years old. He talked Indian to me and taught me the simple, easy words of the language, and I taught him English. There were interpreters then and later, but they never amounted to much. If a man wanted to understand the Indians and do business with them he must learn their language.

"The old chief's advice was good. As soon as I learned to talk to the Indians in their own language, I began to abuse them. At Bonner's Ferry there had been lots of fur. There were plenty of fur bearing animals in the hills near here, but the Indians brought me none. There was no fur to be had.

" 'You are lazy and good for nothing,' I told the Indians. 'Why don't you go out and get fur and buy the goods you want with it?' 'We can't sell the fur. If we got it, it would be no good to us,' they answered me. 'I will give you ten dollars for every first-class marten fur you bring me,' I told them. So they went out and began to trap to get me furs. The first year I bought $1,500 worth, the next year $6,000 worth, and for several years it increased in proportion. The supply kept up until the government moved the Coeur d'Alenes onto the reservation. Then it stopped, and there was no more fur in this country.

"One of the well-known Indian characters who visited me at the bridge was Chamiachin, the only bald-headed Indian I ever saw. He had quite a history, having figured in General Wright's campaign in 1858. He was at that time the leader of a band of about 300 of the Upper Palouses. He had boasted to the Spokanes and the Coeur d'Alenes that his men alone would meet and defeat the white soldiers. When the battle started, Charniachin and his men were found lagging behind the cover of the brush. The other chiefs wanted to know if he wasn't going to fight. 'You go in and when the time is ready, I and my men will come in and decide the fight.'

When Wright's men began to mow the Indians down with their rifle and howitzer fire and Chamiachin saw that the red men had met their superiors he retreated as fast as he could go. This all happened, of course, many years before we came to the bridge, but the old fellow visited me there one day. He had on a fur cap, and I commented on it. 'Ah, scalped, eh?' I said. 'No, me no scalped,' he answered. 'Me bald head, all same white man.' He snatched off his cap and showed me his scalp, and I could see that what he said was true.

"Just before we came to the bridge, an attempt had been made by Joe Herron and two others to build a bridge over the river at this point, but high water had come along and washed it away, and they said it was not possible to build a bridge there that would stay. I thought differently, and got hold of a bridge carpenter named Bailey, to whom I let a contract for a bridge. He had his materials all on the ground when one night the high water came, and they were picked up and swept down the stream.

"He came to me in distress and wanted to know what to do. I told him that if he would stay and build the bridge, I would board him and pay his bills for the materials he had gone in debt for, as well as furnish what more was needed to build the bridge if he would agree to build it exactly as I wanted it done. He agreed to, this proposition and we went ahead with the bridge. It was so well built that, after 40 years its piers still stand.

"Another reminder of Wright's campaign of 1858 we found at the bridge where there were the bones of several hundred horses on the island in the middle of the river. After Wright had twice defeated the Indians, he rounded up their horses and drove 750 of them onto this little island. Then his sharpshooters were lined up on the banks and shot the animals. This was one of the measures of punishment he adopted to teach the Indians not to make war on the whites again. It was so successful that never again did these tribes take the warpath, though there was some uneasiness at the time of Chief Joseph's war in 1877, 21 years later.

"The U. S. Army gave Spokane its first boom about the time of the Nez Perce War. Two companies were quartered here one winter and then Fort Sherman was established on Coeur d'Alene Lake.

"After the Coeur d'Alene outbreak, people began to look over the valley for chances to settle, but most passed on. I remember one man who came to my door and told me he had just come through the mountains. He thought they were a pretty tough proposition. 'Who owns the land around here?' he asked me. I told him it mostly belonged to a fellow named the United States, That didn't satisfy him, and I finally told him, 'It's yours if you want it.'

"He took a pick and dug a hole in the ground about two feet deep. Then, he went down to the river and brought up a bucket of water, and dumped it into the hole. When he saw it sink out of sight in a hurry, he turned and looked at me. "Mister, you and Uncle Sam can keep the whole business," he said. He was looking for soil with clay bottom, and he didn't fancy our gravel.

"The Indians always remained my friends, and they always had my interest and my sympathy. I have seldom heard anything more appealing than old Chief Garry's appeal to General Howard during a conference over putting the Spokanes on the reservation. It saddens me to think of the way the American people treated the Indians. They drove them from their hunting grounds, they cheated them and despoiled them and finally cooped them up on reservations. The white man brought them disease and drink, which cut them down faster than they were ever killed in wars."

In conclusion, let us pause long enough to appraise the outstanding characteristics of pioneers like Mike Cowley. They had the interlocking and interdependent qualities of strength, character, courage and the adventurous spirit. Note the courageous, adventurous nature of Cowley when, at 15, without money and without friends he took that 41-day journey in a sailing vessel from Ireland to America; when at 17 he made that transcontinental trip into the unpathed wilderness from New York to Colorado.

It is these priceless attributes of independence of thought, of indomitable courage, of wisely calculated adventure that cause us to remember, cherish and honor men like Michael M. Cowley.


Benjamin H. Kizer was a Spokane lawyer acquainted with local pioneer Michael M. Cowley.

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