Two soldiers rob the Fort Bellingham store on November 11, 1856.

  • By Leo Baunach, Sehome High School
  • Posted 1/14/2007
  • Essay 8062
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On November 11, 1856, two soldiers from the recently established Fort Bellingham steal more than $160 worth of clothes from the Warbass sutlery (the fort's store) located next to the fort. The two men, Richard McCann and Thomas Handley, are  convicted of petty larceny in a trial conducted by the 3rd Judicial District. A year later they are denied a re-trial after they claim their confession was given under penalty of whipping.

Night of the Crime

On the evening of November 11, 1856, Richard McCann, a private at Fort Bellingham, left camp and for unclear reasons proceeded to the Warbass store located just next to the Fort. He smashed the hinges on the door and was able to enter after the door broke. Without taking anything, he returned to the camp with the news of his success. At camp, he convinced fellow soldier Thomas Handley to return to the store by telling him that the only thing left was to steal what they wanted.

The two grabbed as much as possible at the store, later testifying that they could not carry everything they wanted to take. The stolen goods included pants, socks, shirts, and three table covers. They returned to the camp and had several other soldiers take the goods to a home located near the camp. An unclear series of events then prevailed, in which someone found out and notified George Pickett (1825-1875), the commander of the fort, who promptly had the pair arrested.

The Trial

Three days after their arrest, Handley and McCann were handed into the custody of Russell V. Peabody (1826-1868), a Whatcom County pioneer and part owner of the first mill on Bellingham Bay. They remained in his custody for just three days until they were summoned to appear in front of the 3rd Judicial District Court. The pair was tried before a jury on the charges of burglary and petty larceny for the taking of an estimated $167 worth of materials from the Warbass store. Handley and the lookout at the camp testified before the jury, giving virtually identical testimonies.

The jury acquitted Thomas Handley and Richard McCann of burglary, but found them guilty of petty larceny after a short trial. The court did not record any official punishment, but on July 11, 1857 the two filed a request for a retrial on the ground that they had confessed under threat of a whipping. They claimed this had happened to them at the fort several times before, and their fear had motivated them to a false confession. The presiding official wrote that a new trial was an unnecessary delay, but stopped short of outright rejection. No further action was taken on the case after this.

The Warbass Store and the Fort

Edward D. Warbass (1825-1906) operated the Warbass sutlery (store), which sold clothes and provisions to the soldiers at Fort Bellingham during the tenure of the fort from August 1856 to July 1859. It was located down a short trail from the Southwest blockhouse at Fort Bellingham, beside a gully and just above the beach.

According to an 1858 audit by Inspector Joseph Mansfield, discipline and obedience at the fort remained spotty throughout its short tenure. Over a year after the case of McCann and Handley, there were two similar incidents at the store. On December 3rd or 4th, 1857, a soldier from the fort grabbed $12 worth of goods from the store just before he deserted. Eighteen days later, on the 21st, five men grabbed a total of $80 worth of clothes and other items from the store. They also stole a canoe that they used to facilitate their escape. None of these men were brought to trial, but Captain Pickett and E. D. Warbass appeared in front of the Commissioner for the 3rd Judicial District to testify on the manner.

The case of Richard McCann and Thomas Handley provides an interesting glimpse into the dynamics of the fort, as well as crime and punishment in Whatcom County's formative years. Unlike other cases, the pair wasn't trying to desert, just furtively make away with as much as they could from the store and reap the profits. They were also the only soldiers brought before a full civilian court for misconduct at Fort Bellingham while it was in full working order. They may have been the first test of order at the new Fort.

Sources: "Frontier Justice: Guide to the Court Records of Washington Territory, 1853-1889 (WTC-368)," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State, Division of Archives and Records Management, Digital Archives website accessed November 2006 ( ); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "San Juan County -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham) and "Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody establish Whatcom Mill on Bellingham Bay in December 1852" (by Laura McCarty), (accessed November 2006); "Indian War Muster Rolls Military Record(#AR82-1-12-5116)," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State, Division of Archives and Records Management, Digital Archives website accessed November 2006 ( ); "San Juan County Census Record (#AR82-1-12-7016)," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State, Division of Archives and Records Management, Digital Archives website accessed November 2006 ( ); US v. Thomas Handley and Richard McCann, 1856, Island County 3rd Judicial District Court Records, Case 65, Northwest Regional Branch Series NW316-3-2, Washington State Archives; Howard E. Buswell Papers and Photographs Collection, Box 12, Series VII- Whatcom County Historical Materials, 1858-1957, Northwest Regional Branch, Washington State Archives.
Leo Baunach revised this file slightly on March 21, 2007.

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