Biography of Arthur A. Denny

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ARTHUR A. DENNY. – With the history of the early settlement of Puget Sound no name is more intimately blended than that of Arthur A. Denny, the pioneer, the founder of one of its chief metropolitan cities, the volunteer in the suppression of Indian outbreaks, the legislator, the politician, the office-holder, the congressman, the successful banker, the liberal philanthropist, the honest man and good citizen.

Like many more of those who were his contemporaries in rescuing Washington Territory from the wilderness, he has seen the newcomers who are enjoying those comforts of life, not to say luxuries, to which his early sacrifices so eminently contributed, – who have undergone the same routine as the eloquent Denny. In speaking of his noble wife and companion in early isolation and labor in the dedication of future commonwealths, he aptly described as her portion. Said he; “She bore the hardships of the trip across the plains and the privations of pioneer life upon Puget Sound with the greatest fortitude She was never known or heard to complain or repine her lot, – in her mission of laying the foundation of future American commonwealths, – but with singular courage met every obstacle that stood in the way of the early settler of the Northwest coast; and they were truly many, and often calculated to appall the stoutest heart.”

With such a companion, no wonder Mr. Denny accomplished so much for the good of his race; and yet, that good old man, whose early life was so occupied, so feelingly added (1888): “It is now thirty-six years since I came to Puget sound; and I am more and more impressed with the fact, as each succeeding year rolls by, that the early settlers of the country will very shortly all have crossed over the river and be soon forgotten; for we may all concede the fact that we shall be missed but little when we are gone, and that little but a short time. But when we have met the last trial, and our last campfire has died out, some may desire a knowledge of such facts as we alone can give.”

And then the “old man practical;” briefly, too briefly, gave a summary of incidents illustrating his removal to the Pacific coast, and his recollections of the early settlements on the Sound. With characteristic modesty, however, he spoke of others, not himself; and what should have been an autobiography of perhaps the most notable of Washington Territory pioneers and philanthropists falls short in that respect. The task of giving a pen-picture of his laborious life, this humanitarian, this servant of the people, this layer of the foundation of the future state, falls to an admirer and friend who has known him through all these years that his life service has been performed within Washington Territory.

That pure life will afford an example for the best of men to find something that they can imitate for self-improvement. To the business man, his integrity, his industry, his life of work, commend themselves for adoption as a model. The citizen may profit by contemplating his liberal donations for the University for schools, for hotels and for public improvements. The young man may watch his career in sagaciously marching to the extreme frontier, far beyond the confines of divination, and there and then, surrounded by savages, hewing out a home in the dense forest of Puget sound. The land he first attempted to reclaim from savagery is now the majestic city of Seattle.

What a lesson there is in the life of this nobleman. In green old age with all his faculties as matured and bright as the day when he conceived the locating of Seattle, and that he would be the founder of a great city he is pushed aside, reminded by the busy scenes around him that “The early settlers of the country will very shortly have crossed over the river and be soon forgotten; for we shall be missed but little when we are gone, and that little but a short time.” And yet, in that city he founded, in its works and charities, his life will be recalled; and to him, however heartless the indifference of the world may appear, there must be comfort in the assurance of the Psalmist:

“The sweet remembrance of the just
Shall flourish when he sleeps in dust.”

Perhaps the very best estimate of Mr. Denny’s own view of duty, of the claim a man has to the respect of his fellows or of posterity, is embodied in his own language urging old settlers “to contribute what they can to make up a record of those early times.” Said he; “The most important thing in my estimation is to make no wrong or incorrect statements. Let it be the pride of the old settlers to state the truth. It is no time for romancing or painting fancy sketches, when we are nearing the end of our voyage. The work is too serious for fiction. we want solid facts only.”

Arthur A. Denny was born in Salem, Indiana, June 20, 1822. His father was honest John Denny, the first Republican candidate for the office of Governor of the State of Oregon, in the year 1858, – a contemporary and political associate of Abraham Lincoln in the early days of Illinois, a soldier in the war of 1812, and in the Black Hawk war, a native of the State of Kentucky. Old settlers of Oregon and Washington will remember him as an eloquent speaker, a thoroughly informed man, and a great speaker, and a great humorist. In many respects the son Arthur resembles him. The latter, however, was more retiring in his disposition than the elder Denny, and in public forensic efforts did not display that wit and humor which his friends and companions have so enjoyed in social conversation, but which with the father pervaded his public speeches.

To Arthur was afforded the opportunity of acquiring a rudimentary education, such as in those times could be conferred in the frontier states. He made the most of his opportunities, and in early life acquainted himself with a thorough knowledge of surveying, which he practices as his profession more or less during his early manhood. The family removed to Knox county, Illinois, when Arthur was fourteen years of age. While continuing his residence in Knox county, he held the office of county surveyor for eight years. His wife, to whom reference has already been made, was a native of Tennessee; and there were but a few months difference in their ages. The family consists of two daughters and four sons, all of whom reside in the city of Seattle.

Mr. Denny with his family crossed the plains in 1851, and during that fall came to Puget Sound. It is to be regretted that room is not permitted for his graphic description of the trip across the plains, so full of interest in being contrasted with the journey over the continent now, on one of the transcontinental railways, with all the comforts and luxuries of city life. The little train of four wagons- seven men and their families of women and children, – left Knox county, Illinois, April 10, 1851. They reached Fort Hall, July 6th, having traveled 1,104 miles from the Missouri river. Two days later the party journeyed along the south side of Snake river; and as they passed American Falls they observed that a large band of Indians were camped on the opposite side of the river; and a war party of ten crossed at the foot of the falls. The hostile band approached the head of the little train and endeavored to stop it, pretending they desired to trade. They refused to halt; and, after they had traveled a short distance, the Indians, who had concealed themselves behind boulders and rocks, fired upon them without doing any injury. A number of the Indians now commenced to pursue; but the train crossed the ravine, down which the Indians had approached, secured a good position for defense, and waited for the attack. The Indians, appreciating the strength of the position, kept out of range and soon retired. But a few weeks later, at that identical ravine, a family named Clark were cruelly massacred.

The little party reached The Dalles August 11th, sent their wagons across Barlow’s Pass of the Cascade Mountains, and went down the river in boats, reaching Portland August 22d. It may be curious to know that the estimated distance over the immigrant road to The Dalles was 1,765 miles from Missouri river, – eighty days’ travel, – that this party, from their Illinois home, occupied ninety days to The Dalles and ten days to Portland.

Francis A. Chenoweth, speaker of the first territorial house of representatives of Washington afterwards associate justice of the supreme court of the territory from 1854 to 1858, was, at the time Mr. Denny passed, building a tram-road for the transfer of freight and passengers around the Cascades of the Columbia. At the upper landing were the Bradfords and Bishop. There was also being built a small sidewheel steamer called the Flint, to run between the Cascades and The Dalles, the first steamboat engaged in navigating the Columbia river. Above the Cascades Chenoweth was running an old brig called the Henry, between Portland and the Cascades. The baggage of the Denny train was the first freight transported on the first railroad west of the Rocky Mountains. it was taken over on a car by hand, the families traveling on foot to the Lower Cascade landing, where they took passage on the brig to Portland.

Mr. Denny describes Portland in 1851: “It contained a population of two thousand or more, at that early period giving promise of future greatness.” Mr. Denny and his family sailed from Portland on the schooner Exact on the 5th of November, 1851, and arrived at Alki Point, on Puget Sound, November 13th, and there remained for the winter. They built log cabins for the several families; and that winter they cut a cargo of piles for San Francisco. On the 15th of February, 1852, Mr. Denny, his brother David T., and William N. Bell, crossed Elliott bay from Alki Point, and located there three claims contiguously, the southern boundary being fixed at what is now the head of commercial street, in the city of Seattle. He quaintly remarks: “Piles and timber being the only dependence for support in the beginning, it was important to look well to the facilities for the business.” It would be foreign to the purpose of this sketch to trace the growth and vicissitudes and the progress of Seattle, as it expanded to metropolitan proportions, however interesting and intimately connected therewith was Mr. Denny. Enough has been told to illustrate the task he undertook, the limited means with which to operate, the herculean result which has flowed there-from, which must greatly be attributed to his sagacity, enterprise, activity and public spirit.

About the time of the arrival of the Denny colony and the formation of a settlement at Seattle, there were a number of other points upon Puget Sound that were occupied and settled. The year 1852 was marked by the arrival of a largely increased population in the territory north of the Columbia river. from the summer of 1851, the question of a division of the territory of Oregon has been agitated. During the fall of that year, meetings had been held and the matter discussed. This led to a calling of a convention of delegates to be selected by the towns, communities or counties in Oregon Territory on the north side of the Columbia, to be held at Monticello, in Cowlitz county, on the 25th of November, 1852. Of this convention Arthur A. Denny was a prominent and influential member; and form it emanated a memorial to the Congress of the United States praying that so much of Oregon Territory as lay north of the Columbia river be set off as a separate territory, to be called Columbia Territory. The territorial legislature of Oregon, at its session of 1852-53, among its very earliest acts adopted a strong memorial to Congress to the same effect; and the act setting off the territory north of the Columbia river from the remainder of Oregon and establishing the “Territory of Washington: passed Congress and was approved by President Millard Fillmore, March 2, 1853.

Mr. Denny was elected a member of the house of representatives of Washington Legislative assembly for the first, second, third and fourth session. he was a member of the council for three years. As a legislator, he distinguished himself as a working member, though he frequently made speeches, which were listened to with marked attention. There were many measures, memorials and acts introduced by him; and he did much towards molding the early territorial policy of the territory, though being a decided Whig was in the minority in the legislative council. In the Indian war of 1855, he was among the earliest to enroll as a volunteer, and held the commission of first lieutenant in Company A., Second Regiment, of which company chief Justice Lander was captain.

In 1861 he was appointed by Abraham Lincoln register of the United States district land-office at Olympia, the duties of which office he discharged with eminent ability and to the hearty satisfaction of the people of the territory. In 1865, about the time his mission would have expired, he was elected by the Republicans of the territory delegate to the Thirty-ninth Congress of the United States. In every position to which he was called by the people he did well, faithfully performing every duty creditably to himself and satisfactorily to those who made the selection. On his return to the territory, he entered into business at Seattle, and gave his entire attention to his private affairs, which had suffered to some extent by his protracted absence at Olympia, and at the national Capital.

The unexampled growth and progress of the city of Seattle, which began to assert its supremacy as a center of trade early in the “seventies,” would have made him a man of wealth; but with his business methods, his close application, his conservative tendencies, that wealth has been largely enhanced. But he has made proper use of that blessing. He presented to the territory the necessary land on which to erect its university buildings. Lately he has made a princely gift of land on which and funds with which to erect an hotel worthy of the city of Seattle. At all times he has contributed to the support of every enterprise and legitimate charity.

The history of the growth of Seattle, its charities and enterprises, would have to be written to complete his biography. But Seattle cannot claim Arthur A. Denny exclusively, though he was its founder. His fame and good works are the property of the territory of Washington. among the living pioneers of the new state he is the peer in service, in worth and works of all that memorable little band, who in his own characteristic language ‘will very shortly all have crossed over the river,” not, however, let us hope, for the credit of humanity, as he regretfully said, “soon to be forgotten;” for Denny and others of them will yet live as the revered founders of a commonwealth, the establishers of our Western civilization.



MLA Source Citation:

History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 21 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/washington/biography-of-arthur-a-denny.htm - Last updated on Jun 16th, 2011


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