Biography of Michael T. Simmons
MICHAEL T. SIMMONS. – Michael T. Simmons, the leader of an American colony, who established the pioneer American settlement upon the shores of Puget Sound, was born August 5, 1814, in Bullitt County, Kentucky, three miles south of Sheppardsville. In 1840 he removed with his family to Missouri, and located and built a mill on a branch of the Missouri River, which mill he sold to procure his outfit to migrate to Oregon. In 1844 he joined the Independent Oregon Colony, consisting of several separate companies or parties, who joined together in a quasi military organization, and elected Cornelius Gilliam General, and Michael T. Simmons Colonel.
It would prove profitable and interesting to accompany those several trains in that voyage across the plains; but those incidents have been graphically and faithfully narrated by others. Arrived upon the banks of the Columbia, the particular company with whom Colonel Simmons was directly associated halted at Washougal, on the north side of the Columbia, about twenty-five miles east of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, and there established quarters for the winter. Colonel Simmons, however, soon proceeded to Fort Vancouver, and endeavored to secure room, – accommodations for himself and family, but for a long time was unsuccessful. Later he did succeed in renting, for one month, a room in an outhouse occupied by a Kanaka servant of the company. Doctor John McLoughlin treated him with that generous hospitality for which he was so noted, a hospitality never denied to the American immigrant, for which all ancient Oregonians hold the good doctor in deserved and grateful remembrance. But the Hudson’s Bay Company officials were reliant at that period that the Columbia river would ultimately be established as the boundary line between the United States and Great Britain, and that the territory north of the Columbia River would become British territory. Hence they discouraged American occupancy, or any acts which would tend to strengthen the United States claim. Strenuously they dissuaded Americans from settling north of the river; and with equal persistency they set forth the inducements of the Willamette valley, and counseled immigrants to select their homes in that favored region. Colonel Simmons has told the writer that before leaving Missouri his predilections were for the Rogue river country; that this effort of the Hudson’s Bay officials to head off American settlement north of the Columbia first direct his inclinations toward Puget Sound. Nor is there any doubt, that with his sturdy Americanism and rather combative make-up, such British interference or counsel was most likely thus to have changed his resolution. Other influences, however, quite a strongly, perhaps involuntarily, operated; and that he should have been so influenced is quite as creditable to his humanity as though his patriotic resentment of the territorial scheming of the Hudson’s Bay Company had been the sole cause.
In the same company with Colonel Simmons was George Bush, one of the most prominent and justly respected of the Western Washington pioneers. He was a colored man of competent means, shrewd sagacity and great liberality. Several of the white families who had accompanied the train of 1844 had been assisted by him to procure their outfits. Without his aid they could not have then come to Oregon; and he had also ministered to their necessities during that tedious journey across the Great American desert and the Rocky Mountains. He was a man of mark, an old veteran, a soldier who had fought the “British red coats” (as he claimed with great gusto and pride) side by side with General Jackson at New Orleans. Indeed, he asserted with the utmost confidence, and surely believed it, that much of the glory of that immortal field was due to him for suggestions made. Be that as it may, George Bush was deservedly, one of the leading spirits which prompted at that date, and thereafter promoted and aided, Puget Sound settlement. None more than he did the full measure of duty to every newcomer, who, after that long, wearisome journey, needed rest or assistance. Simmons, whose broad humanity was not restricted by color of race-prejudice, a characteristic which was so thoroughly illustrated by his uniformly humane treatment and justice to the aborigines, estimated George Bush by his true merits and real manhood. They were intimate friends, relying upon each other; and insensibly George could, and did, control the more impulsive Simmons. Bush had acquired a competency in Missouri; but he was a liberty-loving man, and restless under the oppression and restrictions of his race in a slave state. He sought Oregon, thinking to live in a free territory. The writer has heard him claim his right therein by his service for the Republican in the war of 1812. But the legislative committee of the Oregon Provisional government, in their Organic law of 1844, declaring that “slavery and involuntary servitude shall be forever prohibited in Oregon,” had also adopted a singularly offensive law excluding from the territory all free Negroes and mulattoes. That same pro-slavery feeling which had dictated this odious provision might gain sufficient ascendency in the Willamette valley to attempt to enforce such provision. George Bush wisely concluded that the territory north of the river, at least so long as British claim was asserted, was likely to afford to him the protection of British institutions, and recognize his manhood. This circumstance had influenced George Bush’s location of a home. There is no doubt that such resolution by Bush was the incentive, mainly, which prompted Simmons and part of the train of 1844 to change their minds from Rogue river valley to the shores of Puget Sound. it is equally a matter of satisfaction to write of the Puget Sound pioneer, who himself regarded Puget Sound as part of Oregon, without shadow of British claim thereto, that he believed that its soil should be open to settlement by George Bush as much as to any other American. Colonel Simmons labored to secure, and did secure, from the Oregon Provisional legislature, the passage of an act in which removed George Bush’s race-disabilities. That regard and respect which Simmons entertained for Bush, and the belief by him and his neighbors that Bush’s desire to be recognized as a free man was the real stimulus to Puget Sound settlement at that date, are attested in the fact that the site of the first American settlement was then, is now and ever will be known as Bush Prairie.
The digression was excusable, if not necessary. It showed why Colonel Simmons and party stopped at Washougal, instead of crossing into the Willamette valley, or journeying southward to the Rogue River. It explained why they tarried in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver. It accounts for the expeditions by Simmons to explore the country northward to Puget Sound.
During the winter of 1844, Colonel Simmons had been selected to examine that country. In December, 1844, he started in company with Messrs. Loomis, John, Henry and James Owens and Henry Williamson. the party reached the forks of the Cowlitz River, when their stock of provisions became low; and the further ascent of that rapid stream was extremely discouraging. Those circumstances induced the party to return to Washougal. Other reasons influenced that turning back. Many an old settler has heard the Colonel tell about a “vision” he had in Missouri, about the time of starting West, which really caused him to turn back. He had in his great manly nature a deal of superstition; and he used to say that “that vision indicated to him that he would find just such a place as the forks of the Cowlitz, and that at such place he would be compelled to abandon his enterprise.” He claimed to have beheld at Cowlitz Forks, the identical place depicted in his dreams. Old settlers may take no stock in the “vision;” but the many thousands who have traveled that hard road up the Cowlitz in ante-railroad days will commend the retreat of Simmons and his party. None of them will think it required a vision to dictate that turn-back in December by any party who had no excuse for traveling but to see the country.
In April, 1845, the wife of Colonel Simmons gave birth to a son, Christopher Columbus Simmons, the first American child born north of the Columbia River, or in the region now known as Western Washington. In the summer following Colonel Simmons again started on an exploring expedition to Puget Sound, accompanied by William Shaw George Wanch, David Crawford, Ninian Everman, Selburn, Thornton, David Parker, Michael Moore and John Hunt. The party reached the Sound in August. At Cowlitz Farms they learned that John R. Jackson, the old American pioneer of Cowlitz Prairie, Lewis county, had just been there, examined the country in that vicinity, and had selected a location and returned to the Willamette for his family. The Simmons expedition continued exploration, fully examined the country to the head of the Sound, made a trip its full length, passing around northward of Whidby Island, and returning through Deception Pass and the eastern channel. Peter Bercier, of the Cowlitz Farms, acted as guide of the party from the Cowlitz to the head of Puget Sound. Colonel Simmons having returned to the Columbia, a party was made up, which started in October for the Sound. The little colony consisted of Colonel Simmons and family, James McAllister and family, David Kindred and family, Gabriel Jones and family, George Bush and family, Jesse Ferguson and Samuel B. Crockett. Having ascended the Cowlitz River to the old Cowlitz Landing, fifteen days were occupied in cutting a road through from the Cowlitz Landing to Tumwater, at the head of Budd’s Inlet, Puget Sound, a distance of about fifty-eight miles. The claim of Tumwater or Falls of the Des Chutes was taken by Colonel Simmons, who called the site New Market. The remaining families settled on prairie claims all within a circuit of six miles from New Market. To the prairie they gave the name “Bush Prairie,” after Bush, who occupied the most remote section of land, the outpost of the little colony. On the formation by the Provisional government in 1846, of Vancouver district, embracing all the territory subsequently divided and respectively named Clarke, Lewis and Pacific counties, and extending northward to fifty-four degrees, forty minutes, north latitude, colonel Simmons was one of the county judges. One of his colleagues was Governor James Douglas, then chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, afterwards Sir James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia.
While the Puget Sound region was part of Oregon, Colonel Simmons was elected to the legislature from Lewis county, and, under the territorial organizations of both Oregon and Washington, acted in some public and official capacity during the remainder of his active, busy life. Emphatically a self-made man, without education, unable to read or write, he was a leader among men, inspiring all with respect for his native force of character and genuine ability and practical sense. Just, generous, liberal to a fault, impulsive, strong in his attachments, with excess of geniality; which would, perhaps have been fettered or restrained by education, he may have betrayed at times into errors. When such was the case, he alone was the sufferer; to no fellow-being did he ever intentionally commit a wrong. All the early comers to Puget Sound will ever treasure the remembrance of his unstinted hospitality, his ever ready and active zeal in contributing to the comfort of every settler. To the extent of his means, none more than he contributed to the establishment of schools, churches and roads and other public benefits. He was a pioneer in every sense of the word in every location in which he made his home. He died poor, at his residence in Lewis county, on Friday, November 15, 1867, leaving a widow and large family. He was universally known in the early days of Washington Territory; and by the early settlers his name and many good deeds are held in just remembrance.