J.J.H. VAN BOKKELEN. – We constantly find among those that are here present lives of such incident and fullness, that any sketch must be so meager as to be well-nigh worthless. The active career of Mr. Von Bokkelen, covering more than half a century, is one of them.
He inherits his name and much of his rugged mentality from an old Holland family on his father’s side, which at the time of the entrance of the French and flight of the King came to New York. There the grandfather became one of the first physicians, settling in the old Bowery, he having been in Holland physician to the King’s household. During the war of 1812 his father continued the active reputation of the family by making a hazardous voyage with one Captain Main to Japan for a load of saltpeter for Uncle Sam, running the gauntlet of two British war ships on the return voyage by the Cape of Good Hope. His father during the balance of his life followed a shipping and commercial business.
On the mother’s side our subject is of a hardy sea-faring Welsh family, that came to New York in 1867, his grandfather on his mother’s side being the third licensed pilot in New York; and during the Revolutionary war he was most famous for piloting the French fleet into the bay. His early recollections extend to the visit of Lafayette, whom he saw at the house of his grandmother, whither the great Frenchman had come to present her with a golden anchor in commemoration of the services of her husband. His active and lively boyhood was spent in school, in society and with the New York Fire Department. He saw the opening of the Erie Canal, and with his father called upon David Clinton. There was scarcely a public event in and around New York which escaped his keen scrutiny.
This observance of and interest in public matters during his youth and early manhood brought him into personal contact with the great events and men of the times. He early began as a clerk in a wholesale house, and led the high-pressure life of the young men of those days. In 1843 he went south to Alabama as shipping clerk in the cotton business a year, and two years longer as agent of mail contracts. The wild and reckless life into which he was thrown proved inimical to his health; and he went home to die at his father’s new residence in North Carolina. A full year of sickness, however, failed to kill him; and, upon the recommendation of physicians, he set off on a voyage to California to recover his strength. By the time that the Horn was doubled and the Golden Gate reached, his old vigor had returned; and, at Big Bar and Pilot Hill, he dug gold as fast as the best of them. Hoping to make some great strike, he performed a prospecting tour in the mountains, from which he returned dead-broke and had to work his way to San Francisco, where he soon found himself appointed as inspector of customs through the influence of David Broderick and Fred Kohler, formerly his associates in New York.
This occupation proved too slow; and with a few companions he set sail for Queen Charlotte’s Island in April, 1851, to discover gold. But the findings were so small as to make him glad t take passage on a Hudson’s Bay ship to Port Rupert; and he returned to California in the fall of 1852. There once more he set to digging in earnest, and was so successful as to be nearly ready to return home. But a land-slip, or cave-in, of his mine, burying him under rocks and gravel, so seriously impaired his frame, breaking bones, etc., as to detain him over winter; and in the meantime he took ship in June, 1853, with Captain Coupe on the bark Success for Puget Sound. Landing at Penn’s Cove on Whidby Island, he assisted the Captain in building a town; and he cut the first tree felled at Coupeville. But, hearing of the coal on Bellingham Bay, he steered thither, soon crossing over to Nanaimo. In that British region he got into a singular difficulty. Some of the squad to which he belonged felled a tree before daylight, which dropped upon and crushed some machinery just brought from England, and intended for enlarging the works at the coal mine. In their fright, these men averred that Van Bokkelen was an agent of the Bellingham Bay Company, sent secretly to persuade some twenty of the men to leave the Nanaimo mine for its American rival. He was accordingly arrested and sent to Victoria under the conduct of ten Indians. He was held in prison for a month awaiting a ship to sail to London, where he was to be tried for high treason against the Hudson’s Bay Company; but, as it was manifestly impossible to establish against him any charge, he was set free; and after working around a few weeks for money he crossed the straits for Port Townsend.
About this time the Indian war broke out; and, joining the command of Captain Ebey, he went to the Snohomish river. He rose by election to the position of orderly sergeant, and after four months to the captaincy of Company E, and was finally made a major in the Northern Battalion. He saw very active service, and was scouting constantly in the mountains.
Returning from the war he began farming, but was soon appointed deputy collector, serving a part of the time in the Colville district. He also acted, while at Port Townsend, as county auditor and postmaster. After leaving the custom-house, he continued in the two latter offices, and subsequently served was also a member of the territorial council a term from Colville district, and two terms from Port Townsend district, in the house.
His two children have reached adult life; and the daughter is married. Now, at the age of seventy-three, Mr. Van Bokkelen devotes his energies, which are but little impaired, to conducting the Seamen’s Bethel at the Port, and in assisting the Methodist church of that city. Although having seen as much as anyone of the shines and shadows of life, and having tried it from all sides, none of his memories are more bright than those which relate to his mother’s and father’s training of his early years; and, in all his varied fortunes and misfortunes, he finds nothing of which to complain, or indeed, to regret.