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2. Arthur A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound

The leading founder of the town of Seattle, Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899) has long stood among the most prominent pioneers in the history of the Pacific Northwest.  In 1851 he left Illinois and migrated westward with family and acquaintances.  Intending initially to settle in the Willamette Valley, he learned about the country around Puget Sound and determined to go there.  The Denny Party sailed from Portland, landed at Alki Point in November 1851, and four months later staked claim to land along the eastern shore of Elliott Bay, in what would become the city of Seattle.  A surveyor by trade (among other things), Denny helped lay out the real estate that formed a large part of the pioneer economy.  He also served as postmaster, merchant, banker, and legislator (Bagley 1916, II:758-61).  Over the course of his life, Denny witnessed or participated in most of the key events in early Seattle history—the founding in 1851-52, the Indians’ attack on Seattle in 1856, the creation and siting of the University of Washington in the early 1860s, the courtship of railroad companies during the 1870s, and the labor unrest and anti-Chinese movement of the 1880s.  His short autobiography appeared one year after Henry Smith published the first account of Chief Seattle’s famous speech.

Only at a relatively late date—1888, to be specific—did Arthur Denny write his pioneer account.  In stark contrast to the Luarks’ diaries, then, which had been created while actually on the overland trail and homesteading on land in Washington Territory, Denny’s narrative of his pioneer experience came much later, as a recollection.  And in 1888 he naturally filtered his recollections of early Seattle through his present-day concerns.   Unlike the Luarks, Denny did not really use the opportunity to note distances traveled, describe natural features, or assess the condition of his traveling companions.  Rather, he wished to establish his (and other pioneers’) importance in public memory, and to contrast his own generation to the present generation of newcomers arriving in Seattle.  Pioneer Days on Puget Sound aimed less to describe the pioneer experience than to draw lessons from it.

Of course, Denny denied any didactic purpose.  In the first paragraph of his text he promises to provide just the facts: 

when we have met the last trial and our last camp fire has died out some may desire a knowledge of such facts as we alone can give.  I shall therefore give a brief account of my removal to the Pacific coast and my recollections of early settlements on the Sound, in which it will be my earnest endeavor to state nothing but facts, and I shall confine myself largely to what I know personally to be true….Let it be the pride of old settlers to state the truth.  It is not 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 (Denny 1888:3-4).

Additionally, Denny devoted pages of his account to naming the settlers who had arrived around the same time he did.  Through such lists he was underlining the fact of his and others’ early presence in the place; he was establishing pioneers’ credentials.

But even when promising the facts and nothing but the facts, Denny exposed his other motives.  Denny started his justification of Pioneer Days by recognizing that many early settlers were dying off, and suggesting that this group would be forgotten if it did not leave more records behind.  Like a member of virtually any generation, Denny believed that his generation was important and deserved a place in historical accounts.  “The work” was indeed “serious.”  It gained in importance because, Denny felt, the coming generations did not share many of the virtues that the pioneer settlers had possessed.  Thus shortly after asserting that he would relay only “the facts,” Denny set about judging the present by contrasting the attitudes and accomplishments of his own generation of settlers with those of more recent arrivals.  In making such comparisons, Denny avoided the descriptive approach of the Luarks and framed Pioneer Days as a morality tale.  He arranged his recollections of early Seattle so that the labor factions—who had managed to seize control of municipal government in 1886—came out looking especially poorly.

Of course, when Denny wrote, he looked back upon conditions that no longer obtained for most newcomers to the Northwest. For example, the idea that a household could attain for free, as Denny had, a donation land claim of 160 acres (320 if one were married), in areas quite valuable for agriculture, commerce, or land speculation, was alien to newcomers in the 1880s. There was no longer room for new arrivals on the ground floor of the city; there was little chance that all people could be "capitalists" any longer. Because many recent migrants worried about having to accept a lifetime of working for wages, often for employers who showed little sensitivity to the welfare of labor, it was no wonder that they showed an interest in unions. New conditions had produced attitudes toward capital and labor that challenged sharply those held by Arthur Denny.  Denny the pioneer wished to glorify the achievements and defend the attitudes of his own generation of settlers; it is not surprising that more recent arrivals saw him as a “mossback.”

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