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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Mountain Man John McMillan,
King of Big Beaver creek

(John McMillan)
John McMillan panning for gold on Ruby creek, one of the few photos of the pioneer. Courtesy of the Bob Jenkins book, Last Frontier in the North Cascades.

Mount Baker Almanac, published 1950
By Charles H. Park, 1927, Supervisor, Mount Baker National Forest

      John McMillan was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1854 and came to Washington in 1884 when gold was discovered on Ruby creek. [Ed. note: the gold rush on the Ruby actually peaked in 1880 when about 5,000 miners flocked there; some sources say that McMillan first came to the Skagit Valley in 1883.] He trapped, hunted and prospected in the Skagit Valley and traveled the Skagit-Hope trail to Fort Hope [in British Columbia] to trade his furs for supplies. On one of those trips he returned with an Indian wife, a half-breed girl, and took her to his home on the banks of the Skagit river, which later became the Rowland Ranger Station.
      Later, when the gold rush came and packing supplies for prospectors and miners became profitable, McMillan traded his place on the banks of the Skagit river with Tommy Rowland, who had a place on Big Beaver creek where grass was plentiful for the many packhorses and mules in his pack string, and where abundant supplies of hay could be put up to carry the pack stock over the winter. The house and barn, which McMillan built, bore evidence for many years after he left, of the handiwork of his Indian wife, in the form of Indian beadwork, baskets and various contraptions tied together with bark strings.
      McMillan, tiring of the hardships of the rugged Skagit country, left his Indian family provision for a year after the fever of the gold rush had subsided, and departed to see the cities and towns of Puget sound. While out on this trip he applied for and received his citizenship in the United States. When his money was gone and he found it was more difficult to earn more there than it was in the real pioneering county, he returned to his Big Beaver creek home, only to find a large party of Fraser Indians camped there and all his stock of food, hay and grain gone. In a rage, he drove them all off, including his Indian wife and half-breed children.
      He later left his place and returned to the "outside" Puget sound country and in time was married to Miss Emma Love. As time went on, he became ill and, imbued with a desire to return to his old homestead on Big Beaver, he was taken back there, where he died July 29, 1922.
      McMillan was one of type, and one of the very few who did so much to open up the country and make it possible for others coming later to get into the most inaccessible forest regions. He not only hunted, trapped and packed supplies for prospectors and minters, he located trails, built bridges and raised hay and other crops for surveyors and miners. He proved to be a mint of information for early rangers of the forest service and a valuable helper in their work. Being an expert axman and woodsman, he was employed to open up the trails, repair and build bridges, pack equipment and supplies and fight fires.


      Ed. note:Park served the longest of any forest supervisor, taking over the Mount Baker district in 1908 and serving until he was transferred to the Olympic National Forest for timber sales in 1926. He retired in 1931. His parents were Whatcom pioneers in 1880. [Read Park's profile at this Journal website] Contrast Park's view of McMillan's personal life with that below of Bob Jenkins, who worked and packed with McMillan all around what is now Ross Lake, behind the dam.

McMillan, the Mountain, the Man and the Legend
(Ruby creek map)
Ruby creek-area map, courtesy of the National Park Service

From the book, Last Frontier in the North Cascades, published 1950 By Will D. "Bob" Jenkins, 1984
      From the cupola of the lookout station on Sourdough's rocky summit , I could look beyond the snow slopes of the north face into the valley of Big Beaver creek where it flows into the Skagit. part of the drainage there comes from contributing headwaters born in the snowfields of McMillan Mountain, so named for a man who was legend in the high Cascades even before his death.
      The spectacular thing about McMillan is its natural beauty rather than its ruggedness. It lacks some of the fierce grandeur of the wild and craggy Picket Range on its west and the lofty spire of Hozomeen skirting the Canadian north. McMillan is softly beautiful by comparison, with enchanting high meadows aflame with wild followers in July. The mountain is best seen only from surrounding vantage points well above timberline, and mine was of the best.
      One of the greatest stands of virgin old-growth of the West has ever known filled Big Beaver Valley at the mountain's base when I was a boy. Here on the hottest days you walked in the cool shade of monarch Douglas fir and western red cedar; beneath your feet you felt the springy softness of moss hat lay over the forest floor, here and there giving way to red huckleberry. You followed an old packer's trail through this valley of big trees and great solitude to emerge in a grassy clearing where stood the cabin and hay barn of pioneer John McMillan. And here you were suddenly awed by the overwhelming beauty of the mountain that wears his name, rearing upward beyond the clearing.
      In the pit of the valley, in my time, the cabin and hay barn that identified the "ranch" was still owned and used by McMillan, who came to these parts from his native Ontario in 1883, but who, during my acquaintance, was running a roadhouse at the mouth of Ruby creek.
      John, who stood well above six feet, and his wife Emma were good friends of mine. Their homey Ruby cabin, ample food, and comfortable bunks were pleasant to anticipate at the end of ta hard day on the trail. I made their acquaintance first in 1915 while working with Herman Rohde's thirty-mule team, packing grub and dynamite to the Empire mine. The McMillan roadhouse was at Mile 29 on the Goat Trail, a stone's throw from the bridge that spanned the narrow gorge of the Skagit just north of the mouth of Ruby creek. Today his place lies under the impounded waters of Ross lake.
      As a youthful spark chaser in Ranger Tommy Thompson's meager crew of summer fire guards (there were only five of us in the entire 900 square-mile-area lying north and east of Marblemount), I had heard a variety of accounts of the arrival of John McMillan, of his relations with the half-breed wife of a Canadian trapper, and the termination of their common-law union before the turn of the century. Big John was among a vanguard of early prospectors, Canadian and American, who abandoned claims on Fraser river bars to join the new rush to Ruby creek following the strike of 1883 [actually 1878-80].

(McMillan's roadhouse)
      This photo of the McMillan roadhouse is also from the Bob Jenkins Last Frontier book. The caption reads: "An informal moment at John McMillan's roadhouse at Ruby creek, 29 miles above Marblemount. Big John is at the right, holding shovel. Otehrs are not definitely identified. McMillan's was a popular stopping place for many years." Along with the gold-panning photo, these photos are from the collection of the legendary forest ranger, Tommy Thompson.

The first McMillan companion caused a ruckus
      Macmillan first located on the Skagit, on a river bench later to become known as "Rowland's" Tommy Rowland was at that time on Big Beaver. By 1884, McMillan had acquired a sizeable string of horses and mules and was packing supplies to Ruby's prospectors out of the Hudson's Bay post at old Fort Hope on the Fraser [in British Columbia, Canada]. Grass for his pack train was scarce below the border, forty-odd miles south of Hope. Beyond the big wild meadow of the Whitworth ranch on the Canadian side of the boundary near Mt. Hozomeen, the country to the south was a region of dense timber and little forage. Just about the only good grass between the border and Ruby was at Tommy Rowland's.
      The two men traded homesteads. The packer [McMillan] took over the lush meadow grass on Big Beaver and Tommy Rowland moved into McMillan's former layout on the Skagit. There, Rowland, a devout student and reader of The Book, proclaimed the site of his second home as "New Jerusalem," under the towering slopes of Jack Mountain.
      On Whitworth ranch lived one George Gordon and his common-law wife, a young and comely half-breed girl from a tribe on Thompson river, who became a central figure in John McMillan's occupancy of Beaver ranch. In my time there was a variety of accounts of the asserted romance between the girl and the big Scot packer; of the clash between Gordon and McMillan that flared as a sequel to the triangle, and of circumstances surrounding the young woman's removal to the McMillan cabin.
      Ranger Tommy Thompson and Glee Davis told me they were inclined to side with John McMillan, on the grounds that what McMillan did to Gordon when Gordon shoved the muzzle of a Winchester in the packer's face was completely justified.
      It seems the trouble started as McMillan was hazing his heavily loaded pack string along the Skagit trail at Whitworth's, and rode into the clearing as Gordon was beating the girl with a club. John got off his horse, and Gordon, sensing interference, reached for his gun. McMillan slapped the rifle from Gordon's hands and, as the story was told and re-told in the camps of the miners, "beat the livin' hell out of Gordon."
      McMillan had little more than tied off his mules and fed the string in his overnight camp south of the Whitworth ranch when the jangle and rattle of pots and pans came to his ears, and into the light of the packer's night fire rode the girl on a bay cayuse, her meager bundle of personals and a variety of kitchenware dangling from her saddle.
      Some of Big John's critics claimed he ran off with Gordon's wife; others contended she ran off at night to take up with McMillan, whom she considered her protector. There were those who condemned the husky Scot as a wife stealer, and others who defended his acceptance of the girl, pointing out that she faced a bitter fate if she returned north of the border. There was only Whitworth ranch, and Gordon, and a forbidding wilderness beyond the line.
      Well, anyway, there she was, and that's how she came to share Macmillan's home on Big Beaver. It was admitted by those who knew them that he was good to her and at Beaver ranch a girl child was born to them; May creek was named for her.

McMillan marries a white woman
(Mrs. McMillan)
Mrs. Emma Love McMillan at the
Big Beaver creek cabin


      How this union terminated has as many contradictory versions as the story of its beginning. But it is known that sometime around 1894, John McMillan sent the Thompson river girl and her child out to Hope when the little one came into an age that called for schooling. It was Glee Davis's notion that McMillan felt duty bound to give the child a chance for education, that probably the mother felt the same. I have always been inclined to agree with Davis, who perhaps knew the family better than most others. Knowing John McMillan as I did in my youth, I could not believe the big packer had anything but kindness in his heart.
      Considering the circumstance of the relationship on Beaver ranch in 1894, it is not difficult to be charitable. Apparently McMillan found his later existence a lonely one. He finally went "outside" for about a year and when he returned he carried the papers of a naturalized United States citizen. He later married Emma Love and returned to Beaver ranch, trapping in winters and panning for Ruby's placer gold in summers. In the couple moved to the mouth of Ruby creek, where in later years, they operated the place as a roadhouse.
      In failing health, McMillan returned to Beaver ranch and there he died the night of July 29, 1922, at the age of sixty-eight. word of the pioneer's death going over the Forest Service wire to Bacus [Backus] station in Marblemount, started Ranger Tommy Thompson up the forty-odd miles of the trail to big 'Beaver.
      At Beaver ranch, where the steep granite of McMillan Mountain slopes sharply into the meadow of the old homestead, there gathered the Ranger and Glee and Frank Davis from Bar, aging Johnny Mack from his cabin on Canyon creek, George Holmes from Ruby, and a man named Frank Grace, who worked for the Davis family. Grace, who was handy with tools, built the coffin of split cedar, and at the foot of the mountain where the monolith of granite slopes into the edge of the wild meadow, they laid John McMillan to his final rest.
      Johnny Mack, who had a quiet way of speaking, made a short talk about their old days on the Skagit trails, and George Holmes, the Negro prospector who was born a Virginia slave and found a black man's freedom in the high Cascades, made up a simple but beautiful prayer for the soul of his old friend.
      Big John's grave lies near the ruin of his old cabin. A weathered cedar shake bears a fading inscription, "McMillan." The headstone is one of the most magnificent I have ever seen anywhere. It is the entire east face of beautiful McMillan Mountain.


(Four mining pioneers)
The inimitable Dr. Jesse Kennedy found this wonderful photo in the archives of the National Park Service at Marblemount. At the left rear is W.H. Buller, who came with family to Marblemount in 1890; right rear is George DeLapp; left front is John McMillan; right front is Fred Berry. The back of the photo indicates it was taken in Hamilton in 1894. The photograph is from the Buller Collection, courtesy Merlene Buller, Marblemount, Washington. This photograph is from the Tracey Collection, Courtesy Dr. Albert Merritt, Marblemount.

      Ed. note: most of the remaining historical record about McMillan is in the nature of anecdotes and summations of the material above. We hope that a descendant of this family will show up who can supply more depth about this fascinating mountain man. Meanwhile, JoAnn Roe ferreted out one of the most fascinating details of McMillan's common-law wife/companion. Although we never learn her first name, she comes to life as possibly the most exotic women to settle upriver, when Ms. Roe explains in her book, North Cascades Highway, that the former Mrs. Gordon was indeed half-breed, but not half Indian and half white. She was half Indian and half black:
      With sparse findings of gold, McMillan started to pack supplies via the Dewdney trail (Hope, B.C.) to the Ruby and Canyon Creek mines. [That trail became one of the last links of Highway Canadian One forty years ago.] He also trapped during the winter. He took a common law wife, a half-Indian, half-black woman named Gordon, but sent her home after a time in favor of formal marriage to a Seattle woman, Emma Love. Long after the gold rush, the U.S. Forest Service hired McMillan as a Forest Guard in the Skagit district. Some time later, McMillan — whether still married or not is unknown — moved to Seattle, but when he became old and sick, he asked to return to his old cabin on Beaver creek to die. His grave market still remains.

      Ed. note: Will D. "Bob" Jenkins represented the fourth generation of newspapermen and writers in his family, dating back to his namesake great-grandfather who edited one of the first newspapers in Kansas territory before the Civil War. His fine book, quoted above, is one of the two best books published by the Skagit County Historical Society and is still for sale at their history museum in LaConner.

See a list of many more mining stories and profiles


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Story posted on Sept. 30, 2004, and last updated on Feb. 21, 2006
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