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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
(Seattle & Northern 1890)
Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered:
Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated
to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness

Noel V. Bourasaw, editor 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Otto Klement, settlers and Indians cross the
Cascade Pass in 1877 for gold, bears and a goat that jumped in the boat

(Otto Klement in airplane)
Otto in the '20s in the cockpit of one of those newfangled airplanes

      It is difficult to know who to thank most for this wonderful story: Otto Klement, who experienced and wrote it; Ethel Van Fleet Harris, the daughter of Skiyou pioneers and the one who transcribed and preserved it; or Barbara Halliday, descendant of the upriver Kemmerich family, the person who transcribed it onto her computer. Barbara has been so generous over the past year and has added both quantity and quality to this website.
      The story is verbatim from the article except for corrections of typos and spelling and update notes enclosed in [ ]. We try not to interfere with the grammar or sentence structure unless it is really difficult to understand. We do not post sic by the misspellings because readers complain that it makes the article harder to read. If you are a member of the family or a researcher and you notice a factual error on the part of the original writer or a misspelling, please email and we will correct it.

      [Barbara Halliday note:] This is an excerpt from a lengthy oral history of early Skagit County dictated by Otto Klement, an early settler in the upper Skagit Valley. His recollections were collected and typed by Ethel Van Fleet Harris. Apparently his memoirs were published in the Mt. Vernon, Washington, Daily Herald newspaper in the 1920s. This excerpt includes an episode in which my grandfather, Charles von Pressentin took part. It deals with an expedition from the upper Skagit River valley, via Cascade Pass, to Lake Chelan on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. The party was seeking gold and used Indian guides, who led them over an ancient Indian trail across the North Cascades. This trail is a popular hiking destination today. To the best of my knowledge, these men were the first Europeans to cross the North Cascades via Cascade Pass. Enjoy this classic pioneer tale.

Crossing the Cascade Pass for gold
By Otto Klement. Published by the Mount Vernon Daily Herald, [Part one: Oct. 19, 1926]
      In this same year (1877) a rumor had gotten abroad of the existence of placer gold in a small tributary of the Methow River, east of the Cascade Mountains. Indians were credited with having made the discovery, two of whom, the Seaams brothers, were named responsible for the rumor. The west-side Indians alleged that they were parties to the discovery on one of their occasional visits to that region. The story was related to the writer, and seeming plausible, he at once engaged the brothers to accompany him to the scene. The report had also reached LaConner, where a party was outfitting for the same place. Learning, however, that the writer had engaged the Seaams as guides, arrangements were made to join forces. See map from North Cascades National Park Service website.
      The expedition got under way about the middle of July with a considerable outfit in a large shovel-nose canoe, and consisted of Jack Rowley, Frank Scott, Charles [then spelled Karl] von Pressentin, John Duncan, John Sutter, the writer, and the two Indians. Reaching a point a short distance below the present site of Hamilton, a large band of Indians was encountered camped on a sand bar. Opposite this point we were hailed by an Indian on the shore, desiring us to land, which we did. Hereupon an Indian by the name of "Poison," a sort of self-appointed chief, who prided himself on his oratorical ability, and who with all was known to be an inveterate coward, stepped forward and delivered a burning harangue in good Chinook, forbidding us to proceed farther. Listening attentively to his oration and at its conclusion without making reply, we bade farewell to the Indians standing around, which salutation was cheerfully returned, and pushed off our canoe and proceeded on our way. Reaching in due time, without further incident, the mouth of what is known as the Cascade River, we camped for the second night. This point was the beginning of our hike over the mountains. Making up our packs of about sixty pounds each, besides our rifles, we left the remainder of our supplies, together with our canoe, in charge of a sub-chief whom we called Cascade Charlie, who had permanent domicile at this place. Charlie Seaam left us at this place alleging fear that his little family should be murdered during his absence by certain enemies he was leaving behind.
      Proceeding on our way, we presently found ourselves traveling over the long barren slope of an adjacent hill. Sitting down to rest, it happened that Joe, the Indian, found a seat on a little mound of earth. While we were talking over matters pertaining to our journey, the Indian suddenly sprang to his feet, his features expressing such tokens of alarm as brought us all to our feet. Explaining the cause of his discomfiture, he recounted the particulars of a tragedy, which we all remembered, and to recite which calls for a moment of digression:

Indian romance ends in tears and bad omens
      In the late fall of the preceding year, a young Indian from the west side, while sojourning with the Lake Chelan Indians, fell in love with a pretty Indian girl, the wife of a young Indian of her own tribe. The infatuation was mutual, and an elopement was agreed upon. Accordingly they made it up between them that they would cross the mountains to the west side and take up their residence with his people. The feast was duly accomplished, and the young couple were living happily together in the vicinity of the jam, when suddenly the young woman's abandoned husband, together with a number of his friends, appeared on the scene. A reconciliation was attempted, but failed utterly. After much parleying it was agreed to take the case before Father Gerush, of the Tulalip Agency, for decision. The latter exercised great influence over the Indians, and in all of their disagreements his decisions were invariably just and final. The priest went into every detail of the affair and his decision was finally that the young woman must return to her former husband. Against this she vehemently protested, but was forcibly taken on her homeward journey, died, and was buried at the point above mentioned. Many theories were advanced as to the cause of her death. The husband maintained that she had been given a slow poison by the friends of her abductor. They, on their part, held to the theory that she had become so rebellious that her husband killed her; others held that she had committed suicide, but the most plausible theory was that she died of a broken heart.
      Joe Seaam looked upon the occurrence as an evil omen, that he, in all this wide range of country, should find no other place to rest himself than on the lonely grave of this poor, unhappy Indian maiden.
      The valley of the river was in most part almost impenetrable by reason of the undergrowth, so the Indian trail, as a rule, led over the tops of the high granite hills bordering the stream. During the third day on the trail a band of about thirty Indians, with ponies, was encountered. The ponies were in bad condition, owing to their feet being worn out on the rocky trail and from lack of food in the high altitudes.

Otto names Cascade river
(upper Skagit river)
Upper Skagit river photo by Kim Olson on
nwfishing.com website

      The little river, up to this time, was designated by an unpronounceable Indian name, and camping in the valley on one occasion, in a beautiful amphitheater of rugged mountains, with cataracts leaping down its side, von Pressentin suggested that we give the river a more appropriate name. To this end he proposed that each member suggest a name, whereupon a vote should be taken in the selection of the most suitable one. Leading the others, he suggested the name "Little Tiger" River. The writer followed by observing that the name should suggest some attribute of the stream, and proposed "Cascade River" as an appropriate name. No further proposals were made, it being universally agreed that Cascade River should be the future name of the stream, and Cascade River it has been ever since.
      After five days of weary plodding we reached the summit of the Cascade River Pass, and a more enchanting scene our eyes had never before gazed upon. Mountains piled upon mountains, stretching away in every direction, presenting the most startling scene imaginable. A silence that was impressive pervaded the scene, except on occasion when an avalanche of thousands of tons of ice, snow, and rocks, breaking from their anchorage in a higher altitude poured down the mountain side into some dark, invisible cavern, below. In the night, on the occasion of our visit one of these avalanches occurred, accompanied by a thundering roar so terrific as to awaken us from a sound sleep and lead us to almost believe that the world was coming to an end.
      There is no exaggeration here, as will be realized when it is pointed out that Mr. Itter, an eminent artist, having previously scoured all the wild fastnesses on the continent for the most realistic scene in America, came at last to this spot, and from here painted his famous and inspiring panorama which was subsequently exhibited at the Columbian Exposition and was awarded first prize. This panorama was afterwards reproduced in Sunday supplements of daily newspapers throughout the country. Many eminent writers have been attracted to the scene, among them Mrs. Mary Roberts Rinehart, who, in her inimitable style so graphically picture the sublimity of the scene in a series of articles published in the Saturday Evening Post.
      A number of influential men of Skagit County have recently gotten behind a movement of building a road into this wonderland, and at the same time opening direct communication between eastern and western Washington. Once this road is completed, Skagit County will experience a marked transformation. Thousands of cars will annually pass up the valley, and the towns along the route will suddenly find themselves on the map.
      The motion picture people will undoubtedly establish studios on the summit and reproduce in films the avalanches in motion above spoken of; while the farmers in the country should be able to drive to the summit, eat their lunch, breathe the rarefied atmosphere, look upon the inspiring scene, and return to their homes the same day, in time to milk their cows.
      Having passed the night of August first on the summit of the Cascade River Pass in the midst of a beautiful grassy glade, we proceeded on our journey the next morning. Following the Indian trail, which turned a little to the right, we presently came to a point overlooking a small lake, walled in on all sides. This pool figured among the most picturesque scenes we had encountered thus far. The water of the lake was a deep indigo blue. On the south side a perpendicular wall rose from the water's edge to a height of hundreds of feet, with a mountain wall above it. The wall was decorated with festoons of great icicles, and with the bright sun shining on these, hundreds of beautiful rainbows were produced above the blue waters of the pool. The picture was one to be remembered.

Indian Joe Seaam bags two bears
      Naming the pool "Spirit Lake," we passed on down into the Stehegan [this is now spelled Stehekin; could have been a typo or possible a colloquial early spelling] River Valley. The scene here had undergone a marked transformation. The fir, cedar, and hemlock prevailing on the west side were here succeeded by scattering pine trees. The woods, being comparatively free from underbrush, made traveling easier. Moving on down the valley past the mouth of Bridge Creek, and other points, which have since become noted, we camped that night on the bank of the little mountain stream. Here, Joe Seaam, picking up a rifle, left the party with the remark that he would go out and kill a bear, while the rest of us prepared the evening meal. He had not been absent above half an hour when three successive shots from his rifle were heard, and returning presently, he reported that he had killed two bears in a clump of manzanita bushes on top of a knoll. Visiting the scene of the killing the next morning and selecting the larger of the two animals, we proceeded to remove the hide. The animal was found to be so fat that in the process of skinning, the oil ran down the sides into the grass. The bear, upon being dressed, was quartered and carried into camp, where the remainder of the day was spent in feasting on bear meat. About twenty pounds of the lean meat was "jerked" by cutting it into thin strips and laying it on racks to dry in the sun. A coffeepot full of oil was saved, to be subsequently used on bread in lieu of butter.

Our argonauts reach the skinny, beautiful Lake Chelan
      Early the next morning found us at the head of beautiful Lake Chelan. This lake is upwards of forty miles in length and of an average width of a mile, walled in on either side by high mountains. The Skagit Indians maintained two canoes at the head of the lake, and Joe Seaam, being aware of their hiding place, they were speedily produced and launched. The next two days were spent in fishing and paddling about on the lake. Finding that our stock of provisions was running low, some means of replenishing it had to be found. Seaam knew of an Indian on the Columbia River by the name of Wapato John, who usually carried a small stock of provisions to sell to a band of Chinamen mining placer gold on the bars of the Columbia. The writer and Joe Seaam volunteered to go on this mission. Leaving the camp about midway down the lake, we landed near its foot at the end of a little valley studded with scattering pine trees, down which we traveled on foot to the Columbia, arriving there in the afternoon of the same day. Wapato John received us cordially and our order was promptly filled. He invited us to spend the night with him, but declining his invitation, he sent a boy out on the range for horses for us to ride back to the lake and to pack our supplies. In the meantime Wapato spread a mat on the ground and had a few watermelons brought from a field and invited us to sit down and eat. The we did, and esteemed it a real treat.
(Stehekin river)
1905 view up Stehekin River valley. Photo by L.D. Lindsley, University of Washington Photo Collection on National Park Service website

      There were upwards of fifty Indians in the camp, many of the young men in paint and war garb, prancing about on their ponies. An old Indian in a tent was holding forth in a loud oration. The writer asked his guide what the old man was saying, and his reply was that he was dwelling on the fact that when he was a young man the whites were not so bold as to walk into the camps of the Indians as they have been doing in recent years; that the young men of the present had no spirit and had degenerated into women and children.
      Presently the writer found himself between two young bucks, who engaged him in conversation in Chinook, a third Indian passing on the outside, pushing one of the Indians against the writer. The affront was resented, and Wapato, observing the act, severely reprimanded the young perpetrators.
      At this juncture the horses arrived, and being saddled, we took our departure. Passing up the lake a few miles, night overtook us, so we made camp on the beach. Talking over our experience that evening, the writer found that the situation was much more serious than he had felt it was. Joe Seaam, in conversation with Wapato's Indians, learned that an Indian uprising was in progress in eastern Washington, in the course of which many whites had been killed. He also observed that firearms were in great demand and that we might have esteemed ourselves fortunate that we were not deprived of those we carried. He even felt that my life would have been in danger except for the friendly intervention of Wapato John, who exercised great authority among the Indians.
      An incident occurred the following day which the writer has often related, and has been called every imaginable kind of a liar for his pains, but it being the simple truth he shall again relate it here.

A goat loves their boat as his final resting place
      We were camped on the northern shore of the lake, with the mountains on the south side in plain view. A shot was fired high up on the mountains directly opposite our camp, and turning our eyes in that direction we presently saw a mountain goat making its way down the rugged side of the mountain, but could see nothing of the party who fired the shot. Pressentin, taking his mountain rifle, sprang into his canoe and paddled across the lake, he and the goat reaching the shore at the same time. Shoving the bow of the canoe up onto a narrow sandbar, the goat approached the canoe, stepped into it, and laid down and died, while Pressentin, without so much as rising from his seat, shoved off his canoe and returned to the camp, all this occurring in plain view of the entire party. We were glad to get the goat, and were in the act of skinning it, when an Indian stepped into the camp from heaven only knows where, and claimed the goat, while we, like good sportsmen, conceded that it did not belong to us, and offered him $2.50 for the prize, which he cheerfully accepted and disappeared.
      Preparing now for our final destination, our guide suddenly took violently ill. Unwilling to be balked in the object of our long trek, we decided to proceed without him. Having secured a rough description of the country we should pass over and the creek which was supposed to carry the gold, we struck out early the next morning, leaving Pressentin behind to take care of the sick Indian. Having reached the summit of the high mountain bordering the lake, the country sloped gently northward and consisted of an alternation of green meadows and woodland. In the afternoon we came upon a band of wild horses, which vanished at our approach. As evening approached, we ran into a flock of pheasants, of which we were fortunate enough to kill three, whereupon we immediately camped and prepared the fowl for our dinner. Another day's hike brought us into the region of our destination, and prospecting in all the creeks around, the next day, without finding so much as even a color of gold, it commenced to dawn upon us that we had been gulled. On our return to the lake the next day we slept on the summit of the mountain above mentioned, and awoke the next morning to find ourselves covered by ten inches of snow — on the tenth day of August.
      Reaching our camp about noon on that day we found that our guide had recovered his former health, and without hinting at his perfidy, we broke camp and proceeded to retrace our steps back over the mountains. Our provisions again low, we had to begin rationing them out, and by the time we had passed the summit, they gave out altogether.
      After traveling upwards of a day without food, we made camp on the 20th of August at a point ten miles above the mouth of the Cascade River. There was nothing to do but lie down and sleep, or so it seemed. One of our party, however, sauntering along the edge of the river, spied in a pool of water a large salmon, almost dead, dragging shreds of his own skin behind him. The find was announced [and] we all sprang into the pool and presently captured the fish among a lot of driftwood. A fire was at once kindled, the salmon dressed, and placed in a pot to boil, and in due time we were privileged to sit down to the most appetizing meal we had ever eaten in all our lives. Noon the next day found us again in the camps of Cascade Charlie on the banks of the Skagit River.

Story posted on May 6, 2002, and last updated on June 19, 2004
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