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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Paul Pressentin memories, Chapter Four

(Von Pressentin Homestead)
      This is a photo of the original von Pressentin family home on the homestead on the south shore of the Skagit River. It was taken on May 15, 1921, during the festivities of Karl and Minnie's 50th wedding anniversary. This house burned and was replaced by the home on the site today. Courtesy of the Barbara Halliday collection.

      This is one of a series of four newspaper stories that featured interviews with Paul Pressentin and other members of the von Pressentin family, who were key pioneers of the upper Skagit River. The family was possibly the most publicized of all the early 1870s settlers and is the subject of the most features in the Journal. Margaret Ann McCormick McLoughlin shared the story. She now lives in Washington, D.C., and I met her and her husband David at the von Pressentin family reunion in 2001. She is the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth (Pressentin) McCormick. Elizabeth was in turn the daughter of Edward Pressentin, and the granddaughter of A.V. Pressentin, both subjects in the story below. This story was undated but was apparently written in 1957, since Ed Pressentin became postmaster of Rockport in 1924 and his brother, Bert, says in the story that Ed had been postmaster for 33 years.
      Our transcription has only been lightly edited for correction of spelling or to provide continuity. Colored underlined links direct the reader to background essays elsewhere in the Skagit River Journal. You may want to read the whole essay before clicking on the links. You will find links to all the family stories at the bottom.

Homesteading on Upper Skagit was rough
but interesting life, especially for mother

By Charlotte D. Widrig, Seattle Times, Dec. 24, 1961
      If you want to know what life was like along the Skagit river in the early days, you won't find a more informed source than Paul von Pressentin, who now lives in Mt. Vernon. In 1877, Paul's father, Karl von Pressentin [later Americanized to Charles], and his uncle, Bernhard von Pressentin, were the first white men to settle on the Upper Skagit River. A year later, Paul, age 4, arrived with his mother and two brothers to make a home in this previously un-surveyed wilderness.
      Paul's father and uncle arrived in Washington from Germany by way of Michigan. They heard glowing accounts of the back country and decided to take a look at the Skagit River. [Ed. note: you will read in another interview with Paul that his father and uncle learned about the Skagit River after arriving in Seattle. Also, the claim of being the first upriver settlers is open to considerable debate.]
      "Suiting the action to the word, they purchased lumber at Yesler's mill [in Seattle], built a boat, and sailed it up the west side of Puget sound, looking for the Skagit River. Paul recalled. "They missed the river channel and were stranded high and dry on extensive mud flats. Eventually they landed at LaConner, an Indian village near the mouth of the north fork of the river."
      Originally, the brothers had planned to look for farm land, but a search for gold interceded. As Paul remembers from family accounts, his father joined forces with three other men, Otto Klement, Jack Egan, and Jack Rowley and embarked with an Indian guide. They contacted an old Indian who had some gold nuggets, reputed to have been picked up on a creek upstream many years previous. The old Indian was blind and could speak only his native tongue, but his daughter translated, in Chinook jargon, a description of the stream and drew a map on the ground.
      The party explored the river as far north as Diablo Canyon, then went up Thunder Creek (which they named). From there they packed across the mountains to the head of Lake Chelan. Their only encouragement was a few "colors." Weary, ragged and hungry, they traded a few possessions for a dugout canoe at an Indian camp and paddled 60 miles to Chief Moses trading post (where the town of Chelan is today) and bought bacon and flour for the return trip. Headed back to the Skagit, by way of the Cascade River, the prospectors were the first white men to cross Cascade Pass. [Ed. note: You can read more about the gold trips by Karl and company in another interview with Paul.]
      In the vicinity of what is now Birdsview, the von Pressentin brothers selected homesites, one on each side of the river, and "squatted" on land which they later homesteaded. [Ed. note: before an area was surveyed, settlers were allowed to squat on or "preempt" land and file for it at the county seat after the survey.] Soon there was a neighbor two and a half miles away — Birdsey Minkler (for whom Birdsview is named) who started a sawmill. Mrs. Minkler joined her husband, with two little Minklers. Members of the two pioneer families became friends.

The travails of pioneer women
(Karl and Minnie)
Karl and Minnie celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 1921 on the Birdsview homestead. Photo courtesy of Barbara Halliday.

      "In general, it was a good life," Paul reminisced. "But looking back, I marvel at the courage of the women. When I arrived with Mother, we took a steamboat from Seattle to Mann's Landing (now Conway) where Uncle Bernhard met us with an Indian dugout canoe-for the trip up the river. Dad was building a cabin, unfinished as yet because of the time he had lost hunting for gold. Mother cooked in an open fireplace. Often, there were Indians watching her through a window. The summer after we arrived, Dad went on another prospecting trip, leaving us alone for three months."
      On Feb. 13, 1879, an ordeal occurred which would turn many a stout heart away from the wilderness. With only her husband in attendance, Mrs. von Pressentin gave birth to a baby boy. Then it was found that she was carrying twins. When hour after hour dragged on without the second baby's arrival, Karl decided that he would have to seek the help of a midwife in Skagit City, 40 miles down the river (about five miles below where Mount Vernon is today). He called his brother over to stay with the boys: Bernhard [4], Paul 5, Otto 2 and Frank, the newborn infant.
      Karl carried his wife to the river and they started on the long trip downstream in a split-cedar boat that required constant bailing. A north wind brought with it powder snow. About five miles from Skagit City the second baby was stillborn. [Ed. note: Other accounts state that this happened near the new village of Sterling.]
      Back at the cabin, the bachelor uncle panicked the first time the newborn infant cried. Leaving his three older charges alone, he bundled the baby into warm blankets and took him upriver in a canoe to a potlatch house where 25 to 30 Indians were wintering.
      He arrived with a lantern, about midnight, and called loudly for "Lizzie." Lizzie was an Indian woman who recently had become a mother, and who liked to watch Mrs. Charlie (as Paul's mother was called) sew on her sewing machine. The Indians were suspicious at the midnight call but Lizzie came out. The situation was explained in Chinook and Lizzie quickly accepted the infant. Three weeks later Mrs. Charlie came home. The baby was fat and healthy, but it took a lot of persuasion to make Lizzie give him back to his parents. Indians in the area still recall this incident. At two-year intervals, two more sons. Hans and Karl [also later named Charlie], were born to the von Pressentins in their log-cabin home. [Ed. note: you can read about Lizzie at this Journal website about Andrew Jackman, who married her sister.]

Gold fever beckons
      In the summer of 1878, the four men who had gone in search of gold the previous year, again set forth up the Skagit River. On this expedition the party gave names to a half dozen creeks, including Ruby Creek, named when they found some "rubies" (actually small garnets.) Ruby Creek emptied into the Skagit River from the east in a deep box canyon. In 1877, as the party traveled upstream on the west side of the river, they passed it up as impossible to reach. But on this trip, one of the men dreamed that-there was gold upstream. With this impetus they crossed the main river on a log jam, and worked their way back down to the canyon. Their effort was rewarded with $600 in placer gold [about $9000 in 2002]. Paul recalled:
      When the news got around, prospectors came by the thousands. Several steamboats came from Seattle to compete for the business of taking them as far as possible up the Skagit River. There was the old Chehalis, the Fannie Lake, the Josephine, and the Lily, all challenging each other to give their passengers the longest run. [Ed. note: he was speaking of 1880. Due to the most severe blizzard in settlers history to that time, the run-off from the snow pack that spring raised Skagit River levels to a record high, enabling sternwheelers to navigate to where the Cascade River emptied into the Skagit.]
      One day I watched a sight I will never forget. The Josephine and the Lily were racing, side by side. When they reached a riffle just below our home, neither could quite make it through the swift water. Finally the Josephine forged ahead. The captain of the Lily, not to be outdone, stoked his boiler furnace with slabs of bacon. Black smoke came belching from her smokestack as she steamed upstream and passed her rival with passengers cheering and shooting their revolvers.
      On another occasion the Chehalis ventured so far upstream that she couldn't turn around. The only alternative was to back down, for several miles. Very little more gold was taken out, but the curious continued to come for a couple of years. Sometimes 40 passengers would go up, and 38 of them would come back on the return trip.

Unexpected revenue in the gold rush
— selling cord wood to the steamboats

      Dad was away prospecting, but Uncle Bernhard cut the wood, my older brother split it and my mother wheeled it to the river bank in a homemade wheelbarrow and sold it for $1 a cord.
      In olden days our family's grocery bill didn't exceed $40 a year. There was an abundance of salmon, venison and pheasant, all free for the taking. A barrel of flour (four 50-pound sacks) sold for $2.80 at Skagit City, the nearest trading post. Sugar was $4 a 100-pound sack, bacon eight cents a pound. We cleared some land, with the help of oxen we rented from the Minklers (who used the oxen in skidding and hauling logs to their sawmill) and raised wonderful potatoes and vegetables.
      One spring my dad and uncle each bought a cow from a farmer who lived 30 miles upstream. Coming home, one man poled the dugout while the other led the cows along the river bank. When the going was too rough, they swam the cattle across the river and continued up the other side. It took six or seven swims to make the farm. From then on, we lived like kings with milk on our cereal.

      In later years, Karl von Pressentin, who as a young man was graduated from a college in Berlin, became a probate judge and county commissioner of Skagit County. He lived on the ranch until his death in 1924. Wilhelmina, his wife, remained on the homestead until she died in 1945 at the age of 92.
      "Mother was quite a business woman. In her day," Paul said. "While we boys were busy with the heavy chores, she sold the farm produce. There was butter, molded in two-pound rolls, which she sold for 25 cents a pound, no matter what the price might be elsewhere, she had one price for each commodity. Small pigs always sold for $2.50 each. Eggs were fifteen cents a dozen, and no cartons. She would pack 30-dozen eggs in a basket and we boys delivered them, in a dugout canoe, to a logging camp: After 1925, mother stopped farming, and lived on her income."
      Paul left the farm when he was 22 years old. During his youth his school days had totaled only 21 months. But "experience" was a good head master. He built a general store in Marblemount and operated it for 24 years.

Skagit River Journal research
(Ferry landing)
This photo was taken by Kemmerich and von Pressentin descendant Barbara Halliday in 2000 as she looked south across the Skagit. Karen Halliday is standing where the old Pressentin ferry once landed and looking toward the old Karl von Pressentin ranch on the south side. You can see the bridge over Pressentin Creek on the south bank.

      In conversations with family descendants, we learned that Wilhelmina, who went by Minnie, was in many ways symbolic of the transition between women pioneers whose lives were influenced by their experiences in their home country, versus women who were born and grew up in the U.S.
      Her mother died back in Germany when Minnie was a young girl and her father remarried and had four boys with his second wife. Her half-brother, Ernest, was likely born on the ship the family boarded to the U.S. in 1867. He moved out to Birdsview from Wisconsin sometime in the 1880s. Wilhelmina worked hard on the farm in Germany and in the U.S., equaling her younger brothers in their labor, and she continued to work on the homestead in Washington.
      Barbara Halliday, Minnie's great-granddaughter, recalled that her mother, Pauline Kemmerich, told her that Minnie loved farm life and took great interest in her pigs, chickens, etc., caring for them herself in addition to handling the household tasks. She was a short woman and heavy-set, in contrast to her tall, thin husband. She told Pauline that life in Germany was very hard for her and that experience influenced her expectations about other people, including her daughters-in-law, whom she expected to pitch in with hard, manual labor on the homestead when they were around. She spent 22 years there as a widow after Karl died. Pauline's mother, Jessie Taylor, married Karl and Minnie's youngest son, Karl, or Charlie.

Links, background reading and sources
Other interviews with Paul Pressentin
Other stories that include von Pressentin information

      See this Journal website for a timeline of local, state, national and international events for years of the pioneer period.
      Search the entire Journal site.
      Due to continued popular demand, in the interest of furthering our "open source" policy, we are assembling a collection of CDs that will include MS Word files of our pioneer profiles and town profiles from years 1-5, so that you can print them individually at your convenience. Inquire for details today via email or see our site about the planned CDs offering.

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(bullet) Story posted on Feb. 12, 2002, and last updated Aug. 30, 2006
(bullet) Did you enjoy this story? Remember, as with all our features, this story is a draft and will evolve as we discover more information and photos. This process continues until we eventually compile a book about Northwest history.
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