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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Paul Pressentin memories,
Chapter Two

(Pressentin 6 sons)
      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. 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.

Crossing the country, and searching for gold
with the von Pressentins

Mount Vernon Daily Herald, Undated 1949
      It wasn't gold that prompted Karl von Pressentin [later Americanized to Charles], one of the men who inspired the Ruby Creek gold rush, to leave his family, his home and his job in Michigan to head westward in the 1870s. His son, Paul Pressentin of Mount Vernon, recalls that it was the lure of nothing more glamorous than fields of golden grain, the promise held out by the plains of Kansas in the days when the amazing fertility of the prairies was first becoming widely known.
      Karl and his bachelor brother Ben [Bernhard] took just one look at the flat, treeless Kansas plains, the sagebrush and the dust, and knew it was not for them. They took the next train west. Their accounts at western adventure were to become favorite tale for Paul, who grew to manhood on the frontier and lived to see the day when not only was most of the wilderness cleared, but even the mighty Skagit harnessed. A pioneer businessman, now retired, Paul Pressentin lives with his wife [Nellie Louise (Nelson) Pressentin] in a pleasant home on North Twelfth street [in Mount Vernon].
      California's gold rush glitter had tarnished by the time the von Pressentin brothers arrived in early 1877, and they decided that opportunities looked brighter in the north. [Ed. note: we have posted an article where Karl's grandson, the late Chuck Pressentin, provided a different point of view about Karl's quest of gold in California. Unfortunately we have not been able to corroborate his memory and other descendants have never heard the tale. See this Journal website.] At Seattle they heard of the Skagit river country and agreed that would be their destination. Joined by Fred Ross, a native of Maine who knew boat-building but not navigation, they headed north. It was not until they were high and dry on the mudflats near LaConner that they realized they had missed the mouth of the mighty river and ended up in a slough [Swinomish]
      When, on the next high tide, they went on to LaConner, they were still chiefly interested in a farming future on the Skagit. At the winter trading post there they heard of an Indian, camped across the s1ough, who had [gold] nuggets in his possession.

Gold stirs imagination
      Locating the blind old man, they were able to learn, through his daughter, that the gold was obtained "way up Skagit, from creek that flows into lake, a long time ago." Jack Rowley, one of the bystanders who heard the explanation, was eager to make up an expedition right away. With some knowledge of the river and prospecting experience in the 1849 [gold] rush, he was an invaluable member of the party. Joining them, too, were Jack Eaton and Johnny Duncan.
      [Ed. note: when you finish this story, you can read Otto Klement's memories of this journey, part of his memoir that he shared with the Skagit Valley Herald in 1926. Klement had been exploring the upper regions of the river from the time of his arrival in 1873.]
      Their canoe trip up the Skagit took them past only a few widely scattered cabins and into the interior where no white man had been. Ben von Pressentin stopped at a clearing at Birdsview, and made a clearing and built a cabin, which was to be the von Pressentin home [at that time, Birdsview was located on the south side of the Skagit, at Birdsey Minkler's sawmill]. But the others went on as far as they could go by canoe, to the portage at the mouth of the Skagit canyon (above present Newhalem). From there they pushed on over Indian trails up the valley of a stream they named Thunder creek.

Cross Cascades
(Park Creek)
This 1931 photo shows a miner's cabin near Park Creek and Cascade Pass. From this great site for and by Northwest hikers.

      They had seen "colors" on Goodell creek, but nothing worth stopping for, so they plodded on, weighted down by their heavy packs, toward the Cascade summit. Karl von Pressentin, a big, rugged man, was able to carry a 125-pound pack, his rifle and a pick and still keep up the grueling pace along the trail. As they neared the top, their Indian guide, Joe [Seaams; some records spell it Sams or Seams], was more and more reluctant to continue and gradually they learned the reason. The warlike Klickitats had crossed the path, within Joe's memory, and swooped down on the tribes in the Skagit valley.
      Persuasion and promises finally won him over, and he continued to act as their guide. Indian trails, unless heavily traveled, were scarcely worthy of that name. Many of them were nothing but a series of "blazes," marking the route through the dense forests. The Indian way of blazing the trail, Paul Pressentin recalls, was not like the white man's ax-marks on trees. Indians in this region commonly marked the trail by splitting the top of an evergreen sapling, an operation that could be performed with the bare hands and which left an unmistakable sign for a long time. The split tips stayed green but did not grow together. Reaching the Cascade summit, the party paused only to look down onto the new country before them, then began their descent along Bridge creek and by way of the Stehekin to the head of Lake Chelan.
      A canoe they built formed the means of transporting two members of the party, Klement and Duncan, down the lake to a trading post operated by Chief Moses, where they bought a sack of flour, some sugar and two slabs of bacon. While Klement and Duncan were away on their buying trip, the others busied themselves with fishing and hunting, an easy means of supplying food. Fishing on the frontier was not the complicated rite it is today, according to Pressentin. A length of string (even a buckskin bootstring would do in an emergency), and a hook were about all the equipment necessary to carry. There was always a suitable stick handy and as for bait, the simplest solution was to place a pinch of brown sugar on a rock to attract yellow jackets. Swat a few of the ever-present insects and you had alluring bait. To turn the tables, if you didn't watch out, the yellow jackets would eat the flesh of any fish left uncovered for long.

Cascade River deceptively peaceful
      Joe Seaams caught a fine mess of lake trout, but when a Klickitat happened by, the terrified Indian offered all his fish and was about to donate his clothing, the gift of the white men, as a further peace offering. Von Pressentin drew the line at that and the Klickitat withdrew, somewhat disgruntled. The party lost no time heading back toward the Skagit, as soon as the canoeists returned. This time they crossed by Cascade Pass and down the torturous Cascade canyon. The comparatively quiet stretch of river near Mineral Park deceived them and they decided to try canoeing. But their newly-made craft was shattered in the rapids hardly a quarter of a mile downstream, and they had to take to the banks of the river, scrambling mountain-goat style along the steep cliff-sides. When their route was blocked by a canyon, they made a "Jacob's ladder" by felling a tall tree against the digs and stripping off surplus branches to form steps for a means of scrambling to the top. At the mouth of the Cascade [River] they found an old Indian and his squaw living in a natural clearing in the woods. Wapato Joe, they called the friendly red man, from the potatoes he grew in his tiny patch.

How Sourdough Mountain was named in 1878
      Still convinced that gold could be found on the Skagit, some of the party, with other companions, set out again the next year, this time up the Skagit almost to the Canadian border. They saw some color in the river opposite the mouth of Ruby creek but nothing else on their way upstream. It was on this trip that a misadventure to their cook, Jack Rowley, gave the name to Sourdough mountain (west of Ross dam). Jack was making sourdough bread (the name comes from the fermenting dough which substitutes for yeast) and had put some of the flat loaves out on a rock to rise. The bread rose too rapidly in the warm sun, and the dough ran out of the pans and down the side of the rock, all the [reason] the amused gold-seekers needed to give a name to the place.

Dream Gives Clue
      The explorers found no further sign of gold and were on their way back to the settlements when Rowley, who was something of a mystic as well as a cook, reported that he had had a very vivid dream, telling him that they would have much better luck it they crossed to the east side of the river. [Ed. note: for some reason, the reporter did not write about what the prospectors did about the dream. It was good news and you can read about it in another Paul Pressentin story.
      The approach of winter made it necessary for the party to cut the trip short, so they started home, all pledged to keep the discovery secret. Paul Pressentin recalls vividly how his father looked when he returned, bronzed, bearded, his hair shaggy and unkempt, his clothing in tatters and patched with strands unwound from a rope.
      "I couldn't believe that man was my Dad," he says, "and it took a little while before I could become used to him." The gold they took out that year, though not any great quantity, was enough to spur further exploration the next year and led to the great gold rush of late 1879 and '80 that brought literally thousands of gold-seekers into the remote wilderness of the upper Skagit.

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
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