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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Free Resources 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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The two wives of John T. Wilbur
argue over his estate, one "dusky," one pale

      Ed. note: R.W. "Spike" Odlin urged us to print this story in total. Then a reader asked the question: "What happened when a white wife and Indian wife argued over their husband's property after his death?" This answer below comes from An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties, Their People, Their Commerce and Their Resources with an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington — Endorsed as Authentic by local committees of pioneers, published by Interstate Publishing Company, 1906, pages 154-158. It was written by Henry McBride, a prominent attorney and judge in Mount Vernon and later governor of the state.
      The story is presented verbatim. Candace Wellman, a most helpful researcher at the Washington regional archives in Bellingham, reminded me of how offensive such stories can be to Indians who feel that they were patronized by the pioneer settlers. Especially the Indian women were portrayed as stick figures, with patronizing modifiers like "dusky," etc. Candace is certainly correct. Settlers and especially the railroad men and town boomers shoved them aside and only occasionally tried to understand their culture and their beliefs. By repeating stories from the pioneer days, we do not want to perpetuate the shameful attitudes and actions of that time. But we also do not want to either edit the record or clean it up and make it look better. We print it as it is, both good and bad. We hope that the reader can and will be stimulated to think about the events of those days and form their own opinion. We also hope that descendants of the Indians of those pioneers days will contribute material from their point of view so that we can see the events from more than perspective. Here is Governor McBride's observation of the Wilbur widows. He is surprisingly sympathetic to the Indian widow, although he also clearly shows cultural bias.

      Another case of great interest and considerable intricacy was the famous one of the Wilbur Indian heirs for the possession of their heritage. It appeared that Wilbur had married an Indian woman and later an American and now both claimed to be his heirs. The superior court decided in favor of the Indian, as appears from the following findings of fact by Judge McBride, which form a highly interesting, romantic and humorous narrative.
      Having been engaged for, lo, these many days in the pleasant task of instructing juries as to the proper measure of damages in horse trades and listening to the plaintive appeals of those who rashly enter into contracts at a time when the ownership of a town lot in the impenetrable forest brought to the happy possessor visions of untold wealth, it is a relief to the heart to turn aside from contemplation of these engrossing subjects and dwell upon the tale of innocence and love unparalleled by the evidence in this case.
      It appears that away back in 1865, when many of the towns, now ambitious for county seat honors, were as yet unknown to fame, and the swelling bosom of the Skagit was still unvexed by the rude touch of floating leviathans of commerce, the deceased, John T. Wilbur, hailing from the effete East, first made his appearance upon the scene.
      One day in the early summer of the year aforesaid the said Wilbur, while presumably in search of clams — although the evidence is strangely silent upon the point — espied sporting upon the sand spit near Utsalady a dusky maiden of the forest, whose supple limbs had been marred by the heat of thirteen summers, and whose cheeks were uncaressed by aught save the gentle zephyrs. Deeply impressed by her visible charms of person, and being of a hold and venturesome spirit, he then and there resolved to have her for his own. He made a liberal offer, but she, modest maiden, not considering it a good plan to yield too readily, rejected with seeming disdain his amorous intention.
      He returned to his lonely ranch on the Skagit, there to devise stratagems new to encompass his end. He heard sweetly guttural accents in the sighing of the wind, and in the floating mist he even beheld her voluptuous form. Later on, with a retinue consisting of two noble red men from Snehosh [now known as Snee-oosh] — ah, the music of these Indian names — he set out to visit his sable enchantress at her home upon the fir-clad hillside of the Swinomish reservation near the banks of the murmuring slough of the same name. Arriving there without incident worthy of relating, he raised his former offer, now tendering her parents the princely sum of fifty dollars. But they looked coldly upon his suit, and the dutiful Kitty would not surrender herself to his ardent embrace unaccompanied by the paternal blessing. The date can not be determined from the evidence, but Kitty, who ought to know, says it was just when the salmon were beginning to run. Desiring to be exact in all things, it occurred to the court that it might be well to continue the hearing of this case for a few years while studying the habits of the salmon, but the litigants, anxious for the spoils, objected. An attorney, when a fee is in sight, seems to care but little for scientific observations.
      Once again he returned to his lonely ranch. There in the solitude of his cabin, with no one to spread his blankets, no one to weave his mats, he brooded over his state of single unblessedness, until at length he determined to make one last despairing effort. This time he would go in state, so he consulted "Chip" Brown, who had taken unto himself as a wife a child of the stream and the forest, and it was arranged.
      One day as Kitty lay upon the bank viewing her own charms as reflected in the water of the Swinomish she was startled by the approach of a canoe, containing one amorous swain, "Chip" Brown, Mrs. Brown, and a large number of Indians from a neighboring tribe, hired for the occasion. On one side were arranged Kitty, her father, mother, relations and friends, and Joseph, tribal chief; on the other, Wilbur, "Chip" Brown, Mrs. "Chip," and his mercenary train; and the prize contended for was none other than Kitty herself. Mrs. "Chip" being detailed to act as interpreter, advanced to the center, and the battle of words, which was to decide the fate of the dusky maiden, began. The interpreter, the court is grieved to say — peace be to her ashes! — abused her position of trust to descant upon the charms and graces of Wilbur, and, insomuch as she herself had tasted the delights of wedded life with a paleface, her words had great weight. 'Twas long doubtful to which side victory would incline, but at an opportune moment, Wilbur himself advancing with sixty dollars in his outstretched palm, the battle was won. Chief Joseph thought the sale a good one and her father was satisfied with the price; so the money was divided between her male relations and Kitty, according to the laws of her tribe, was a wife.
      Counsel insists that the evidence is insufficient to warrant the conclusion that the marriage was according to the custom then in vogue upon the Swinomish reservation, contending that Indian testimony is unreliable. In their zeal they seem to forget that the testimony is corroborated by that of one of our most esteemed citizens, one who has served the people in various capacities of trust. He came here in 1863, and his detailed statement while on the witness stand ought to convince the most skeptical that in early days he made a most careful study of Indian customs relative to marriage and divorce. Whether his investigations were carried on for the purpose of satisfying the prompting of a natural curiosity, or took an experimental turn, the court is not advised.
      Immediately after the division of the spoils the wedding feast, the memory of which is cherished as one of the most glorious events in the annals of the tribe, took place. What a feast that must have been! for little Bob, now thirty-six years old, but then only ten, retains a vivid recollection of it, and says with evident pride that upon that memorable occasion they had "bread and tea and sugar."
      To prevent others from becoming discouraged, it might be well to add that Wilbur ran up the price, and that sixty dollars is the highest sum on record paid for a wife. Besides, Kitty belonged to a family of distinction. Neither should anyone who is desirous of imitating Wilbur's example hesitate over long because his dusky enslaver said "No" twice. The court recalls some fairer daughters of Eve who said "No" more than twice, and — what is worse — stuck to it.
      According to the customs of this tribe, good taste requires three proposals. The first time the sighing swain, if an Indian, offers a pair of blankets or a canoe; if a white man, cash. The second time he must raise the an--, I mean, he must increase the offer, and the third time he must sling in some additional inducement in the shape of worldly goods. The third time is the crucial test — if he is rejected then he knows it will be useless to apply. It will be observed that the untutored denizen of the forest has an advantage over his paleface brother in this — he understands when the word "No" is to be taken in its literal significance.
      If the bargain turns out to he a bad one the husband can return his wife and receive back his canoe or blankets or whatever the purchase price consisted of. This should be called to the attention of our lawmakers.
      The fruit of this marriage was three children, one girl and two boys. The girl is dead, but the boys are still alive and join with Kitty in the petition to have Bingham [C.E. Bingham, pioneer banker of Sedro-Woolley] appointed administrator of the estate of the deceased, who departed this life — *requiescat in pace* — some ten years ago.
      In 1874 Wilbur entered into correspondence with one Sarah J. Wilcox [Wilcox], then in the wilds of central New York. Many a loving missive passed between them, until finally in 1876 she came out here and married Wilbur, and Kitty, turned adrift, found solace in the arms of another.
      The bone of contention between Mrs. Wilbur No. 1 and Mrs. Wilbur No. 2, and their respective counsel, is the ranch, now worth $10,000, where Wilbur and "Chip" Brown first devised the scheme that resulted in the translation of Kitty from the haunts of her childhood to the abode of the paleface.
      There is much in this case worthy of comment, did not the stiff formulas and cast iron rules of law forbid an excursion into the realms of fancy and philosophy.
      In conclusion, the court finds that Kitty is still alive and well, although somewhat tanned by exposure to the elements, and that all the parties to this action want the ranch.
      These findings are necessarily brief, but, such as they are, it is hoped that, if this case goes up, they may serve as a guidance to the supreme court in determining the intricate questions involved.
      Dated March 20, 1893.

      While the court indulged in this vein of fanciful humor, it turned out to be a different case for poor old Kitty. The case was carried to the supreme court where the decision of the lower court was reversed. The grounds for reversal and for deciding against Kitty were that while the marriage between her and Wilbur had been made according to the Indian custom, it was nevertheless void, since there was a territorial law in effect at that time prohibiting the marriage of white men with Indian women. It was true that the law was repealed a short time after. but the marriage was not repeated, and was consequently held to be illegal and void, and so Kitty went without the inheritance, though, by compromise, her children received each a portion of the estate.

      Note that the Henry McBride above was a very noted attorney who practiced in Mount Vernon. Years before that he was the founder of the short-lived newspaper, the Birdsview Bell, and editor of the famed Puget Sound Mail in LaConner. He was bound for fame. After Governor re-elect John Rogers died on the day after Christmas 1901, Lieutenant Governor McBride assumed the office in January 1902 and served out the term.
      Several people have asked why we do not have more stories of Indian history of the Skagit Valley. We do plan to share research, but we would prefer to have stories researched and written by experts in the field, by both Indians and others. Please email us if you have any suggestions.

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