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Some Whidbey Island History

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Captain Vancouver
Captain Vancouver's ship

Old Sawmill 1910
Passenger and Mail Carrier 1918
Old Spencer tore 1916
Clinton School House 1890s
Mammoth Tusk- Skagit Head
Sunbathing at Saratoga 1918

Joseph Whidbey, master of H. M. S. Discovery under the command of Captain Vancouver, discovered Deception Pass in 1792.  In so doing he proved that Whidbey Island, thought by the early Spanish explorers to be part of the mainland, was in  reality an island.

After circumnavigating the island Whidbey reported the narrow channel as being less than 40 yards in width, abounding in rocks above and below the water.  Vancouver named this land Whidbey Island, in honor of the officer who discovered it on June 10th 1792.  Six days prior to this Vancouver had taken possession of all the sound region and name of his majesty, King George the Third. Charmed with the beauty of the island, Vancouver remarked that it reminded him somewhat of a few of the huge estates in Europe, and he was  surprised at the amount of game he saw.

For almost a century after Vancouver's arrival there was little historical activity on the island.  It remained undisturbed and the indians had continued to live in the manner of their ancestors.  They lived in buildings made of split cedar shakes, using Rush mats on the ground.  Many of their tools and utensils were contrived from stone and their dug canoes were formed from large cedars.  The unusual form of dress was a blanket held around the shoulders by a bone pin, although some wore shirts of skin. Many of the men were tattooed and some women wore nose pieces of polished bone or wood.  The dead were carefully wrapped in mats and placed in  high trees.  Although the Skagits were comparatively peaceful, they were often raided for slaves by the war like Haidahs from the Queen Charlotte Sound region.  To protect themselves they built enclosures of logs set up right in the ground.  The strong holds were used when there was no time to flee to the mainland.

The first contact between the island indians and the white man occurred when Whidbey's party landed in Penn's Cove.  Here more than 200 Skagit indians stared in rapt astonishment at the white skin of the visitors.  Vancouver unbuttoned his tunic and shirt to show the indians that he and his men were not painted with ashes as the indians thought.

In 1848 Thomas Glasgow took up a prairie claim on the western side of the island not far from present day Coupeville.  Intending to settle there Glasgow planted some crops.  It was not long, however, before the Skagits became belligerent, and thinking his life in danger, Glasgow fled the island.  Two years passed before there was any other attempt at settling.  Then, under the Oregon donation land law, Isaac Ebey claimed the same land Glasgow had abandoned.  A month later three more men took up claims on the prairie.  Mrs. Ebey, her children, and another family arrived in 1851.  As time passed more settlers arrived each year, most of them taking up claims on the prairie.  By 1856 seven block houses had been built at strategic places for the protection of the women and children during Haidah attacks.

Ebey became the leader of the early pioneers.  He was a man prominent in public service and one to whom others turned to in time of trouble.  However, he was not a man to stand for any affront from the indians.  In his diary of August 19, 1852 he wrote, "Pulled an indians wool and kicked another ones bottom today for being impudent and saucy to Rebecca when I was absent."

Thomas Coupe, a sea captain, took up a claim in 1852 in Penn's Cove and it was on this property that the town of Coupeville grew.Coupeville is one of the oldest towns in the State.  Coupe has a distinction of being the only man ever to sail a fully rigged ship through Deception Pass.  In Coupe's time more than 1000 indians lived along the waterfront by his cabin-a few of them worked for the white men,

The indians, naturally enough, did not take kindly to this "invasion" of their ancestral hunting grounds by the white man.  At a meeting held by the Skagits, some were all for killing the whites while they were few in numbers. Others argued that the white man gave some protection from the dreaded Haidah's.  Snaklum, one of the powerful chiefs, was friendly towards the whites, and it maybe that his attitude help prevent a massacre.  He claimed to own more than 100 slaves at the time of his death, in the early 1880's.  Shortly thereafter all of the slaves were freed.

Ebey was so prominent among the pioneers that the indians considered him to be the HYAS-TYEE or great chief.  It was because of his importance among the whites that he was murdered by the Haidah's in 1857.  This was a case of eye for an eye, Ebey being slain in retaliation for killing of the Haidah chief at Port Gamble.  Ebey was shot at night as he opened his door in answer to a knock.  Severely wounded he staggered outside, was killed and beheaded by the indians.  The Haidahs departed taking his head with them.  Two years later the head was covered in Canada; it was interred with Ebay's remains on the family farm where a memorial now stands.  The body was later moved to Sunnyside cemetery near Coupeville.

Steadily the population grew, and by the 1870's there were several prosperous communities.  Living was cheap although imported food was high priced.  Venison sold for 3 cents a pound, beef cost between 5-8 cents, a goose cost 50 cents and partridges sold for 25 cents a pair.  However, tea costs one dollar a pound and a barrel of flour was eight dollars.

The culture grew with the population; more schools and churches were established, lodges and clubs organized, while some communities grew into small towns, (Coupeville's present church was established in 1853.)

At the turn of the century Fort Casey came into being for the defense of Admiralty Inlet.  Almost all of the prairie land was being farmed, and as logging grew a pace, new farms developed where tall timber once grew.

Comparative prosperity arrived after WW1.  Farms producing grain, cattle, dairy products, poultry and berries began to come into their own.  The Comstocks brought fame and a worlds record to Whidbey by raising a record 117 1/2 bushels of wheat to the acre.  Selected potatoes, a foot or more in length were shipped East.  A fine bridge took place of the old ferry across Deception Pass and a regular ferry service from Mukilteo to Columbia Beach replaced the up-island ferry route from Everett.  A large farm for the breeding of game birds ws developed by the state.

North of Oak Harbor, there lies a permanent United States Naval Air Station, Ault Field.  Whidbey was chosen because meteorological studies showed that sunlight prevailed 75% of all day light hours and favorable flying weather existed 96% of the time.

Sports fishing, particularly for the famous Puget Sound Salmon, has become quite popular.  The Island is becoming increasingly attractive to many people who have retired.  Others are buying island property where they can find tranquility on weekends and holidays.

Today Whidbey Island has all the charm of the country, yet has all the facilities of the city.  There are few places where majestic views of the Olympics or Cascade mountains cannot be scene.  It is a place of forests, farms, and rail fences, of wind swept bluffs, and sandy beaches covered with driftwood-a place in which to find relaxation, contentment, and enjoyment of life. 
By Alan G. May

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 Posted to the web 18-Jun-1999