August 02, 2007

#7 - Forgotten Foundations

One hundred fifty-six year ago, on April 10, 1851, Seattle’s founding families pulled out of Cherry Grove, IL. Louisa Boren, then just twenty-four years old, brought with her some sweetbriar seeds. When she reached the Oregon, she was to plant them, send word to her best friend back home; Pamelia would then do the same with her own seeds and in this way the two friends would never truly be apart. For when the sweetbriar bloomed each summer, they could remind themselves that some day, when “distance and death no longer reign,” they'd once again be together. The sweetbriar was their tryst. In far -away "Oregon," Louisa planted hers at the door of her honeymoon log cabin where Denny Way now ends, and today she is remembered in Seattle's history as Seattle’s Sweetbriar Bride.

She should also, however, be remembered as one of two women who laid the city’s first foundation. In February, 1852, the families had temporarily settled at Alki, across the bay from today’s city. Louisa’s fiancĂ© David Denny and her brother, Carson Boren, were down to Ore
gon to collect the cattle they’d driven across the plains. Her brother-in-law, Arthur Denny, was sick with "fever and ague." But Louisa and her brother’s wife Mary Kays got weary of waiting around on the men in their lives. So they borrowed an Indian canoe from Chief Seattle’s band and paddled the six miles across Elliott Bay, where they chopped down trees, whacked off the branches, notched the ends, and laid the first three log rounds of Mary’s house. I like to picture these two friends swinging their axes in the dark forest along the bank—no doubt with practiced blows, blow after blow, for they grew up in the Illinois frontier.Mary and Carson Boren’s house became Seattle’s first home, and is commemorated with a plaque at the intersection of downtown’s Second and Cherry. But history has forgotten who laid that very first foundation.

Three years ago I was asked to go back and speak at the Cherry Grove Historical Society’s big April 10th celebration, where the small community that still exists celebrates Seattle’s conception. I stayed with Marie Olinger, who owns John Denny’s farm, from which the four wagons pulled out--an avid historian and walking encyclopedia on Seattle's pioneers. We had breakfast together in Marie’s gazebo reenacting between ourselves Louisa and Pamelia’s last breakfast together so long ago. She invited the community women to a second breakfast, and they all arrived bearing gifts: geneology charts, artifacts, pictures. Pamelia’s great grandniece (who lives where Pamelia grew up) gave me pictures of the old Dunlap homestead--where Louisa and Pamelia in tears kissed each other good-bye. I walked the short road where the wagons rambled slowly through town, picking up speed as the Borens and Dennys waved hankies to friends and neighbors gathered along the picket fences to wish them all a last and teary “God speed.”

The best of the trip, however, was yet to come. For years I’d been in search of sweetbriar. To no avail. My last morning, three women brought by a small twig pulled from the roadway by Louisa's old farm, roots and all. Louisa’s sweetbriar...and now mine!

Louisa's farm, inherited from her mother when Sarah Boren married John Denny

Back home, I waited for it bloom. One summer. Two summers. Three summers. What’s this? A bud? Oh my gosh, hundreds of buds!

Louisa’s sweetbriar is now growing up around the porch of my new house. Every day I look out the window and remember two friends of another time. I like to think of them having breakfast in God’s garden, "never more called to part."

But I also like to remember who it was that laid Seattle’s first foundation. The sweetbriar is more than a promise of eternity, it's symbolic of a determination that seeds great potential.

Louisa's gift to time is not so much the sweetbriar as it is the foundation upon which much has come and is yet to be.


  1. Brenda, that is so beautiful, about the sweetbriar and where you got it. Last time I saw it it looked quite small. I think it found optimal conditions with all that sun and your care. It looks wonderful and I love plants that have stories behind them.

    You know, it wasn`t that long ago that women mostly got plants by sharing them with their friends and neighbors, not going to the nursery and spending money. You could walk arund your garden and each plant reminded you of someone. Makes it more special I think.

    (I still do love to go to the nursery though)!


  2. Rachel, Louisa's letters to her cousins left behind in Cherry Grove make frequent requests for things like "sweet williams" and "anything pretty." When David built her the large house in the Swale--where the Seattle Center now stands, she had a huge flower garden surrounding the house, many of the flowers coming by mail from Illinois.

    The two of them had acres of a truck garden. They employed over 100 Chinese to tend the gardens and when Seattle decided to round up all the Chinese and ship them to San Francisco, David refused.

    The good citizens of Seattle caused enough trouble that David took to the front porch day in and day out with his Bible and a loaded rifle, the sweetbriar blooming its head off all around.

    People finally got the message and the flower and vegetable gardens flourished under the well-paid Chinese workers and Louisa's skill.

    For anyone that's interested, the second "cabin" was built 50 yards north of the Center's fountain. The house was built where the Civic Auditorium now stands and Louisa's sweetbriar was put into the cornerstone time capsule.


  3. Wow - that sweetbriar at looks amazing! When we went up for the birthday party a few weeks ago it was pouring down rain so we didn't stop by your house to take a picture of them. Perhaps we'll stop by this weekend when we're up for Jamie's do. :)

  4. Gayla9:48 PM

    Nice to learn a bit of history. Thank you , Brenda!
    Can't wait to get over to see those flowers.


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