August 04, 2008

A Date With David Denny

As some of you know, I often joke that I left my husband twenty-five years or more ago because I'd fallen in love with David Denny, founder of Seattle. Actually, I don't think it's all that funny. My love affair with the most profound man I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know has never wavered, and so you can imagine my delight when I learned a friend at my former job is one of David's great grandsons. And he has an old trunk full of manuscripts, photographs, letters, artifacts! Oh, my lucky day!

David's Trunk
And so I spent Saturday immersed in history, happy as a clam.

Very quickly, 19-year-old David and a pal he met on the road west landed at what is now Freeport Point, West Seattle, on September 24, 1851. The next day they explored up the Duwamish River, came back down, and around the West Seattle peninsula. Here they met Chief Seattle and a hundred braves along a stretch of sand that is now called Alki Point. David decided to build a city here. He dashed off a note to his sick brother in Portland, "Come at once, there's room for 1,000 settlers," and sent Charley Terry back down to Portland with it. He, with the help of Seattle's men, built the first cabin in what is now Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.

You can of course read the whole story in my six books on David and Loui(z)a. Here I'm just going to introduce you to some of the material my friend graciously allowed me to see--much of which he allowed me to take home--including one of David's Bibles, some newspapers 120 years old, envelopes and letters, old diaries, handwritten manuscripts...

Here are some of my favorite things:

David's Bible.
What tops the list is of course David's Bible. He is one of the few men I know who lived his life as the Christian he professed to be--to the point of losing more than $3,000,000 during the recession of 1893. His brother Arthur begged that David shut down his many ventures, but David refused, saying that he could not put 100 men out of work. He could not let 100 families starve. And so he mortgaged everything, trying to stay afloat long enough to ride out the recession. He lost. By the time his brother's bank, no longer owned, however, by Arthur, was through with him, David was left with less than 25 cents to his name. He never recovered financially. He died poorer than when he arrived at nineteen years old. But he died with a reputation more valuable than gold.

The front flyleaf has his signature, dated Jan 18 - 1900. On the opposite flyleaf, Laurie has written: "Grandpa died at 3.36 Wed morning of Nov 25, 1903. Those present were Grandma Denny and Mother, Jon, Zeo, Inez, and Winnie. William & myself. [Added in ink is Zick Use, Indian.] Grandma held his hand as he passed away. The battle is over and Grandpa has the victory."

Letter from A.A. Denny to Rev. Bagley
This letter was actually written to a cousin of some kind of mine--Reverend Daniel Bagley, father of Clarence Bagely, a Seattle historian.

The letter is penned by Arthur from Washington D.C. where, as one of Washington's first Representatives, he was trying to secure the appropriation for Washington's university. The appropriation was important because having the university would put Seattle on the map and secure her position as the leading city in the Northwest. Arthur is, however, discouraged. He doubts he can secure the appropriation and allotted $40,000 "this time around."

But Arthur did pull it off, despite his discouragement. We owe the reality of the University of Washington to him.

David's Matches:
These are some of David's matches. I was amazed to see how they were made and packaged, almost the size of toothpicks, stuck together. And I thought today's matches were a bit dicey--always breaking!

David and Louisa's Glue Pot
This is David and Loui[z]a's glue pot. It looks like a double boiler, where water was boiled to soften the glue in the interior "pot." A pot similar to this, only larger, is what burned Seattle to the ground in 1889. The glue bubbled over and burst into flame. I think 66 blocks of downtown Seattle were reduced to rubble. Arthur actually got richer with this disaster. He and a buddy owned a brick company and a law was passed that downtown buildings and roads had to be built of bricks. If you go to a reading in the basement of Elliott Bay Books, you'll see the bricks.

Frying Pan w/Painting of a Cabin
The handle is broken off this frying pan. Still, you wouldn't want fry an egg in it. Someone's painted a log cabin on the bottom. It looks suspiciously like the first cabin built in what is now downtown Seattle, the foundation of which was laid by Loui[z]a and her sister-in-law.

It could well be the "honeymoon" cabin, or the cabin built up in the Swale where the Seattle Center is.

The artist is not identified but David and Loui[z]a's eldest daughter was a prolific painter.

Anna's Letters
The letters found in an envelope bearing the image of David Denny's Electric Railway Company and bound with a ribbon, contained letters to his daughter Anna from a lover I did not know she had. She and her Dad had gone back east, to New York, in 1888. Here she died of a sudden illness and David had the sad task of bringing her back in a coffin on the transcontinental railroad. In all of my research I never came across the fact that she was deeply in love, and to read these letters can bring tears to your eye, knowing that this young man would never see her again.

Louisa's Sweetbriar
David's step-sister and sweetheart, Loui[z]a Boren, brought sweetbriar seeds from Cherry Grove, Illinois, in 1851 as a tryst between herself and her best friend, Pamelia. Every July, when the flowers blossomed and grew, these clustered wild roses would remind Loui[z]a and Pamelia that they were never really apart.

The sweetbriar grew and spread and the early Seattle pioneers called Loui[z]a the Sweetbriar Bride. I conclude with a picture of her sweetbriar growing up and around my front porch. I am fortunate. The women in Cherry Grove, Illinois, pulled it up by the roots from her farm and gave it to me when I went back to speak to their historical society a few years ago. After three years of coaxing, it finally bloomed!

The inset is a picture of David, Loui[z]a, and their eldest two children--Inez and Madge. In all they had four girls and four boys. Madge died as a young girl in a flu epidemic, as did Anna while back east. Jon's twin died a few hours after birth. The family history is the story of Seattle, and I am grateful to know some of their descendants.

So many things in David Denny's trunk. . .

Merci beaucoup, Theron!


  1. Anonymous8:02 PM

    The same thoughts flowed through my mind when I visit the Alamo.... 1) Wouldn't these people be astonished if they knew anyone would even have heard of them all these years later!?! 2) What would people discover of my life when/if they go through
    my "stuff" years from now... 3) Would there even be anything of worth when I'm gone, not of interest to any one besides my own "kin"? (What legacy would there be?)
    It is cool to see the lives of those we consider heros and pioneers. It shows that ordinary people can and do do exciting and bold things when they want to. I very much enjoyed this story, as well as the one of your Great Grandfather... regular folks that turned ambition into action. How cool. (Your sis Heather, too, of course.) We may never know the lives we touch!
    Love to you and yours, Carol

  2. Anonymous12:47 PM

    Hi Brenda,

    It is wonderful to see photos of the items in David Denny's trunk! I think the painting of the cabin on the old frying pan must have been done by Theron's grandmother, Abbie Denny Lindsley. We should talk, and I'll let you know how I came to that conclusion.

    Chery Kinnick

  3. Marie Olinger8:47 AM

    Brenda, I loved reading your story about David's trunk. made me want to go and reread what is written in our abstract where they signed their names when they left our farm. I copied several pages and sent to some museum out there. Last fall Virginia and her daughter Kim took us to Alki point and several historical areas. So exciting. Just last week I gave all the videos made the day you and Jon Prain had the program about Cherry Grove in Abingdon to the historical society. They copied them on tapes or DVD for Abingdon Historical Library. or Museum.

  4. There is another David T. Denny trunk extent that is held by his GreatGreatGreatGranddaughter in the Seattle Area. It is black metal with some gold leaf leather trim and his name clearly marked on the outside. From the years 1929 to 1985 the trunk resided in David Denny’s Granddaughters house, holding copies of “Blazing the Way”

    1. I'd love to meet the great-great-great-granddaughter! And see the trunk. And the books! My copy is pretty tattered and had been abandoned by the SEattle public library system. Found it at Shorey books.


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