Biography of Capt. Henry Roeder

CAPT. HENRY ROEDER. – In this veteran of the early times, as well as of the war of 1856, we have a representative of the men who first opened business on the Sound. As such he merits somewhat extended notice.

He was born in Germany on July 4, 1824, his parents being John and Martha Roeder. He is connected by family ties with the great European events of the early part of the century, his father having been a soldier under Napoleon, and having fought in the battle of Waterloo. Not wishing to bear arms for Louis, nor rear his son to fight his battles, he with his family came to America when Henry was but seven years of age, and settled at Vermilion, Ohio. The nautical experience of the young man began on Lake Erie; and before he was twenty he was master of a schooner. In 1849 the gold fever of California reached his locality; and he made up his mind to take a run out to the mines, and be back in a year’s time and take charge of a fine vessel in process of construction on the Vermilion river. It was twenty-two years before he had seen enough of the West to think of looking back again to life on the lake.

The journey was begun February 23, 1850. The two six-mules teams, two wagons and camp outfit were secured at St. Louis; and the party of adventurers to which he belonged reached Salt Lake in time to hear Brigham Young deliver his first Fourth of July oration, in which he stated that the Saints would set up a government of their own. While there they disposed of their wagons for twenty-five dollars each in Mormon money, known as “Holiness to the Lord,” which was worth in California about seventy-five cents on the dollar. Riding mule-back into California, they were pestered more or less by the Indians; and once in the Golden state Mr. Roeder had about the usual hard luck of the miner. In going from Ophir Flat, where his party were mining, to Sacramento City for supplies and mail, he had an attack of cholera, and was also three months on his back with typhoid fever. He mined, packed to the mines, and at length ran a store which he purchased of a lady who, previous to selling out, used to send down her half-gallon jars of dust to Sacramento as her profits. The business was not so profitable to young Roeder. He lost too much by selling on credit. There were too many “good fellows.”

In a fishing scheme on the Sacramento he made one hundred dollars per day. The money thus made he loaned to a friend; and that was the last of his six thousand dollars; for it was all lost through the great Sacramento fire. This success in the fishing line led him to try the same business on a more extended scale in the waters of the Columbia. Reaching Portland in the fall of 1852, news came that San Francisco had been burned, and that lumber was four hundred dollars per thousand. Mr. Peabody, the first owner of Whatcom, had come with him from below. The two men now changed their plan from fishing on the Columbia to lumbering on the Sound. With a canoe from St. Helens, they took the time-honored old Indian route to the Cowlitz, footing it from the Cowlitz landing across the Olympia, on company with Andrew Chambers and wife, Doctor Latham, and Honorable Charles M. Bradshaw. Here they must travel once more in a primitive canoe to North Bay; and, hauling the craft across the neck to Hood’s Canal, they passed down that body of water to Port Townsend.

Now, in search of the water-power and coal, the three explorers – for John Heath had joined the party – came to the Whatcom country, arriving there on December 14, 1852. Roeder taking one hundred and sixty acres as a Donation claim on the present site of Sehome, and Peabody on Whatcom, securing permission of the Indians to locate there. Roeder returned to Port Townsend for men and a carpenter, but on account of high water found no one willing to undertake the journey. In those days the good old German adage, “Find a way or make one, ” had the emphasis on the latter clause. The ways and means to do things had to be made. In pursuance of this end, Roeder bought a sloop and sailed off for Victoria, securing there the supplies and men necessary; and upon his return to Whatcom he began building the mill. The next step was to secure the machinery which could be found only in California. Taking passage on a bark, he made the necessary purchase at the Sutter Iron Works, paying twenty-five cents per pound. The mill was thus brought to completion; but by this time the San Francisco market was glutted; and it was useless to endeavor to effect any sales there. The first lumber from Puget Sound that reached the Victoria market came from this mill. The first Church of England was constructed with it, also the barracks located at Esquimalt during the Crimean war.

A second enterprise begun about that time was the opening of the Sehome coal mines, which were discovered after the Captain changed his claim to where he is now living by the uprooting of a large tree in a gale of wind. With Brown and Hewitt, however, he began to develop the vein, and they afterwards sold it for eighteen thousand, five hundred dollars, the whole of which Brown ran away with; and his partners never could either find him nor recover their shares. In the year 1854, together with two others, he built the schooner H.C. Page, the third of Puget Sound register. She was used for coasting and lumber export. In 1855 the same company of men laid out the road to British Columbia, passing across the Cascades to the Colville mines and thence north. Roeder himself viewed the road and blazed a way back from Frazer river. This was about a hundred and fifty miles of very rough country. In 1856, as the Indian war broke out, the settlers of the mill constructed a fort and stockade in the town; and thus, having their families barricaded, many of the men went off to the war east of the mountains. The year 1860 saw the Captains till prospering insomuch that he was owner of the bark Glimpse, and was engaged in coasting to San Francisco, thus returning his nautical life.

The opening of the Caribou mines, however, drew him again to the mountains and gulches, this time as hotel keeper at Beaver Pass. Those were lively times. Meals were two dollars each, hay twenty cents per pound, barley seventy-five cents. Two very successful summers were spent at that rendezvous. Returning to his farm, he now endeavored to live quietly, but soon found it necessary to buy and run a schooner; and in 1866 he opened out the stone quarry at Chuckamet. The first stone went to build a lighthouse at new Dungeness. The quarry is now a bonanza.

In a political way the Captain has kept his end up, having served one term in the territorial council, and eight sessions of the house, and as county commissioner of Whatcom county four terms. He is a Democrat, but has turned a regular majority of twenty-eight hundred on the opposite ticket by one hundred and twenty-one. His surplus money he has invested in real estate at Whatcom, and on Whidby Island. His wife, formerly Miss Elizabeth Austin, came to Washington in 1854, and to Whatcom in 1855, and is the daughter of Mrs. Charlotte Austin, who kept a hospital at Vermillion for the sick and wounded from Perry’s great victory on Lake Erie. They have two children living: Victor, now in business at Roeder in the Mohawk valley; and Lotta C., wife of C.I. Roth, an attorney of Whatcom. Both the Captain and his wife are members of the Washington Pioneer Society.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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