Biography of A. B. Rabbeson

A.B. RABBESON. – Mr. Rabbeson, who observes that “he was born of rich but honest parents” at New York in 1824, was devoted from his youth to the most interesting and desperate adventures. Nevertheless, he was always delivered from his perils just at the right time, and lives to-day in hale age at Olympia.

His boyish adventures began not many years after the death of his father in 1833. His step-father he did not like, and consequently left home. We find him out in Canada, soon at New York City with his grandparents and attending school, but within a few months on a coasting ship to Florida, where, with two mutinous sailors, he left ship and wandered through Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to Cincinnati, where his companions left him to shift for himself. Making his way to Columbus, Ohio, he obtained steady work, but also found and read the biography of a Rocky Mountain man, which fired his mind with a burning youthful desire to go West and try it for himself. Nevertheless, it was not until after more wanderings in Canada, a short period at buffalo, a trip on the lakes, and a few years in the old West, – Ohio and Illinois, – that he finally got his feet on the Oregon trail; for it was mythic Oregon which was his lure.

The autumn of 1846 found his party broken down and given out on the steep brow of Laurel Hill. Young Rabbeson was the one to go down to Foster’s on the Clackamas and obtain of that kind-hearted gentleman five yoke of oxen free, with which to return and haul out his companions. Once in Oregon the young man took a brief survey of the west side of the Willamette valley, but soon turned his steps towards the wild country of Puget Sound. It was a rough trip up the Cowlitz trail on foot, and himself his own pack horse. His food was dried salmon and fern roots obtained of the Indians. Ten miles past the freight settlement and Hudson’s Bay post he lodged at the cabin of John R. Jackson, the first American settler of the territory. The food set before him was boiled wheat straight, – as good as the farm afforded. At Skookum Chuck he met for the first time the first settlers of that region, – Sydney Ford, George Wanch, with their families, and Joseph Borst, each of whom had a cow or two, and were living on the fat of the land, that is, peas and milk.

The pioneers of the Sound whose settlement he reached the third day out from the Columbia were then Michael T. Simmons, George Bush, Gabriel Jones, David Kindred, and the bachelors, Jesse Ferguson and Samuel Crockett. By all of these he was treated with the signal kindness of the Western pioneers, but remembers George Bush, the esteemed and honored mulatto, as one who, in hospitality, was even an exception among those exceptionally free-handed men. Another trip to the Willamette valley convinced him that his claim near Olympia was the best on the coast; and, although at the three-house city of Portland he was offered work by Pettygrove and King at five dollars per day, to be paid half in goods and half in town lots at five dollars apiece, he preferred to go to his home.

After a trip in which he lost his canoe near St. Helens and dug up a skiff that was found buried in the mud, whose seams he caulked with his shirt torn in strips, and fitted with a blanket for a sail, and a cold trip up the shoals of the Cowlitz, he reached his attractive claim. The struggle for subsistence was maintained during 1847 by making shingles, one thousand of which equaled a week’s board. Boiled perch, clams and fern roots were the staple dishes. Brick-making which brought wheat, peas and horses at Cowlitz Prairie, and carpenter work at the mission, also helped out existence.

Returning from the mission to the Sound, he organized the Puget Sound Lumber Company. The following is Mr. Rabbeson’s description of the mill (Tumwater Sawmill), and the incidents of its first operations:

“The company consisted of M.T. Simmons, George Bush, Jesse Ferguson, A.B. Carnafi, John Kindred, Colonel B.F. Shaw, E. Sylvester and myself. We purchased of the Hudson’s Bay Company a set of mill machinery then at Vancouver, which the latter company had shipped from England with the intention of erecting a mill at some point upon the Columbia river; but they, believing it to be to their advantage, sold the same to us for the sum of three hundred dollars, to be paid for in lumber delivered at Nisqually Landing at the rate of sixteen dollars per thousand. The mill was built in the fall and winter of 1847 at the lower falls of the Tumwater. It had an old-fashioned up-and-down saw run by a flutter wheel, and cut from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred feet per day. I remember very vividly the trouble I had to get room when the mill was first started up on account of the Indians, who flocked to the mill by hundreds to behold the wonders performed by the Boston man who could, by a word, make the saw move up and down and the log advance or recede at will.”

We also insert here his account of an early experience with the Indians. It is too interesting to be omitted:

“I remember the second log that was sawn. When I went to put it upon the carriage, I requested the Indians either to get out of the way or to roll the log upon the carriage themselves; and, as they desired to make themselves useful, ten of them attempted it but failed. When I picked up the cant-dog and turned the log without help, they were astonished at my remarkable strength; and, when I proposed to pick up one of them and throw him from the mill to the other side of the river, they all declined the experiment, – feeling no doubt that I could do it. This was the first effort to manufacture lumber upon Puget Sound, and I look back with pleasure to the fact that I had the honor of being the first to cut a board on its waters.”

The following is Mr. Rabbeson’s account of his explorations down the Sound somewhat later:

“In the spring of 1848, in company with Thomas Glasgow, I explored, for the first time by Americans, Hood’s Canal. Crossing our canoe and outfit over the portage from the head of North Bay to the head of the canal, we met Indians by the hundreds that had never seen a white man before. We went well up Skokomish river, down the canal and straits as far as New Dungeness, and then to Whidby Island. There Glasgow took a claim and planted some wheat, peas and potatoes. While there he noticed that the Indians were gathering on the island in large numbers. Their camps had been made at Pen’s Cove, as where we were located there was but little water. Inquiring as to the cause of the gathering, the information was given that the Indians were preparing to have a grand hunt and big talk. We supposed at the time that there were camped, within the radius of three miles, about eight thousand of these wild men. They built a line of brush fence and nets of seaweed from Pen’s Cove to Ebey’s Landing. Then they started the dogs and whippers-in at some lower point on the island, and drove the wild animals and game before them. There must have been killed on that day about sixty or seventy deer, and large quantities of other game.

“Then was held the biggest barbecue I had ever seen In the Indian war dance there took part about two thousand bucks. We had a desire to witness the whole of the performance, but were advised by Glasgow’s woman to hide until the excitement was over. On the third day came the big talk. There were in the assembly representative men from every tribe on the Sound. Those that seemed to be the most active were from the Snohomish, Clallam and Duwamish tribes. The first speech was made by Patkanim, Chief of the Snohomish. Glasgow’s woman acted for us as interpreter. He spoke very bitterly against the Hudson’s Bay Company, and urged that all the tribes combine to attack and destroy the station at Nisqually, divide the goods and stock, and kill or drive off the King George men. He was followed by John Taylor (an Indian chief) who was in favor of including the Boston men or Americans at Tumwater. He admitted that the latter had not much goods, but he had been over to the Willamette valley, and there had heard that the Bostons, in their own country, were as numerous as the sands upon the beach; and, if something was not done to check their coming, they would soon over-run the whole country, and the Indians would then be transported in fire ships to some distant country where the sun never shone, and there be left to die, and what few Indians escaped this fate would be made slaves. He urged that then was the time to strike terror to the white man’s heart and avoid all future trouble.

“This brought old Gray Head, Chief of the Tumwater tribe, to his feet. He was a warm friend of the Boston Man, and a fluent speaker. He said that, before the advent of the Bostons, the Nisqually tribe was in constant dread because the big tribes that Patkanim and John Taylor represented had been constantly making raids upon his people because they were small, killing them and making them slaves. but now the Bostons were ever ready to protect his people; and, if they were driven off, ‘who,’ he inquired, ‘will shelter us from our enemies?” The chief of the Duwamish tribe now arose with a great flourish, and said that as his people occupied the country between the Nisquallies and the Snohomish he would protect. But old Gray Head answered that he would rather have one rifle with a Boston behind it as a protector than all of the Duwamishes’ and this was the sentiment expressed by all the Nisquallies and Chehalises. It caused hard words; and we expected to see them come to blows. When night came it was concluded by Patkanim’s party that by killing Glasgow and myself it would compromise Gray Head and his people; and then they would join them in their plain of attack upon Fort Nisqually and the American settlement.

“Glasgow’s woman, however, learning this fact informed us; and when night came we stole a small canoe and pushed out for home, leaving the woman and our goods behind with instructions to follow at the first opportunity. That was the last we ever saw of our goods. Shortly after starting, a favorable breeze sprang up; and by daylight next morning we were off Apple-tree cove. When off Blakely, the wind became so strong and the sea so rough that a landing were so unfortunate as to stave in our canoe, and were left helpless. We succeeded in keeping our powder dry, and remained upon the point until the next day, subsisting upon some ducks that we shot. About noon six Indians came along in a canoe; and we debated a long time as to the advisability of hailing them. Had there been but three or four, we would not have hesitated; but six to two – if they should prove unfriendly – was too much odds. But the case was desperate; so the call was made. They, on their part, consulted a long time before they would land; and when they came ashore we pretended to understand but few Chinook words. By signs we indicated that we wanted to go to Fort Nisqually, and that we would give them two blankets to take us. This they agreed to do; and we entered the canoe, taking our position in the center, one facing the bow, the other the stern. Both of us being somewhat conversant with their language, we soon learned that they were Duwamish Indians, and that they did not intend we should ever see Nisqually.

“Their plan was to camp at Gig Harbor that night, and while we slept make good Bostons of us, take what we had and return home. But, as we were well armed, and of course disagreed with their intentions, they soon discovered that they were making a slight mistake in their calculations. When we arrived at the harbor late in the evening, they made signs that they were going to camp at that place for the night. We gave them to understand that it was all right; and all got out of the canoe and made camp. A fire was built and salmon cooked for supper. We watched for our opportunity; and, when it presented, we took possession of their guns, and made them launch the canoe and get in. Glasgow took a seat in the stern, guiding the canoe; and I sat immediately in front of him covering the Indians with my revolver. Then we started, and I can assure you the Indians did not get much rest that night. When we arrived at Balch’s passage, a fair wind sprang up; and we then made up our minds that we had no more use for the Indians; so we put them ashore on the little island in the center of the passage, leaving them to shift for themselves.”

But we are already prolonging this sketch beyond the limits. Mr. Rabbeson’s dispute with the Hudson’s Bay Company, his adventures in the Umpqua and Rogue river, and his fatigues, sickness and successes in the California and Salmon river mines, his voyages by sea, his hard fights in the Indian war of 1855, where he was wounded, would fill many pages. With the death of Colonel Moses in the fight with the Indians at Connell’s swamp, a petition was largely signed by the company to give his vacant place as surveyor of customs to the wounded captain, A.B. Rabbeson. Serving in that capacity four years, and more recently engaging in contracting and erecting buildings, putting up some of the finest on the Sound, owning a brewery for a short time at Seattle, and also a steamship, the Black Diamond, getting wrecked with a stock of goods twenty miles off Humboldt Bay in the steamer Northern, he has finally reached the peaceful years of age in his old home at Olympia, Washington.

Mr. Rabbeson was the first mail carrier in the territory on the route between Cowlitz and Olympia in 1850. He was married to Lucy A., eldest daughter of Nelson Barnes, of Tumwater, in 1854.


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

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