Biography of Hon. Levant F. Thompson

HON. LEVANT F. THOMPSON. – There are but few lives of the pioneer settlers of the many communities upon the Pacific slope which illustrate in a greater degree than does that of the subject of this sketch the varied experiences of those who lay the bases of future commonwealths; the motives under-lying action; the vicissitudes which mold and alter resolution; and the patient waiting for the reward of following sagacious and far-seeing judgment in the adoption of location. Here is a man who was comparatively denied the education of the schools; who has assimilated practical knowledge as he struggles with life, and profits by what is passing around him; who makes no claim to pre-eminent ability, intellectually or physically; who assumes no superiority because of gifts or advantages; but who, with only proper self-reliance, simply, steadily obeys the dictates of intuitive good judgment so aptly described in our Western unabridged language as “horse sense.” yet Mr. Thompson is a state-builder, the impress of his life being plainly stamped upon the embryo settlements of Pierce county and the State of Washington; and his works will live after him. Perhaps “he builded wiser than he knew'” for he did not seem ambitious for public recognition, and never sought public honors nor offices. When he did serve the public, it was he who was sought. He was unpretentious, unassuming. Indeed, his innate diffidence made him the counselor in retirement rather than the public leader. He was sent to the first territorial house of representatives of Washington in 1854. Thirty-five years later, without his solicitation, and unknown to him until after his nomination, his fellow-citizens of Pierce county placed his name on the ticket for the first senate of the State of Washington, and elected him by a triumphant majority. In that interval he had attended to his private business, content with giving his time and means liberally to that more useful service of building up a good, growing and moral community, in the vicinity which to him and his interesting family constituted home.

Levant F. Thompson was born December 26, 1827, near Jamestown, Chautauqua county, New York, and continued to reside upon the farm of his parents, his birthplace, until 1850. The story of every farm lad is the story of his youth. His education, if such it may be called, was that which could be acquired at the common school of a rural district; and its amount or the thoroughness of its course depended rather upon the will and aspiration of the youth than the opportunities bestowed. The discovery of gold in California attracted him to the Pacific slope, and in February, 1850, he started for the great El Dorado. At Chicago he joined a company of seven young men, who, having purchased outfits and horse-teams, started with him on their journey across the plains. They traveled what was called the Carson route, and had a successful trip until they reached the Great American desert. There they experienced extreme hardships, their provisions having become scant, and being destitute of water. They traveled from four o’clock of the afternoon when they entered the desert until ten o’clock the next day; and then they abandoned wagons and harness, loaded their animals with the remaining provisions and blankets, and started to walk out of that desert region. They had intended to return for their wagons, but did not do so, but pushed ahead on foot, using their horses as pack animals. After walking six hundred miles, they reached Sacramento August 15, 1850, having suffered untold privations on that march, and being in an almost starving condition.

While on that journey the little party of gold-seekers had camped on the site of the present city of Omaha for three days, at which time not a single house had been erected. Mr. Thompson, upon his arrival at Sacramento, was penniless. Nothing daunted, he at once set out on foot to the Placerville and Weaver creek mines, where he worked for nearly four months with more than average success. He then resolved to come to Oregon to engage in the lumber business. Late in that year, or early in 1851, he took passage on board the schooner Urana for Portland. Among his fellow-passengers was John Gates, late mayor of the City of Portland, deceased. The voyage occupied four weeks. On arriving at Portland, Gates and himself applied for work at Abram’s mill, and were offered one hundred dollars per month. Gates accepted, but Thompson went to Milwaukee, where he secured the position of foreman in the sawmill of Meek & Llewellyn. He continued there for several months, during which employment much of the lumber used in the construction of the pioneer steamer Lot Whitcomb was sawed under his supervision.

In 1851, upon the advice of General Joseph Lane, Mr. Thompson went to the Yreka mines, and from thence to those on Scott’s bar. In those two Southern Oregon locations he followed mining until July, and then prospected all the way to Feather river, and thence back to Oregon, without any encouraging success. That ended prospecting for gold and mining. He returned to Milwaukee, and was employed in the lumber business by Lot Whitcomb. Shortly subsequently he leased the mill and conducted the business; but ill health compelled him to surrender the lease and engage in other pursuits. With David Miller he purchased a ten horse-power threshing machine (the first one of that power brought to or used in Oregon) and two McCormick reapers. The threshing machine cost seventeen hundred dollars laid down at Champoeg. They sold the reapers for four hundred dollars each. During that season they threshed, charging fifteen cents per bushel, and realized three thousand dollars in sixty days. That was really the first raise Mr. Thompson had made since leaving his farm-house home in Chautauqua, New York. Intent on building a sawmill, eh came to Puget Sound, and about the last of December, 1852, located a Donation claim at the mouth of Sesqualitchad creek, near Fort Nisqually. In company with Captain Lafayette Balch, the enterprising proprietor of the town of Steilacoom, he commenced the erection of a sawmill near the shores of the Sound, and completed it despite the repeated notices to quit served by the agent of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, who claimed the land under the treaty of June 15, 1846. That was the third sawmill erected in the Puget Sound basin; and it was run continuously and profitably, its products being taken to San Francisco by Captain Balch’s vessels until the breaking out of Indian hostilities in the fall of 1855, at which time Mr. Thompson was compelled to abandon it; and the hostile Indians destroyed it.

As before stated, on the organization of the Washington territorial government, at the first election Mr. Thompson was elected a member of the house of representatives of the legislative assembly, which assembled at Olympia February 27, 1854. Although he was the youngest member of that body, his attention to business, his ripened experience gained in a very chequered life, and his intuitive good sense, caused him to be recognized as a useful member.

At the commencement of the Indian war, October, 1855, he served for a short time with the regular troops under Lieutenant McKeever, U.S. Army, as assistant quartermaster at Fort Steilacoom, purchasing pack-animals and serving in the field. This service at times was exceedingly hazardous, requiring Mr. Thompson to travel through sections of country where he was liable to meet small bands of hostile Indians on their predatory excursions. His trips were through Pierce, Thurston and Lewis counties between Fort Steilacoom and the Cowlitz. Having secured about one hundred head of horses, he left that service and joined the Pierce county company of the Second Regiment of Washington Territory Volunteers. After a month’s service in the field, he was transferred to the quartermaster’s department, territorial volunteers, as assistant quartermaster and commissary at Steilacoom, in which capacity he served about six months.

At the close of the war he established an extensive logging camp on the Nisqually river, at the site of its present crossing by the county road between Olympia and Steilacoom. He there gave employment to eight men, among whom was Stephen Judson, now one of the most prominent citizens and leading public men of the State of Washington. Though the war had ended, the state of the country was yet unsafe by reason of apprehended Indian hostilities. The camp was continued in a posture of defense; and the loggers had to work with their rifles in reach, to guard against a hasty attack by the perfidious Squally Indians, in whose territory the camp had been established. After several months, he sold his interest in the logging camp to Balch & Webber, and became proprietor of the hotel at Steilacoom, which he continued to run successfully until the fall of 1860.

He had, on July 1, 1856, married Susanna Kincaid, who has ever been to him an affectionate helpmate, and counselor, full of courage and devotion to all his interests. Before the outbreak the Kincaid family had lived near the site of the present thrifty town of Sumner. The Indians had long been preparing to make a simultaneous strike upon the outer and exposed settlements on the Sound. The blow fell in the last weeks of October, 1855. The notice was short but peremptory. A friendly Indian rode to each farmhouse in Puyallup, warning the settlers to get out of the way, as the “Musachee” or hostile Indians were coming. Nor was any time to be lost. Many saved only the clothing in which they stood. That cruel haste, as also the bravery of our women pioneers, finds the happy illustration in the hurried escape of the Kincaid family. It was bedtime. The hostile Indians were heard prowling near the lone and isolated Kincaid log cabin. Quick as thought all the lights were extinguished; and in the dread darkness the family sought safety in flight towards Stuck river. Susan, the future Mrs. Thompson, seized her young brother Joseph, to whom, since their beloved mother’s death, she had supplied a mother’s place; and on that dread October night – in that gloom, the savages intent on murder, so close at hand that their movements could be heard – she carried him in safety across a small alder log spanning Stuck river to a safe place of concealment. There they remained through that long night, – she the guardian of the charge committed to her care. Brave though she was, under ordinary circumstances she would not by daylight herself alone have ventured to cross that meager bridge. But her affection, her duty, her presence of mind amid appalling danger, stimulated the effort, and carried her triumphantly through the ordeal. The family, she and her charge all escaped. Through out the night they remained hidden in sight of their late home, which was in flames. On the next day they reached Steilacoom in safety, with their wordly wealth upon their backs, their home, household effects and suppies having been destroyed by the murderous savages.

Mr. Thompson removed to Puyallup valley in 1860, and first made his residence upon land rented of Mrs. Meeker. In the spring of 1863 he pre-empted the tract now his valuable farm, upon which he has since resided. In 1865 he associated with him his brother-in-law E.C. Meade, in a hop venture, under the firm name of Thompson & Meade. They set out twenty-five hundred hop cuttings, and commenced the culture of hops as a crop in the Puyallup valley. Since that beginning the valley has obtained a world-wide celebrity for the quantity and quality it has produced and is annually producing. The experiment proved a success until 1868, at which time their annual product was about twenty thousand pounds. That fall a fire consumed their entire crop, as also all their houses and appliances, leaving the firm heavily in debt.

Being compelled to recuperate his finances, he accepted the appointment of farmer-in-charge of an Indian reservation, whither his wife accompanied him. They served for several months, when they were transferred to the Puyallup Reservation, he having been appointed teacher. There they remained about two years, when they returned to their farm and resumed hop-raising. Since that time Mr. Thompson has been very successful, and is now a man of wealth. In 1883 he built a beautiful residence in Sumner. His real-estate holdings in the city of Tacoma are extensive and very valuable. In 1884 he became an incorporator and director in the Merchants’ bank of Tacoma, and is now a director and large stockholder in the Washington Bank of that city. During the past year he organized and became president of the Bank of Slaughter, in King county.

In 1889 he became senator-elect from the county of Pierce, in the first state legislature under the new state constitution. By reason of his past experience, his mature judgment, his intimate knowledge of the territory, its needs and resources, his fellow-citizens confidently believe that his presence in that body will prove of infinite value to the future state.


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

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