Thirty miles north of Seattle, bucolic Whidbey Island stands guard over the entrance to Puget Sound. Early mariners explored and mapped it. Indians lived peacefully off the island’s bountiful supply of berries, nuts, fruit and edible plants, wild fowl, elk and deer, while surrounded by a sea of fish. It was a good life
For thousands of years, the 37-mile long island (fourth longest in the Lower 48) was inhabited by the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, Snohomish and other Native American tribes. They lived peacefully on Whidbey and other islands in the region — except when Haida or Tlinkit Indians from Alaska raided and took them as slaves.
Then the white man came, bringing an alien way of life and a host of diseases that decimated tribes.
The first known European to see Whidbey Island was during the 1790 Spanish expedition of Manuel Quimper and Gonzalo López de Haro. Two years later, British Navy Capt. George Vancouver sailing the HMS Discovery arrived on an exploration expedition, naming the island after one of his officers, Joseph Whidbey.
Americans didn’t arrive until 1841, when Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of an American exploration expedition, sailed the USS Vincennes into the island’s Penn Cove.
The first white settler on Whidbey was farmer Thomas W. Glasgow in 1848, who filed a land claim on what was to become Ebey’s Prairie. His wife, Julia, was daughter of Snohomish Chief Patkanim.
After filing the claim in Olympia, Glasgow, Julia, and friend A. B. Rabbeson, returned to the island and were stunned to find some 8,000 Indians from Pacific Northwest tribes gathered at Penn’s Cove to talk about the unwelcome settlers.
Julia said their lives were in danger and all three left — never to return.
Two years later, Col.Isaac N. Ebey, the first permanent American settler arrived. Originally from Ohio, Ebey married and had two sons before heading west during the 1849 California Gold Rush. The following year he was in Washington Territory when Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850.
Having seen Whidbey Island, he quickly claimed a square mile on the western shore on Admiralty Inlet across from the Olympic Peninsula’s Port Townsend. He started growing wheat and potatoes, and was also the postmaster of Port Townsend. Every day, he rowed across the inlet to go to work.
He sent for his wife, Rebecca, and two boys, and they were followed by other relatives in the ensuing years.
More settlers arrived and put their roots down. All was going well until 1857, when the Ebey family — like Glasgow before them — suddenly faced Indians from the north. A fleet of large canoes — some holding up to 40 Indians — arrived and camped.
The farmers were terrified, and Washington’s first Territorial Gov. Isaac I. Stevens was asked to send protection.
He contacted the Navy and they sent the sail warship USS Massachusetts commanded by Capt. Samuel Swartout to Whidbey. He ordered the Indians to leave. They refused. Next, a boatload of armed marines were sent ashore but were blocked from landing by a large number of armed warriors.
The Massachusetts then anchored right in front of them and opened fire — killing 27, including several chiefs, while destroying houses and canoes. The Indians fired back with small-arms and killed coxswain Gustavus Engelbrecht — the only American casualty and the first U.S. Navy battle death in the Pacific.
The Indians then fled to the woods but had no food. Three days later, they surrendered.
Swartout rounded them up, placing some on board ship and towing the rest in the few remaining seaworthy canoes to Vancouver Island, landing them with a supply of provisions.
Shortly after that, the warship sailed off to San Francisco, leaving the settlers of Puget Sound practically defenseless.
The following year, another band from the north — possibly Haida or Tlinkit — arrived on Whidbey Island seeking revenge.
Because some of their chiefs had been killed, the raiders were looking for a high-ranking white victim. They chose Dr. John Coe Kellogg, a respected physician on the island.
When the Indians arrived at his house, he was a witness at a trial in Port Gamble. They waited three days for his return. Then they paddled 3 miles down the shore and camped in front of Col. Ebey’s house.
Thomas Hastie who worked for him started bragging to the Indians about what a “hias tyee” (great man) the colonel was. The Indians decided Ebey would be their high-ranking victim. On the night of Aug. 11, 1857, the dogs started barking and a shot outside was heard.
Col. Ebey opened the door to see what was going on and was immediately shot dead. He was only 39. The Indians then cut off his head and took it with them — and at some time scalped it. The Ebey family managed to escape before the Indians ransacked the house.
There’s some controversy about what happened to that scalp, but here’s what Dr. Kellogg’s granddaughter, Alice Cahail Kellogg, wrote about it: “An agent of the Hudson Bay Co. sometime later secured the scalp from the Indians and gave it to a U.S. Customs officer, who sent it to the Ebey family. Col. Ebey had long black hair.
“Some 10 or 12 years after the murder, Mother was visiting Mrs. Bozarth, who was a sister of Col. Ebey, and she showed the scalp lock still retaining the long black hair. It was the only thing of that kind I had ever seen, and I remember it caused cold chills to run over me. It was later interred in the Colonel’s grave.”
The next sad chapter in the life of Puget Sound was the death of a beloved ferryboat named Kehloken, an Indian word meaning “swan” or “water bird.”
The all-wooden ship was born in Alameda in 1926 and was about 240 long and 60 feet wide, built to carry cars and people. She was ugly by today’s luxury ferryboat standards — no deck to enjoy the fresh salt air, small square windows often flecked with paint, wooden benches, and a strong odor of antiseptic from the men’s restroom that wafted throughout the ship as she chugged across the waves at 11 knots.
But her diesel electric engines were remarkably quiet and the ship was rarely hauled out for repairs. From San Francisco to Puget Sound, she was called upon time and again to pick up stranded passengers when the fancy new big steel-hulled ferryboats couldn’t answer the call to duty.
On March 30, 1942, the Kehloken had the sad duty of having Japanese Americans brought aboard by armed soldiers at Eagledale ferry dock on Bainbridge Island, Wash. They were being escorted to the Manzanar Assembly Center internment camp in the California desert for the duration of World War II — under orders from President FDR.
On Labor Day 1972, the Kehloken made her last trip — after 53 years of reliable service.
Three years later, she was sold for $25,000 and moved to Lake Washington to become a club house and restaurant.
In September 1979, television viewers watched the beloved ship and adjacent pier go up in flames. She burned to the waterline but amazingly didn’t sink.
For years, the burnt hulk sat there. Then her remains were cleaned up and towed to the south end of Whidbey Island and scuttled in 80 feet of water to become an artificial reef.
Today, after all these years, she’s covered in sea life and is far from lonely, as happy scuba divers come to pay their respects.
One last sad note about Whidbey Island’s history: Its early distinguished visitor George Vancouver became a forgotten man when he returned to England and retired. He was little noted even by the Admiralty.
Today, he’s considered one of Britain’s greatest explorers and navigators, and is honored with statues, monuments and place names around the world — from mountains to postage stamps.
He died in 1798 from kidney failure and possibly a hyperthyroid condition when only 40.
The dark times in Puget Sound’s history are trifling compared to the horrors raging elsewhere in the world today. It’s nice to know that there’s a quiet corner of the American Northwest, endowed with picturesque islands and pristine waterways to enjoy a quality of life far from the maddening world swirling around us.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Though not relevant to the murder of Colonel Isaac Ebey, it was a coincidence that on that same day — Aug. 11, 1857 — Isaac Stevens ended his tenure as Washington Territorial Governor.
George Vancouver’s mission was to explore and map the northwest coast of America up to Alaska, hopefully finding a northwest water passage from the east to Asia. His two ships were the HMS Discovery and small 65-foot tender HMS Chatham. They had been at sea a year before arriving at Whidbey Island. There was no passage, but the maps were excellent.
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