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‘On the drift’ — Searching for a home in NCW

By on January 27, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Lewis Detwiler began his migration west in 1866 when, at age 16, he left his home in Pennsylvania. 

He set off to find relatives in Wisconsin and Illinois. The trip took about a year as he stopped for a time whenever he found work. He stayed in Wisconsin working for two-and-a-half years before heading out for Kansas in the fall of 1869.

Detwiler fell ill while working on a ranch near Lawrence, Kansas and for a year suffered with worsening chills and fever before he returned to Pennsylvania for three years of recovery. 

In the spring of 1874, Detwiler’s brother, John, joined him on a move to Iowa. They found employment on a ranch near Des Moines but Lewis tired of the work quickly and by fall he was off again, this time to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

There, he drove freight wagons for the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Indian Agencies until the spring of 1875 when gold was discovered in the Black Hills on Indian Reservation land. 

Recounting those times in a letter, Detwiler said, “I, of course, had to go there.” He stayed only a few months until the army forced the miners off the Indian lands. Then it was back to Cheyenne for three years of freight wagons and ranch work.

Detwiler spent the winter of 1879 near Deer Lodge, Montana moving on to Missoula in the spring. There, he drove freight wagons for the government and worked on the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad line through Hellgate Canyon.

In 1883 Detwiler packed his wagon, hitched up his team and made a 20-day journey to Badger Mountain in the Big Bend. 

He spent the winter at Steven’s sawmill on Platt Corbaly’s ranch. In the spring, with the loaded wagon box tied to the rear axle as a break, he made his way down the steep hillside to the Columbia River and claimed a homestead eight miles below Orondo. 

He was joined there by his brother, John, now a carpenter, and John’s wife and 2-year-old daughter, Annie. 

A year later Lewis sold his homestead and with John built a large rowboat to take the family and their belongings across the Columbia to the Entiat Valley. 

John claimed a homestead near the mouth of the Entiat River. Lewis Detwiler took his wagon and team up eight miles of road-less terrain to locate his homestead along the river. They were the first white settlers in the valley. 

A few years later, Lewis traded his homestead to Frank Knapp for Knapp’s Entiat ferry. Eventually Detwiler sold the ferry and set off for California where, it seems, he lived the remainder of his years, probably not all in the same place.

No one ever woke up on a Missouri morning in the 1880s, looked at their family and said, “We’re going to north central Washington.” 

However, between the spring of 1888 and June of the following year, four related Missouri families settled in the Entiat Valley. Before reaching the Entiat, they had transplanted themselves, by about 1880, from Missouri to Nebraska.

When C.A. Harris reached Nebraska he found three Cannon families; brothers T.J., W.F. and Samuel P. Cannon. T.J. and W.F. had both graduated from a Church of Christ Seminary in Bainbridge, Nebraska and brother Samuel also lived in the area. It’s not clear whether Harris knew the Cannons from Missouri but he soon joined the family, marrying Samuel’s daughter, Jennie.

C.A. and Jennie were the first of the group to reach the Entiat arriving in the spring of 1888. After locating their homestead, C.A. built the valley’s first sawmill on the river. In the fall of that year he built another sawmill on Badger Mountain during the timber boom there.

T.J. Cannon, after entering the ministry in Nebraska, worked six years in eastern Washington around Spangle ministering to Native people. While there, he married Sarah and started a family. They spent 1887 farming in the Big Bend and listening to C.A. and Jennie extol the virtues of the Entiat Valley. 

The following year, in July, they moved. In the spring of 1889 T.J. Cannon built the Entiat Valley’s second sawmill.

W.F. Cannon with his wife and six children took the train from Nebraska to Ellensburg in November of 1888. They crossed Colockum Pass to Rock Island in a freight wagon then booked passage to Entiat on one of The City of Ellensburg’s first steamship runs up the Columbia.

Samuel Cannon and family also traveled from Nebraska by train but they rode to Davenport, Washington where they bought a wagon and team. They loaded up the belongings that had come with them on the train and traveled across the Big Bend to the Entiat Valley. 

Arriving in June of 1889, they completed the Nebraska takeover of the Entiat Valley. At about the same time, Texans were doing the same thing in the Methow Valley.

Four families — the Thurlows, Nickells, Stones and Prewitts — were farming adjoining homesteads in Wise County Texas, north of Dallas near the Oklahoma border. The Civil War had ended more than 10 years earlier but the neighbors in Wise County felt that it wasn’t over in Texas and they wanted to leave it behind. 

They weren’t set on getting to the Methow Valley, they’d never heard of the place. They were set on getting out of Texas.

They sold their farms, packed their things and became a wagon train heading north. They rumbled to Pendleton, Oregon and claimed new homesteads there. They farmed near Pendleton four years, raised and sold crops and used the profits to finance another move, this time to Ellensburg, Washington. 

New homesteads were claimed and farming began again. Then, in 1886, they heard an old trapper tell tales of a valley of plenty that the Indians called Methow.

In the spring of 1887, Mason Thurlow, Harvey Nickell and Napoleon Stone, with loaded pack horses including a plow, crossed the Chilliwist Trail from the Okanogan River to the Methow River. 

They located homesteads, plowed fields and built a better road from the Chilliwist summit down Benson Creek to the Methow River. In 1888 they returned to Ellensburg to, once again, sell farms, load wagons and move families to their new homes. 

Other Wise County farmers followed them in the next year finishing up the Texas takeover of the Methow Valley.

John East was 16 when he left his native Finland, traveled through Sweden to England where he crewed on sailing ships out of London and Liverpool. 

From there he booked passage to New York where he went sailing again. He spent part of a year in Florida but didn’t like it there and went on to the Wyoming coal mines where he saved $750, enough, he said, “to buy out some town.” 

Montana called and he worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad. He drifted on to Rosyln, Washington where he claimed a homestead and worked in the coal mines. There he heard stories of the Big Bend country and the newly opened homesteads in the Okanogan Valley. 

After crossing Colockum Pass, he made his way to the Okanogan where he paid $300 for a farm on Johnson Creek. There he found a home for life.

The W.L. Davis family farmed in California until 1888 when they relocated to the Okanogan Valley because, as granddaughter, Alice Davis Phillips later recalled, ”Grandfather could hear the neighbor’s roosters, he was looking for new area to farm.”

Lewis Detwiler, in a 1926 letter explained it all clearly. “In the first place what started me off west was curiosity to see the other side of the hill, also hearing people talk about the countries and bragging them up. I guess that’s what sends most people on the drift.”

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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