P.T.’s formative days: forgotten pioneers

Posted by Tom Camfield

‘BLANKET BILL’ JARMAN, ADVENTURER—When I published my first book of local history in 2000, my introduction to a section on Port Townsend’s founders lamented history generally ignoring H. C. Wilson, who staked the first claim on the local beach; Jarman, who spent time living with indigenous native residents as early as 1849 or so; and many others of the earliest pioneers—including Ross, Hawkins, Caines, Briggs, Clinger, Hammond. All have been shunted into the shadows, with history’s spotlight focused mainly on a few 1852 arrivals who hastened off to Olympia to file large land claims. They along with opportunists of the next several decades. History smiles on those who subsequently left their marks on the local scene in the form of grandiose buildings testifying to their ability to ride the crest of the wave of growth and prosperity of the late 1880s and early 1890s. Whose families along the way took over local society, helping to perpetuate their names.

I’ve always fancied myself an iconoclastic historian more interested in following the trail of daily news in the local newspapers of the day than in heralding parrot-like praise for such capitalists as Charles Eisenbeis—although the presence and influence of such as he cannot be ignored. The people to whom history rightfully belongs are those who struggle and work the hardest for relatively meager reward. Victims of circumstance more often than not, many of whom never find the bootstraps with which to pull themselves up.

My politics today lean in that very same direction. Concern for the homeless and those altruistic ones dedicated to helping them, disdain for those strutting in egotistical opulence with a blind eye to the suffering of others.

I’m not sure where the likes of William Robert Jarman (nicknamed “Blanket Bill”) fits in. He appears to have been pretty much of a self-serving rapscallion but well enough regarded in our early town. He was perhaps Port Townsend’s first actual white “settler.” In the town’s earliest formal records, Jarman is found listed as “German” at least once, when he formally married his Indian wife Alice in 1854 (Justice of the Peace Loren B. Hastings), and hasty historians have skipped hurriedly past that seemingly insignificant and unimportant individual falsely named by someone’s illiteracy. But Jarman was his name, and his colorful role in the local scheme of things was pretty ignored down through the years by those choosing to worship basically a few early settlers—such as Hastings, Pettygrove, et al—who filed land claims and proceeded to develop the business community and dominate the local scene.

When the first organized group of settlers arrived together on the pilot boat Mary Taylor in 1852, an early town founder, Alfred Plummer, also had preceded them and had built the town’s first cabin (see photo above), giving them their initial shelter. However, down through the years he is not given proper credit by history as perhaps the town’s true “founder,” in 1851. Another, actually of the “Mary Taylor” manifest, Benjamin Ross (about 63 years old), a veteran of the War of 1812, likewise was given history’s dismissal after he settled out around Point Wilson and did not compete on the downtown business scene, where no stone edifice bears his name. I hope to write later about Ross.

And through it all, somewhere nearby, “Blanket Bill,” as best can be determined, quite possibly was encamped with a faction of the local S’Klallam tribe of Native Americans.

My type of historical research has always been aimed in large part at the Jarmans, Rosses, assorted prostitutes, athletes, tavern-owners, sailing ship captains, loggers, indigenous Americans and others of relatively lesser renown whose ashes have been consigned to the dust heap by historians eager to worship at the altar of financial affairs as the history of humankind. Thus I resurrected from obscurity both Bill Jarman and Benjamin Ross, one something of a wastrel and the other a forgotten naval hero, in my own books of history—along with the requisite business leaders and many others of the multitude I described in one of my books as “sundry souls” . . . “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

William Robert Jarman, was born April 3, 1818, in Gravesend, England. He went to sea at at early age, rounded Cape Horn, jumped ship in Tasmania, walked 122 miles to civilization, signed aboard a hide-gathering vessel that later headed north on a sealing quest. The captain failed to find the mouth of the Columbia River, sailed northward, winding up at Nootka Sound. Jarman was ashore when the vessel came under attack by natives and sailed away—and was captured by northern Indians.

After a couple or three years living with the Indians, in about 1848 or ‘49, he was ransomed for a bundle of blankets by Sir James Douglas (who headed Hudson’s Bay Co. at Victoria before becoming governor of British Columbia). Thus the nickname “Blanket Bill.” He spent a short time working for Douglas before stealing a canoe and making his way across the Strait to present Port Townsend. He lived on the beach with the Indians for an extended time, when the S’Klallam chief was “King George,” who subsequently abdicated in favor of his younger brother Chetzemoka, better known in local history.

When his wife Alice died in 1877, Jarman (then 60 or 61) took a 16-year-old Indian “bride” before marrying in 1880 the daughter of a probate judge. He lived with her for a time on the Lummi Reservation west if Bellingham. His dalliances among the Indians is legendary. He is said to have had two wives while held captive by the northern Indians in his youth and two more at Port Townsend until moving on with Alice, his favorite.

His history is truly colorful, including a trial for murder in 1872, which was ruled “justifiable homicide.” He was bartending in a saloon in the mining town of Sehome when he shot and killed a man. The prosecutor at territorial district court in Port Townsend was a man he previously had saved from drowning, and the jury was composed mainly of old friends of Jarman.

Along about the mid-1850s Jarman moved on to Bellingham Bay. When Fort Bellingham was established, he acted as messenger, mail and express carrier between troops stationed at Steilacoom, Port Townsend and Bellingham Bay, utilizing a canoe with an Indian crew. This was about the time Fort Townsend was under construction. (He later worked as an interpreter for the captain of the corvette Decatur—then later returned to carrying mail via a sloop named after his wife Alice.)

Jarman was one among those totally ignored by early historians before I took the bit in my teeth to ferret out the true nature of the town’s early days. As history goes by in these later years, so much of it is superficial and feckless by comparison. So many people battling for individual attention via social media, for instance.

I wrote far more than I can include here in my first book of local history, four complete large pages in the basic coverage on Jarman. The book now is out of print and I have no computer file of the material. Researchers may scan a copy at the local historical society’s research center on the Chimacum Cut-off. (or, as I’ve mentioned before, a copy occasionally shows up on eBay or Amazon.)

Comments

2 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Justin Hale

Nice bit of History Tom, Thanks.

Saturday, April 13
Fred Camfield

This was before the waterfront fill that raised the street levels. Fill material was obtained bu excavating the bluff behind the waterfront. I ran across an old newspaper account that said that they discovered seams of coal when they excavated the bluff, leading to a short lived coal mining boom.

Saturday, April 13