Possession and Succession
Part 2 of a series on land ownership and use
In part 1, we looked at changes in land ownership and use and their consequences though the lens of my Scottish ancestors. You can read part one here.
For part two, we're traveling over 4,000 miles west to my current home of Whidbey Island in Washington State.
Yesterday was Indigenous People's Day in the United States, a renaming of what was formerly called Columbus Day to mark the date in 1492 when Columbus first set foot in the Americas. 300 years later, in the spring of 1792, my ancestors were dealing with dispossession of their land in the aftermath of the Clearances. Similar land use changes and enclosures of common land were happening elsewhere in the British Isles, driving emigration to the colonies in the New World.
Last week I sat down with local historian Kellen Diamante to find out what was happening here, 4,000 miles away. In a two hour chat she gave me a ton of information, and I apologize in advance to her and others for the omissions and oversimplifications I'm about to perpetrate here in keeping this narrative to an acceptable length for your inboxes. From April 29 to June 12, 1792, Captain George Vancouver was exploring what he named Puget Sound for one of his lieutenants. On his way through Admiralty Inlet he noted "green lawns" on the west side of what he would later name Whidbey Island, for one of his officers named Joseph Whidbey. At the southern end of the island he dropped anchor and claimed possession of all the land around the sound. He called the spot Possession Sound. As we're soon to see, Dispossession Sound would have been a better name.
The green lawns were Native American camas plantations. Camas is a plant in the lily family. The bulbs can be boiled to make a syrup or pit roasted. The roasted bulbs can be stored, eaten as is, or ground into flour. Native Americans from the Skagit tribe and maybe others cleared the trees and kept the land clear to encourage growth of the camas on the prairie and of berries in the forest margins. The people that Vancouver's expedition noted here were likely there to harvest the camas.
In 1849, while my ancestors in Scotland were dealing with further dispossession from the Highland Potato Famine, the California Gold Rush was starting. William Robertson, a sea captain from Baltimore, brought his ship the Tarquina to San Francisco with goods to sell. His crew disembarked without even waiting for their pay and headed straight to the gold fields. He was persuaded to head north with his ship and cargo.
The act allowed white men, or partial Native Americans, to claim land for themselves by working it for four years. We now recognize this as a blatantly racist and colonial act which dispossessed Native Americans of land.
In 1850, the US Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, to promote homesteading in the Oregon Territory, of which Washington State was then a part. The act allowed white men, or partial Native Americans, to claim land for themselves by working it for four years. We now recognize this as a blatantly racist and colonial act which dispossessed Native Americans of land, and introduced a concept of individual and exclusive land ownership that was relatively new to even the British Isles.
The first to take advantage of the act on Whidbey Island was Isaac Ebey, who claimed 640 acres (a square mile, or 2.6 sq km) of west side camas prairie, an area which later became known as Ebey's Prairie. Shortly afterwards, William Robertson claimed 320 acres of another camas prairie a little further south on a site he was to name Lea Bluffs. Others followed, and by 1860 all the best farmland had been claimed. The local Native American population had been decimated by smallpox brought by earlier Spanish explorers, as well as raids by tribes from the north of Vancouver Island, armed with guns given to them by Spanish traders in sea otter pelts. Against these tribes, the settlers built blockhouses, some still standing today. Nevertheless, Isaac Ebey was killed in 1857 by northern tribes, the exact identity of which is not quite clear, and a Robertson cabin was burned.
The soil on the prairie was particularly good. Farmers could grow potatoes and other root vegetables, legumes, greens, wheat, barley and other grains, similar to the crops my ancestors once grew in Scotland. Over the years, many farmers switched to beef, dairy, or hay operations.
In 1978, Ebey's Prairie became part of the Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with State Parks and town and county governments, although the land is still mostly in private hands.
"... Almost a Paradise of Nature."
This stunning landscape on the Salish Sea, with its rich farmland and promising seaport, lured the earliest American pioneers north of the Columbia River to Ebey’s Landing. Today Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve preserves the historical, agricultural and cultural traditions of both Native and Euro-American – while offering spectacular opportunities for recreation.
Many of the local farms continue to be operated by descendants of the original homesteading families. The availability of grants has helped them maintain buildings and preserve the character and look of the area. Nevertheless, operating a farm at a family scale in today's economy has remained a challenge. Several of the founding families now face succession challenges, as the younger generation loses interest in farming. One family was impacted recently by sudden closure of a local grain mill. Another young farmer who leased land to grow wheat and barley (they made great bread and beer!) quit after losing a harvest to rain when a borrowed harvester wasn't available due to another family's illness. A third had a lucrative business selling vegetables direct to Seattle's farm-to-market restaurant boom, only to be derailed first by a barn fire and then by COVID.
The Reserve will help these farms hang on. Lea Bluffs, the Robertson homestead, has a different story. It was not included as part of the Reserve. The Robertsons eventually sold the farm. The most recent owners hired managers to run a beef cattle and hay operation there but hit the same fiscal and succession issues plaguing family farmers everywhere and decided to sell. We're going to come back to the story of Lea Bluffs, but for the next post in the series we're going back to Scotland to take a look at family farming there.