Historian fails in scalp hunt

Isaac Ebey mystery unsolved

  • Saturday, May 24, 2003 3:00pm
  • News

A mystery regarding the whereabouts of a Central Whidbey pioneer’s remains is unresolved after 146 years and some in-depth detective work by a local historian.

Theresa Trebon of Sedro-Woolley-based Continuum History and Research told a Coupeville crowd during a recent lecture that Isaac Ebey’s scalp is probably not buried with the rest of his body, contrary to old folks tales that have been circulating in the town for years.

In fact, she’s not positive where the rest of his body lies either.

Trebon has traced Isaac Ebey’s elusive scalp and other remains through Ebey family diaries and correspondences, newspaper accounts and even records from the Hudson Bay Company in British Columbia.

The story starts in 1850 with Isaac Ebey’s stake of 640 acres of Central Whidbey land, marking the beginning of permanent white settlement on Whidbey Island. Back then, it was a dangerous place to live.

Trebon said Indians from present-day southeast Alaska historically raided other tribes along the Washington coast. With white settlement, Trebon said they likely saw an opportunity for more raids, while others came looking for jobs in the burgeoning timber industry.

In November of 1856, a group of Kake Indians from the Sitka, Alaska, area were camped near Port Gamble. After being requested to leave by the Navy vessel USS Massachusetts, its gunboat opened fire, killing 28 Indians, including an important leader.

The following year, in 1857, the Kake Indians returned for revenge. Trebon said they canoed to Whidbey “looking for someone of great importance” to kill. They targeted Dr. John Kellogg, a man of prominence, but he wasn’t around. Trebon said the Indians came upon a farmhand who worked for the Ebeys and asked him whether Isaac was a “Hyas Tyee” or important personage.

The farmhand said Ebey was indeed important, so the Indians killed Isaac instead of Kellogg. The war party, Trebon said, cut Ebey’s head off and took it with them as they headed north to home waters. Trebon said the murder of Isaac Ebey caused a huge stir both on Whidbey and across the Puget Sound area. Ebey was involved in politics in Olympia and was considered a possible candidate for governor.

There are written accounts, according to Trebon, stating that Ebey’s scalp was removed from the skull on Smith Island.

Capt. Charles Dodd with Hudson Bay Company knew the Ebey family and took it upon himself to travel north in his vessel, the Labouchere, to retrieve Ebey’s scalp. He put himself and his crew in great peril, Trebon said, since the the Indians “were none too happy to see him.”

Nevertheless, Dodd was able to trade blankets and other goods for the scalp and brought it back to Port Townsend in 1859. Isaac’s brother, Winfield, received the scalp the following year. Trebon said the scalp remained in the Ebey family after Winfield’s death in 1865 and was taken to the Berkeley area of California by Ebey’s niece, Almira Enos.

Trebon said the last known reference to the scalp was in a 1914 letter an Ebey relation wrote to Professor Edmond Meany at the University of Washington. At that point the scalp was still in California. Trebon said she scoured through area newspapers, but found no reference to the scalp ever returning.

Trebon said her best guess is simply that the scalp was lost as the Ebeys passed away. She has no explanation, however, as to why the grisly scalp — which had ears and hair attached — wasn’t immediately buried with the rest of Isaac’s body.

Trebon points out that all of the members of the Ebey family, except Almira’s mother Mary, died in the 11 years surrounding Isaac’s beheading. Perhaps, she said, the scalp was simply a keepsake for a grief-stricken family.

As for the rest of Isaac Ebey’s remains, his headless body was buried in the original Ebey family graveyard, which was near the present-day Ferry House, along with his wife, Rebecca, and four other family members.

Mary Ebey Bozarth started a “new” Ebey graveyard, which later became Sunnyside Cemetery, after her brother Winfield died. Trebon said the gravestones from the older cemetery were moved to Sunnyside, but she’s not sure if the remains were exhumed as well. No written account has been found that documents their removal and by the time that most likely occured, it is probable that not much remained of the bodies

Without sonar or ground-penetrating radar, Trebon said there’s simply no way to know where Isaac Ebey’s bones lie.

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