Hidden History: Blockhouses still stand guard

While digging through books about the island’s history, I couldn’t escape what looked like odd looking two-story cabins called blockhouses. After gathering information at the Island County Historical Society Museum, I knew my best impression would be to step inside one, close my eyes and reopen them imagining it was the 1850s.

It was an emotional moment finally standing in the middle of hewn alder timbers stacked horizontally and notched to fit at the corners. I spotted warm sunlight coming through little chest-high gun holes on the walls and felt the carved opening, wondering how many eyes and guns laid rest there. I looked up at the second story, trying to envision the old sleeping quarters, but with my own kids sleeping in the car, my time was short, but my hidden history found.

By the mid-1800s Western Washington became a new area to buy land as east and south state pioneers made claims on Indian Territory, pushing them out of their reservations. By 1854, territorial governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs, Isaac Stevens, signed multiple treaties with Native groups providing compensation for land lost and allowing them to make new free range reservations.

Shortly thereafter, Puget Sound settlers and miners began setting up camp on these new reservations as the Cascade Mountain gold rush hit, causing Indians to be disgusted with the treaties. Several miners were murdered by 1855 as Indians decided not to accept these invasions. As Army officials tried to resolve the issues, they knew it would only be met with violence and fled home. Frustrated by the hostility, Puget Sound Indians gathered, waging an uprising on the white settlers in the White River Valley, known as the White River Massacre.

As troops tried to keep back Indians from the southern and eastern sides of Washington, Isaac Stevens paid Snoqualmie Indians to bring back the heads of rebel Indians and their chief regardless of how displeasing this was to Army officials.

When word of the Indian War circulated to Whidbey Island, Walter Crockett, John Kinneth, Joseph Smith, Samuel Hancock, and Walter’s son, John Crockett adjourned Nov. 6, 1855, preparing to protect their families from an uproar from the 1,200 Skagit Indians living there. Within two weeks, two blockhouses were made on Walter Crockett’s farm. The architectural design came from Swedish, Finnish and German styles with the second story projecting about two feet above the first.

That same year, John Alexander, Sr., constructed a blockhouse on a quarter-acre with 10-foot high posts surrounding it to protect the inner shore settlers. John Crockett followed suit with one on his land.

With military and Snoqualmie protection from the south and east, the north remained unattended as slave-hunting, troublesome Haida Indians from British Columbia, Canada set an old fear while traveling down near Port Townsend at Port Gamble. With a lack to follow orders to abandon camp, the crew of Massachusetts killed 27 Indians, wounded 21, and demolished the area using a howitzer in October 1856. The remaining Haida Indians sought revenge upon being returned home by the Massachusetts. They waited for Dr. Kellogg at his home in Coupeville believing he was Port Gamble’s chief given his dress and sociability’s while visiting there. A few days later, they gave up and sought after another respectable man, Coupeville’s Col. Isaac Ebey.

After his son’s beheading in August of 1857, Jacob Ebey feared future attacks, building one blockhouse at each corner, with a 12 foot stockade. He was followed by daughter-in-law, Rebecca Ebey’s brother, Capt. James Davis, who converted his cabin into a blockhouse in 1858.

No Indian war or invasion ever came afterwards, and the blockhouses were never used for their intended purpose. In fact, all 1,200 Skagit Indians stayed cooperative and peaceful while in their longhouses; being just as fearful as pioneers during the Indian Wars from 1856 to 57.

With 11 blockhouses made from Crescent Harbor to Coupeville, only four remain. After Walter Crockett’s death in 1869, one blockhouse was relocated and used by pioneer Ezra Meeker for his restaurant at the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909 in Seattle, and then gifted to Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park. The other remains on the Crockett farm as the Depression era Works Progress Administration in 1938 began its restoration. Owner Fred Armstrong then gave it the Daughters of Pioneers of Washington who, through quilt shows, donations, and contributions, maintained the blockhouse on a given 50-square-foot piece of land. Island County presently owns it.

After John Alexander, Sr., died in 1858 and family passing, the Ladies of the Round Table and American Legion took care to restore the blockhouse in 1930. Furniture and items remained inside, along with donated historical items making it into the first history museum in Coupeville. Due to vandalism, name etching, and souvenir chunks of wood taken, it closed after two years in the 1950s. In 1963, owner M.E. White sold the blockhouse to the Chamber of Commerce, aided by local organizations and businesses.

Jacob Ebey used his blockhouse for quite some time, letting Winfield Ebey used one as the first law office. The four were also used as apple houses, storage, smoke houses, produce keepers during the winter, and a dairy. With three gone and no traces, owner Frank Pratt restored the one blockhouse in 1938.

After Captain Davis’ death in 1868, the Cook’s bought the auctioned property. When Cook passed by 1915, relative Win Cook donated it to the Ladies of the Round Table for restoration in February 1931. They added the cement floors and rebuilt the stone fireplace once used by Chinese laborers who built the original stone to replace the sticks and clay one. The Island County later agreed to own and include it in the Sunnyside Cemetery, which was begun by Rebecca Ebey.

Back at the blockhouse I shut my eyes again, took another peek out the gun holes and saw the car waiting for me. Right now all I can hear are the mothers and children laughing and singing inside as they waited for their fathers working in the fields. I can imagine the tucking of tired children into bed and saying prayers for safety. They felt safe here. t one time, this was their home. And to many other frightened families, this was their protector of their island haven.

Special thanks to the staff at the Island Historical Society Museum.