The Civil War connected in many ways to the pioneers and politicians who called Olympia home in the early 1860s.
Allegiances to the Union and the Confederacy by the residents of the Washington Territory’s capital city were sharply divided, noted Lorraine McConaghy, the curator of an ongoing exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma titled “Civil War Pathways in the Northwest.”
McConaghy, a 19th century history author and public historian at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, offered several observations about Civil War era life in Olympia during a noon lecture Monday at the State Capital Museum.
“The Washington Territory saw itself as kind of a border state,” she said. To think that the Pacific Northwest and the territorial capital city were far removed from the Civil War is naive at best. The physical distance was immense and communication between the East Coast and West Coast could take up to two weeks before telegraph service arrived in the Washington Territory in 1864.
But the territorial pioneers had sons and fathers, uncles and cousins, former friends and neighbors all locked in combat that claimed up to 750,000 soldiers’ lives.
She estimated that dozens of territorial pioneers pulled up stakes and returned to their war-torn birthplaces during the Civil War. The majority had ties to the North, but a sizeable number had loyalties to the South.
Take the case of Richard Gholson, named the territory’s third governor on July 15, 1859. He took a leave of absence in May 1860 to move his wife from Texas to Kentucky, where he owned a tobacco plantation. He never returned to the territory, but he remained governor — at least in title — until Feb. 14, 1861.
Other Southern Democrats resigned their federally appointed posts in the territory, leaving Olympia to return to the South before and after President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was elected president in 1860.
When the war started in April 1861, Gholson moved his family and slaves across the state line into Tennessee. He died in the summer of 1862 from injuries he suffered after being thrown against a tree by a team of runaway horses pulling a wagon. It appears he was involved in running supplies for Confederate guerilla soldiers in Tennessee, McConaghy said.
The territory’s first governor, Isaac Ingalls Stevens also died in 1862 in the Civil War, serving as a Union brigadier general at the Battle of Chantilly. McConaghy noted that Stevens’ true allegiances are perplexing, especially considering that he was the campaign manager for a pro-slavery, Southern Democratic Party presidential ticket in 1860.
McConaghy shared some information from the 1860 Census for Olympia and the Washington Territory. The census was an incomplete record at best, likely to capture most of the territory’s white males and their spouses, but likely to miss many other inhabitants. The census showed about 250 people in the greater Olympia area and 12,000 in the territory, which stretched into what is now Idaho, western Montana and western Wyoming.
“There was 36 people of color among the 12,000,” she said.
One of the most notable of the early black Americans in Olympia was Rebecca Howard, owner-manager of the Pacific House, a notable hotel and restaurant in downtown Olympia. McConaghy recounted the story of a territorial legislator dining at Howard’s establishment. The legislator, perhaps fueled by whiskey, let his true feelings show, calling Olympia’s first female entrepreneur “auntie,” a racially charged word of the day.
Howard sized up the man and replied: “You don’t look like any nephew of mine.”
McConaghy’s talk focusing on Olympia during the Civil War was enough to whet my appetite to see the “Civil War Pathways” exhibit, which runs through July 6.
“It’s the best exhibit the museum has ever had,” said David Nicandri. That’s pretty high praise, coming from someone who directed the Washington State Historical Sociey from 1987 to 2011.
For more information on the exhibit, search the Internet for “Civil War Pathways.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org