DIG A LITTLE, and Seattle’s scrubby past inevitably pops up. We might be all high-tech now, all digital wizards, but back there are the city’s ancestors. They could be rough. Really rough.

In researching a story such as today’s — about how Seattle has been portrayed by outsiders over the decades — I’m always glad I get to talk to historians. They’re the ones who have done the work of looking through books such as Clarence Bagley’s “History of Seattle,” 1916, Vol. 1, pages 140-141.

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It’s there that John M. Findlay, University of Washington history professor emeritus, found what the newly recruited UW president for 1863-66 had to say about this place, and included it in an article about the UW. Contrast what William E. Barnard had to say with how present-day Seattle is described.

Now, we’re the most educated big city in the country, according to a Feb. 25, 2019, Seattle Times article. Now, we’re either No. 1 or No. 2 in a listing of America’s most literate cities, according to studies conducted by the late Jack Miller, president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University, who died in 2019.

But here’s what Barnard wrote: “Education throughout the Sound district is in an extremely backward condition; as an illustration: Not one of the misses attending the university the first quarter after our arrival could accurately repeat the multiplication table. 


“Society is also greatly disorganized: drunkenness, licentiousness, profanity and Sabbath desecration are the striking characteristics of our people, and of no portion more than those of Seattle. Of course, there are a few honorable exceptions. 

“We have two distilleries, 11 drinking establishments, one bawdy house, and at all the drinking establishments, as at our three hotels, gambling is openly practiced, and Sunday is no exception. These are influences we have had to encounter in our efforts to build up an institution of learning. I need not say it is discouraging and well nigh hopeless.”

Says Findlay, “Around the Northwest, loggers, miners, etc., knew of Seattle as a place for spending leisure hours, drinking, gambling, visiting prostitutes, etc.”

None of us, really, is too far removed from a dramatically different life than we have now. If they’re still around, ask your grandparents.

Finally, besides the historians included in the main story, thanks also to Lorraine McConaghy, retired Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) historian, who told me about the 1883 Atlantic Monthly article I include, and the as-always helpful staffers at the Seattle Public Library.