ON JUNE 7, 1887, John Conna arrives home in Tacoma to find a letter from an African American named Peter Conway in St. Paul, Minn., asking about the climate in the Pacific Northwest and whether the region might make a suitable place to relocate.
Conna’s the right man to make a convincing case for moving West.
One of Tacoma’s most prominent black businessmen and a Civil War veteran, Conna has been placing ads in African-American newspapers back East urging others to seek a better life among the evergreens and misty inlets of the Northwest Coast.
“Go West, Young Man,” his ads implore.
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Conna writes back and asks Conway to spread the word that if blacks migrate from the South in particular, “in four or five years the question of the political and social oppression of our people . . . would be settled for all time to come.”
Seattle historian Lorraine McConaghy relishes stories like this one. She is obsessed with the history of the Pacific Northwest in the Civil War (1861-1865) and postwar eras.
And she’s convinced that there are enough untold stories about this period and its legacy to upend our assumptions about how society evolved here, especially when it comes to matters of race.
Working solo, she could spend years digging for nuggets as fascinating as the story of Conna, whom she’s been researching, and still not scratch the surface.
McConaghy hit on a novel alternative: Crowdsourcing.
Last winter she launched a Civil War “read-in” project. She and her team traveled around the state holding workshops with volunteers from the public on how to read, analyze and catalog a vast array of primary-source materials stashed both in brick-and-mortar archives and online. Each volunteer would then submit relevant records to a “Civil War Pathways” database with descriptions of what they found.
“To a degree, you’re pioneers in some of the things you’re reading,” McConaghy tells one room of history buffs, myself included, at the National Archives in Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood a year ago, at the start of the project.
Our job, she says, will be to read the historical record of this state and region “with new eyes.”
McConaghy tells the group she’s not as interested in “the Civil War of battlefields,” since no fighting happened here, aside from barroom brawls over political differences.
One of her main reasons for doing the read-in, she says, is “to bust the complacency we have” in the Northwest around the idea that we were comfortably removed from the conflicts that tore at the nation’s soul.
Not so. When people migrated to places like the Puget Sound region, they brought their politics and social attitudes with them — good, bad and ugly.
Local proslavery papers made no secret of their disdain for the wide-eyed abolitionist “utopians,” as one publisher put it, or the “fawning little sycophants,” to borrow another choice phrase, trying to curry favor with Lincoln in hopes of winning political appointments.
In 1866, William Winlock Miller, a pro-Union sympathizer during the war, helped stage a huge rally in Olympia to oppose — not advocate — giving blacks the right to vote. He went on to become Olympia’s first directly elected mayor.
McConaghy talks like a sleuth with a hot hunch when discussing her belief that there is more to the story of blacks, in particular, in the mid-to-late 1800s, from free blacks who fought in the Civil War before moving here to those who were another person’s property.
There’s the case of James Tilton of Olympia, a white supremacist who ran for governor of Washington Territory in 1865. In 1860, he was the owner of a young black man named Charles Mitchell, whose escape and subsequent flight to Victoria, B.C., McConaghy researched for the book “Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master.” This magazine published excerpts from the book in its Feb. 10, 2013 issue.
Victoria, under the control of Britain, which had already outlawed slavery, served as a destination on our region’s own Underground Railroad for escaped slaves. The city was 25 percent people of color in the 1860s, many of them blacks who’d migrated from the States.
What must they have thought about all of the Confederate sympathizers and instigators who’d found safe haven in Victoria, too?
Now it will be up to McConaghy’s volunteers to unearth new details about the period and, she hopes, show what we’re really made of.
“This is a project of radical trust,” McConaghy tells her fledgling historians. “History is dangerous.”
“Fast following the last echoes of the Presidential victory, there rises a storm in the South that darkens our political horizon. News of painful and exciting interest smite our ears like an alarm of fire. The heavy tread of armed men drilling in Southern cities . . . oppress the heart of the patriot, while they dimly shadow forth long years of unknown trouble.”
Abraham Lincoln has just been elected president on a promise to end slavery, and John Lodge, publisher of the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper in Olympia, worries in an editorial that the country is on the cusp of war because of the fallout from the election.
Though thousands of miles from the main action, the run-up to the Civil War, the war itself and its aftermath hit home in the Northwest.
Joseph Lane of Oregon, John C. Breckinridge’s running mate on the proslavery Southern Democratic ticket against Lincoln in that 1860 presidential election, faced accusations that he was trying to spread the idea of secession and foment rebellion in the Northwest by joining that ticket, McConaghy notes.
As war broke out in the spring of 1861, Northwest members of a secret white-supremacist society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle backed the creation of a breakaway, slaveholding republic stretching into Latin America. Oregon passed a series of bigoted laws during this period, and even banned blacks from living there at all. In Walla Walla, one newspaper lamented that “fond ma-mas and secesh pa-pas” were naming their babies after secessionist heroes.
Reading clippings from the 1860s, you get a distinct sense of grievance over government infringement on states’ rights, but also yearnings to keep the Union intact and get the federal government to pay more attention to Western interests.
Volunteer Mary Montgomery read letters from Washington Territorial Gov. William Pickering, who understood the region’s vulnerability to attacks by Confederate troublemakers plying the region’s waters.
“Puget Sound was pretty-well wide open to anybody that wanted to come in,” Montgomery says.
In the winter of 1865, Pickering asks his friend, Seattle founding citizen Arthur Denny, to look after his affairs while he makes an epic sea and land journey via Panama to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the state in person.
In his correspondence, he talks about visiting a Civil War battlefield in the spring as the war draws to a close, a sight that upsets him greatly, Montgomery says.
Pickering’s trip takes an even darker turn on the night of April 14.
Lincoln, a personal friend and the man who appointed him as governor, is shot and fatally wounded.
Pickering, sitting in his quarters in the nation’s capital, hears all hell break loose on the streets and runs out to join the fray.
In a subsequent letter to Denny, dated May 4, 1865, Pickering gives a chilling firsthand account of Lincoln’s burial.
“I just nearly dropped the letter,” Montgomery says, recalling the day she came across it.
“It opens, ‘Dear Sir: We have this day laid the earthly remains of Abraham Lincoln in the vault of his last resting place on earth.’ ”
Pickering writes about traveling with the president’s body back to Lincoln’s home state of Illinois and watching crowds gather alongside the tracks as the train moves through the countryside.
Later, Pickering wonders what will happen now that Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who opposed extending protections to freed slaves, has succeeded the slain president who freed them.
Among other things, the Republican Pickering is not reappointed to his post.
“I feel like I climbed into an era,” Montgomery says of her read-in research. “Really, almost everything in that time period got more interesting because I have more context.”
McConaghy needed 500 readers for the read-in, but in the end, about 270 received training statewide. Of those, McConaghy says, 60 people left the project for a variety of reasons, including time constraints and the difficulty of doing the research.
But even with fewer than half the volunteers sought, the project team was flooded with submissions, more than 2,000. The resulting Pathways database went live for the general public in the fall.
Much of the material has been used to help McConaghy curate a Washington State Historical Society exhibit, opening Feb. 17, called “Civil War Pathways in the Pacific Northwest.”
Among the discoveries from the project, McConaghy says, is evidence about “traitors” during the Civil War encouraging Native people east of the Cascades to go to war against settlers.
“It shows so clearly how distinctive Washington Territory’s Civil War experience was,” McConaghy says.
For instance, while armies and editorial writers fought over the question of slavery in the South, black businesswoman Rebecca Howard was building the Pacific Hotel and Restaurant in Olympia into the most successful such operation in the territorial capital.
Howard didn’t put up with any mischief at her establishment. And according to several accounts, whites, including Pickering, referred to her as “Aunty” or “Aunt Becky” — until she became wealthy. From then on, she insisted on the more respectful “Mrs. Howard.”
When Olympia launched a campaign to win the terminus to the Northern Pacific railroad line, she reportedly pledged 100 acres of her own land to the effort. In the rough-and-tumble Northwest, where racial prejudice ran deep, bigotry was no match for the tenacity and enterprising spirit of African Americans such as Howard.
The big prize for McConaghy, proof that other black slaves were held openly in Washington Territory, has so far eluded her. The read-in has turned up no evidence.
Some volunteers, however, came to her in a panic over reading racist slurs and race-baiting, anti-Lincoln satire printed in the territory’s newspapers.
Still, read-in volunteer Steve Lovell came away with a new appreciation for early settlers, whom he describes as “self-reliant, strong, independent, yearning for opportunity, not willing to settle for an easy life” — attributes that apply even today.
In the decades after the war, which had devastated the South and hobbled the North, both Union and Confederate veterans flocked (or returned) to the remote Northwest to start over. Jobs in fishing, timber and mines were plentiful. This was the land of opportunity, hostile though it may have been for some.
From his home in Kansas City, Mo., black war veteran John Conna eventually heeded the call to go West, too.
In 1883, he put his wife, Mary, on a transcontinental railroad train, and they rode all the way to the end of the line — as it happens not Olympia or Seattle but Tacoma, the so-called “City of Destiny.”
Douglas Q. Barnett’s mother, Katherine Conna, had always told her son that his grandfather was born a free man in the South and that he was an officer in the Civil War.
Barnett, part of a prominent Seattle family, went on believing that into his 50s, until he learned more about Conna’s amazing life story from local African-American historian Esther Mumford. That was in the early 1980s, the same period when he learned separately that his dad’s side of the family was descended from slaves in Virginia.
These revelations led him to search for more truths about his own complicated heritage, something many of his elders never discussed.
At 82, he’s still at it. Like McConaghy’s lay volunteers, he’s had to learn to be a history researcher on the fly. Now McConaghy uses him as a resource for her own work on Conna.
“I became convinced that the history of black people is so inaccurate, and we really don’t even know the extent of our history as a race,” Barnett says.
His apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is filled with file boxes and document binders that form a patchwork of his heritage.
Among his findings: Conna probably wasn’t born free. News clippings indicate he was a slave. Barnett has also found evidence that Conna was not an officer but merely a private.
Even that information is hard to verify. Barnett’s theory is that Conna was an undocumented volunteer for the Union side, not uncommon for the thousands of blacks who joined the fight.
Within a few years of arriving out here, Conna was a thriving real-estate agent and property owner who sported a Union uniform at public appearances, and apparently had so much property he was able to give 40 acres to Tacoma as a Christmas present.
Barnett remembers the day he found the document showing Conna’s land gift to Tacoma.
“My eyeballs went back in my head,” he says.
By 1900, though, Conna had lost his fortune. But new prospects awaited in the Alaskan gold rush. He left his wife and 19 children, hopped a ship and never set foot in Washington state again, as far as Barnett knows.
Conna’s trail went cold, for the most part, for nearly a century.
Barnett spends much of his time today trying to change that — and possibly strike his own kind of gold with new revelations.
As McConaghy and her read-in volunteers can attest, it’s a painstaking, hit-or-miss process.
“The thing is,” Barnett says, “you never know when you’re going to hit the prize.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.