I RECENTLY TOOK a stroll around Ocean View Cemetery. There are a number of simple grave markers identifying the remains of Civil War veterans. There may be about 80 such markers. There is also a large obelisk erected by the Pacific Post No. 48 GAR in 1907.
That also reminded me Memorial Day is this month. Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance for everyone who has died serving in the American armed forces.
The Civil War ended in spring 1865. Three years after the war ended, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. It was declared that Decoration Day should be celebrated May 30. It is believed that date was selected since flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The purpose of Decoration Day was to decorate graves with the best flowers of springtime.
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” Logan stated.
Some Civil War veterans began to migrate west. A few arrived in Port Angeles. Pacific Post No. 48, GAR, was organized in 1887. Their numbers grew.
Construction of the First Congregational Church at First and Vine streets was completed in March 1889, and it quickly became a hub for community activities.
On May 30, 1889, the church hosted Decoration Day exercises. The exercises were quite remarkable. The Grand Army veterans marched in the audience. A choir sang “America,” “Gathering Home” and other anthems. Poems were read and songs were sung. Holidays such as this held a high significance within the community.
Before moving on, I need to provide important context. Prior to 1890, people who wanted to move to Port Angeles found little land for sale. That was due to about 3,000 acres within the Government Reserve that was unavailable for settlement. The growth of Port Angeles depended on the reserve being opened up for settlement. Rather than wait the years necessary to wade through Congress, lawyer John C. Murphy had another idea: Settlers would treat the land as if it was opened up for settlement.
On July 4, 1890, people began moving onto the reserve. Settlers would each claim two 140-foot by 50-foot lots. They would construct rudimentary shelter and begin to make improvements by clearing trees, building a house and barn, and planting a garden. They were squatters.
For Murphy’s scheme to work, more people needed to move to Port Angeles.
The Puget Sound Cooperative Colony had been established in Port Angeles since 1887. They had a vision for a utopian society. Now, another colony was being promoted. Promoters, like D.P. Quinn, were working vigorously to bring a colony of the Grand Army of the Republic from Michigan to Port Angeles.
An “advance guard” of 18 from the Michigan Soldier’s Colony Association traveled to Port Angeles. They arrived by ship in September 1892 and were greeted by Mayor Norman R. Smith, the Gate City Band and as many as 2,000 local citizens. They were overwhelmed by our cordial hospitality. After the greeting, they were taken to the hotel, where a dinner had been prepared for the veterans and their families. The new arrivals were hosted by other families until they could establish their own homes.
This “advance guard” sent a letter back to their comrades in Michigan and other states, encouraging more veterans to move to Port Angeles without delay. The letter extolled our “moderate, kind and healthful climate” and the abundance of resources. There were lots within the Port Angeles reserve to establish homes, and they also promoted the availability of good 160-acre claims. They encouraged all participants to secure a claim of 160 acres in addition to their homes in the reserve. Their vision was to “make Port Angeles the great Grand Army city, and carry out the plans of the grand and immortal Lincoln to building up a city which would be a monument to his illustrious memory.”
But there was a caveat. Do not come expecting employment. Their invitation was limited to those who had sufficient income from their pension.
One of those in the “advance guard” was Lafayette Mathews.
In August 1894, he wrote: “I don’t know how I am coming out here yet. I don’t get any money and you can’t depend on me for any and there is the taxes to be paid this fall.”
He also wrote, “We have a good post (GAR Post 48) here. I like it. First rate.”
Lafayette also attended prayer meetings noting there were a lot of young folks.
The group’s letter of invitation didn’t make it clear that getting title to the land would be a gamble. Establishing a home within the remaining reserve would require courage, patience and lots of hard work.
In August 1893, the government finally agreed to put the land in the Reserve up for sale, due in part to the significant number of veterans who settled there. The bold 3½-year gamble paid off. On January 1, 1894, the sale began. U.S. Land Office Registrar Captain William D. O’Toole oversaw the sale, which lasted 20 days. John Remley and Henry Anderson saw a need during the first day. During each sale Captain O’Toole would use a match case, ink stand or his knuckles to pound on the table. John and Henry went to work the next morning. One made the mallet head and the other whittled the handle. Their handiwork was given to Captain O’Toole.
To read about the sale in more detail, I recommend a 65-page pamphlet titled “O’Toole’s Mallet.” This delightful pamphlet, authored by Captain Thomas H. Bradley, is a wonderful look at early Port Angeles history and this event in particular.
The settlers would claim homestead rights for their two lots. Proof would be provided by the testimony of two witnesses. Hardship was evident in some cases, such as those widowed. In cases where the claim could not be adequately proved, in kindness no one would bid against the claimant. O’Toole’s mallet became a symbol of the joy provided by each successive blow and the word “sold.”
On January 22, 1894, after the sale was complete, a mass meeting celebrating the event was held in the Opera House complete with pomp and circumstance. There were speeches and music provided by the Guitar and Mandolin Club.
The Michigan Soldier’s Colony never saw its dream of a Grand Army city come to fruition. Regardless, these old soldiers made significant contributions to our local community. They helped us grow into a strong community. This Memorial day can we, “guard their graves with sacred vigilance?”
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].