Read any good books lately? Daughter of the Olympic Wilderness: The Life and Times of Pansy Martin Snell (Poseidon Peak Publishing, 2023) is the latest book by Hoh River authors Gary Peterson and Glynda Peterson Schaad.
The Snell homestead was located at the Hoh River crossing of the busy Pacific Trail. Access today is by a couple hours’ boat ride or bushwhack or both. In the 1960s, the Snell place was at the western extremity of cattle range used by the Peterson Ranch.
So it was that in November 1964, the Peterson boys, on a mission to find the last few strays from the fall round-up, wandered into the remnant clearing of the Snell homestead, where they found the missing cattle. Anxious to escape a perplexing “inexplicable feeling of trespass and therefore with no desire to linger,” they hazed the cattle out of the meadow and headed for home.
Over the following decades, the cattle never returned and neither did the boys. However, periodically an event, person, image, or someone’s writing would trigger a mental association with that mysterious place visited long ago.
At that time, its secrets had been well hidden for 75 years. It would be another half century before they would be fully revealed. Local history published in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s made mention of Billie Snell and his Indian wife. Although her name and family ties remained a mystery, more about Billie came to light.
Peterson and Schaad learned Billie was from a wealthy British family. They learned Billie’s mom came to America to bring her son and daughter-in-law back to England. They learned that when Billie moved his family to the Quinault Reservation, Billie became a legal Quinault Native, an English Indian.
With the passing of time, they learned more about the Snell family. Then they discovered that everything they had learned was bogus, not true, 100-year-old fake news. So, in the end, they did learn some valuable lessons. They learned not to believe everything they read. (This column, of course, being a notable exception.)
The authors found that storytellers fill in with a little untruth here, a little half-truth there and throw in some downright lies for the sake of a good story. Then the process is repeated, much like the parlor game “gossip” played by grade-school children.
Repeated and unchecked, this process produces mythology, important but lacking fidelity to actual events. Hence the challenge becomes how to tease history out of mythology. This was especially true in the case of Billie Snell’s Native wife. She was a survivor of the cultural cataclysm visited on the tribes of the Northwest coast in the last half of the 19th century. She grew up in the “Dark Decade” of the 1880s and her mention in history books is a mere historical fragment.
For Peterson and Schaad, a chance meeting with a Snell family great-grandson sparked a renewed interest in the Snell story. Justine James was on a pilgrimage, returning to his Hoh River roots. What had before this meeting been a whisper from the past became a five-year obsession as the story took on a life of its own and the whisper became more audible.
Using over 80 vintage photos, census data, genealogical records, maps, legal documents, homestead and border crossing records, passenger lists, the writings of contemporaries and interviews with descendants, Daughter of the Olympic Wilderness amplifies that whisper to tell the story of the life and times of the Hoh River Indian Princess Tsi-hos-tub (Pansy Martin Snell) and the love of her life, the mountain man John William “Billie” Snell.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via firstname.lastname@example.org.