Sunday, May 19, 2013

My big questions about Big Mike

Just over two decades after following the same trail up from the Columbia River to Puget Sound, the body of "Big Mike" Simmons entered the county that almost bore his name. Simmons died on November 15, 1867 at the land claim farm he took after failing at being a timber man in Mason County.

Michael Troutman Simmons is certainly one of the giants of Thurston County history. Leader of the first group of Americans to settle in Puget Sound, delegate to the territorial convention, Indian agent and businessman. Yet, he died poor and almost anonymous in Lewis County.

We seem to know everything about Michael Troutman Simmons. But, for me, there are as many questions as facts about Simmons that I need answered before I get a true image of him.

First off, what is it about Clanrick Crosby?

Soon after this other founder of Thurston County and Tumwater arrived in 1851 (some would say the founder of Tumwater, since he did more to move New Market to Tumwater than Simmons) the two men filed suit against each other. Both men claimed ownership of the land around the Deschutes falls, which would prove to be the economic heart of Tumwater. According to at least one source, the first lawsuit spawned additional lawsuits that lasted beyond Simmons' death.

Why did he leave Olympia?

His first venture out of Olympia and Tumwater was a mill on Skookum Bay in Mason County he started in 1853 with Wes Gosnell. A newspaper article announcing to Simmons’ new mill, also noted that the valuable land near Tumwater was “no longer entangled in vexatious chancery.” The courts had apparently settled in Crosby’s favor by 1853 (for the moment), and Simmons had taken his enterprises north.

By 1857 he is listed as a property owner in Sawamish (before it was called Mason) County.

For a man whose legacy is tied so closely to Tumwater, he spent more of his time in Washington away from Tumwater then in it.

What about his race for congress?

Is there more to know about Simmons' failed campaign in 1854 for territorial delegate? He ran in the general election as an Independent and lost by a landslide.

The nomination of Columbia Lancaster as the Democratic candidate in 1854 was one of territorial unity over sectionalism, according to the papers. Lancaster was a resident of the Columbia portion of the new territory. The newspaper in 1854 writes about the state having two centers, one on Puget Sound, the other on the Columbia. Lancaster brings those two together. “The first blow of union and democracy of the territory has been struck”

Simmons wasn’t nominated (or possibly even present) at the Democratic convention that chose Lancaster. James Patton Anderson of Tennessee (who later served in the Confederacy) was the strong runner up in four ballots. Anderson would be elected delegate a year later and serve until Issac Stevens himself was elected in 1857.

Yet, a letter written arguing for Simmons’ independent candidacy pointed out that five of the six who had been nominated were new to the territory and all were lukewarm for the recent split from Oregon. On the other hand, Simmons had lived on Puget Sound for almost a decade by that point and was an early advocate for a split from Oregon.

There’s not a shred of irony from Simmons or his supporters when he mentioned that newcomers were taking over territorial politics.His ten years (compared to the centuries of the Indian tribes) were apparently to him, the most important ten years.

This feud with the Democrats in 1854 would eventually spill into other contests when Simmons apparently even supported the growing Republican party in the territory (as noted in "Confederacy of Ambition"). Political pressure was put to local civic leaders to force Simmons out as Indian agent because of his partisan disloyalty.

Was their economic pressure put together with political pressure to keep Simmons from finding success in the territorial capital? He apparently outlasted all that pressure though, and was only replaced when Lincoln’s administration replaced him with a loyal Republican.

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