The Pickett House Museum

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Sun, Jan 25, 2015, 11:32 am  //  Guest writer

The Pickett House Museum

The Pickett House Museum
Adventures of George Pickett in the Pacific Northwest Wilderness
By Kamalla Kaur

Captain George Pickett, Pioneer Soldier 
It is over 150 years since the Battle at Gettysburg. During the Civil War my hometown of Bellingham, Washington, then called Whatcom, was wilderness, accessible only by water, far away from the conflict. Located in Washington Territory at the extreme northwest corner of our Union, only the Lummi and Nooksack Indians, a few white settlers, and a military fort existed here. Yet Fort Bellingham was built by 68 soldiers under the command of Captain George Pickett - the same George Pickett who a few years later became a famous general in the Confederate Army - the same George Pickett who on July, 3, 1863, following orders from General Robert E. Lee, made that disastrous bloody charge at Gettysburg.

In 1856, prior to the Civil War, Captain George Pickett and the men of Company D arrived by boat from Fort Steilacoom (95 nautical miles south of Bellingham Bay). Their orders were to protect white settlers and the Lummis from the raiding Northern Indians, Haida and others, who paddled from what is now British Columbia and Alaska in their massive war canoes. Pickett was also sent to Bellingham Bay to keep an eye on the British. He built Fort Bellingham and a military road to assert the United State's claim to the new territory.

On August 11, 1857, a year after Pickett arrived in Whatcom, Colonel Issac Ebey, a pioneer from Whidbey Island, (47 nautical miles south of Bellingham Bay), was shot and beheaded by Indians suspected of being Haida. The following year, in the summer of 1858, huge war canoes with fifty warriors or more per boat appeared in the San Juan Islands like sea monsters searching for prey. Massacre Bay, Haida Point, and Skull Island are clustered landmarks around Orcas Island reminding us of the attack where a hundred Lummis were slaughtered at their summer camp and many others enslaved. 

Of course, the handful of white people who lived in Whatcom (Bellingham) were grateful for Pickett's leadership and protection. In an attempt to lure George Pickett – a hard drinking, hard gambling, charismatic and socially adept Southern gentleman – to live in town instead of the Fort, the settlers constructed a sturdy and appealing little house for him. It was built with eighteen-inch wide Douglas fir planks that had been sawed at one of the settlers first businesses, the Roeder/Peabody Lumber Mill. Nestled on the cliff among tall timber, it sported lots of precious window glass. The settlers poured their hearts and resources into building Pickett's small home.

Originally, Pickett's house had two main rooms, one in front and one in back, with a ladder up to a spacious second floor that was probably used for storage. There was a kitchen lean-to on the side of the house, which was later incorporated into the main building. The back door, mudroom, and tiny kitchen were added sometime after 1900. Even with additions, the present-day Pickett House is less than 1000 square feet and is stuffed with Victorian furniture donated by the last owner of the house, Hattie Strother. When Hattie, a seamstress, died in 1936 she deeded the Pickett House to the Washington State Historical Society and its contents to the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington, Whatcom Chapter 5. In 1941 the Pickett House became a museum under the care of women whose ancestors settled here before 1871.
Pickett's Indian Wife and Their Gifted Artist Son

George Pickett lived in the little house with his second wife. There is no record of her name, but many think she was Haida, possibly the daughter of an enemy chief. One novelist named her "Morning Mist," but the settlers and Lummis simply called her Mrs. Pickett. George Pickett, his Virginia family, and the white settlers left no record of her other than that Pickett cared for her until she died a few months after the birth of their son, James Tilton Pickett, who was born on December 31, 1857.

In 1861, George Pickett left the Pacific Northwest to return to his family home in Virginia and join the Confederacy. Prior to leaving, he placed Jimmie Pickett, age 3 1/2, with a white foster family at Grand Mound, Washington Territory (near Olympia). George Pickett acknowledged Jimmie as his son and supported him financially, but never saw him again.

Jimmie Pickett graduated from Union Academy in Olympia and later attended art school in California. He became a notable Pacific Northwest painter and worked as a staff artist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Portland Oregonian newspapers. Jimmie died of typhoid and tuberculosis in a Portland boarding house on August 18, 1889; he was 31. Legend says that as he lay dying, Jimmie gazed at his father’s cavalry sword – the sword General George Pickett likely wore at the Battle of Gettysburg. LaSalle Pickett (Pickett’s third wife) sent the sword to Jimmie in 1875 after his father’s death. The sword disappeared right after Jimmie died, most likely stolen.

The Pickett House Museum Today

More than 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Pickett House still sits quietly, humble yet proud. Once it stood alone enjoying a great view of Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands. Now, the little house is crowded in among office buildings, houses and apartments atop Bellingham’s Peabody Hill.

On the second Sunday of every month, Whatcom Chapter 5 of the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington opens the Pickett House to the public. It is the oldest building in town and the oldest documented wooden building still sitting on its original site in Washington State. You can also tour the Pickett House by appointment. Donations are the sole source of revenue to cover maintenance costs.

Entering through the back door, through the musty mudroom and into the little kitchen addition, I arrive to give tours. I've become a Friend of the Pickett House and a Friend of the Daughters of the Pioneers so I can help care for the oldest of all houses in Bellingham, so I can experience this time machine again and again.

Edradine Hovde, Vice President of Whatcom Chapter 5, gathers visitors onto the front porch. She explains the porch was not part of the original structure, but since enclosed, has protected the front of this historic home from the weather. A retired schoolteacher wearing a period costume, Edradine tells the story of Captain Pickett and his days in Washington Territory. She is a descendent of a local pioneer family who settled here in 1855 from New Brunswick. She effortlessly and lovingly shares stories of George Pickett’s life here with his Indian wife in the years right before the Civil War. He was among our earliest pioneers and, with his wife, had an important son right here in this small dwelling.

After Edradine's introduction, visitors enter the small rooms and tour freely. I mingle and show anyone interested my favorite exhibits: the big photo of Jimmie Pickett's Chinese chest, which came to him from his mother and is similar to ones sold by the Hudson Bay Company at the time; photos of Jimmie Pickett; and reproductions of some of his paintings.

There is a model of the Fort Bellingham Blockhouse made by a boy from the 1930s out of bits of wood he found at the old Fort Bellingham site.

"His name was Jim Rinehart. He was 12 years old," Susan Hess, president of Whatcom Chapter 5, shares with a visitor. "He was the son of one of our charter members, Cecil Stenger Rinehart, whose grandparents rented the Pickett House after George Pickett left. Cecil remembered as a young child hearing stories of the cougars that used to lie on the roof of the lean-to for warmth in the winter."

Susan is the great-great-grand niece of Phoebe Judson, the pioneer mother of nearby Lynden, Washington, who in her nineties wrote the regional classic, "A Pioneer's Search For an Ideal Home." It’s the story of Phoebe's journey west via wagon train and her life in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

"There is nothing left of Fort Bellingham except for a road named after it," Susan continues. "But Pickett himself moved some of Fort Bellingham to San Juan Island, by barge, in 1859 to defend the settlers - the boundary dispute later called the Pig War. Both American Camp and the British Camp are preserved at San Juan National Historical Park, on San Juan Island."

"The great thing about the Pig War is that only the pig died," I say, jumping into the conversation. "It was a British pig who pillaged an American settler's garden. Captain Pickett and his 68 men successfully faced down three British warships, the HMS Tribune, HMS Satellite and HMS Plumper, and 1000 British troops. Pickett told his men, “Don't be afraid of their big guns. We'll make a Bunker Hill of it.'  But, thankfully, President James Buchanan sent Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott to stop further escalation of the conflict."

I notice three children peering into the large diorama of Pickett's Charge from the Battle of Gettysburg.

"Down here at the base of the hill, is General George Pickett on his sleek black charger, his horse named Old Black." I show them. "His men, the Confederates, are wearing the gray uniforms. The Union soldiers are in blue. See how much better a position the blue side has? Almost every soldier in gray, almost all Pickett's men, died in this battle. It is one of the most famous battles in our country's history and the turning point in the Civil War, when the Union side began to win the war."

"They all died?"

"Of the soldiers fighting under General George Pickett's command at Gettysburg, 498 were killed, 643 wounded, 833 wounded and captured, and 681 captured, but unwounded."

"They died," whisper the kids, moving around the scene, looking at it from every angle. I share their fascination and horror, the same fascination and horror felt by General Robert E. Lee, President Abraham Lincoln, General George E. Pickett and the generations of citizens who have since contemplated what happened during those three bloody days at Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.

Before turning my attention to other visitors, I suggest to the children, "Visit Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, someday and see for yourself where this battle took place. You can tell people there that you have been to The Pickett House in Bellingham, Washington!"

The Pickett House Museum is open to the public for tours every second Sunday of the month from 1p.m. - 4p.m., or by private appointment.

Donations to help the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington State, Whatcom Chapter 5 preserve and maintain the Pickett House Museum can be sent to:

DPW Whatcom Chapter 5
PO Box 5183
Bellingham. WA 98227-5183

The Pickett House Museum

George Pickett

The early Pickett House, Jimmy Pickett and a suggestion of his art

The Pickett House Museum

Sun, Jan 25, 2015, 11:32 am  //  Guest writer

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