Low, John Nathan (1820-1888) and Lydia Low (d. 1901)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 11/02/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1049

In the summer of 1851, John Nathan Low, his wife Lydia Low, and their four children passed the Arthur Denny Party just before Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail. The Dennys caught up with the fast-paced Low clan before reaching The Dalles, Oregon (the rapids and town where the Cascade Mountains cross the Columbia River). The Lows traveled on with the Denny Party to Portland, Oregon, where John teamed up with David Denny to explore Puget Sound.

Elliott Bay

Upon arrival in Elliott Bay, they hired an Indian canoe and roamed Elliott Bay and the Duwamish waterway. They spent their first night at Skwudux on the eastern shore of West Seattle.

They liked what they saw. Low returned to Olympia with Captain Fay and then walked to Portland to deliver the good news. He informed the larger group that great opportunities existed on Puget Sound. The Lows traveled on with the Denny Party to Portland, Oregon, where John Low joined David Denny to explore Puget Sound and seek winter range for Low's cattle.

In Olympia, Denny, Low, and a New Yorker named Leander "Lee" Terry got aboard an open sailboat captained by Robert C. Fay, which was destined to collect salmon from Indians in Puget Sound.

Rainy and Roofless

While Low was gone, Terry and Denny built Low's roofless cabin. An enlarged party which included a new baby born to Mary Ann (Boren) Denny and her husband Arthur Denny, and the William N. Bell family boarded the schooner Exact. The anxious pioneers disembarked on a rainy beach at Alki on November 13, 1851. Within a few months several members of the party found a more hospitable site on the shores of today's Seattle.

But, John Low and his family remained at Alki. After trying his hand at harvesting the forest, John Low sold his interests to Charles C. Terry and returned in 1853 to Chamber's Prairie near Olympia. Low's involvement with the pioneer efforts to found Alki and Seattle end at this point.

In August 1851, when John Low joined forces with the Denny Party at The Dalles, he was anxious to bargain with local Indians for fresh fish. The Dennys had purchased dried salmon on the Snake River, but Low wanted to do better. Being wary of Indians, and relatively inexperienced in how to trade or bargain, Low pulled off his shirt, threw it at an Indian as he passed by, and grabbed what must have been a king salmon - the fish was described as "enormous." The Dalles was also where the party made another decision: Low and others chartered two boats to take their families through the rapids and down the river while sending their baggage by ox- cart on the perilous Barlow Road.

Chills, Fever

August 22, 1851, the tired group reached Portland. The ague (fevers and chills) kept most of the party in recuperation. Low, Denny, and others recalled the advice they got along the Trail regarding opportunities in Puget Sound. Deciding to forego the Willamette Valley as a future home, John Low and David Denny started north on September 10, 1851, to explore this unknown land. They were also seeking winter range for Low's cattle.

Carrying blankets and provisions, John Low, David Denny, and the small herd followed an old Indian trail northward. At Olympia, after finding grazing land for the cattle, Low and Denny joined New Yorker Lee Terry and climbed into an open sailboat owned by Captain Robert C. Fay. Fay was headed north to buy salmon from Indians to salt for the gold rush San Francisco market. After exploring the Duwamish River Valley and Elliott Bay by Indian canoe, the trio spent their first night at Skuwudux, an Indian campsite on the eastern shore of the West Seattle peninsula. Prospects looked good, especially after encountering settler Luther Collins and listening to his description of life along the Duwamish.

The site they chose for a new home was called Smaquamox, known as Alki. John Low returned with Captain Fay to Olympia, and then tramped the remaining miles to Portland to deliver the good news - including a letter from David Denny to his brother Arthur which included the now famous phrase, "Come at once." Terry and Denny remained behind to build Low's roofless cabin.

The expanded Denny Party, which included Mary Ann (Boren) and Arthur Denny's new baby and the William N. Bell family, arrived at Alki aboard the schooner Exact on November 13, 1851. John Low had acted as navigator, searching the beach for signs of his cabin and David Denny. The Lows settled in, despite the rain and curious Indians, but Arthur and David Denny, Carson Boren, and William Bell explored the large bay in search of a more hospitable site. They found what they believed would be a promising location on the shores of today's Seattle, but the Low family was, at first, satisfied with its claims at Alki.

Lumber For Sale

The party was visited by the Leonesa, and John Low arranged a contract with Captain Daniel S. Howard to provide lumber for piles for wharves at San Francisco. The entire party went to work, eventually loading 13,458 feet of lumber aboard the little ship. That contract allowed the colony to realize needed hard cash, while establishing a trade link between Elliott Bay and San Francisco. Before the Leonesa sailed, John and others put in their orders for supplies. Low's order was the largest, including barrels of pork and flour and "l stove."

Life at Alki, which had been named "New York," and later "New York-Alki" by Charles Terry, was a challenge for tenderfoot settlers. Lydia Low whacked an Indian who tried to grab her only ham. When John returned home he took his gun and chased the miscreant Indian into the forest, promising to shoot him if he came back. The threat worked.

On December 22, 1852, King County (and Pierce, Jefferson, and Island Counties) was formed from Thurston County. John Low, Luther Collins, and Arthur Denny were appointed the first King County commissioners by the Oregon Territorial Legislature.

The Loneliness of Lydia Low

While the little hamlet of Seattle began to grow, Alki managed to hold its own the first couple of years. However, Lydia Low never got used to the lonely life. For one year she was the only white women at Alki. She lived in the first-built cabin which was rustic in every sense. One night she witnessed a commotion offshore - the passing of a school of playful blackfish. While her husband was off cutting timber, she was often visited by curious Indians. She asked Charles Terry to train her in the use of a colt revolver, but never had to fire it in anger. The summer of 1852, Captain Howard of the Leonesa brought her several Dickens' novels which he obtained in San Francisco. During that same year, with the help of Mary Denny, she gave birth to her fifth child, the first white child born in King County outside of Seattle. The baby's name was Amelia Antoinette, called "Nettie."

Lydia's loneliness and lack of activity at Alki, and perhaps John's weary job of cutting and hauling wood from the diminishing forest, caused the Low family to decide on a new life. On March 5, 1853, when the King County commissioners held their first meeting, John Low dropped out because he was preparing to leave New York-Alki. Within a month, Low sold his interests to Charles Terry and moved with his family to Chamber's Prairie near Olympia. He bought a farm and in later years moved to Snohomish County. The lonely days were over, and the Low family's role in the establishment of the towns of New York-Alki and Seattle had ended.

John Low and Lydia Low are buried in the Snohomish Pioneer (Pilchuck) Cemetery. John Low died on February 17, 1888, and Lydia Low died on December 12, 1901.


Clarence Bagley, History of King County (Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1939); "Burial list of Snohomish Pioneer Cemetery" transcribed and submitted by Madeline Edgren, January, 2000, Washington State Cemetery Project,(USGenWeb Archives).

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