Elementary Level: Walter Bull -- Leading Citizen of Kittitas County

  • Posted 10/21/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10952

Walter Alvadore Bull was one of the first settlers of the Kittitas Valley in Central Washington. In 1869, he arrived in the region and joined about a dozen other families and unmarried men who had already claimed land there. Bull established a 160-acre homestead at Naneum, near what is today the city of Ellensburg. In time he would own the largest farm and ranch in Kittitas County. He also helped start a business to improve the road across Snoqualmie Pass, to make it easier to travel between Eastern Washington and the Seattle area. (This essay was written for students in third and fourth grade who are studying Washington State History and for all beginning readers who want to learn more about Washington. It is one of a set of essays called HistoryLink Elementary, all based on existing HistoryLink essays.) 

Pioneer Farmer and Businessman 

Since the early 1700s, the Kittitas Valley had been home to the Upper Yakama Tribe. Before that, small groups of Indians often came to the valley to dig for camas and kous -- a root used to make bread. The valley was covered with grasses and had many streams filled with fresh water. This made the valley a perfect place for Indian horses to graze. But in 1855, the Yakama Tribe signed the Yakama Treaty to give land to the U.S. government. This land included the Kittitas Valley. Settlers soon realized that the valley's mild climate and open land were ideal for cattle and other livestock that they brought with them as they moved westward. 

Walter Bull and his two younger brothers spent their early years in New York. Their father worked for a Great Lakes shipping business and moved the family to Wisconsin when Walter was 10 years old. As a young man he served in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he worked for the U.S. War Department to help freed slaves and refugees get the help they needed to restart their lives. Next, he worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, laying track for the first transcontinental rail line. After the railroad was finished, Bull wrote his mother a letter. He told her that he and his friend Thomas Haley were moving west. He wanted to see what kind of country Oregon was. And he hoped to find a farm and finally settle down. 

As they traveled west, Bull and Haley worked with crews building roads. They often heard stories about the Yakima and Kittitas valleys from cattlemen who traveled through that region. So the two men decided to see for themselves. When they arrived, they saw miles and miles of grass and plenty of water. They knew that they could make a living farming and raising cattle there. Bull claimed land immediately. His friend Thomas Haley settled on a farm nearby -- but not for another 10 years. 

Walter Bull raised dairy cows, sheep, and cattle. As time passed, he expanded his ranch until he was the largest landowner in the valley. He was one of the first in the area to irrigate his fields so that he could grow hay. He was able to feed his own animals and sell what was left over to others who were also raising cattle.  

But getting goods and supplies from east of the Cascade Mountains to the larger markets on the western side was not easy. As early as 1860, Congress had considered building a military road from Walla Walla to Seattle. The road would replace a trail that could only be used by those on foot or horseback. That plan ended when the Civil War started, in 1861. But in the summer of 1865, a small section of road was built that allowed a few wagons to cross over Snoqualmie Pass. Improvements to the road during the next two years made it easier for herds of cattle and wagons filled with people and goods to travel over the pass. 

This was good news for Walter Bull. But the road still had problems. There were mudslides and poorly built bridges. Often there were long delays due to poor weather. In 1883, Bull and two other Ellensburg men created "The Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company." Bull was named as the president. Their corporation would build and maintain the road and bridges. They would also buy and provide upkeep for all the ferries and other boats needed to travel along the road. In exchange, they would collect a small fee -- called a toll -- from those who wanted to travel on that route.  

What Bull and his partners did not count on was the completion of the Cascade Division of the Northern Pacific Railroad line. The railroad carried cattle and passengers on another route over the mountains. Since it was quicker and cheaper to travel by rail, the Wagon Road Company founded by Bull and his partners soon went out of business. 

Walter Bull continued to be a leading citizen in the region. He served as the first postmaster of Naneum and the first probate judge for Kittitas County. He was married to his first wife, Jenny, until her death in 1885. They had five children -- four sons and one daughter. After Jenny's death, he married a local widow named Rebecca Frisbee. They had two more sons. Many of his descendants still live in the Kittitas Valley today.

The Bulls had a comfortable lifestyle until a financial crisis called the Panic of 1893. During the next five years, many of the nation's banks failed, businesses closed, and people were out of work. Walter Bull had to sell off most of his land to pay back money that he owed. He still owned some mining claims in Okanogan County, in north central Washington. So he moved there to try to build up some money for his family. But he was in poor health, and he died on the Okanogan ranch of an old friend in 1898. He was 60 years old.  

Walter Bull's body was not returned to Ellensburg until the following year. He was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery and a large marker placed on his grave. He was praised by many as a loyal and devoted citizen and a trustworthy businessman. He was honored as a pioneer who had contributed much to the development of Kittitas County.


This essay is based on the following HistoryLink essay: "Bull, Walter Alvadore (1838-1898)" (Essay 10472). It is one of a suite of essays (called HistoryLink Elementary) that focus on important people, places, and events in Washington State History, and that align with elementary school textbooks and state academic standards. All the HistoryLink Elementary essays are included in the HistoryLink People's Histories library, and the HistoryLink Elementary suite and related curricular activities can also be found on HistoryLink's Education Page (http://www.historylink.org/Index.cfm?DisplayPage=education/index.cfm). The HistoryLink Elementary project is supported in part by the Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and Federal Highway Administration.

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