Bell, William Nathaniel (1817-1887)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2015

William Nathaniel Bell and his wife, Sarah Ann (Peter) Bell (1819-1856), were members of the Denny Party that arrived on Alki (present-day West Seattle) on the schooner Exact in 1851. The Bells helped to establish the settlement that became Seattle, settling north of the future downtown in "Belltown." After Indians attacked Seattle on January 26, 1856, William Bell and his ailing wife left Seattle for California. Sarah Ann died that year, but Bell did not return until 1870. He sold some of his lots, which had become valuable, built the Hotel Bellevue, and engaged in other businesses.

William Bell, born on March 6, 1817, in Illinois, moved his family to Portland to seek a new life in the West. In Portland, he met members of the Denny Party, also Midwesterners, and joined them aboard the schooner Exact enroute to a gold strike in the Queen Charlotte Islands, with a stop at Alki, Elliott Bay. He helped the Dennys establish a colony of 12 adults and 12 children on the rain-soaked, windy beach at Alki. William, 34, and Sarah Ann, 36, were the oldest member of the party. The founding of Alki occurred on November 13, 1851.

In Wind and Rain

On Alki (present-day West Seattle), the little group struggled to establish a colony in the face of Puget Sound winds and rains that hit the exposed point of land without mercy. Bell, Arthur Denny (1822-1899), David Denny (1832-1903), and Carson Boren (1824?-1912) decided to explore their large bay in search of a deeper harbor, an abundance of trees, and a more sheltered location. In January 1852, the foursome paddled around Elliott Bay, beginning at Smith's Cove and moving south. Bell and Boren paddled while the Denny brothers used a clothesline and horseshoe to sound the bay's depths. Just off today's downtown Seattle they found what they were looking for: deep water, a meadow with a stream (the future site of Henry Yesler's sawmill), friendly Indians, and a seemingly endless forest of trees. They returned on February 15, 1852, and staked their claims. William Bell, along with Boren and Arthur Denny, became one of the three original founders of the future "Queen City of the Pacific."

Chief Seattle (178?-1866) and his family had become friendly with most of the early settlers. When the chief's wife died during the first Seattle winter, William Bell and Arthur Denny made a her coffin. At the time of interment, Bell and Denny were chagrined to see that her remains would not fit into their handiwork. Chief Seattle and his friends resolved the matter by removing several of the many blankets around her body.

During the summer of 1852, when tiny Seattle was under the jurisdiction of Thurston County (King County was established on December 22, 1852), William Bell, Luther Collins, and John Chapman were appointed "viewers" of the area's first wagon road between Seattle and Steilacoom. A "viewer" seems to have been a road inspector or an on-site engineer.

Battle of Seattle

The Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856, was in part a culmination of hard feelings between Native Americans and non-natives following treaties signed under the guidance of Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862), the Territory of Washington's first governor and Indian agent. The timing of the Seattle skirmish was particularly bad for William Bell. His wife was quite ill and was being cared for by Bell and his young daughters within the fort. The shooting and mayhem of that day, and the anxiety and clean-up during the following weeks, were especially hard on Sarah Ann Bell. Bell resolved to leave Seattle for sunny California as soon as it was safe.

Two days after the Battle of Seattle, William Bell wrote a remarkable letter to Arthur Denny, who had been out of town during the fracas, in which he described the high points of the event:

"My house was burned on my claim [Belltown] during the action but the outhouses are still standing but your house in town was robbed of flour and perhaps other things on the night of the attack ... . The Indians we suppose are back near the lake [Washington] where they must be from 500 to 1000 strong and say they will give us two or three months siege  ... . Our company [volunteer militia] is disbanded and another has been formed from this morning for the protection of Seattle; and from the best information I can obtain the majority of Indians on the Sound will join them [the original Indian attackers]."

The picture that Bell painted was alarmist. There were no more Native American forays against the white settlers in Seattle, although several farmers had to meet sporadic attacks. Soon after he posted this letter, Bell took his wife and children to California. Sarah Ann Bell died the following June, but Bell did not return to Puget Sound until 1870.

A Faceless Pioneer

Roger Sale, in Seattle: Past and Present, observes that although William Bell was one of the first to stake a claim in Seattle, "he remains faceless." Like his compatriot Carson Boren, who became a recluse in 1856, Bell disappeared from the scene in 1856 when he left for California. Bell's role in developing early Seattle was, therefore, limited. When he returned in 1870 to find that his real estate had become valuable, he entered into several businesses and activities of consequence. Belltown, where his son Austin Bell lived for years, is only one of those contributions. Virginia and Olive streets are named for two of Bell's daughters, and Stewart Street honors Olive's husband, Joseph H. Stewart.

Bell's post-1870 business career included the sale of a number of his lots to newcomers. (He had surveyed Belltown separately from Arthur Denny's surveys of downtown Seattle). He helped organize an Odd Fellows lodge in Belltown, built the Bellevue Hotel at the corner of 1st Avenue and Battery Street, and gave two blocks of Belltown waterfront land to a barrel factory and wharf, a business that eventually failed.

William Bell died in Seattle on September 1, 1887.


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); Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in old Seattle (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1937).

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