Frost, Morris H. (ca.1806-1882)

  • By David Dilgard
  • Posted 12/13/2010
  • Essay 9662

Morris H. Frost was a prominent Democrat, businessman, and entrepreneur in Washington Territory.  Arriving just as the territory was created, he was politically active from the beginning, gaining appointments as Chief Clerk of the legislative council, Postmaster of Steilacoom, and Collector of Customs at Port Townsend, and eventually serving three terms in the territorial legislature. With Jacob Fowler, Frost established the village of Mukilteo in 1860, initiating a number of pioneer enterprises there, including a salmon cannery and a lager brewery. For nearly 30 years “Squire Frost” was a fixture of the commercial and political life of Puget Sound.

“Squire Frost” 

Morris H. Frost was born a Baptist about 1806 in Dutchess County, New York, the son of George Frost (1772-1815), a farmer, and his wife Mary (1781-1878).

As a young man, Morris seems to have moved about a good deal. He appears in the 1830 Federal Census at Oyster Bay on Long Island and he is believed to have gone to Michigan in 1832. At some point in the 1830s he wed Adeline Cole (1812-1869) and he turns up in the 1840 Census with a wife, three young daughters, and a small son in St. Joseph County, Indiana. The family reportedly moved to Chicago in 1849. The 1850 Census shows him (as Maurice Frost) employed as a “patent peddler” in Chicago, husband to Mary (sic) Frost and the father of daughters Susan, 16, and Laura, 11.  

Entering Puget Sound and Politics

Frost apparently left his wife and daughters and moved to Puget Sound in the summer of 1852, arriving while it was still part of Oregon Territory. In an anecdote he frequently retold over the years, he cast himself as a hapless greenhorn who attempted to water his horse at the edge of Puget Sound, an error he discovered by tasting the water and declaring it to be “pork pickle.”

He settled initially at Steilacoom, where, as a loyal Jacksonian, he immediately involved himself in regional politics. He was chairman of a Democratic convention as early as December 1853 and when the first legislature of Washington Territory was organized early in 1854, he was made Chief Clerk of the legislative council, a position he resigned shortly thereafter due to problems with his vision. From an early date he was a justice of the peace and a probate judge and in August 1854 he secured an appointment as the postmaster of Steilacoom. After chairing a nominating committee for his party and running unsuccessfully for Pierce County council, Frost swapped his postmaster position for employment as the Collector of Customs in Port Townsend early in 1856, filling the position vacated by Isaac Ebey (1818-1857).   

Frost, Fowler, and Mukilteo

By the winter of 1858-1859, an enterprising young man named Jacob Fowler (1837-1892) had found his way to Port Townsend, where he was employed as a news dealer. Like Frost, he had come from Dutchess County, New York, by way of Chicago. It is reasonable to assume that Frost and Fowler had some connection originating in Duchess County, but the nature of that link is not known.

Before long , with Frost’s encouragement,  Fowler relocated at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island to manage a hotel there. Correspondence between Fowler and Winfield Scott Ebey suggests that Fowler’s youth and inexperience precluded any chance of success in the hotel business. In 1860 Frost provided Fowler with a graceful exit from his increasingly unprofitable situation.

A certain attractive spot on the mainland coast east of Whidbey Island seemed to offer considerable promise for commercial development. Charted in 1841 by the Wilkes Expedition as Point Elliott, it had been the site of Governor Stevens's 1855 Treaty signing and for untold generations had been a favored location of the Snohomish tribe, who called it Mukilteo.

Snohomish County

Providing a political backdrop for Frost and Fowler’s move was the territorial legislature’s attempt to address the question of political equilibrium between the disparate parts of the territory east and west of the Cascade Range. The legislature was considering new county boundaries and the establishment of additional counties on the Puget Sound side. Among the new entities was Snohomish County, created from part of the mainland sector of Island County and a strip of the northern edge of King County.

The territory’s Democrats were well aware of an apparent shortcoming. The only settlement in the county that was about to be created was Snohomish City, sometimes called Cadyville, and it was firmly in the hands of a Republican named Emory C. Ferguson (1833-1911). Morris Frost’s relocation from Port Townsend to Mukilteo in 1860 provided the Democrats with a foothold and when Snohomish County was created in January 1861, Mukilteo was the designated county seat.

Frost v. Ferguson 

The political rivalry between Morris H. Frost and Emory C. Ferguson was destined to figure in Snohomish County politics for much of the rest of the territorial period. Ferguson’s initial victory in these skirmishes came just six months after the county was created, when voters moved the county seat from Mukilteo to Snohomish.  

For the most part Frost appears to have been content with a place on the sidelines. With the assistance of Fowler, who was 30 years his junior, he settled into the life of a country squire, in fact acquiring the nickname “Squire Frost” among his contemporaries. Fowler was the visibly active partner, operating a hotel and store erected on Frost’s land, while Frost marshaled the financial and political resources. For a time Frost remained active in territorial politics, successfully seeking election as a territorial legislator in the House in 1862, 1867 and 1869, but he seemed increasingly inclined to expend his energies instead toward developing his village through a variety of commercial ventures, with varying degrees of success.

Building Mukilteo

In short order Frost and Fowler acquired the first county liquor license and established the first post office. As entrepreneurs, they were innovative, even precocious, for a time shipping commodities such as duck feathers and wild cranberries that could be had close at hand in the adjoining salt marsh. Quantities of salmon, variously salted, smoked, and dried, were exported and before long the first salmon cannery on Puget Sound was established. One of the region’s first lager breweries, utilizing a water-powered malting mill, was built. The first shipbuilding in the new county was initiated when Frost’s Gazelle was launched in 1863 and Frost and Fowler were soon operating their own small fleet of three sailing ships.     

In spite of these impressive efforts, key opportunities eluded them. Despite the fact that he engaged in the logging business on a large scale, Frost never secured a lumber mill for Mukilteo. Likewise, his early plans for a town site plat of his real estate holdings were not realized and subsequently, despite the strategic location and an excellent deep-water harbor, Mukilteo failed to attract the requisite population base for a successful industrial port.

Though a mere Justice of the Peace, Frost took charge when Peter Goutre was murdered on Hat Island in November 1875. Goutre was one of three settlers who filed Donation claims at Tulalip Bay before the Point Elliott Treaty was signed. When his claim became part of the Tulalip Reservation he moved to the island, where lived a very solitary existence and was rumored to have hoarded a small fortune in gold. His
unsolved murder has inspired ghost tales and a mystery novel or two. Frost's astute personal account of the discovery of the body, Goutre's burial, and the details of the crime scene survive in county records and in letters to the editors of territorial newspapers.  

Hard Times

Inevitably, the resourcefulness and energy demonstrated by Frost and Fowler in the 1860s were no match for negative economic forces at work on an international scale in the 1870s. It took a while for the Panic of 1873 to impact the far corners of the country, but Frost and Fowler were mortgaging their Mukilteo holdings by the fall of 1876.

That year was also tainted for Frost when his congressional bid was thwarted by up-river rival E. C. Ferguson. By 1877 Frost & Fowler’s enterprises had gone into receivership. Foreclosure descended upon them in 1878. When Morris Frost died early in 1882, Mukilteo was still a hamlet of unrealized potential, buffeted by the vagaries of fickle log prices and distant lumber markets, waiting for deliverance in the form of a railroad.

Mukilteo After Frost and Fowler

Much-anticipated rail service finally reached Mukilteo in the fall of 1891 with the completion of the Seattle & Montana Railway, but Jacob Fowler died the following August. In the absence of the town’s two founders, it was another New York Democrat, Louis Kossuth Church (1846-1897), who steered Mukilteo through the Great Northern Railway boom and bust. A Brooklyn-born attorney who had been a New York legislator, Church was a recent governor of Dakota Territory when he arrived in Snohomish County shortly before Fowler’s death and he soon filed a Mukilteo town site plat. Ironically, as a skilled political strategist, he also helped to engineer Everett’s successful attempt to snatch the county seat from Snohomish, much as Snohomish had taken it from Mukilteo back in 1861.

More than a century and a half after he arrived in Mukilteo, Morris Frost lies in the town’s Pioneer Cemetery beneath a battered but legible tombstone with a Masonic symbol and the declaration that he was “A native of New York.” 

Sources: Morris Frost obituary,  Puget Sound Argus, January 20, 1882, p. 1; Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Washington, Idaho & Montana (San Francisco: The History Co., 1890), 73, 159, 219, 336, 368, 378; Josephine C. Frost, Frost Genealogy: Descendants of William Frost of Oyster Bay, New York. (New York: Frederick H. Hitchcock, 1912); Pioneer & Democrat (Olympia) 1854-1861; An Illustrated History of Skagit & Snohomish Counties ed. by William Shiach (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., 1906), 254, 256, 258, 261, 305, 355, 369-70, 948; Snohomish County Commissioners Minutes, 1861-67; Snohomish County Probate Record No. 40; William Whitfield, History of Snohomish County, Washington (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1926), Vol. 1, pp 73, 74, 76, 78, 79, 80, 81, 83, 84, 90, 92, 95, 97.
Note: No precise birthday for Frost has been established. His birth year was noted during his lifetime variously as 1804-1807, but a preponderance of data (including Bancroft, the Federal Census, his tombstone, and the ages of his older and younger siblings) strongly suggest that he was born in 1806.

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