Karl von Pressentin was one of the earliest Europeans to settle in the upper Skagit River valley. In May, 1877 when he took up a claim in what would become Birdsview, there were only five other white settlers to the east of his homestead and just two more between there and Mt. Vernon. For Karl and his brother Bernhard who traveled to Birdsview with him, their arrival in the Skagit River valley was the end of a long exodus. Since at least the 1300's, the von Pressentins had been living in the northern part of Germany along the Baltic Sea. They were related to the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg and had extensive land holdings in the area.
Karl was born in Pomerania, Germany in 1849, one of thirteen children, and was given an excellent education for the time, attending "Gymnasium" in the Prussian city of Rostock. In 1868, at the age of 19, he left his family behind and emigrated to the United States, settling first in Wisconsin and then moving to Manistee, Michigan where he worked in the logging camps for a time, then did bookkeeping and was town clerk. In Manistee, he met Wilhelmine May, a German emigrant from Silesia, who had come to the United States with her family one year before Karl. They were married on May 15, 1871 and lived in Manistee for the next six years, during which time their first three sons; Bernhard, Paul and Otto were born. During this same period, Karl's father and mother and his four living brothers immigrated first to West Virginia and then to Ohio. Karl's eldest brother, Kurt, later moved to Kalispell, Montana.
In 1877, leaving his family in Michigan, Karl and his brother, Bernhard, headed west via railroad to San Francisco and then by sailing vessel to Seattle. They heard glowing accounts of the backcountry beyond Seattle and decided to explore the Skagit River valley. They purchased lumber at a mill, built their own boat, and sailed it up the west side of Puget Sound looking for the Skagit River. In May of that year, Karl and Bernhard together with Valentine Adam, Fred Ross and another young man scouted out possible homesites in the vicinity of what is now Birdsview. Some in the party had lived along rivers and cautioned the others to seek out high ground that would be above the river's flood stage. When they came to the high bank on the south side of the river, one mile above Birdsview, Karl decided to locate there while Bernhard selected a site on the opposite (north) bank of the river.
The brothers took up pre-emption claims and Karl started building a small log house and cleared up a little land. He had no stove at first but cooked over a fire built in the center of the floor in some sand, and he left the door open for the smoke to escape. Soon there was a neighbor 2 1/2 miles away--Birdsey Minkler, for whom Birdsview is named. Later Karl's two youngest brothers, Albert and Otto, followed him to the Skagit River valley and settled in and near Birdsview.
Soon after arriving in Birdsview, Karl was distracted from the work of building a house for his family by stories of gold in the mountains. He and five other early settlers, Otto Klement, Jack Rowley, Frank Scott, John Duncan and John Sutter set out to look for gold deposits which were rumored to be on the eastern side of the North Cascade Mountains. They hired two Indian guides and started off toward the Okanogan country by canoe, following the Skagit up to the Cascade River, then crossing the mountains at Cascade Pass and ending up at Lake Chelan. They found no gold in the area but they did become the first white men to cross Cascade Pass. In a second expedition that summer, they ascended the Skagit River all the way to Ruby Creek in the North Cascades where they did find traces of gold but were driven out by bad weather.
Significant gold discoveries were made by others in the next two years which started the Skagit gold rush of 1880, but Karl turned back to building a home for his family who were soon to arrive from Michigan.
Wilhelmine and their three small children arrived in Seattle in December of 1877. They went by boat from Seattle to Mann's Landing (now Conway) at the mouth of the Skagit River. Harry Clothier, a storekeeper in Mt. Vernon, brought them up to Mt. Vernon with the help of two Indians to paddle the canoe. They stayed in Mt. Vernon for a week and during that time Wilhelmine bought a sewing machine for $55--realizing she would need it to make clothes for her family. Karl's brother, Bernhard, took them from Mt. Vernon to Birdsview in a big "salt chuck" canoe and it took three days to make the trip. The Indians told Wilhelmine she could not take her sewing machine in the canoe but she told them she wouldn't go without it, so they finally relented. There was a big logjam in the river where everything, including the canoe, had to be carried for a distance of a mile and a half around it. Wilhelmine carried her baby, Otto, a large bundle of clothing and the head of her sewing machine around the jam. The other two children were able to walk, but Paul clung to his mother's dress as they clambered over the rough trail.
As the Indians poled the canoe up the river, Wilhelmine kept looking for signs of human habitation. Near Hamilton she saw what looked to her like clothes hanging on a line, but Bernhard told her no--that this was an Indian cemetery. They had wrapped their dead and placed them in canoes or platforms up in the branches of the trees. The third night, they stayed at the B.D. Minkler home at Birdsview (Mrs. Minkler had arrived two or three months before) and were then only a mile from their final destination. Wilhelmine later said,
"We expected a few hardships and in this we were not disappointed. We had to go to Sterling, Mt. Vernon, Skagit City or LaConner for our supplies. Sterling was the closest--30 miles away, and the only way to go was by canoe.
"We ground wheat in our coffee mill. We made our own cornmeal and fed the coarse part to the chickens. We did not have a clock at first so Mr. von Pressentin made a mark on the window where the sun's shadow would fall at noon. My sewing machine came in handy. We bought tanned deer hides from the Indians and I made buckskin moccasins for the children.
"We had to send to Portland for a stove. There were none nearer. B.D. Minkler had to send to San Francisco for a saw for his water power sawmill. Everything came addressed to Skagit River, care of Captain Benson of the Steamer Queen. We never knew when things would arrive--this year or next.
"Everyone going up and down the river stopped at our place. I remember one night when 16 men slept in our barn."
Three more sons, Frank, Hans and Charles, were born to Karl and Wilhelmine in Birdsview and the birth of one of them became an ordeal that would have turned many a stout heart away from the wilderness. On February 13, 1879, with only her husband in attendance, Wilhelmine gave birth to a baby boy, Frank. Then it was found that she was carrying twins. For some unknown reason this second baby could not be born in spite of all of Karl's efforts. Karl sent for Mrs. Minkler and then an old Indian woman who lived a few miles up-river. Both were unable to help Wilhelmine and Karl told her that if she were still alive by morning, he would take her to a midwife near Mt. Vernon. Wilhelmine's son, Paul, told of this event in his later years:
"When hour after hour dragged on, without the second baby's arrival, Karl decided that he would have to seek the help of a midwife in Skagit City 40 miles down the river (about 5 miles below where Mt. Vernon is today). He called his brother over to stay with the boys, Bernhard 7, Paul 5, Otto 2 and Frank, the newborn infant.
"Karl carried his wife to the river and they started on the long trip downstream in a split-cedar boat that required continuous bailing. A north wind brought with it powder snow. About 5 miles from Skagit City the second baby was stillborn.
"Back at the cabin, the bachelor uncle [Bernhard] panicked the first time the newborn infant cried. Leaving his three older charges alone, he bundled the baby into warm blankets and took him 2 1/2 miles upriver in a canoe, to a potlatch house where 25 to 30 Indians were wintering.
"He arrived with a lantern, about midnight, and called loudly for "Lizzie." Lizzie was an Indian woman who recently had become a mother, and who liked to watch "Mrs. Charlie" (as Wilhelmine was called) sew on her sewing machine. The Indians were suspicious at the midnight call, but Lizzie came out. The situation was explained, in Chinook, and Lizzie quickly accepted the infant.
"Three weeks later "Mrs. Charlie" came home. The baby was fat and healthy--but it took a lot of persuasion to make Lizzie give him back to his parents. Indians in the area still recall this incident."
--And Frank always claimed to be part Indian, based on his stay with Lizzie!
--There is another version of this incident, told in Wilhelmine's words in an article that appeared in the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times as part of her obituary.
"On February 13, 1879 an ordeal occurred which would turn many a stout heart away from the wilderness. With only her husband in attendance, Wilhelmine gave birth to a baby boy, Frank. Then it was found that she was carrying twins. For some unknown reason this second baby could not be born in spite of all of Karl's efforts. Karl sent for Mrs. Minkler, and then an old Indian woman, Lizzie, who lived a few miles up-river. Both were unable to help Wilhelmine and Karl told her that if she were still alive by morning, he would take her to Mt. Vernon. As Wilhelmine recounted the event in her later years:
"Well I was still alive, so he (Karl) got two Indians to handle the canoe. They built a crude shelter over part of the canoe of vine maple branches covered with blankets. It was a bad day, sleeting and cold. Then the Indians carried me head first down that steep bank and laid me in the canoe and we started. My baby was born dead in the canoe about the time we passed old Sterling--nearly three-fourths of the way down. A lady in Mount Vernon took me in and made me comfortable and the next day my husband started back up-river to get my baby which had been left with Mrs. Minkler."
In 1880-81 Karl built a new, larger log home which housed the von Pressentin family until it burned in 1930 and was replaced by a more modern home. Karl had many and varied occupations in Birdsview. He ran rafts of lumber from Minkler's mill at Birdsview to Sterling, Mount Vernon, Avon and LaConner. He sold cordwood to the steamboats plying up and down the river; scaled timber; made ox yokes and branding irons at home and sold them to loggers. At that time oxen were used to haul out the huge logs and the branding irons were used to brand the logs. For many years the von Pressentins ran the ferry by their farm. At first it was just a canoe that they paddled across the river, then a larger ferry that ran on a cable. Karl cleared some of his land with the help of oxen rented from the Minklers (who used the oxen in skidding and hauling logs to their sawmill) and he raised potatoes and vegetables. After the logging camps started up in the area, they sold butter, beef and eggs to them. When Slippers opened a store in Hamilton, they traded with them and also shipped 150 to 200 pounds of butter to Seattle at a time, trading it for groceries.
Wilhelmine's son Paul recalled that she was quite a businesswoman in her day.
"While we boys were busy with the heavy chores, she sold the farm produce. There was butter, molded in two-pound rolls, which she sold for 25 cents a pound--no matter what the price might be elsewhere. She had one price for each commodity. Small pigs always sold for $2.50 each. Eggs were 15 cents a dozen, and no cartons. She would pack 30 dozen eggs in a basket and we boys delivered them, in a dugout canoe, to a logging camp."
Her granddaughter, Pauline Pressentin Kemmerich, recalls that Wilhelmine loved farm life and took a great interest in her pigs, chickens and turkeys, caring for them herself in addition to handling her household tasks. She had an old stove just outside her house in which she cooked food for her animals and she gave it very particular care.
In later years Karl von Pressentin served as a Justice of the Peace, filing homesteads, proofs of claims, deeds and trying petty offenders. In 1889-1890 he was Probate Judge of Skagit County and in 1891 he was elected as one of the three Skagit County Commissioners and held this office from 1891 to 1893. Later, he served as a United States Land Commissioner. During his last years he spent his time farming.
On May 15, 1921 Karl and Wilhelmine celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at their home in Birdsview with more than 30 of their relatives and offspring in attendance. Almost three years later, March 7, 1924, at the age of 74, Karl died in the Sedro-Woolley hospital after a short illness.
Wilhelmine remained on their homestead until April 2, 1945 when she suffered a paralytic stroke and died at the age of 92. The homestead was sold after her death. No members of the Karl von Pressentin family presently live in Birdsview, but Karl's sons, Paul and Frank, lived in the Marblemount and Rockport areas for many years. Three sons, Bernhard, Hans and Otto lived in or near Birdsview for much of their lives. Their youngest son, Charles, lived in Sedro-Woolley where he had his own plumbing business.
Today, there are no male offspring of Karl and Wilhelmine carrying the name of "von Pressentin." The name still is evident on the landscape of the upper Skagit River valley however. A small creek entering the Skagit River one mile east of Birdsview was named for Karl von Pressentin in 1877. And in the summer of 1991 Frank Pressentin's son, Warren, of Rockport, donated a 40-acre parcel of land along the Skagit River in Marblemount to Skagit County. A full-service campground to be constructed there will be known as "Pressentin County Park."
--Prepared for publication in the book, Hamilton 100 Years.
Information extracted from family records and published history of Skagit County.
By Karl and Wilhelmine von Pressentin's great granddaughter,
Barbara Kemmerich Halliday, November, 1991 at Salem, OregonCompiled by:
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