Fort Bellingham soldiers desert and Edward French harbors them on December 24, 1857.

  • By Margaret E. Landis, Sehome High School
  • Posted 2/18/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8095

On December 24, 1857, Michael O'Rourke, a soldier from Fort Bellingham, witnesses Edward French aiding deserting soldiers Solomon Pinkenhoff, Matthew Doyle, and others with intent to aid them in their flight to Victoria. Fort Bellingham was built in 1856 to protect the bayside villages of Whatcom, Sehome, and Fairhaven from attacks by northern Indians. In 1860 it will be moved to San Juan Island.

Soldiers on Bellingham Bay 

Initially, soldiers on Bellingham Bay were from Company H, Second Regiment Washington Volunteers commanded by Russell V. Peabody. In a letter written during August 1856, the Headquarters of the Pacific wrote to Peabody and others about the suggestion of removing troops from the bay. But Brigadier General Clarke ordered that troops were to be maintained at Bellingham, and on August 26, 1856, Captain George E. Pickett (1825-1875) and 68 men from Company D, Ninth Infantry, U.S. Army were moved from Steilacoom to the fort at Bellingham Bay.

Pickett’s men ranged in age from 21 to 38, with 47 of the men in their mid-20s. A majority of the men were  Irish, as was the witness to the desertions, Michael O’Rourke, who served with Company D from their arrival at Fort Bellingham to at least when the fort was moved in 1860 to San Juan Island.

In 1856, a year before the professional soldiers deserted from Fort Bellingham, Peabody wrote to James Tillon, Esq. about two volunteers who refused to go into the field. When soldiers arrived in August 1856 under Pickett’s command, it was before the 1857 gold rush and the boom during the summer of that same year.

The Deserters

On December 24, 1857, Michael O’Rourke went to Edward French’s house and saw Matthew Doyle, John Fallen, Martin Lennard, Solomon Pinkenhoff, and Thomas Wilson, fellow soldiers who O’Rourke believed were heading across the bay to Victoria after French allegedly planned to help them steal a canoe worth $25.  The soldiers fled into the woods. When O’Rourke confronted him, French denied that the five soldiers from the fort had in fact deserted.  

With O’Rourke’s testimony, Pickett signed an affidavit to have Edward French appear in court. Orders to have Pickett and O’Rourke appear in court were also signed by E. C. Fitzhugh, the former agent for the Bellingham Bay Coal Company, founder of the town of Sehome, and former Special Indian Agent, who had become the commissioner for the 3rd Judicial District, Washington Territory.

French was expected to appear in court on February 8, 1857, but there is no record of the proceedings in the Territorial Courthouse records at the Washington State Archives. However, (though called Charles French in the documents), French was also indicted for selling liquor to Indians on August 1, 1859. O’Rourke also gave testimony in this case, and based on the previous indictment for harboring deserters, Fitzhugh ordered French to be apprehended.  

After the trial 

Within two years of the desertion case, the Civil War broke out and E. C. Fitzhugh and George E. Pickett, both Virginians, left the Bellingham Bay area to fight for the Confederacy. On July 27, 1861, Pickett resigned his commission and was no longer an officer in the United States Army.

Although the names of neither Edward nor Charles French appear in the 1860 census, James French, a bachelor farmer from Vermont, does appear.

On April 28, 1860, Fort Bellingham was officially moved to San Juan Island. By about 1900, the last blockhouse at the former fort site had burned down and very little was left. Part of the flagpole was discovered by the Smith Brothers, who donated it to the Ladies’ Cooperative Society. In 1903 what was left of the Fort Bellingham flagpole was put up in Elizabeth Park.

Sources: United States v. Edward French, 3rd Judicial District Territorial Court Records, Case #86, Box #2, Northwest Regional Branch, Washington State Archives, Bellingham, Washington; Howard E. Boswell Papers and Photographs, Box No. 12, 12271, files No. 4 and 5, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington; E Rosamund Ellis Van Miert, Settlers, Structures and Ships on Bellingham Bay, 1852-1889 (Centennial Edition, City of Bellingham), 7-12,26-27,55,56,78; 1860 Federal Census, Whatcom County, Washington Territory, abstracted 1999 from public records by Dianne Arthur May, checked against microfilm by Kevin Fraley, May 20, 1999.

Related Topics:   Civil War in Washington | War & Peace

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