Comeford, James Purcell (1833-1909)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/05/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8309

James Purcell Comeford first arrived in Snohomish County in 1872 and ran a trading post on the Tulalip Reservation for six years. He founded Marysville in 1878, naming it after his wife Maria. He built the first store and hotel in town, organized its first school district, and established Marysville's first post office. He platted the town of Marysville, and dedicated the filing of the plat in February 1885. Later in life he was active in real estate and was also known as a gentleman farmer. Comeford died in 1909, and is known as the "father of Marysville."

Early Years

James Purcell Comeford was born December 23, 1833, in County Cork, Ireland. When he was four, he and his 13 siblings moved with their parents to Guelph, Ontario.  In 1849 the family moved to Milwaukee and, and a few years later, to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s the Comefords moved to Minnesota.  Comeford attended schools in New York and Wisconsin until he was 16, then worked with his father on his farm for a few years. But young Comeford was interested in the lumber business too, and by the late 1850s he was working in lumber camps and otherwise engaged in business ventures related to lumber.

In their book Reflections of Marysville, Barrett and Olson write that when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Comeford was in the southern part of the United States, pursuing various lumber-related business ventures, and was more or less forcibly conscripted into the Confederate Army. They add that he left his regiment as soon as it reached Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River, and joined the Union forces in Illinois.  In A History of the Puget Sound Country, Prosser writes only that Comeford joined the Union Army in 1861. But both sources agree that when the Sioux (Indian) Uprising broke out in Minnesota in August 1862, Comeford received permission from General Ulysses Grant (1822-1885) to return to Minnesota to fight the Indians. Afterward, he returned to his regiment in Columbus, Kentucky, and served in the Union Army until the Civil War ended in 1865.

Comeford returned home to Minnesota after the war.  He married Maria Quin in April 1866 in Faribault, Minnesota. They soon moved to Elk Point, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota).  Finding the land too dry to farm, Comeford raised cattle for the next few years.

Indian Agent 

The Comefords moved to Washington Territory in 1871 or early 1872. Comeford briefly settled in Whatcom County before answering a government appointment in 1872 to serve as an Indian agent on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. Indian agents were expected to establish trade with the Native Americans and gain their good will, but they were also to watch their movements and report any problems to the government. In January 1871, Ulysses Grant, by then president of the United States, had put Indian Affairs agencies directly under the control of missionaries of various Christian religions, and Comeford was selected to serve on the Tulalip Reservation by Father Eugene Chirouse (1821-1892), a French Catholic missionary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  (Chirouse, a well known figure in his own right, had been on the reservation since late 1856, and established St. Anne’s Mission and a government boarding school there.)

Comeford later said his duties as Indian agent were clearly explained to him: Teach the Indians how to work, control any savagery, try to contain the drinking and fighting that seemed a constant problem on the reservation, and protect the Indians from white men seeking to take advantage of them. He ran the trading post at the Tulalip Agency until 1878. During these years the mouth of the Snohomish River was the scene of considerable activity from the logging operations in the surrounding area, and by 1875 there were 18 lumber camps on and near the mouth of the river. Traveling by canoe, Comeford visited them all, and traded with most of the workers from the camps as well as with Native Americans.  Since his store was one of the main supply sources for the camps, he prospered accordingly.

Comeford evidently was fired as Indian agent at the Tulalip Agency about 1875. Some suggest that he was fired for offering credit to Indians. However, Barrett and Olson offer a different view,  based on the recollections of Ruth Shelton, a Tulalip tribal member. According to Shelton, a number of tribal members approached Comeford and asked him to air a grievance on their behalf with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He sent a letter, and received a reply from the government advising him that he was dismissed.  Comeford instead simply bought the trading post and ran it for three more years.

Founding Marysville

But not long after his arrival at the Tulalip Reservation, Comeford realized that the land just east of the reservation was ripe for the development of another trading post. Comeford has been described as a shrewd man with considerable vision, and in about 1874 he purchased 1,280 acres of partially logged-off land immediately east of the Tulalip Reservation for $450 from Truman Ireland, John Stafford, Louis Thomas, and William Renton.

Comeford spent the next three years logging the remainder of the land and making plans for the new trading post. By September 1877 he was ready to begin construction of the new trading post, but according to a June 1878 article in the Northern Star of Snohomish, it was the spring of 1878 before he actually did so.  He built a store on the south side of Front (later 1st) Street, not far from today’s (2007) Interstate 5, as well as a hotel and warehouse (which were connected to his home), and a small dock on Ebey Slough. Comeford named the new community Marysville, after his wife, Maria.

Comeford’s next action was to petition for the establishment of a post office.  But he had a problem:  There were nowhere near enough white settlers in the area to have the required number of signatures on the petition.  He solved the problem by rounding up various Native American friends and neighbors, assigning them “Boston” names, and having them sign the petition.  The ploy worked, and the government approved the establishment of a post office in Marysville late in 1878 or in 1879, and named Comeford postmaster.  But one may wonder if during the next few years Comeford regretted his efforts to establish a post office in Marysville. There were no other white settlers in Marysville at the time, and for the next three or four years he was obliged to wade through marshes for more than a mile one way, sometimes in water up to three feet deep, to pick up mail that was delivered to a landing on Steamboat Slough by the steamers Chehalis and later, the Nellie.

In 1879 Comeford also successfully petitioned to organize a school district (Number 10) in Marysville and the surrounding area, though for the next few years there was little need for it, because there were no children around or, for that matter, any settlers. The primary activity remained logging, and Marysville remained a one-man (Comeford) town through most of the early 1880s. And when a school was finally built in 1885, it was located not in Marysville but two miles east of town on the Woods farm. 

Celebrating and Developing

Comeford commenced construction of a second hotel, this one away from his residence, in 1882, and named it the Marysville Hotel. Only the floor of the hotel was finished on July 3, 1882, but Comeford nonetheless held a large and raucous celebration there that evening in honor of the Fourth of July. This celebration was remembered by many who were there for years to come. It was attended primarily by Native Americans and loggers, although there was a cameo performance by one Will Morris on the first bicycle ever seen in the region.  Fourteen-year-old Ronaldo Packwood (b. 1868) read the Declaration of Independence and afterward Comeford hosted a large feast, followed by dancing well into the night.

Comeford completed his hotel in 1883, just in time for the arrival of new settlers in Marysville. But the following year he downsized, selling his store, wharf, and warehouse to Mark Swinnerton and Henry Myers.  He also began to plat the village of Marysville in 1884, though the plat was officially filed on February 25, 1885. (The plat was actually filed by Dr. J. D. Morris, the first physician in Marysville, but was dedicated by J. P. and Maria Comeford.) Comeford ran his hotel until 1887, then purchased 540 acres of land in the Kellogg Marsh area north of Marysville and became a “gentleman farmer,” with much of the work done by the Tulalip Indians that he knew from his days on the reservation.  At about the same time, he ventured into real estate.

Comeford's Last Years

Comeford took a less active role in Marysville’s growth after the 1880s, though he maintained his farm and his real-estate business. Indeed, when Marysville was incorporated in 1891, he was not among the first officers of the town.  He seems to have focused more of his time on his real-estate business than on his farm, and in fact rented out part of his farm.  But he also gradually sold some of his holdings in Marysville as he grew older, though he retained 190 lots in Marysville’s residential area and another 40 lots in its business district.  By 1906 he had retired entirely.

James and Maria Comeford had five children, of whom two died in infancy. The three that survived into adulthood were Estella (b. 1867), John (1868-1931), and Thomas Francis (b. 1869 or 1870), known as Frank.  Maria died in 1904 in the old Comeford home on the southwest corner of Front and Beach streets. The following year Frank built a new home for his family, as well as to provide a home for his aging father, and James moved in with him.  The house was located on the corner of Cedar and 5th streets, and James Comeford passed away there in 1909.

James Comeford left a legacy in Marysville that lives on a century later, and indeed, he is considered to be the “father of Marysville.”  Comeford Park, a 2.6-acre park located in downtown Marysville at 514 Delta Avenue, is named after him and serves as the nexus for many local events, including Marysville’s annual Strawberry Festival. 


Sources: Maude Barrett and Pat Olson, Reflections Of Marysville (Marysville: City of Marysville, 1991), 19-25;  An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties Vol. 1 (Interstate Publishing Company, 1906), 345-348;  William Whitfield, History of Snohomish County, Washington (Chicago/Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 557-561;  William Prosser, A History of the Puget Sound Country, Vol. 2, (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903), 462;  HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Marysville -- Thumbnail History” (by Phil Dougherty), “Saint Joseph's Mission at Ahtanum Creek is founded in the Yakima Valley on April 3, 1852” (by Paula Becker), “Snohomish County -- Thumbnail History” (by Margaret Riddle), www.historylink.org/ (accessed September 25, 2007); “1880 Snohomish County Census,” Skagit County USGenWeb, website accessed September 27, 2007 (www.rootsweb.com/~waskagit/1880census2.html); “Find A Grave,” website accessed September 26, 2007 (www.findagrave.com); “History of the Mission of St. Anne,” Church of St. Mary and Mission of St. Anne, website accessed September 25, 2007 (www.stmary-stanne.org).

Related Topics:   Irish Americans | Northwest Indians | Pioneers

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