Bellingham historian Candace Wellman spoke with retired journalist Dean Kahn about her next book, “Man of Treacherous Charm: Territorial Justice Edmund C. Fitzhugh,” to be published by WSU Press in April. The interview originally appeared in “The Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society,” December 2022.
Kahn: Give me your one-minute description of who Edmund Fitzhugh was.
Wellman: Edmund Clare Fitzhugh was a blueblood Virginia lawyer who went to California during the Gold Rush, used personal connections to join prestigious law firms and got involved in Democratic politics before a syndicate sent him to Bellingham Bay in early 1854 to open the Sehome Coal Mine.
He also focused on building a Pacific Democratic voting bloc in Congress, obtaining influential elected and appointive positions: Whatcom County auditor, Special Indian Agent, interpreter, Treaty War military aide to Gov. Isaac Stevens, and chairman of the Democratic Party Central Committee.
Fitzhugh was appointed to the Territorial Supreme Court while under indictment for a Sehome homicide. In the Civil War, he was an adjutant in his Fort Bellingham friend George Pickett’s division to the bitter end, something of a Confederate hero.
Fitzhugh married four women in 10 years, fathered six children, kidnapped two of them and harmed the lives of all the women who had brought him some form of wealth and power.
Kahn: When did you first learn about Fitzhugh, and what attracted you to him as a subject to write about?
Wellman: I first learned about Fitzhugh reading Lelah Jackson Edson’s “The Fourth Corner.” I learned more while a volunteer research assistant at the State Archives in Bellingham for 15 years. Although he was the syndicate’s man sent to Bellingham Bay to open the Sehome Coal Mine, Fitzhugh’s hand was in every important political activity as well.
When I decided to write biographies of some of the many local Indigenous women married to military officers and influential local men in the 1850s and ’60s, Fitzhugh was one of the husbands, but I had to compress his complex life. After nearly two decades of work and two published books, I was also ready to tell his whole story, the good and the bad.
Kahn: Your book describes pro-slavery Virginians, such as Fitzhugh, and other South-leaning Democrats who were politically active in Virginia, California and, of all places, early Washington Territory. Is there evidence that such people were disproportionately influential in those areas at that time? If so, why was that the case?
Wellman: American colonizers coming into Washington Territory in the 1850s who were interested in politics were disproportionately represented by Southerners and Democrats, except for some legislative seats. Northern Democrat President Franklin Pierce established the territory, so all of the first appointive positions were given to Democrats. President James Buchanan followed in 1856 and appointed more Democrats, including Fitzhugh, appointed to the Territorial Supreme Court while under indictment for murder. The Whig party was moribund in the early days of the territory and its influence was nearly nonexistent, except on a personal basis, because of the Democratic control of the federal patronage system.
The only place men from other regions were influential was in local offices, and that happened in Whatcom County, where in the 1850s there were few men educated enough to administer offices. For example, Frederick F. Lane from maritime Massachusetts was sheriff and then superintendent of schools. On a territory-wide basis, the situation seemed much like had happened in California, where the Northern and Midwestern settlers were far more interested in making money than holding office or participating actively in territorial politics.
E. C. Fitzhugh of Virginia began his political career as a legislator and canvasser there, then got more active in California. The reason the coal mine syndicate sent him here was to build the territorial Democratic Party’s influence and to further the California Democrats’ quest to build a Pacific Coast voting block in Congress. He was a lawyer and political hack, but had no mining experience at all.
Kahn: Your book covers Fitzhugh’s life and activities in Virginia, California, Washington Territory, Iowa and the nation’s capital. How did you gather information from so many locales?
Wellman: I have now spent 24 years in the company of E. C. Fitzhugh, first when he was one of the husbands profiled in my first book, “Peace Weavers,” that focused on his wives. That led to my delayed plan to write his complete biography with what I had found, especially since no historian has written a book about a territorial justice.
I spent time in his tiny hometown, where his doctor and magistrate father’s office still stands, as well as most of the other structures from the very early 1800s that surrounded his youth. In addition to his local records here at the State Archives and Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, I researched at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; the Library of Virginia; the Virginia Historical Society; Oatlands Plantation archives; the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Public Library’s massive files on the Fitzhugh family; and the San Francisco Public Library’s California Room.
The fact that our Fitzhugh was proudly a First Family of Virginia (FFV), Stafford County, “Boscobel” Fitzhugh, made all the difference in what information was available. I also read every book, newspaper item and article I could find that would yield information about him, his wives and children, and all the places he lived and what he did there. Civil War research was relatively easy, as when he finally went home for the war at age 42, and he got an assistant adjutant general job in his friend George Pickett’s division. Finally, I developed a network of Fitzhugh name genealogists, Virginia Fitzhughs and his descendants and related others who live in the Fourth Corner and nearby.
Kahn: What was your most serendipitous discovery during your research?
Wellman: There are several serendipitous things that happened. In Virginia I met with Miss Sallie Lou Fitzhugh in her home filled with 1700s furniture and Civil War sabres in the umbrella stand. She told me “Fitzhugh men always married for wealth and power.” That turned out to be true from E. C.’s 1600s ancestors, right down through the generations to how he chose wives, both Samish and S’Klallam ones here and the ones from famous American Revolution families later. It gave me one of the overriding themes of his life. The second was the discovery of his use of personal and family connections to move him forward, including when he came to Bellingham Bay.
Kahn: Your chapters about Fitzhugh’s years in Whatcom County include details about other white figures whose names register to this day, including Edward Eldridge, George Pickett and John Tennant. Were you surprised by anything that you learned about those other figures?
Wellman: I learned that Edward Eldridge was not quite the man of complete integrity we have thought he was. He tried to get a local federal job by portraying Tennant as a secessionist, which he was not. Then he tried to get C. C. Finkbonner’s job as the first farmer-in-charge at the new reservation by slandering his character as an intermarried man. In 1878, he was the foreman of the grand jury that indicted nine well-known important county men, including former sheriff James Kavanaugh, for fornication because they were married by tribal custom. This was pretty obviously politically motivated and the territorial chief justice shot it down immediately. On the other hand, we can admire Eldridge for his efforts to get women the vote when he was in the legislature and he opposed Fitzhugh’s intimidating political methods.
Kahn: While at Bellingham Bay, Fitzhugh learned Northern Straits Salish language and had two native wives at the same time. How would you describe his relations with, and his attitude toward, the region’s native peoples?
Wellman: Fitzhugh was seen as an important man, and though the Lummi leaders saw his true character and would not marry one of their daughters to him, Seya’hom of the Samish and S’Klallam married his daughter Julia to him. When Seya’hom’s sister was widowed, he married her also to Fitzhugh in the sororate custom that cared for a widow. Fitzhugh could have said no to what in white society was bigamy, but he did not.
He had very good relations with his father-in-law at first, and named the Sehome settlement for him after the family moved to the longhouse on the beach in order to be nearer Julia and Mary. That changed after Fitzhugh kidnapped his own children.
His relations with the Lummi, Nooksack and Samish as first official interpreter, and then as the first agent, seem to have been good. He employed some at the mine. “Mistuh Pichuh” worked with Pickett at the fort and the Lummi to protect everyone from the Northern raiders. Fitzhugh’s report of visits upriver to the Nooksacks firmly tell the whites to stay out of their territory, and that the Nooksacks had a successful economy that needed no changes.
However, he did a terrible job in charge of the Treaty War internment of some tribes at Holmes Harbor on Whidbey Island, and hundreds may have died of food poisoning. Still, Fitzhugh, a doctor’s son, worked to ameliorate the epidemic in early 1858 that claimed many local Indigenous people, as well as probably Pickett’s wife uphill from the longhouse where the sick were clustered.
Kahn: Fitzhugh held prominent political posts, managed Sehome Mine, served on Washington Territory’s Supreme Court and fought bravely in the Civil War; yet he also was indicted for murder and he died poor and alone in a fleabag hotel in San Francisco. What do you make of his rise and fall?
Wellman: After the mine got going, it was the largest employer in the territory, which gave Whatcom County real influence in politics, beyond being a just a lumber mill operation. Part of Fitzhugh’s “assignment” when he came here was to help turn this territory into part of the Pacific Democratic block in Congress, which he accomplished as chairman of the Democratic Party’s Central Committee for some time, and was the first county auditor (to his own advantage). That political influence also got him appointed Territorial District Justice and Supreme Court Justice while under indictment for murder, after the murky homicide of Andrew Wilson in the back garden. He lent many people money for their endeavors, then was something of a hero in the Civil War, which he had avoided as long as possible.
He was always part-good and part-bad, marrying four women in ten years and damaging the lives of all. He was a product of being a Fitzhugh from Virginia, and the subculture of his youth in Stafford County. He married and did everything else for wealth and power, a pattern for Fitzhugh men. It was fascinating to trace that personal quality all the way down to our Fitzhugh.
However, his own son by the fourth wife, his first cousin, became a bridge-playing, civic-minded Rotarian in Iowa. His son here, Mason Fitzhugh, after early struggles, became a respected tribal fisherman and, with his wife, owner of her father She’kle’malt’s Indian homestead on San Juan Island. That was the Pearl (Fitzhugh) Little estate that caused years of newspaper-worthy litigation after her death.
Kahn: In sum, just how important was Edmund Fitzhugh to the history of Whatcom County?
Wellman: Fitzhugh’s importance here can’t be underestimated. We hear much about Henry Roeder, Russell Peabody and Edward Eldridge as the first colonists on Lummi Territory, but it was Fitzhugh who put Bellingham Bay on the political and economic map in Olympia and elsewhere.
Fort Bellingham was established after Fitzhugh’s repeated pleas to protect the militarily critical mine. It was only 40-some years after the War of 1812 and the only north Pacific coaling depot was in British hands at Nanaimo. The Northern raiders, the Laich-wil-tach, were endangering the settlers and Lummi regularly, and he felt that everyone might leave Bellingham Bay if it didn’t stop.
Many of Fitzhugh’s mine employees became county officials and later permanent settlers on land claims, including John Tennant, Thomas Wynn, McKinney Tawes and the Eldridges who moved over from the Roeder operation.
Kahn: How important was Fitzhugh to the history of the territory that ultimately became the state of Washington?
Wellman: Until Republican Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, Fitzhugh was one of the main leaders of the territory’s Democratic Party, so was very influential over how the territory was run and over legislation proposed for Congress to consider. It was the time of patronage and every federal job was a loyalty gift. He even helped Congressional delegate Isaac Stevens (post-governorship) run John Breckinridge’s Peace Democrat presidential campaign in Washington, D.C.
Fitzhugh’s time on the bench turned out to be a positive one, at least after he condemned a native man to death early on. He accepted testimony from native witnesses, though he was not supposed to do that. He awarded a S’Klallam wife (probably his wives’ distant cousin) in a tribal custom marriage half the land claim in a divorce. He was on the Supreme Court when they ruled that the territory could tax the counties for a road that crossed multiple counties. However, there was no conflict of interest at that time, and so he was on the court for a lawsuit appeal between Roeder and the men who had discovered the Sehome coal vein.
Kahn: After your extensive research, what did you conclude about what sort of person Fitzhugh was? Did your conclusion make it any easier or harder to write about him?
Wellman: I came to terms with Edmund Clare Fitzhugh as a thoroughly complex and weird man, from his earliest years in Virginia to his final ones in San Francisco working for men he met here 40 years earlier, and his alcoholic death. Fitzhugh afforded me travel and research in fascinating places I had not visited before, and work with Virginia Fitzhughs and dozens of other contributors.
As the 24 years passed since I first looked at him as a husband of Julia and Mary for “Peace Weavers,” his life kept getting more complex beyond Bellingham, and I had to tell it. Did I like him? Sometimes yes, sometimes not at all and sometimes I was disgusted. He was something pretty wonderful as an “elderly” soldier in the war, but the rest of the time, not so much.
Candace Wellman will speak about her book at the Whatcom County Historical Society program on Thursday, April 13, at Whatcom Museum, 7:30 p.m.