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Sunday, June 17, 2001 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Denny Party progeny live quietly among us

By Stuart Eskenazi
Seattle Times staff reporter


Five survivors of the Nov. 13 1851, landing of the Denny Party, above, pose at the "Birthplace of Seattle" pylon at the Stockade Hotel near Alki Point. Some of their descendants, below, at the same spot, are: front, from left: Jessie Cochran, Ruth Moore and Gary Gaffner. Back, from left: Brewster Denny, Pat Wright, Alice Wanamaker, Peggy Nugent and Brett Nugent.


In this country's south and northeast, where first families are revered as aristocracies, a pioneer pedigree is a ticket to high society. But in this town, that and a nickel won't net a cup of coffee.

Descendants of the five families who settled Seattle a century-and-a-half ago live in relative obscurity. There is no exclusive club where they regularly gather to sip tea, no central repository that documents their every move.

In fact, descendants tend to be unaware of the others. This story, for example, unites two not-so-distant relatives for the first time. Ruth Moore, meet Peggy Nugent. You both descend from pioneer couple John and Lydia Low. Both of you have lived in the Seattle area most of your lives. Both of you are intensely interested in your lineage. Yet your paths have never crossed.

On Nov. 13, 1851, 22 adventurers landed at Alki Point on a schooner named Exact. There, they joined two explorers who had inspected the land. The contributions of the 24 pioneers are being remembered in this 150th anniversary of the landing. The family names are carved in a stone monument rising from the beach where the boat touched shore.

Boren, Denny, Low, Bell, Terry.

Some of the names are synonymous with Seattle. Ask Brewster Denny if he has any connection to Denny Way, and he responds: "Oh yes. I'm a member of the old Way family." Actually, he is the great grandson of Arthur Denny, often regarded as Seattle's founding father.

Brewster Denny's modesty stalks the example of Arthur Denny, who wrote in an 1890 autobiography: "It has not occurred to me that I have accomplished anything above the ordinary, and, if so, I should feel humiliated to claim it for myself."

The Boren family

The Alki landing party
On Nov. 13, 1851, 10 adults and 12 children representing five families landed at Alki Point on the schooner Exact.
Jessie Cochran, whose bloodlines include Boren and Denny, says, "We're just ordinary people who came from extraordinary pioneers."

In her North Seattle condominium full of bric-a-brac, the 80-year-old homemaker and mother of two is afraid to throw away an old letter without reading it first to see whether it contains an important slice of Seattle history. In an antique portrait hanging on her wall, she can see the forehead and eyes of her eldest son. It's a photo of Carson Boren, her great grandfather and one of the settlers on the Exact. The latest generation of Boren descendants, Cochran's two great grandchildren, resemble him less. They are half Chinese.

Cochran grew up with the name Denny - her grandmother, Mary Louisa Boren, having married a cousin of Arthur Denny. In school, teachers would pump her for historical information about the family. She would bring her father to satisfy their quest for knowledge.

"As a kid, I thought if I ever heard the name Denny again, I would trade it in," she says.

Now she sorts family memorabilia into scrapbooks and is thrilled that her grandson has offered to transfer that legacy onto computer.

The Denny family

This note was sent by David Denny from Alki Beach to his brother Arthur in Portland in September 1851. It says: "Come as soon as you can, we have found a valley that will accommodate one thousand families. Mr. Low will describe it to you." The message was carried to Portland by John Low.

Pat Wright, 79, the great-great granddaughter of Arthur and Mary Denny, remembers riding her bicycle to the sprawling Windermere home of her great-great uncle, Rolland Denny. Brewster Denny, 76, remembers his 11th birthday party at the same waterfront mansion built in 1907 by the man he considered his honorary grandfather and addressed as "Great Uncle Roll."

At 6 weeks, Rolland Denny was the youngest of the 12 children who landed in the Exact. His mansion is possibly the only house left in Seattle where one of the 24 original pioneers lived. Today, the 7,700-square-foot home serves as the Seattle domicile for the Unification Church - the movement founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Arthur Denny, a straight-laced staunch Methodist, "would turn over in his grave if he knew," figures Fred Wright, Pat's husband.

Pat Wright never got to meet her great grandmother, Louisa Denny , the eldest of Arthur and Mary's three children who came on the Exact. But she did spend time with two of Louisa's daughters.

Those two were Sophie Frye Bass ("Aunt Opie") and Roberta Frye Watt ("Aunt Bobbie"), who both wrote heralded books on Old Seattle. On Wright's bookshelf is a signed original 1931 copy of "Four Wagons West: The Story of Seattle," signed by her Aunt Bobbie. They regaled her with stories and bequeathed her loads of memories.

Brewster Denny, educated at both Harvard and Tufts, worked in Washington for the Department of Defense and for the late U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.). In the summer of 1961, President Kennedy offered him a job as his intelligence adviser. Instead, Denny set out to Seattle to start the UW's Graduate School of Public Affairs.

"My connection to Seattle was so strong," Denny says. "It was inevitable that someday I was going to come back home."

Brewster Denny considers his last name more of a responsibility than entitlement. For the past forty years, he has rung the bell at Denny Hall on the UW campus to mark homecoming.

His pedigree and a nickel have bought him more than a cup of coffee in Seattle, but his work at the UW would please Arthur Denny.

"Our job is to train people to be in public service," he explains.

The Low family

Several prominent Seattle streets are named for the original pioneers: Denny Way, Boren Avenue, Terry Avenue, Bell Street, Olive Way (after Olive Bell), Virginia Street (after Virginia Bell) and Lenora Street (after Lenora Denny).

But John and Lydia Low are ignored. He started building the first log cabin at Alki before returning to Portland to encourage Arthur Denny to make the trip north. The Lows, however, did not stay long in Seattle, staking land claims in Thurston County and, later, Snohomish County.

John and Lydia's daughter, Nettie Low Foster, reputed to be the first white child born at Alki, considered the absence of avenue accolade a slight. She joined sister Fannie, Rolland Denny and two other influential Seattleites in successfully petitioning the City Council in 1925 to change the name of 63rd Avenue Southwest, which dead-ends at Alki Point, to Low Avenue.

"In view of the fact that we have favored all of the other members of this Pioneer party by naming streets in their honor, we believe that it would be proper and fitting," the petition says. But 18 months later, the council ceded to pressure, likely from business people in the area, and returned the name to 63rd Avenue.

"We've always been the underdogs," says Brett Nugent, 34, the great-great-great-great grandson of John and Lydia. Nugent is an actor, dancer and singer who has performed at the Grammy Awards ceremony and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. These days, he is serving customers and training waiters at Salty's on Alki. The Alki connection isn't lost on him.

In October, the intuitive Nugent called his mother, Peggy, about a strong feeling he had that his great-great-great grandmother, Nettie, had left something for the family. "I was hoping it was Salty's," he jokes.

Peggy Nugent hopes Nettie's spirit and the 150th anniversary will arouse her to learn more about the Low family. She could start by crossing the bridge from Bellevue to visit Ruth Moore in Wallingford.

Moore, too, descends from Nettie Low Foster but is two generations ahead of Peggy Nugent, three ahead of Brett. Her encounters with Nettie were real, not spiritual.

"My grandmother Nettie had a large strip of raspberry bushes in her yard near the fence," Moore recalls. "She'd go out in the morning and pick raspberries. She had pretty cut-glass bowls and we'd have raspberries and milk. I still love those type of bowls."

"Peggy Nugent?" says Moore, 77. "I don't know her. We should know each other. We're from the same family."

The Bell family

Gary Gaffner camped out for a week while a home built by his relative William Bell was demolished to see whether the legend that Bell had buried his wheelbarrow in the front steps was true. Gaffner was overjoyed to find this iron wheel rim, confirmation of family lore.

Alice Wanamaker and Gary Gaffner come from the same family, but different branches. Wanamaker is the great-great granddaughter of William and Sarah Bell, who arrived in Seattle together on the Exact, while Gaffner descends from William and his second wife, Lucy. Wanamaker only has to look at her and her brother's passports for evidence of a Bell legacy. Gaffner can look in his garage.

The Wanamaker siblings both worked in the Foreign Service for the State Department. Alice worked in Norway, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Thailand and Hungary. Her brother, Temple, served in Spain, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Israel, Argentina and Costa Rica, where he now operates a dairy farm.

"I think all of us Bells had an adventurous spirit," says Wanamaker, 84, of Seattle. "We were eager to learn new things and visit new places. There are a lot of places to see in this world."

Gaffner, 66, attended Alki Elementary School and took part as a child in annual re-enactments of the Exact landing. He retired in sales at Boeing but also dabbled in downtown investments, including the Seattle Athletic Club and Café Sport.

The Gaffner family inherited a house at Western Avenue and Broad Street that William Bell had helped build with his own hands for one of his sons. The Gaffners tore down the old house and sold the property in 1953. Berry vines grew there for nearly 50 years until last summer, when excavation began for a new residential high-rise.

Gary Gaffner camped out at the construction site for a week, asking the crew to use the care of an archaeological dig when they broke up the concrete stairs. He remembered a story passed through the generations, told to him by his father. Legend had it that as the house was nearly complete, an elderly William Bell threw down his wheelbarrow and declared he was done doing physical work. Concrete for the last stair was poured over the wheelbarrow, effectively creating a time capsule.

Gaffner wasn't certain the story was true, but he didn't want to miss out on the chance of a lifetime. As the construction workers removed concrete from the stairs piece by piece, they hit pay dirt: an iron wheel rim with a few spokes. It was all that remained of the wheelbarrow of Gaffner's great-great grandfather.

"To me, it is as real an artifact as one could have," says Gaffner, who lives in Queen Anne. "I'll cherish that old wheel no matter how grungy it is."

The Terry family

Brothers Lee and Charles Terry came to Seattle from New York. Lee helped build the log cabin where the families lived, and Charles ran a general store at Alki. Several researchers at museums and historical societies specializing in Seattle history were unable to come up with the name of a single living Terry descendant.

If you're out there, speak up. The anniversary won't be the same without you.

Related info:

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