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1856 — Holgate’s Fairy Land

by Susan Marie Brown, © 2014

Seattle, Washington

Once upon a time there was a vast flat land, plain and dusty, that a kingly man named Abraham Holgate rode across, on a horse. His adventurous queenly wife, Elizabeth, and royally bold children followed along in a wagon train, bringing their load of chickens and clothes and tools and seeds for planting, in boxes on wheels, pulled by oxen. The Holgates stopped in the midst of the dust, at Van Buren County, in Iowa, and created a new kingdom: a sod hut on a corn farm beside a sod church.

Abraham plowed the ground and worked daily, dawn till dusk, planting fields and tending his crops of corn, potatoes, and wheat. On Sundays he preached. He taught his elder sons, two princely young men named John Cornelius and Lemuel, to use plows and shovels and Bibles and guns.

Queenly Elizabeth worked daily, too. She grew roses and turnips and cabbage in the garden. She milked cows and collected chicken eggs. She made butter and bread and pancakes and roasted meat for dinner. During dark seasons she created candles from the fat of butchered cattle to help light the hut in the night. She taught her princess daughters, Abby and Olivia, to sew. They made dresses and trousers and shirts and coats. They readied the family for winter by knitting new socks and mittens and scarves and hats made from wool.

Abby was the eldest princess. She read everything she could find. She was a storyteller. She despised the flat world of Iowa. She remembered the trees of Ohio. She hated the sod, the dust. She was bored by the tedious nature of Iowan work, starved for music and art. Life on the farm was lonesome. She longed for a place rich with colors and hills and valleys and tall trees that filled the landscape with flowers, song birds, and squirrels. She yearned to attend festive gatherings with hordes of boisterous dancing people. But she could go nowhere on her own.

She invented fairy tales. She told her sister and brothers epics of her imagined explorations. She kept them wide awake at night with long winding passages about discoveries of lost gems and great wonders in marvelous lands that lay beyond the dusty horizon, in the west. Her imagination said everything they ever dreamed of wanting waited to be found, hidden along a far coast, between the wide blue Pacific Ocean and a row of tall snowy peaks, where talking bears and wolves and tribes of happy Indians danced and sang and practiced secret magics, hoping to meet young royal Holgates and share their wild kingdoms.

Her brother John Cornelius especially loved Abby’s stories. He imagined they were almost true. He grew up determined to run west. He was devoted to dreams of leaving the land of dust and finding a paradise of green filled with trees and rivers where he would never need to plant another patch of wheat or corn, where he could easily catch fish as lengthy as a man is tall, where he could feast on salmon daily.

Abraham was the king of the Holgates and he loved Iowa. He said he would never leave and if his family loved him, they would all stay where they were. They would never go west. They would always grow corn and wheat and live on the dust, like good farmers must. He was their leader, the wise one. He warned everyone his eldest son, John, was a rebel, a mad man urging everyone to accompany him to an imaginary land, to travel through wilderness and danger to an uncivilized place. Don’t go there, said Abraham. If you want to be happy, always call Iowa your home. The west is not blessed. His wife Elizabeth, and his children: Abby, Olivia, Lemuel, and baby Milton, always agreed to stay where they were, though they hated the dust. But John never did.

Time passed. Abby and Olivia married young men who grew up on neighboring farms. They began giving birth to a new generation of children: Iowans.

John Cornelius Holgate ran away. He said I’m done with misery, and went west. He followed the path of Lewis and Clark. He crossed the Rocky Mountains. He crossed the sagebrush desert. He followed the Columbia River down to the Pacific Ocean, the Oregon coast. He followed the example of Lewis and Clark. He went exploring by canoe, paddled north through the waters of Puget Sound, made friends with the Indians, found a cluster of beautiful lakes near the sea, learned to catch big fish, and built a cabin on the shore of the Duwamish River.

Abraham was struck dead by Iowan cold and lost in the snow of a blizzard.

John Cornelius sent letters home telling everyone — Yes, he did find a paradise. Yes, they should join him, and create a new kingdom. Yes, the Oregon Territory was blessed: the world’s most beautiful land, where blizzards never blew, where tall trees for building cabins and churches stood in great forests, where no one lived in sod, dust did not exist, delicious fish filled the rivers with food, songbirds filled the air with music, and everyone felt rich with happiness. After five years of urging his sisters and brothers and mother to leave the land of misery, he convinced them to join him.

Lemuel, Abby, Olivia, and Elizabeth organized a crowd of Iowans. Nearly everyone in Van Buren County who knew the Holgates filled their wagons with seeds and chickens and tools and clothes and children. They left their farms behind and went west among the train of wagons, hoping to thrive in the new kingdom of forest and fish. They walked and rode across the plains and Rockies to Oregon, then made their way north from the Columbia to build log cabins by Puget Sound.

John Cornelius called himself the young king of a new land. He was elated to greet his family: his princely brothers: Lemuel and little Milton; his queenly widowed mother and princess sisters: Olivia, now a widow like her mother; and the storyteller, Abby, with her husband and children. He was surprised they brought so many people: that horde of neighbors. And pleased to help them all build cabins. Things went very well. Things went very badly. Too many arrogant settlers wanted too much. They treated other people with cruelty and violence. They killed too many trees and fish. They killed each other. They killed innocent people. The Duwamish refused to sign the treaty directing them to leave. They said no, this is our land. These waters belong to us. These are our trees, our fish. Not yours. You brought wicked people. You must all go.

But no one agreed to leave. No one missed Iowa. They refused to return to the dust. John Cornelius Holgate said, we will all stay. We will build new cabins, very close together. We will form a town, a tight community, close by the shore. The Navy will guard us. His people moved to the base of Seattle’s First Hill.

The angry Duwamish gathered high on the hillside. They fired guns at the cabins. The Indian who meant to kill John Cornelius Holgate missed and shot his little brother, Milton, who fell down dead. More shots were fired. Another white man died. Then the Navy blasted cannons from a ship. Explosive shells hit the hill, cutting the Duwamish with shrapnel, killing twenty men and wounding eighty more, who were carried away by their terrified brothers.

Elizabeth Holgate wept all night, hugging and kissing and praying over the body of her precious youngest child, her beloved innocent baby, until his corpse felt as cold and stiff and inhuman as a piece of wood.

John Cornelius Holgate knew he should have been the one who died that night. He helped dig a hole to bury Milton in, then launched his canoe and paddled away to escape the angry Iowans who blamed him for their new hardships, and to flee the angry Duwamish who now hated him more than anyone.

He still aspired to be the Prince of a new kingdom, but couldn’t hide by going any further west, so he fled south to California, where he developed the new passion that ultimately led to his death. He started plowing the earth for gold, not food.