By Christi Baron
Editor Forks Forum
Merrill Whittier: West End Pioneer
In 1900, according to the census, 139 people lived on the Forks Prairie. One of those families was the Whittier’s. Merrill, Martha, and their eight children called this place home.
Merrill had been born in 1838 in Nova Scotia and came to the U.S. in 1861. He later settled in the Dungeness area and married Martha Weir. The Weirs had homesteaded on the lower Dungeness River and had come from Texas in 1858.
In 1870, Whittier heard from local Native Americans, of a large prairie over the mountains from Pysht. The prairie was they claimed, in heavy timber near a second fork of a large river. It did not have an Indian settlement but was used by the area tribes as a hunting ground.
So that same year he and his father-in-law, via canoe, came to Pysht where they met a man named Babcock. Babcock had a trained ox that could pack through timber and offered to loan himself and the ox to go in search of this fabulous prairie over the mountains.
There was no trail. The natives used the water route to get from Cape Flattery to LaPush.
The ox carried most of the supplies which consisted of flour, salt pork, coffee, salt, sourdough seed, one blanket each, musket balls, matches, black powder, and axes.
They started up the Pysht River crossing back and forth and camping that first night. The next morning they started up the mountain. They came down into a great country with a “brand new river” (how they described it) which was the Sol Duc. A few days later they discovered barefoot tracks.
Whittier was a good tracker and in a short while the tracks led the party over a faint Indian trail to a wonderful prairie edged with timber, which they called the prairie of the forks, as it lay in the forks of the great river.
That night they camped there and timber wolves killed their dogs.
Whittier liked the country as there was plentiful beaver, fish, and game. He made a plan to someday move to this fertile and unsurveyed land. Later in 1880, he did just that and other settlers were coming, too.
There was no rush in those days for land here on the Forks Prairie and the few settlers that were here respected the rights and intentions of the others. The land where Whittier eventually built his cabin was in the middle of his 160 acres, which is now the business section of downtown Forks.
He lived on the property for 20 years raising his family and crops.
His main crop was hops. Hops were bailed and were canoed to a schooner at Mora from a Quileute named “Clockobuckets” (a name which has yet to be found, so probably sounded like that name) who had a fish station on the Bogachiel. Shelalips was the name later given to that location.
The hops business was a difficult one in this damp climate and eventually, it was abandoned because the hops would tend to mold. The Whittier’s would later leave Forks and in 1901 Martha Whittier died in Seattle from pneumonia. Her youngest child was only one-years-old. Merrill died in February 1924, in Stanwood.
Martha Weir Whittier
In a May 1953 Forks Forum, R.O. Whittier wrote in a letter to the editor about his mother’s journey from Texas to finally the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. The family ended up settling in what is now Forks.
Martha Weir Whittier was born in 1853 in a wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail. She joined a brother and sister and her parents as they traveled from Bowie County, Texas, to California‚ the journey took them two years.
Martha’s family eventually came to Sequim and after her marriage to Merrill Whittier, she moved to the Forks Prairie around the turn of the century.
Her first home was built on a half-mile square of land which now includes the entire town of Forks and surrounding residential areas. It was a dwelling made of logs hauled with oxen to the prairie. The 1953 letter states that a brass plate was placed at the intersection, where the stoplight is today, recognizing the location of the first Whittier home. If anyone remembers this plate or what happened to it, please give the Forum a call.
At the time the log home was the only building on the north side of the Forks Prairie. A double fireplace of clay and wood provided both heat and cooking facilities.
Water was drawn by hand with a rope and bucket on a wooden drum. Cooking for Martha was endless, year in and year out, and everyone had a good appetite.
It was a tough life for women but with her talent for cooking with the skillet and the rolling pin, her skills were highly respected.
From her home, Martha had an unobstructed view of the whole Forks Prairie; many horses, a tame elk, dogs, cows, chickens, and crops. The air was full of geese and the rivers full of fish.
The Forks Prairie was the end of the Pysht Trail and a haven for the weary traveler …many that came to stay.
Like many early settlers, Martha’s will revealed she owned a good bit of property in what is now a part of Bellevue!