On November 13, 1851 the Denny Party landed on Alki Point in West Seattle. They obviously weren’t the first people to arrive at the bay at the mouth of what would be called the Duwamish River, nor were they even the first Europeans, but they stuck it out and are generally credited for founding modern day Seattle.
The primary concern of Seattle’s early pioneers was establishing a thriving port in Elliott Bay. Seattle’s “Seven Hills” were nice to look at, but not the focus of development until a few decades later. What was on top of Capitol Hill in 1851?
First, a little geological history. Much of Seattle’s natural landscape was formed some 13,000 years ago. Two thousand years earlier, the Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Glacier covered much of the area between the Olympics and Cascades down to Olympia. As the massive ice sheet receded north, it carved the land forming much of the landscape we see today. That’s partially why on Capitol Hill, and the rest of Seattle’s hills, we see gentle slopes running north-south as compared to the steep drop-offs on the east and west.
Despite the significant transformations Europeans and their descendants have made on the Seattle landscape, Capitol Hill’s geography has remained relatively unscathed save a few creeks and springs that have long been paved over. Unlike Denny Hill, which was totally leveled in a massive regrading project, Capitol Hill’s topography is still basically intact, said local geologist and author David Williams.
“There’s been a little bit of shaving here and there. More a trim than a cut,” said Williams, who is currently working on a book about how Seattleites have shaped and manipulated the landscape of city. For more on one of those trims, see: CHS Re:Take | Undermining the Republican Senator from Melrose
When the Dennys arrived in 1851, Williams said Capitol Hill would have been primarily covered with douglas fir, western hemlock, and cedar. On the steep eastern and western hillsides, alders and big leaf maples would have been more prominent as landslides would have prevented dense conifer growth. Interlaken Park may offer one of the best nearby displays of what the landscape may have looked like around the time of the Denny landing.
A remarkably detailed lithograph from 1867 shows Capitol Hill was still covered in woodlands at the time. Another similar lithograph only 10 years later shows the hill had been mostly cleared. The lithographs can’t be wholly trusted, said John Findlay, a UW historian and editor of Pacific Northwest Quarterly.
“There were no ‘birds eye views’, they couldn’t get up in a plane,” Findlay said. “Lithographs did tend to show a more civilized view of cities.”
Nevertheless, Findlay said the early lithographs can give us a good sense of the topography and land uses. Since neither the Europeans nor the native people living here would have been planting timber at this time, the forested area on Capitol Hill would have been first growth.
The Denny Party landing is celebrated as the founding of modern Seattle, but like most European landings in the New World, the native experience was not so grand. The Duwamish tribe has inhabited modern day Seattle for some 10,000 years. Like most Coastal Salish people, society was organized around salmon fishing. No salmon, no settlement, said Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College in Alaska – and jseattle’s father-in-law. The Duwamish maintained around a dozen village sites in present-day Seattle, all in areas with easy water access. Capitol Hill, lacking easy fishing access, did not have a permanent settlement.
“In the winter season, there was hunting, going after beaver, deer, elk, bear. People may have moved up into Capitol Hill for hunting to bring back food,” Boraas said. “These were essentially sedentary people that were going out on various forays.”
“It was all timber, from the hills down to the water,” said current Duwamish Tribe chairperson Cecile Hansen.
Narrative descriptions of the Hill are hard to come by. A cursory search through two early histories of Seattle doesn’t reveal much about Capitol Hill, or Broadway Hill as it was once known. During the 1855 “Battle of Seattle,” a Navy admiral named T. S. Phelps described a wide lake trail that ran from present day downtown to Lake Washington. This trail may have cut through the depression between Capitol Hill and First Hill, Findlay said.
By the 1880s people were making their way up into Seattle’s hillsides to build permanent homes. In 1887 the city purchased 40 acres that would eventually become Volunteer Park. By the time Aurthur Denny died in 1899, Capitol Hill had already transformed from a wild, wooded landscape to a burgeoning, increasingly dense residential neighborhood.