Christmas Day was a beautiful day on Whidbey Island (Yes, I’m pitifully behind on all the things I want to blog about. I blame work). It wasn’t raining, it wasn’t snowing, and there was even some blue sky peeking through the ever-present winter cloud cover. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you know you have to use these opportunities to get outside – if nothing more than to try to expose your face and hands to the heavens for some much needed Vitamin D. So after a delicious breakfast at my in-laws, and after we all gathered round to open presents and stockings, we decided to go for a walk at Ebey’s Landing.
Ebey’s Landing is a National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island that is directly adjacent to Washington State Park land, creating a large chunk of waterfront prairie land that has been protected from development. It was established in 1978; the first National Historical Reserve in the United States. The reserve is a partnership, with federal, state, county and privately owned land managed in a way that preserves the historic nature of the area by a local Trust Board.
Ebey’s Landing, and Ebey’s Prairie are named after Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey, who was the first permanent white resident of Whidbey Island. He was born in Ohio in 1818, and had an adventurous spirit that led him to leave his wife and two young sons to travel west. He landed first in California and worked as a gold miner briefly, then moved north to the Puget Sound region of the Oregon Territory. In 1850 he landed on Whidbey Island and was impressed by the beauty of the area, and the perfect land for farming.
Ebey staked a land claim under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and began homesteading the land; meanwhile he sent letters back east to encourage his family to join him on Whidbey Island. Within a couple of years, his wife, two sons, several siblings and siblings-in-law, a couple nephews and a cousin had all made the overland journey and began homesteading there with him. Isaac constructed a dock to allow ships from nearby Port Townsend to bring goods and people to the area. Isaac’s prosperity was short lived though. In 1853, Ebey’s wife Rebecca died of tuberculosis shortly after giving birth to his daughter. He remarried and tried to make the best of it.
In 1857, Native Americans seeking vengeance for the deaths of tribal members at the hands of the U.S. military came to the door. They were originally planning to kill Dr. John Kellogg, but luckily for him, he was away from the area on the night the party arrived. So instead they decided that Colonel Ebey would be good enough. After he answered the door, they shot, beheaded and scalped him. Historical records placed the blame on several different tribes over the years; it is safe to say that no one really knows.
Isaac’s headless body was buried next to his wife in the family graveyard on the prairie. The rest of the family stayed on at the homestead, with the exception of Ebey’s new wife, who decided that she wanted nothing more to do with the area and left with her daughter. Isaac’s scalp stayed with the tribe for several years until a steamer captain was able to purchase it back for the family. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have wanted it back… But as nearly as anyone can tell, it ended up with Ebey’s sister Mary and then was passed down to his niece Almira. Truly a conversation piece.
After Isaac’s death and the departure of Isaac’s second wife Emily, his brother Winfield Ebey took in Isaac’s children, and built an inn near the dock in 1860. The inn, named Ferry House, operated for over 60 years, providing lodging for travelers coming and going from the boat dock. The inn also operated as a tavern, post office and general store, providing an income for the children.
Today, the site consists of four blockhouses that Ebey and the other settlers constructed to protect from Indian attacks – little good that did, right? Additionally, Isaac’s father, Jacob Ebey’s house is still standing and has been converted into a visitor’s center. It has been moved from its original location nearby, but gives a good sense of what the homes of the time would have been like. The dock at Ebey’s Landing is no longer there; it was an active dock for transporting goods from Port Townsend until the early 1900’s, when a new dock was built at Fort Casey a few miles away.
Nearby is the Sunnyside Cemetery – the original cemetery that was established for the residents of the community. Isaac, his wife Rebecca and his daughter Hetty were originally buried in the family graveyard down on the prairie. Historical records indicate that the family intended to move their graves to the top of the hill where Sunnyside Cemetery now sits, but it is unknown if the original graveyard was ever exhumed. The earliest burial in what is now Sunnyside Cemetery was Isaac’s brother Winfield in 1865.
And Ferry House still stands. It is currently vacant, and has never had indoor plumbing or electricity added. The structure is one of the oldest residential buildings in Washington State, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is in dire need of preservation. The second floor is currently being held up by a framework of two by sixes – as a result of its sad state, it is not open to the public. There are dreams of restoring it for use as a space to teach classes in historic preservation; hopefully this grand old inn will continue to stand the test of time.