Throughout the era of the fur trade on the Columbia, the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the traders and factors comprised the small group of men who were the intermediaries between the Europeans and the Aboriginals. They knew the Indian languages, many of them had married Indian wives, and were instrumental in keeping relations between the races peaceable. With the withdrawal of the HBC north of the line of 1846, their place as traders, trail guides, and interpreters went by default to those American frontiersmen who had come north from the California gold fields to participate in the Fraser-Thompson gold rush and who remained after it subsided. Their more squeamish and racist fellow Americans used the ugly name of “squawmen” to refer to them. With their Indian wives, their living in a state of boozy intimacy with the Aboriginals, and their habit of extravagant boasting, they were deplored by the “better classes.” Still, these knowledgeable men were essential as intermediaries with the aboriginals, doing what they had learned to keep the peace permitting unhindered settlement of the great Columbia Plain and the river valleys running northward into British territory.
Each of these men had a similar history. All had participated in each of the gold rushes as they had occurred, Rock Creek, Similkameen, Colville, Fraser-Thompson rivers, Cariboo, Wild Horse and Big Bend. All had learned on the placer grounds that while a very few might strike it rich and go home wealthy men, most would return from the gold fields with very little more than it had cost him to outfit himself for the expedition. Those who had packed in provisions to the camps and sold them for a huge profit, did consistently go home with most of the miners’ gold.
Money, and lots of it, was dependably to be made in packing in supplies and selling them to the hungry miners. These “squawmen” quickly learned these economics of the gold rush. Then, usually with a few Indian relations as helpers, they turned to profitably guiding parties of miners to the gold bars, to packing in supplies, and to operating improvised stores at the camps.
When the gold bars were exhausted and the miners went home, the “squawmen” took up ranches along the creeks in the Columbia Basin or opened small stores along the boundaries of the Indian Reservations to trade with the Aboriginals.
Dancing Bill Latham, who had led a company in that bloody passage to the Thompson, operated his “Eureke” ferry at the site of present Bridgeport. Tenas George Runnels was a man of some education. He had his Indian marriage to Skocom Analix confirmed by U.S. law in 1872. He was the author of poems and ballads, and was stockman, storekeeper, as well as a successful prospector. He located the rich Mountain Lion claim in the Republic Camp in 1896. In 1904 he kept a store and horse ranch at Keller and was involved in the silver mines there. His best claim he called the Iconoclast, a clue to the man and his cronies. Most of these rough “squawmen” were self exiled refugees of conscience from the moral hypocrisy of a society that preached rectitude while practicing greed. No doubt many had fled prosecutions they felt unjust, and had taken their pseudonyms for the sake of anonymity in the west.
Since much of the settlement of the Columbia Basin in the hands of these “squawmen” from 1859 until the coming of the railroad in 1883, it will be of interest to describe the life of one of them in some detail.
Samuel Wilbur Condit (Wild Goose Bill) was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1835. No formal education is recorded, and Samuel left home at the age of 17 for the gold fields of California. His departure may possibly have been a necessary flight, for on arriving in California, he changed his name to “Bill Condon,” and was known by that name from then on in the west. The family records in New Jersey state: “Lost at sea en route from British Columbia to California.” This is distinctly odd. In 1852, the year of his arrival in California, “British Columbia” did not exist. The family must have received a mistaken report of Samuel’s demise some years later. Possibly from Samuel himself, if he had had compelling reasons for leaving home and wished to discourage inquiries.
Samuel, “Bill Condon,” came north to the Washington Territory about 1860. After blowing two gold mining stakes on high living in San Francisco, he had joined the thousands heading for the Thompson-Fraser rush by the inland route. In 1861, with Dancing Bill Latham, Tenas George Runnels, and others he was in the first party of miners to ascend the Columbia in British Columbia to the Big Bend gold fields. After that boom subsided, he took a job packing supplies to the mining camps for a merchant in Walla Walla. On a trip with his pack train, probably in 1864 or 1865, into the Wild Horse camp he found the stores there already amply stocked with the very supplies he was carrying. Rather than sell at a loss, he started west with his train on the Dewdney Trail for Okanagan Lake where, he had been told, there were many Chinese on the gold creeks. This could have been at Mission Creek or Cherry Creek. or possibly Fairview. Accompanied by his Indian helper, Little Jimmy, he reached the Chinese miners, sold his goods, and then headed south for the Washington Territory. On the way, still in British Columbia, he came on a small pond with a flock of geese, and began shooting them for provisions. But the fowls proved to be domestic geese, or wing clipped wild geese, and their owner, a very angry woman, came storming after him, demanding compensation. From that time on Bill Condon was known everywhere in the Columbia Basin as “Wild Goose Bill.”
On his trip back to Walla Walla he came across the well watered valley of upper Goose Creek at present Wilbur, Washington, and noted it as a spot in this arid Columbia Plateau where farming could succeed. He took up land there and when the gold rushes tailed off, and there was little demand for pack outfits, he sold his, and began farming in that little valley at Goose Creek in 1875.
Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian, put Wild Goose Bill in a story published in Harper’s Magazine in April, 1894, called The Promised Land. It was based on what his friend, Guy Waring, told him of Wild Goose Bill at whose ranch on Goose Creek he had stayed in 1884. Waring had there listened to Bill Condon’s extravagantly embellished stories of his exploits during the gold rush days,and passed them on to Owen Wister. In Wister’s story Bill Condon appears as “Wild Goose Jake,” depicted as a lurid character who lived by selling liquor to the Indians. There is no record of Wild Goose Bill having done so, but the use of liquor to promote trading transactions with the Indians was common enough during the period. It had been standard practice for a drink of whiskey to seal a trade deal during HBC days, and the Aboriginals frequently asked for the traditional drink in later days before they would begin to trade.
Owen Wister’s tale was probably not familiar to the settlers moving into the Big Bend region in the 1880s and 1890s, but its sensational depiction of the “squawmen” as drunken, lawless scoundrels must have influenced Midwest opinion of the Frontiersmen they might meet in the West. And the farmers moving into the Big Bend after the completion of the NP Railroad, were almost all Midwesterners.
When the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1883, Sprague became the shipping point for the Big Bend and Okanagan country. Gold had been discovered at Conconnully and silver at Ruby City; miners were bound for those points. The trail from Sprague to the Okanagan passed through Wild Goose Bill’s ranch. He saw a chance here to improve it to a wagon road, set up a toll ferry on the Columbia, and build a store there to supply miners, reservation Indians from across the river, and farmers entering the region.
In 1885 he constructed his ferry across the Columbia at Alameda Flat at the foot of what is now Strahl Canyon Road. He had a boat big enough to carry one team and wagon built at Layton and Wolford’s sawmill on Hawk Creek and floated down to his site. This first ferry was propelled by oars and took the traveler across to Saddle Horse flat on the north bank. From there the Indian trail went up past Omak Lake to the settlement of Omak on the Okanagan River, and from there up the Salmon River to Conconnully and the mines. The next year Condon improved his ferry by bringing a steel cable up the trail from Sprague and stringing it across the river. A larger scow was built at Hawk Creek and hung on this cable, as a reaction ferry, using
the current of the river, to push it across.
In the summers of 1887 and 1888, Henry Bair, Gerhart Jurgensen and Frank Robinson, apparently working for Condon, made improvements to the trail to make it usable for heavy freight wagons. With the mining excitement at Conconnully and Ruby City, a new county, Okanagan, came into existence, and Bill Condon’s road and ferry were the shortest route from the railroad. No road existed up the Columbia at that time, the many rock bluffs plunging steeply into the river made one impractical. There was the old Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigade trail from White Bluffs through Moses Lake, and Soap Lake and over the Big Bend plateau to Foster Creek which was followed to the Columbia at present Bridgeport, where Dancing Bill Latham, operated his “Eureke” ferry, but Bill Condon’s was by far the shorter route.
Merchandise for his store on the south bank of the Columbia and for the miners at Conconully, was offloaded from the NP trains at Sprague and put on two ton four horse freight wagons. It was 107 miles from there to Condon’s Ferry. The first day’s travel brought them to Coffee Pot Lake, west of present Harrington, approximately along the route of todays’s highway 23 and Coffeepot Road. On the second day they would reach Wild Goose Bill’s ranch (Wilbur), and on the third day, to Park Springs in Northrup Canyon, descending into Grand Coulee. The fourth day would take them across the Grand Coulee and out following Wallace Canyon (named for Robert V. Wallace who drove freight teams on this route for Bill Condon), and turning north at Wilson Butte to follow Strahl Creek down to the River and Bill Condon’s ferry and store.
Condon charged $30 per ton for merchandise shipped over this road and paid his teamsters $35 a month, good wages for the time. His store stocked items for the Indians on the Colville Reservation across the river. As regulations forbade non-Indian businesses from operating on the Reservation, Condon’s store was well sited to capture their trade, just a ferry ride across the river. He stocked the usual flour, beans, tea, sugar, bacon, overalls , utensils, farm implements, blankets, calicoes, and other articles required by the Aboriginals. The Indians seldom had any money with which to buy, but the Indian Department which controlled them, permitted them to sell livestock that they had raised from herds introduced by the Government. By taking these cattle in trade for merchandise, Bill Condon would increase his herd at his ranch. Far from being a drunken brawler, as depicted by the sensationalist Owen Wister, Wild Goose Bill had become an astute businessman.
Bill had married Julia, a Coeur d’Alene Indian woman, and they had two sons, George and Billy. Julia eventually left him, the circumstances unknown, and he married again, this time Mary Ann, from Chief Moses’ band across the river. They had one child, Charlie, tragically disabled in body and mind from an accident in infancy. Those who knew him all said Bill was very fond of the boy and gave him all the consideration and care he was capable of. This union with a relative of Chief Moses was of inestimable value in his trade with the Reservation Indians.
The Northern Pacific Railroad began building its Washington Central branch line into the Big Bend country from Cheney in 1888. The next year the rails reached Bill Condon’s ranch on Goose Creek. Instead of calling the town which was to grow there “Goosetown,” the surveyors chose “Wilbur” at the urgent suggestion of J. H. Robertson who had located there as a blacksmith in 1887. This was taken from the name Bill Condon used on his land titles, “Samuel Wilbur Condit.” Though uneducated, Bill Condon knew that the use of any but his legal given name on a land title could invalidate it.
The Columbia Townsite and Investment Company, a land holding subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad, concluded an agreement with Bill Condon, the owner of the land, by which for his gift of half the lots in the Wilbur townsite, they would guarantee a railroad station, graded streets, and the management of the new town. It was a standard, railroad contract, probably identical to those negotiated with the other towns on the line, Reardan, Almira, Hartline and Coulee City. These railroad townsite contracts were a continuing scandal in the west. Instead of following the engineered survey across the Big Bend country with its nearly level grades, the Washington Central management zigged and zagged its line, up hill and down, to connect those sites, like Bill Condon’s “Goosetown , where the railroad’s townsite company would receive the land gratis from its owner, having only to grant him title to the odd numbered lots. If the owner of a site along the surveyed grade demanded to be paid for his land, the railroad would bypass him, routing its line to a more amenable land owner, and establishing the townsite there. The present line, operated by the Palouse and Coulee City Railroad, is still considered a difficult operation by its train crews. With its roller-coaster profile required to connect the cooperating townsites, it requires four or five diesel units to haul freights of less than fifty cars.
At this time, Bill Condon divided his time between his ranch and the Ferry at Alameda Flat. When he was in Wilbur, Mary Ann or her younger sister, Christina, looked after the ferry and store. With the arrival of the railroad, new people were moving into the Wilbur area to take up farms. They were socially conservative Midwesterners, frosty Methodists and Presbyterians. As such, they had scant toleration for the notorious “squawmen,” having no understanding at all of pioneer conditions in that previous Indian country. Now, with whites outnumbering Indians, the inevitable reversal took place. The Aboriginals, previously essential participants in the fur trade, and later valued packers, and horse and cattle raisers, were becoming a minority, and as an Aboriginal minority, despised by the newcomers. The old timers, who had married Indian women and raised families with them, were regarded henceforth as dangerous and uncouth men, assumed to be lawless and guilty of various past crimes.
One of these women told historian, Celon Kingston,
“My husband brought Bill (Condon) home to dinner one day and before we were ready to sit down Bill pulled up his chair and began to take what he liked from the various dishes. He seemed so out of place that I asked my husband not to bring him to dinner again. I knew he had his good qualities, but he surely lacked good manners.”
Bad table manners, a fondness for whiskey, an Indian wife, and a presumably lurid past made the “squawmen” socially unacceptable in the newly transplanted Midwest small town society.
Out on the isolated ranches there were other opinions. Robert Wallace relates,
“It was about the first of December, 1886, while I was working for Bill Condon that I was caught with a heavily loaded four-horse team in a snowstorm some ten miles from Bill’s ranch. The sun had gone down and the wind blew violently in my face; the air was full of rain, sleet and snow. I had no blankets and I knew I had to find some sort of shelter. There was only one settler, a man named Brown in the country round about and I wasn’t acquainted with him but when I finally reached his place I asked them if they could take me in for the night. I was refused at first because they didn’t have room in their little barn for my four-horse team but when they learned I was working for Wild Goose Bill, their attitude completely changed. They turned their own stock out into the storm and put my horses into the barn. Then I was taken to the house, given a good supper, and they made up a bed for me.
“Mrs. Brown told me why they felt they had to do this for me. ‘This last summer,’ she said, ‘after we moved over here my husband fell sick and for a long time he was unable to do anything. Our supply of provisions got lower and lower until there was almost nothing in the house left to eat and I didn’t know what to do. Then one day very rough looking man came up to the house. I didn’t know who he was but he said he was Wild Goose Bill and that he had heard we had a sick man in the house. He came in and talked with us and soon found out how things stood. He told us that we could have anything we wanted over at his place. We had no money but that didn’t make any difference. We got flour, meat, sugar, beans, and coffee, etc., and after a while my husband got well again and we were on our feet once more. That’s why we will always do anything we can for Wild Goose Bill or any of his outfit.’”
Other men who knew Wild Goose Bill described him as they knew him. Major Gwydir, Indian Agent on the Colville Reservation from 1887 -1890, remembered,
“Tall, gaunt and slightly stooped, invariably wearing a red bandanna knotted loosely around his neck, and a slouch hat… Impulsive and generous, warm in his friendships and bitter in his enmities, quick to anger but ever ready to acknowledge errors and to make reparation — these were the characteristics of William Condon, or as he was familiarly known, Wild Goose Bill.”
Holgar Jurgensen, another acquaintance, said,
“Bill was a very good friend and a very bad enemy. He was not a very large man– I think he weighed about 160 pounds — but he was sinewy and quick. I wouldn’t call Bill a drinking man because he never got drunk — still he used to drink a good deal.”
In 1894 for some reason unrecorded, Bill Condon’s wife, Mary Ann, left him. Bill persuaded a young woman of 25, Mrs. Millie Dunn, whose family had moved into the area, to go to the ferry and look after the housekeeping and his crippled and mentally deficient son, Charlie. Mrs. Dunn had a six year old son, James, by her first marriage which had ended in divorce. At this time she was separated from her second husband and was suing him for divorce. Bill Condon, a man of 60, fell in love with this young woman and proposed that she marry him as soon as her divorce should be granted. But Millie Dunn had no wish to marry old Bill Condon and spend lonely months at the ferry looking after the incompetent Charlie whom she thought to be, with his brain damage, an unfit companion for her own son James. Instead, once Bill Condon had left the ferry for Wilbur, she decamped, going to live with a cowboy, Jack Bratton, in his cabin on the Hollis-King horse ranch. With Bratton in the cabin lived Barton Park, a young man of 19, from Lorene, Washington.
When Bill Condon returned to the ferry to find that Millie Dunn had left him, the desperate love of an old man for a seductive young woman threw him back on that obsolete frontier code he had so long lived by. He wrote out his will, providing for the crippled Charlie and his other two sons. He then started out for Jack Bratton’s cabin accompanied by his friend Bert Woodin who was married to Millie’s sister. Woodin’s wife had gone to Jack Bratton’s cabin to warn her sister that Bill Condon was coming for her, and that he was an impulsive and determined man. She wanted Millie to come back with her to Wilbur where she would be safe.
However, Millie, an equally determined woman, felt that the lovesick Condon would not hurt her and she would be able to talk him out of anything desperate.
Jack Bratton, the cowboy, had none of Millie’s bravery. He left the cabin to hide out until the affair should be concluded. The young Jack Parks, however, stayed, and told Millie Dunn he would protect her. He lay hidden in a curtained bunk with a rifle and revolver and waited. The young boy, James, was playing on the cabin floor.
Condon and Woodin drove up in a cutter. Bill Condon got out at once and burst into the cabin without knocking. He picked up the boy, James and set him on a box, asking him if he would like to come back and live with him, giving the boy some candy. Then he told the boy to get behind the iron cookstove so he wouldn’t get hurt when he went over to talk to Millie Dunn.
Condon asked Millie if she was going to marry him. Millie told him firmly, “No.”
According to the boy, James, Bill Condon then said, “All right, then, damn you, I’ll kill you!” and fired. Millie threw up her arm to protect her face and received the bullet in her forearm. At that moment Jack Parks sprang out of his bunk where he had been concealed, and began firing at Bill Condon. Condon fired back, backing out of the door, but was hit, and fell out into the snow, dead. Parks, badly wounded, went to the door, and with Millie Dunn standing beside him, fired at Bert Woodin who was some distance away, hitting Woodin in the heel. Parks then collapsed, kneeling beside his bunk saying to Millie “I’ve done all in this world I can for you.” He then died, his head on his arms.
Millie Dunn, though wounded in the arm, wrapped up her boy, and carried him on foot through the snow to the nearest neighbours two miles away. From there they were taken to Wilbur where the veterinarian, George Wilson, dressed her wound which healed satisfactorily. Jack Bratton returned after the affray and spent the night in his cabin with the two corpses. When asked by a neighbour if that was not a fearful thing to do, Bratton is said to have replied, “I would rather stay with Condon dead than alive.”
One wishes for a photo of Millie Dunn; she must have been a remarkably captivating woman to cause two men to die for her. Condon’s will left the ferry to his first son George, and the sum of $5.50 to his second son, Willey. The remainder of his estate was to go to the crippled and feeble-minded Charlie with provision that on the death of Charlie, the remainder was to pass to the school fund of Wilbur. When Charlie died four years later the provision that the Condon estate should pass to the School Fund was contested by Charlie’s mother, Mary Ann. The Superior Court ruled in favour of the School Fund but the Washington Supreme Court reversed the ruling, holding that Bill Condon’s will had not specifically stated that Charlie’s inheritance was limited to his lifetime, and for that reason his nearest kin should inherit Charlie’s property. This reversal of what the ex-Midwestern Wilbur residents felt was a good and generous intent, was deeply resented, with the lawyers and a Indian woman being the beneficiaries rather than public education in Lincoln County.