OUR FAMILY HERITAGE
By Inez Calhoun Shaffer (written 1960s)

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This narrative is to be a short history of the Firth families. Grandfather (Robert) Firth was the son of Robert Firth and Betsey Cleat Firth of Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Kirkwall was the largest town on Pomona Island, the largest of the group. His father was a blacksmith and also farmed. He was born on this island and lived to be ninety some years of age and had never been off the island. This was also true of the mother. Grandfather went to school and helped with the chores at home and at the neighbors until he was nineteen years of age.

He had dreamed of far off America. At nineteen he went to Edinborough and enlisted with the Hudson's Bay Co. as a seaman and sailed for Victoria, British Columbia. When he arrived there he found the entire settlement living inside a stockade for protection from the Indians. It was necessary to show a pass to get in or out. He became a trusted employee of the firm and after a year or two he farmed for the company.

Vancouver Island was becoming more thickly settled. He farmed at what was known as Fern Hill. He arrived in Victoria in 1851. At the end of six years he asked for and was granted a leave of absence for a year to go back to Scotland for his sweetheart. This sweetheart's name was Jessie Grant, a neighbor whom he had known all his life.

After Robert left for America, she went to Leith, Scotland (a suburb of Edinborough) and learned the shirt‑making trade. She waited for his return. The banns for their marriage were published for three days and then they were married July 26, 1857. They left immediately for America which took a long time. When he got back to Victoria he had been gone eleven months. They had two children born there, the second one was my mother, Lexie Leith, who was born January 31, 1861.

When mother was one year old, Grandfather was sent over to the San Juan Island near Cattle Point to manage the company's holdings there. They ran many sheep and cattle. The holdings consisted of a number of log houses in a hollow square with quite an orchard in the center. This settlement was located on the bluff above a beautiful bay with white sandy beach. The log houses all had fireplaces made of rocks and stones. They had been hauled from the edge of the beach and were put together with sand and clamshells. I do not know what held them together, but they stayed for many, many years. In fact, some of these chimneys are still standing, although the houses have fallen down.


Grandfather lived in one of these houses for several years and had a store in one of them. His diary tells of shipping cattle and sheep to Victoria. It also tells of turning the oats and thrashing, etc. Records show that this farm became quite a productive one.

When grandfather moved over to San Juan Island the dispute over the possession was in full swing. In fact, it lasted from 1859 until 1872. It was finally put up to the German emperor. He decided the majority of the islands belonged to the USA.

Next to the Hudson Bay property to the south was the fortif­ication of the Americans, which has been known as the American camp ever since. When the Pig War started, both English and Americans claimed this was their territory and both were prepared to defend it. When the American shot the pig that had rooted up his potatoes, the English said he would have to go to Victoria to stand trial. He claimed he was an American and on American soil, hence the dispute of many years. British warships anchored off shore and demanded the felon.

While the dispute was going on the American soldiers from Fort Bellingham quietly slipped in. Overnight they threw up a breast works and landed some cannons. In the morning the English warships woke up to see the American flag flying from this fort. They sent for Captain Pickett to go aboard their ship and talk things over. He replied, "If you want to talk to me you can come to my tent." Both sides soon calmed down and decided to wait and not go to war. As a conse­quence, there was joint occupation of the island for thirteen years. It was finally decided to arbitrate and the German emperor drew the boundary line north of the group of islands that left them in possession of the Americans.

The Hudson Bay Company gave their holdings to grandfather and he filed on this farm which included the old fort. He took out his U.S. citizenship papers and became a U.S. citizen. Grandmother and grandfather had two more sons and four daughters born on this farm.

When the soldiers moved away, grandfather moved into Captain Pickett's house and enlarged it. He lived there until his death in 1904. This house would bear description. At first there were only four rooms, each with a fireplace, a very wide hall running through the center, then two more rooms were added with the same kind of hall. Finally, a big kitchen across the entire width of the building was added. There was a step down from the first hall into the second and also one into the kitchen. These halls were wonderful places for us children to run in and finally out the front door and around the big porch on three sides of the house.

The house was painted white and had green shutters. The finish on the inside was eight or ten-inches, hand‑hewed boards finished with an adze so the marks always showed under the paint. The house stood on a slope so one could see for miles with the Straits of Juan De Fuca on one side and a beautiful bay on the other side. On a clear night the lights from Victoria could be seen and they were a good twelve miles away.

All the water for household use was hauled on a wooden sled in two barrels from a spring about a half-mile from the house. What fun it was to ride the empty sled and hold on to barrels down to the spring. It was quite a load for the horses to pull this sled along the ground so we would have to walk back. One would get pretty wet if they had tried to ride as the water would splash.

As children we spent many happy summers on this old farm, picking blackberries which were plentiful, tramping hay in the old Hudson Bay houses used now for storage, hunting eggs, sliding down the dry grass on the sides of the old fort, and wading in the salt water in the beautiful little bay on the place.  

Grandfather was a wonderful man and loved children. How he would chuckle when some of us got into mischief, like my sister Ruth when very small. She got into his onion patch and pulled up all his new onions. He made pets of all the animals, even to the pigs that would stop for him to scratch their back with his heel. He had a pet crow that followed him all over the farm. If the crow (Peter) should be left behind, he would look about and when he spied grandfather coming up the lane would caw and fly down and ride on his shoulder and sometimes on his hat. He also had a pet large Alaskan owl that sat on a perch in the flower garden.

Grandmother was very deaf for years and also very heavy. When I remembered her, she was always sewing or knitting and sat in a sunny corner near one of the fireplaces. She made her boys' suits until they were grown. They also wore scotch caps, similar to our soldierŐs caps. She always left dough in the bowl for us when she baked.

All the Firth children went to a country school two or three miles from their farm. They had quite a remarkable teacher named Bell. He was a small man with a white beard and was their only teacher for years.

In one of the officers' houses next to grandfather's lived a preacher named Weeks. He used to take me with him when he drove to the lighthouse on cattle point to clean the lamp and fill it with kerosene. No electricity in those days.


My mother, Lexie Leith Firth, was almost twenty years old when my father arrived on the island to clerk for a firm (Water­man and Katz) from Port Townsend. He met mother at a fourth of July picnic and fell in love at once. After clerking for some time on the island he left and went to Newcastle, Washington to clerk for the Oregon Improvement Company. He came back to marry mother on September 18, 1881. They were married at home on a Sunday and left for Newcastle the next day. The thrashing crew arrived on Monday and wanted to have a celebration. They wanted the bride and groom to wait over another day, but they had engaged two Indians to take them in a canoe to Victoria to catch a steamer for Seattle. The thrashing crew hid the paddles. They soon produced them as my father said, "If you ever saw a mad Scotchman, grandfather was it." Two Indians, mother and father and their baggage were in that canoe. They left the farm soon after noon and arrived in Victoria about nine that evening, nearly frozen. It was twelve miles across the Straits.

When my father was courting mother he had a pony that he rode whose name was Tam‑O‑Shanter. When grandmother saw that pony appear over the hill she would call, "Lex, here comes Tam‑­0‑Shanter." After they left the island and sold the pony, no one could get it by the Firth Lane.

 

 

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