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General Pickett, CSA, and his half-breed son.

I love this story. Some stories are more rich than what the imagination has the capacity to produce. The love affair between Peter Abelard, the philosopher who surgically swatted away at God as if He was a gadfly, who wrote some of the world’s best love poems, and his gifted student, Heloise, is one such. The story of George E. Pickett in Washington Territory is another. A story involving a young infantry captain, his second wife, and their son.

Pickett served well in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He distinguished himself particularly at the Battle of Chapultepec when he carried the flag, the colors, over the castle’s parapet, fought his way through, planted it on the palace’s roof, signaling the take down of the enemy. Some say he wasn’t a bright fellow. True enough he graduated last in his class at West Point. Other cadets remembered him as being a prankster, mischievous even, a trait that speaks more of someone bored, not dim witted. Seems he was also something of a dandy and given to smartly appointed uniforms. By account he had a way of inspiring men under his command, something he did on more than a few battle-occasions. My reading of his character also suggests that women fascinated him at least as much as did battle.

After the Mexican-American War he was made a first lieutenant, garrisoned in south Texas, then he was assigned to Fort Monroe in Virginia. I think it was in Texas when he married his first wife, one Sally Harrison Minge, a descendent of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Ten months later she died in childbirth. I can find no mention of a child surviving, which is kind of important to my story. No mention, even, of the child’s gender. I assume the child did not survive, an assumption grounded in Pickett’s subsequent treatment of another issue, presumably his first born son.

In 1854 relations between white folk and Indians got bad in Washington territory. Murderously bad. Atrocities committed by both sides. Revisionists aside, Native Americans were prone to total warfare. What occurred on the battle field getting transported to villages. Women, children, livestock killed. The lucky few taken into slavery, taken possession of. By 1854 the sense of dispossession in the territory was general among Native Americans, and on both sides of the Cascade Mts divide. What occurred on the east side of the divide better known. What occurred on the west side not so well known. It was bad enough so that a naval warship, the Decatur, was sent from a port in Hawaii to Seattle’s Eliot Bay in defense. That ship kind of saved Seattle’s early settlement. It brought down a bombardment on the attacking Indians who grossly outnumbered the settlers. But then so did Chief Seattle himself, a proven leader, warrior, and consummate orator, who persuaded thousands of warriors not to engage.

In 1855 Captain Pickett was sent to Washington Territory. He was assigned to Fort Steilacoom on Puget Sound, immediately south of the now town of Tacoma. From Bellingham word came down asking for Army presence. I think it’s right that in 1855 Bellingham Bay was inhabited by less than 50 white souls, certainly no more than 100. As the saying goes, they were a’feared. August 26, 1856 Pickett in command of 68 men from Company D, Ninth Infantry, arrived at Bellingham Bay.

Pickett and his men were not called upon, not “occasioned”, to address any hostilities in that area of the territory: The Fourth Corner, as the northwest corner of the state is called. The local, dominant tribe, the Lummi Nation, a people of the Sound, generally okay with the white presence which, so far, was not felt as a burden. By 1856 the troubles were all but over, treaties signed between most of the Nations and Isaac Stevens, the territory’s first governor. Still, however, stories of neighboring troubles kept the early settlers on edge. Pickett and his men first set about building Fort Bellingham. Situated on the north side of the bay, on a bluff, it was a palisaded enclosure of about 215 square feet with two blockhouses; one in the southwest corner, the other to the northeast. Blockhouses double storyed, second storey with loopholes or firing slits. With the fort constructed, Pickett put his men to other tasks. They built roads, one of which, Military Road, is in use today. It starts out from the bay, heads due north to Canada. And they built the captain a house, which also still stands, being the oldest structure in the town. When I lived in the area, Whatcom Co., I tried my damndest to find some trace of Fort Bellingham. Spent hours on the north side of the bay, down each and every road. No sign of it. But the situation was commanding. Pickett had a good eye for positioning a defense. All but one side exposed, the northeast. Pickett’s house also well situated. High above the bay, near to where Whatcom creek spills out in a waterfall. So this dim-witted man, or as Civil War experts would have him be, in less than four years built a highly defensible redoubt, built a house for his new bride, built roads; especially keeping in mind that any road building in the area would have been through and into primordial forests of old growth. I have no information that Pickett had with him an engineer in his Bellingham years of military service. I am going to hazard and say he got something of engineering value out of his West Point education.

One account has it, my primary source of information, that Pickett first met, or saw, the girl who would become his second wife up in Semiahmoo, a bay on the Washington coast touching the Canadian border. That part of Canada then under the governance of the Hudson Bay Company. My primary source, a historian local to the area and writing of things she had heard first hand as a child, says the woman’s name is lost to history. Another source says her name would translate as Morning Mist. If I had a say in the matter I would declare her name was Sun Dog. I have never seen, been stopped by, so many prismatic, rainbow arcs in the sky as I saw in the years I lived in Whatcom Co. By report Morning Mist was the daughter of a chieftain of a northern tribe come down in trading. She was of the Haida people. A seafaring, whaling, and warrior people now best known for their totemic, sacred and ritual sculptures in wood. The area surrounding Fort Bellingham was considered a neutral zone by local Native Americans, a place for commerce. The lingua franca, even that far north, for purposes of commerce and trade among the many languages was Chinook. A language the dim witted Pickett spoke. The short of the story is that Pickett saw Morning Mist a second time in Bellingham Bay, put his charms on her, won her father’s approval, and married her. For good measure he married her twice. Once in accordance with his white man’s cultural rituals, at the time called the “Boston Way,” and once in accordance with her “tribal ceremonials”, the gloved right hand of the bride clasped in the gloved right hand of the bridegroom. Pause on that for a moment, my readers. George E. Pickett, a Virginian, son of a plantation owning family, looking to sanctify his marriage according to his bride’s traditional rules. As events will show it is pretty certain to me that his affection for Morning Mist was both real and demonstrated.

It is likely worth noting that not yet, in Washington Territory, were Indians considered sub-human. That would come within a generation. Worth noting also that white women were not much around. I sometimes wonder. When the women folk came did that tame unruly men, civilize, domesticate them, or did it bring about the subjugation of a people some parlor queen would not want crossing her threshold? My question amounts to this: To what extent are white women also responsible for the more overt acts of Native American genocide white men are held responsible for? It’s that phrase, the “Boston Way”, that brings my question around to mind.

Captain George E. Pickett, age 32, and Morning Mist, also known as the “Indian Princess”, met and married in either 1856 or 1857. Year not clear to me. What is as certain as the record can be is that their son was born on 31 December, 1857, born in the house Pickett had built for his bride. The boy was named James Tilton Pickett, named after a friend of his father’s, Major James Tilton. Within months, and for the second time in his life, Pickett’s wife was dead. This time to typhoid fever. Here the story branches.

The San Juan Islands archipelago back then was contested territory between the British and the Americans. Rightly so. Whoever owned those islands commanded Puget Sound, to the south, and could impact shipping into the Inside Passage to the north. Rich fisheries not a small consideration as well. Transcontinentally the 49th Parallel served as the boundary between America and Canada until it reached the San Juan archipelago where territorial claims got unclear. On San Juan Island itself some American farmer, and recent gold mine prospector down from the Frazer River gold rush, got pissed off at a pig that kept invading his garden. He shot the sus dead. But it was owned by a man from the Canadian side. The Hudson Bay Company got involved. American farmer agreed to pay for the pig’s worth. Hudson Bay Company wanted criminal charges still, an arrest. Suddenly Washington and London got involved and an international incident was at hand. On 26 July, 1859 Captain Pickett was dispatched to establish an American military presence on San Juan Island. The British navy and marines soon arrived with a far superior force of men and guns. Pickett’s camp, known as the American Camp, was on the southern most end of the island. It sits high above the Sound on a promontory, “a wind swept meadow, suitable for military barrages against shipping,” well chosen as a defensible position. The British Camp, when established, was on the northwest corner of island, in a cove and, having visited both camps, I think chosen more for the protection it could give from the North Pacific weather extremes. The British first arrived with two steamers, one a thirty-gun frigate, “450 marines and some 180 sappers and miners.” Their intention was both to confront the American Camp and to keep reinforcements from Olympia from arriving. In a letter addressed to his Regimental Commander, Captain Pickett wrote, “I do not know that any actual collision will take place, but it is not comfortable to be lying within range of a couple of steamers.” The territorial conflict became known as the “Pig Episode.” Dispute would keep in place, with the two camps occupied, until 21 October, 1872, when an arbitration panel in Geneva created by the Kaiser William I of Germany resolved the matter in the favor of the U.S. The 49th Parallel would be kept to as far west as the Haro Straits where the boundary would turn south as far as the Straits of Juan de Fuca before turning west to the Pacific. As the American garrison’s first commander, Pickett well understood that, were it to come, the first exchange would amount to suicide.

Also in 1859 Pickett realized that his son, Jimmie, needed a more suitable domestic situation than he could give the boy. The San Juan Island situation was vexing, with settlers on both sides wanting war. Bellingham could still be generously called a town. It is unclear to me how Pickett made the arrangement, possibly through his friend, Major James Tilton, living in Olympia, but he found a couple in Mason Co., in the South Sound, willing to take in Jimmie Pickett. Mr. and Mrs. William Collins. By steamer the infant boy was sent south. With war declared between the Union and the Confederate states, by the summer of 1861, Captain Pickett resigned his commission, returned to Virginia by way of the Pacific Ocean as far as the Panama Isthmus, crossing, then sailing again for home. Upthread I signal something huge in George E. Pickett. He was a valiant warrior, a good commander who inspired his men, and, by all accounts, a steady character both in battle and regular life. But then there is his demonstrated love for his son, his first born I think, a half-breed boy who, in Pickett’s day would have been, was, looked down upon by an emerging American civilization.

The general saw to Jimmie’s maintenance. He also kept in correspondence, as would his third wife. In the war years he managed to get money through to Tilton, in U.S. currency, who might have been named the boy’s legal guardian, and who got the money to the Collins couple. Even after Mr. Collins died and Mrs. Collins married again there was the communication. And not just money. Shoes, pencils, books, yards of cloth for his clothing, threads, and buttons. Pickett also made sure that, in the event of his death in battle, his favorite aunt in Virginia would see to his son’s needs. The last huge gesture I fittingly save for last.

Jimmie’s childhood proved fortunate, if not actually graced. Mrs. Collins loved him as if he was her own, maybe all the more so, since, she had no other children. Her husbands were good to the boy. Tilton proved always solicitous, as if the child was his own. Early on Jimmie showed he was artistically inclined. The inclination encouraged and abetted. As a grown man he would become the region’s first recognized illustrator. He was educated in Olympia at the, then, Union Academy. He went on to study art in San Francisco. As a child he did not much care for the company and games of other boys. He preferred the company and conversation of girls. More than that, and the predilection grew the older he became, he preferred to keep to himself, to his art paper, pencils, chalks. If he didn’t have paper at hand, which was mostly the case, he found “chunks of charcoal from burnt logs and drew on the side of the barn and on all the smooth split cedar boards he could find.” When he became a man, and after his training, Jimmie worked as an illustrator, first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and then for the Portland Oregonian.

It is unclear to me why but, as if by nature, Jimmie was melancholic in temperament. In this he was certainly not his father’s son. The record is never very keen on the interstices between places and events. My primary source would have it that Jimmie’s half-breed blood made of him a stranger in a strange land, looked down upon by white folk. Maybe so. Maybe also Jimmie was gay, making him still a stranger in a strange and unfriendly land. Maybe in the womb his mother’s could-have-been sadness nurtured him. I’m looking at two photographs of Jimmie Pickett. The first taken when he was three years old. The second taken at the age of thirty. In the first he is a warrior boy, black hair, resolutely staring down the camera. In the second a young man unable, or unwilling, to meet the camera’s eye. I don’t know. One of his letters to Mrs. Collins, written while travelling along the Oregon coast I think, is almost a specimen of cheerful, informative, touring, chattiness. But not quite. Read carefully enough and what comes through is loneliness. He needs his adoptive mother to know where he will be next, implicitly, I think, hoping to arrive there and a letter from her waiting for him.

James Tilton Pickett died in Portland from a combination of typhoid fever and tuberculosis in 1889 at the age of thirty-one. Getting the news of his illness, Mrs. Collins travelled from the South Puget Sound to Portland, by water of course, but arriving too late. In his boarding house room she found his effects, principal among them being a red leather trunk that had belonged to Jimmie’s Haida mother and that contained so many things his father, General Pickett, had sent him over the years. What it did not contain, what it could not have contained, was an item the general had sent him after the war. Between the time of Jimmie’s death and his adoptive mother’s arrival someone, some son of a !@#$, some material slave, broke into Jimmie’s room and stole the General’s saber he had worn, raised above his Division at Cemetery Ridge. I figure the general had wanted his son, maybe his first born, to know two things. That he himself, the general, had been an honorable soldier, and that he, Jimmie’s father, honored his son.

General George E. Pickett predeceased Jimmie. He died in 1875, aged 50. He died a broken man. Invited by a governor of Egypt to become a general in that particular army, he refused. His reasoning amounting to this: he could only lead men into battle in the name of his country. I don’t think the Civil War broke Pickett. I think Robert E. Lee broke him down, broke him good. Pickett was a warrior, damn good soldier, knew how to husband his men. Pickett got blamed, still is, for the charge up Cemetery Ridge that bears his name. At around 2 P.M. on 3 July, 1863. It was General Lee who insisted on the charge. His blood was up, Longstreet would later say. It was Pickett who believed too much in “Marse.” Lost to him his rebel Division.

Some stories are such they get to be told twice. If the story teller is cunning enough, devious enough, he’ll tell it in a different trope.

To Sacred Son
(Jimmie Tilton Pickett, 1857 – 1889)

In the boy bloom
Jimmie Pickett painted sky looms,
son of the soldier, darling to
his high born Haida mother who
in cedar bent boat bringing girl
to gentleman warrior where Bellingham Bay
beached inside fertile shadow line of
hemlock pennant boughs, and meeting where
love mingled near Whatcom creek whose
water fast falls.

But Jimmie whose mother soon gone to walk
wetland death between island avenues,
with father too whose name then called
in fire and flame of Southern siege.
Too soon, too soon the berry boy alone,
bundled by the inland sea,
carried down to Shelton way and raised in
love’s desire Jimmie inspired just as he
always moved to love whomever he graced
in young life’s space.

Jimmie darling, gentle Jimmie,
the school boy soon leaving alone to draw,
to paint scenes he saw from inside out from
the stilling swan’s eye stare,
while the great war raged and line upon
saw toothed line of settler came
and robber barons cut abstract the continent.
Jimmie Pickett who painted
while hemlock hills were cleared and
restive labor sold the sister soul,
Jimmie Pickett who painted.

Somewhere maybe are letter and sword,
one telling of sea voyage, of overplus swells,
of spar and mast and white sail.
It must be where Jimmie saw his
soul in upperwell, the salmon home where
his high born mother was gone.
And the sword, the tempered sun blade
Jimmie’s father the general raised over the
long walk and deadly grade of Cemetary Ridge.

With sword then sent to son,
father’s honor packed overland to first born,
but Jimmie dying young, coughing up
Portland’s industrial blood and
the sacred family shamed when some
broker, some material slave who stole into
the breathless boy’s rented room and
stole away carrying high blade.

And Jimmie Pickett who holds here still,
who lowers near in wet winter field,
the swan white boy, the sacred son
holding close, holding close.

(my primary source is a local history of the Pacific Northwest’s “The Fourth Corner” written by Lelah Jackson Edson; 1951.

Sep/1/2013, 10:10 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
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Re: General Pickett, CSA, and his half-breed son.

Having just posted my story involving George E. Pickett, Morning Mist, and Jimmie, some thoughts come to mind.

My poem was written almost 20 years ago, in or about 1995, not long after I had read an account of Pickett's time in Washington Territory. I remember. I remember being struck by a kind of sacred marriage occurring between the young captain warrior and his "Indian princess", and with a beautiful boy their issue. Thus the title of my poem. Something else. I've now made an on line search, found images of Jimmie, found a couple of his paintings. Not sure why any of this matters to me. Just know it does. Jimmie lived. Jimmie was an artist who painted and drew in the same way a baby breathes, in order to stay alive. Pickett not only loved the boy, he honored his first born son. It's the gift of the sword, as base, instinctual, tribal as it gets. The handing down was sacral. The General would have another son by his third wife. George Jr. But the sword he sent to his first-born. Jimmie's half-breed blood didn't matter to the Virginian.

Something else too. Seems there are competing accounts involving Jimmie's birth, how he was conveniently dispatched so that Pickett could go back East unencumbered by a boy not entirely white. Maybe so. But how, then, to account for the material support sent to the boy. How, especially, to account for that sword of honor sent to Jimmie? No father's gift could have signalled as much. And why did Pickett's third wife, La Salle by name, who had never seen him, had cause to treat him as a competitor to property rights, keep in touch with Jimmie even after the General was dead?

When I think about the story, if just in the abstract, I'm mind-blown by the story lines Hollywood misses out on.


Last edited by Terreson, Sep/2/2013, 1:46 am
Sep/2/2013, 12:50 am Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
Christine98 Profile
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Re: General Pickett, CSA, and his half-breed son.

Fascinating story, tere. A lot of father and son threads; the father's loyalty to his own son--also his physical absence which could be experienced as abandonment--and the betrayal of the son by his (surrogate) father, General Lee--although Lee doesn't blame Pickett in your telling, just sends him on a doomed mission, betraying his faith...

and that aint even the half of it!

Thanks for the field note,

Sep/2/2013, 8:37 am Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
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Re: General Pickett, CSA, and his half-breed son.

Excellent thought, Chris. I hadn't looked at the case in that way. Thanks.

Sep/2/2013, 1:38 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
St Frantic Profile
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Re: General Pickett, CSA, and his half-breed son.

What a tale! Love your telling, too.

Refreshing to read a history not written by the victors...more truth in the stories buried (and often buried for their very honesty it seems to me.) Local history, more pulp, less filters.
Jul/8/2014, 10:09 am Link to this post Send Email to St Frantic   Send PM to St Frantic Blog
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Re: General Pickett, CSA, and his half-breed son.

Thank you, Frantic. You occassioned me to read it again. Kind of got a catch in my throat. I had forgotten the story, as is a bad habit of mine.

Jul/13/2014, 3:09 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson

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