Duwamish pioneer served in Civil War militia

Henry Van Asselt – Image Credit: MOHAI, 1967.4236.1

by Pat Brodin, Tukwila Historical Society

Although the Civil War was under way on the eastern side of the nation which seemed far away from the Pacific Northwest, the conflict had coursed its way through the Washington Territory. Vast numbers of military personnel throughout the West were sent through San Francisco on their way to eastern battlegrounds and with their departures, the territorial forts were left vacant. Acting Gov. Henry McGill delivered a proclamation to form local militia, which was prompted by the May 3, 1861, presidential proclamation from Abraham Lincoln calling for 42,000 additional volunteers to serve for three years.

Acting Gov. McGill’s proclamation calling for the militia of the Territory of Washington was put in place to maintain the “laws and integrity of the National Union.” This produced immediate results at Seattle and among the first to report a company were the Citizens of Port Madison, the Puget Sound Rangers from Thurston County and the Jefferson Union Guards. The King County Rifles association was organized at Seattle on Nov. 19, 1861, under the command of Capt. Hugh McAleer. First lieutenant was R. Davies, second lieutenant J. Webbins, and the sergeants were David Kellogg, Henry Van Asselt, George Benning, and R.H. Beatty. As Clarence Bagley noted in his book, Volume 1, entitled “History of King County” the object described in the call was “a feeling among the people of King County that a military organization among themselves was a matter of importance in these stirring times.”

With Washington Territory’s recent experience in the Indian Wars, legislation was already in effect to establish the formation of militia groups. When the call for volunteers was delivered by Adjutant General Franklin Matthias at Seattle, a local group known as the “King County Rifles” was soon formed. It consisted of 60 men and eight officers, including Duwamish Valley settler Henry Van Asselt as sergeant.

Born in Holland in 1817, Van Asselt had already developed his gun skills at an early age. At 19 he was drafted into the army and served three years in the Dutch Second Battalion of Yagers. Van Asselt proved to be an excellent marksman and spent time hunting on local noble estates before emigrating to America at age 30. Like many newcomers, he made his way along the Oregon Trail, arriving in the Willamette Valley by September 1850 and ventured briefly to the California gold fields. Henry returned to Oregon in the early spring 1851 with Jacob and Samuel Maple, and Luther Collins to join them on their trip north. On May 22, 1851, these men became the first settlers of what became King County. However, Henry remained in Oregon for a few months to recover from an accidental gunshot wound before he could travel. Henry selected land in September 1851 and registered his claim on rich fertile soil near the Duwamish River in what is now Boeing Field.

A colorful gentleman known to many as “Uncle,” Henry Van Asselt died on Dec. 9, 1902, at age 85, making him one of the longest surviving first settlers. The obituary from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer remarked that “the sturdy Hollander cleared his 320 valley acres of its primeval forest of firs, and made it truly blossom with farm products. He was a devout man who in later years spent part of every Sunday at the county jail reading holy writ to the prisoners. It was said of the dead pioneer that his proudest boast was that he had never made an enemy in his life.” Henry was a marksman, a craftsman, a dedicated family man, and one of King County’s great pioneers.

Pat Brodin is the outgoing president of the Tukwila Historical Society. This article originally appeared in the Tukwila Reporter.

Posted 12/13/2013