BY SHAWN BERIT
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
March 8, 2017
From the boat, he could see the trees rising from Admiralty Inlet. The tall pines, the lowland salt marshes, the sandy beaches all beckoned him to come ashore. Then, the trees parted to reveal a prairie on an island. Isaac Ebey would later write to his brother Winfield about Whidbey Island, calling it “almost a paradise of nature.”
Historians can only speculate, but that first view of Whidbey Island by its first European-American resident must have been breathtaking. So many who now call this beautiful island home experienced their first view in a similar way, seeing it from the observation deck of a Washington State ferry.
Ebey’s journey is mirrored in the lives of many of today’s Whidbey Islanders. His story begins in Adair County, Missouri. He and Samual Crocket had heard the siren song of the west and followed the Oregon Trail in search of a new life. Like so many others, the California gold rush lured, but didn’t hold him. After staying in San Francisco only a short time, he journeyed north. Ultimately, he found himself in what would come to be known as Olympia, Washington.
He immediately went about becoming a part of the region by taking a job with the U.S. Customs Service and is credited with naming the city of Olympia in honor of the Olympic Mountains.
At this time, there was virtually no European American settlement north of Olympia. Looking for suitable farm land to settle on, Ebey hired a Native American team to bring him north. He surveyed the coast of Puget Sound along what would become Seattle and farther north. Eventually, in 1850, he settled on Whidbey Island at a place we now call Ebey’s Landing near Coupeville.
Though he was an adventurous explorer, Ebey was also a family man. Like so many who call this island home today, his first priority after laying a claim to land was to bring his family. “The great desire of my heart is, and has been, to get my own and father’s family to this country,” he wrote to his brother in 1851, “If you all were here, I think I could live and die here content.” Those words would be prophetic.
Ebey and his family became the first non-Native people to permanently settle on the island. It was a settlement that continues to this day, and many have followed his path.
What is it that draws people to this island still? Is it the forests, the farmland, the festivals, the people, or maybe a mix of all those things? Is it the fact that, from various locations on the island, you can see the Cascade Mountains to the east, the Olympics to the west, forests and prairies, beaches and sky, and Puget Sound all around? Ebey’s father, Jacob Ebey, built a house at one such location on the bluff overlooking Ebey’s Prairie, and it still stands there today as part of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.
As Isaac Ebey settled into island life, he also became an integral part of the region and the formation of Washington State as we know it. He worked as a customs official, a farmer, a lawyer, and as an elected colonel in the Washington Territorial Volunteer Militia. Colonel Ebey was so respected by those who served under him that they named a fort on an island in the Snohomish River (in Ebey Slough) after him. This was the first location to be called Fort Ebey. The second would be the coastal defense fort built on Whidbey Island’s west side in what is now Fort Ebey State Park.
Ebey also served in the Washington Territorial Legislature, where he was a strong advocate for a separate Washington Territory. In 1852, he sponsored the statute that gave King County its name.
His own name, however, lived on for much longer than he did. In 1857, after an extended time of strained relations with native people from the north, Ebey was murdered at his home by a raiding party from the Kake tribe of Canada. Shot a number of times and beheaded, it is believed his death was in retribution for an attack by the crew of the USS Massachusetts on Kake raiding parties that had been attacking Puget Sound Native American communities. He was 39.
Ebey’s death became the stuff of island legend. He rests next to his first wife, Rebecca, who died of tuberculosis in 1853. They are buried near the Jacob Ebey house in Sunnyside Cemetery.
Today, you can visit Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve to experience a bit of the island’s history. There, you’ll find three state parks, the home of Jacob and Sarah Ebey, their block house, the ferry house built by Isaac’s brother Winfield, and the town of Coupeville. The visitor’s center in Coupeville is a great place to start a visit, as is the administrative office near Jacob and Sarah Ebey’s House.
The legacy of Isaac Ebey lives on, both in places that bear the Ebey name and in the people who still boldly change their lives to find a new home on beautiful Whidbey Island.
Shawn Berit lives near Maxwelton Beach on the south end of Whidbey Island. He freelances as a social media manager for churches and organizations. A father of three and an all-around creative, Shawn paints and draws fantastical scenery, story illustrations, and science fiction concept art. He is a nature photographer, a vocalist wanting to start a band, a science fiction writer working on his first novel, and a television and voiceover actor wishing the island had a radio station. He is also one-half of the Dakota Guys on YouTube and in love with all things Whidbey Island.
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