Early Settlers on the Key Peninsula: The Dawn of the Present

Just nine years after the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854, Isaac Pennypacker Hawk of Olympia filed the first claim on the Key Peninsula.


By the 1850s, six decades after George Vancouver and Peter Puget explored and charted the Pacific Northwest, the geopolitical map of the region had been completely redrawn.

The United States and Britain had agreed to split the territory in northwest America they had jointly occupied since 1818, assigning to the U.S. the country from California to the 49th parallel. The Treaty of Medicine Creek, signed in 1854 between Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens and the tribes of south Puget Sound, stripped those Native populations of their ancestral claims to the land and its waters. And surveyors working for the United States General Land Office had fanned out across America’s new territory, organizing it into a rectangular grid to control and manage its transfer to the anticipated waves of immigrants.

Surveyors were on the Key Peninsula from 1853 to 1858. Although white settlers had made it north to Puget Sound from Oregon by the early 1850s, none were attested on the peninsula, a region described by Vancouver as an “impenetrable wilderness of lofty trees.” The instructions issued to surveyors also required them to document any “Indian towns and wigwams,” but even though a Native village had existed at Minter, no mention of it is made in the surveyors’ notes.

As surveys were completed and approved by the Surveyor General of Oregon, the Land Office opened the land to claims by the public. Settlers could avail themselves of one of four important laws intended to encourage and regulate settlement on public lands, three of which were invoked on the Key Peninsula.

The most popular was the Land Act of 1820, which allowed any citizen of the United States to purchase surveyed public land for $1.25 an acre in cash, roughly $30 in 2024, a process that came to be known as a “cash entry.” The act replaced an earlier law that allowed purchases on credit or installments, which had proved disastrous during economic downturns.

In 1841, to control squatting on surveyed lands, Congress passed the Preemption Act. The law allowed any man or woman who had settled on surveyed public land to buy a tract up to 160 acres at the same price of $1.25 an acre before it was offered to the public.

Then in 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, making it possible for settlers to claim up to 160 acres at the cost only of administrative fees, provided they had lived on it and cultivated the land for a certain period, usually five years. Occasionally settlers converted homestead claims to cash purchases, for reasons that are not generally documented.

Finally, the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 recognized claims on unsurveyed public land in Oregon and Washington Territories settled between 1850 and 1853; the law was later extended to 1855. No donation claims, as they were called, were ever filed on the Key Peninsula.

A large part of the land on the Key Peninsula was first made available to the public in the summer of 1863. In November of that year, 28-year-old Isaac Pennypacker Hawk of Olympia filed the first claim on the peninsula, paying $50 for 40 acres near Minter Creek, at the time known as Huge Creek. Hawk would go on to file for a total of 200 acres in Pierce County in the next few years, singly or with partners, but the size of his portfolio would be dwarfed by what was to come.

Isaac Pennypacker Hawk filed the first land claim on the Key Peninsula in 1863.
Isaac Pennypacker Hawk filed the first land claim on the Key Peninsula in 1863.

In 1864, in a development that would have a profound effect on the history of the Pacific Northwest, Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad, connecting the Great Lakes region to Puget Sound. The NPRR’s western terminus wouldn’t be selected until 1873 when Tacoma was picked over Seattle, but the prospect of eventual growth and the resulting higher demand for lumber was clear from the start.

Large mills like Pope & Talbot (later Puget Mill) in Port Gamble; George Meigs in Port Madison; Seabury L. Mastick in Port Discovery, and Renton & Smith Co. in Port Blakeley took notice. That same year they began purchasing large tracts of public timberland on the shores of Puget Sound; at $1.25 an acre, it was a small investment with enormous return potential.

At first, the companies bought land close to their mills, but over time they had to look at more distant parts of the Sound such as the heavily timbered Key Peninsula, where they started buying large tracts in 1869. Smaller investors like William Pix and Alfred Robertson of Thurston County, Peter Dean of Mason County, and Albert H. Reynolds of Walla Walla County also entered the fray. Reynolds Bay, an earlier name for Dutcher Cove, was named after Albert Reynolds. In 1878 Congress would double the price for public timberland to $2.50 an acre, but by then almost 6,000 of the peninsula’s approximately 40,000 acres were in the hands of lumber concerns and land speculators.

No white settlers are recorded on the Key Peninsula until 1868. In August of that year, Joseph Shettleroe applied for the first home-stead, claiming a 160-acre tract in Lakebay between Bay Lake and the north arm of Filucy Bay. Two months later, in October 1868, English-born Charles Taylor filed his own claim for 144 acres in the uplands on the south side of today’s Taylor Bay.

Joseph Shettleroe’s homestead in Lakebay (top) and Charles Taylor’s on Taylor Bay (lower left).
Joseph Shettleroe’s homestead in Lakebay (top) and Charles Taylor’s on Taylor Bay (lower left).

Settlers did not always file their claims promptly. There is some evidence that Shettleroe and Taylor had settled on their future homesteads by the early 1860s. The news that buyers for the lumber mills were looking for land on the peninsula may have motivated the two men to travel to the land office in Olympia and file their applications to secure their claims.

A few more homesteads were recorded by 1880. That year the U.S. census listed 45 persons in nine households on the peninsula, seven of which were homestead claims totaling 1,120 acres. In addition to Shettleroe and Taylor, the list included the Tiedeman and Creviston families as well as settlers like William T. Rains and Joseph Folker, whose names have been all but forgotten.

The decade that followed would be a demographic watershed for the peninsula and the rest of the territory and future state.

Immigration soared, fueled largely by the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, almost 30 years after construction began. On the 1890 census, the population of the combined Minter, Vaughn, Lakebay, and McNeil Island precincts had grown to 643. There were now 95 homesteads, including three on McNeil Island, for a total of almost 11,500 acres, a more than tenfold increase since 1880.

Demand for land was high. Some settlers, like Carl O. Lorenz in Lakebay in 1885, filed preemption claims for their land rather than a homestead; others bought land from earlier settlers or landowners ready to sell their property after it had been logged. In 1884, for example, William Pix, the land investor, sold 127 acres to George and Lucinda Minter on the bay that would be named after them, and the Ulsh family settled on a 15-acre parcel they bought from Henry Tiedeman on the southeast shore of Lakebay.

Logging would be an important source of revenue for several decades and into the present, but by the end of the 1880s, the Key Peninsula’s transformation into a farming community that would soon be known for its fruit and berry production was well underway. That transformation was facilitated by two significant developments.

Ad for the first steamer service between Tacoma and points on Henderson Bay.
Ad for the first steamer service between Tacoma and points on Henderson Bay.

In the spring of 1884 William Creviston’s son Ira and others filed the first petition with the county for a public highway on the penin- sula. The proposed road ran from the north shore of Taylor Bay to the Kitsap County line at today’s 94th Avenue NW, a distance of 20.5 miles. In the 1920s several sections were included in the Gig Harbor-Longbranch Highway, the precursor to today’s State Route 302-Key Peninsula Highway.

And in the summer of 1884, the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce greenlighted the first steamboat service between that city and pointsin Henderson Bay on the newly built “Bob Irving” after determining that there would be enough business in freight and passengers to make up for the cost. In Lakebay a committee for the Chamber had found a logging camp; Carl Lorenz’s sawmill; the peninsula’s first post office, Henry Tiedeman, postmaster, and about 50 settlers who were said to be growing produce and raising and shipping 200 tons of hay a year. There was “good land nearby open for settlement,” the committee added, and the current settlers were “all anxious for steamer service.”

Barely 30 years since the Treaty of Medicine Creek had pushed the past aside, those developments marked the dawn of the present on the Key Peninsula.