The Hutchinsons of Crab Creek

The railroad tracks at Corfu, looking west. The photograph probably dates from around 1934

I did a Google search for Ben Hutchinson recently, and found out that he’s a sports figure of some repute in Europe. This must be a mistake, or I’m way out of touch with sports…which, come to think of it, I am! The man I’m thinking of passed on years ago.

I was a small boy when I first heard about Ben Hutchinson. My family liked to pile into a pickup or a station wagon and take a drive down what we called the Old Corfu Road, or in grandiose moments, the Old Corfu Highway. Along the way we would pass by the rear of the old Danielson Ranch near the banks of Crab Creek. My dad’s abandoned Model T truck was visible as a hunk of rusted machinery sticking up out of the sagebrush. Once we stopped and played on it, my brothers scrambling to see who could get behind the wheel, clashing levers and pedals, cranking at the steering. Farther down there was an abandoned gravel pit, now heaped with garbage as it was used by locals as an impromptu dump. Sometimes we would set up targets and shoot the .22 into the pit. Eventually we would arrive at the outskirts of Corfu. As the years passed fewer and fewer structures remained there, until even the old two-room red-brick schoolhouse collapsed in a fire. We would stop and stroll the dusty roads, poke around foundations and trash heaps with care, being cautious of black widow spiders and rattlesnakes.

It was at the depot, where his father was collecting a shipment, that Walter caught a glimpse of the tallest man he’d ever seen. Ben stood six feet ten inches tall, so he had trouble finding horses he could ride without dragging his toes through the sand. But he was a cowboy through and through, and so was his little brother. Sam Hutchinson was seven feet four inches tall,

The brothers are always pointed out as some of the earliest white settlers in these parts. They arrived on Crab Creek about 1884, though they’d ridden these hills many times before that. In fact, the Hutchinsons had been wandering generous swatches of the west since 1847, when Robert M. Hutchinson, the father of the two settlers, first crossed the plains to Oregon. He appears to have taken part in the first Fourth of July celebration ever held in Marengo Township, Iowa in that year. Not the least part of the entertainment that day was the whiskey consumed," a local history reports, but it goes on to state that drinking whiskey,was not held in such bad repute in those days as now. Nor is it to be understood that all present indulged in liquor, for there were a number of well-known teetotalers in the crowd." Robert returned to “the States,” as the east was called, by ship around Cape Horn. Then he headed west again in 1849, only to return to Illinois by way of Panama. The third time he followed the Oregon Trail, in 1853, Robert led a train of immigrants and brought his own family along. Ben was born soon after they reached Oregon, in January of 1854. Sam was born in January 1858. Robert wasn’t about to let his boys grow up ignorant. Sam was only around five when he and Ben were sent to Victoria, B.C., to attend St. Louis’ College, a Catholic school. Their education continued in San Jose, California, and eventually in San Francisco, where both of them finished up at St. Mary’s College.

Ben was sent to Kansas to run a ranch his father owned, supervising more than a thousand head of cattle. When his father sold the ranch, Ben drifted north to the Dakotas; then he rode west to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where his father owned another large land grant. Eventually Ben made it back to Oregon, passing through California on his way. Riding across a pass in winter in the southern Oregon mountains, Ben got lost in fog and snow. His right foot suffered frostbite, and half of it had to be amputated. Figuring his cowboy days were over, Ben spent the next few years driving freight in the Palouse and Northern Idaho. But by the early 1880s he was back in the cattle business. As the railroads arrived his freighting business fell off, and he settled near Paha, a community that would be founded in 1889 along the railroad between Ritzville and Lind. According to The History of the Big Bend Country, published in Spokane in 1904, Ben relocated to Cow Creek in 1883, and then to Crab Creek in 1886. Profiles in this volume tended to be by subscription, with the individual providing their own information; so Ben’s history in this volume is evidently the way he remembered his own life.

Sam remained in school until 1873. He learned to survey after his graduation, working on a crew around San Jose until around 1876. Then he joined one of the massive trail drives, pushing a herd into British Columbia to feed the Fraser River miners at Kamloops. He returned to Washington to help drive a herd into southern Oregon. Then he headed back to California for a few weeks during the winter.

It was during this period that the last of the major Indian troubles wracked the Northwest. I have found no evidence that either of the Hutchinson boys were involved in the fight against the Nez Perces, but their father, Robert, accompanied the militia out of Walla Walla. It was the last of several campaigns against Native Americans that he had served in since his arrival in the Oregon Country in 1847. Robert returned to Walla Walla around 1878, to carry on with his freighting business, assisted by both his sons.

Trail drives, freighting, surveyors, military expeditions and scouts had penetrated the interior of the Columbia Plateau by the 1870s. George Lucas established a horse resupply depot in 1869. He settled at Sheep Springs on Cow Creek, where the Mullan Military Road diverged from the route to Fort Colville. Until the railroad was firmly established in the early 1880s, the Hutchinson wagons must have followed all the best routes throughout Eastern Washington, Oregon and Northern Idaho. But competition from the Iron Horse meant a steep decline in the freighting business.

Ben left the business in 1883, settling on Cow Creek to run cattle and horses. In 1884 R. J. Neergaard, later the mayor of Oakesdale, established a wagon road from Ritzville to the part of Douglas County that later became Grant County. That same year, Sam first took out a lease on Section 16, Township 16, Range 28 West, on Lower Crab Creek where today’s Hutchinson Lake lies. Water from the creek and rich bunchgrass prairies on the surrounding plains and hills provided plenty of potential for livestock. Sam established a herd of horses that by the turn of the century numbered around 600 head. Ben followed his brother to Crab Creek in 1886, taking up his claim in the canyon below Saddle Mountain. His 1904 biographical sketch reports that “He now owns over a thousand horses, a large herd of thoroughbred cattle, and farms three hundred and twenty acres of land. He raises an average of 350 tons of hay yearly.”

Sam and Ben dragged driftwood logs for miles across the desert from Beverly to near Corfu, where Ben built this tiny cabin around 1886. This view was taken in 1971 on the Neil Rasor ranch during a Danielson family tour.

But by the time Sam and Ben published their biographies in The History of the Big Bend Country, days were numbered for large herds of stock on Lower Crab Creek. Oddly, it is a newspaper article from Reading, Pennsylvania, published in 1906, that describes the final roundup of the herds of wild horses along the creek. The roundup was prompted by new ranchers settling along the creek and around Moses Lake. Their homes and fields were confined behind barbed wire fences, “the danger of injury to the range horses became every day more threatening.” Visions of the profits the horses could bring in eastern markets convinced the open range ranchers to join in the drive. I will post a transcript of the article about this roundup as my next entry.

Ben rode his saddle horse Blueberry at the 1916 Ephrata rodeo. It was a challenge finding a horse that kept his feet from dragging on the ground.

Sam Hutchinson married in 1891 and moved with his family to a home in Lind. He took up law enforcement for a time, serving on the Spokane police force, as marshal of the city of Yakima, and Sheriff of Yakima County. He rounded out his political career as Clerk for Adams County. Ben, too, became a lawman, although not by choice. According to his biography, “he has held the office of constable of his precinct, though against his will, he being compelled to qualify for the office on account of a wager.” Ben never married, but he shared his home with a large bull snake that lived in his oven. The rider that killed the snake thought he was doing Ben a favor, but ended up leaving his employment over the matter.

The Ritzville Journal Times carried Sam’s obituary on January 12, 1922. “Samuel Hutchinson, formerly clerk of Adams county, died at Yakima on January 4th. He had been ill for several weeks with pneumonia. Mr. Hutchinson was a pioneer of the west, settling first in the Crab Creek country. He was a noted stockman and rode the range in the early day. For two years he was marshal of this city, and for four years was on the Spokane police force. He was seven feet in height and weighed 200 pounds so was famous for his strength and stature. He removed to Yakima county a good many years ago, first to a ranch near Sunnyside. Then he served as sheriff of Yakima county.”

When Ben died in 1929, they buried him in the pioneer’s cemetery at Pleasant Valley, overlooking the rangeland where he raised his stock. His tombstone wasn’t laid until the Grant County Historical Society decided to place a marker. My father attended the ceremony. The marker puts light-hearted words in Ben’s mouth: “I was young when I came here. Have lived with nature without a fear. We grew old and die and meet our end and from this earth we must ascend. I am prepared, said wise ‘Old Ben’, Happy to have lived my three score n ten.” A photograph of Ben on Blueberry was mounted on the stone, but it was yanked off by vandals in 1975, leaving an ugly crater where it used to be.


5 responses to “The Hutchinsons of Crab Creek

  1. Your photo of Corfu contains no catenary for electric locomotives, so it was taken prior to 1919.


  2. What a dandy photo of Ben on horseback. I sent it down to some people I know in Nevada that have always said there were no buckaroos in Washington, and they loved the photo. Ben is pure buckaroo from his center-fire saddle with eagle-bill tapaderos to his wooly chaps, silver bit, romal-reins, mecate, and hat. The dang cowboy books have gotten it wrong. Washington State was prime horse country early on and there were buckaroos here. Plenty of record of it if the book people had looked. Texans too. My gt granddad came to Washington Territory from Texas in 1887 and started a horse ranch with his 5 sons. Washington has been ignored for far too long by the cowboy and buckaroo books. Thank God people like you are writing stories and making them available.

  3. Ben’s horse’s name was Huckleberry.

  4. Very interesting I enjoy these kinds of artcles

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