Candace Wellman ’68
WSU Press: 2017
Clara Tennant Selhameten was born the daughter of Lummi tribal leader in what became Whatcom County, and eventually married John Tennant, the son of a famous Methodist minister around 1859. Tennant established the first permanent farm in the region, on Lummi land. In later years, she and John traveled as missionaries and built many churches. It was clear that the couple were true partners in both spiritual and business matters.
Selhameten’s tale, along with those of three other Native women who married white settlers and military officers, give historian and sociologist Candace Wellman specific examples of cross-cultural marriages in early Whatcom County. Unlike the oft-told stories of white pioneer mothers and mail order brides, these narratives of intermarriage have been hidden from history.
Despite the lack of historical record, marriages between indigenous women and white men were extensive; Wellman discovered that about 90 percent of all marriages in the early years of Whatcom County were cross-cultural.
Caroline Davis Kavanaugh, for example, was a Samish-Swinomish woman who married Lt. Robert Hugh Davis, nephew of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, in 1855. Davis became a deputy sheriff in Whatcom County after leaving the Army, and had a son with Caroline. He returned to Mississippi to fight in the Civil War, and died shortly after serving as a prisoner of war. Caroline then married Irish immigrant James Kavanaugh, and continued to serve as a go-between for the Native tribes and growing white towns for many years.
Wellman also tells the story of Mary Fitzhugh Lear Phillips, a S’Klallam woman who married a territorial justice, then a founder of Wrangell, Alaska, and finally, a Welsh cooper. The fourth woman whose life story is detailed in the book is Nellie Carr Lane from the Sto:lo. She was married for decades to the son of a well-known Massachusetts seafaring family, and joined him in his entrepreneurial activities. He also fought in the court system for years for Nellie’s rights.
The book sheds new light on the crucial role of these and other Coast Salish women who married settlers and military officers in the mid-1800s, and the legacies they left in the far northwest corner of Puget Sound. Even though their contributions weren’t noted in “official” records, they built communities and bridged cultures. Their multiracial children, too, contributed to the region.
As Wellman writes, “They and others possessed the ability to adapt to their environment as well as bring their own values into marriage and new friendships with women of the invading culture…They maintained ties and integrated husbands and children into their own family complexes.”
Wellman, a Bellingham resident and local history consultant, dug through primary sources, genealogy, and family memories over many years to piece together this compelling addition to Northwest history, and to tell the stories of these strong women who became cultural ambassadors and intermediaries between the Native people and the newly-settled white communities.