Editor’s Note: In this series, local historian Sydney Stevens examines the many connections among Pacific County residents — connections with one another and with the past; connections that bind us in special and unexpected ways.
By Sydney Stevens
For the Observer
“Most of the American ancestors I’ve been finding out about had lived in townships (not always right in town) in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Where the John Briscoe family settled is very different. It’s on a lovely, little peninsula with easier access to the ocean and a bay than it is to larger urban centers. I only had to look at a map online to realize that this was a different sort of place!” So remarked Rosemary Peeler of Melbourne, Australia when she arrived in Oysterville last summer.
She was looking for information about her three-times-great-grandparents, John and Lucy Keeler Briscoe. It was her first-ever 8,300-mile journey to the town where her infamous forebear, “the marrying judge,” had lived and worked in the 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s. And it was her first-ever trip to the West Coast of the United States.
Once before she had come to the States on an “ancestor quest,” but to the East Coast. On that first trip back in 2002, Rosemary was looking for information about her great-grandparents, Stephen and Henrietta Hoyt Roberts, who had arrived in Melbourne in 1914. As most genealogists can attest, one thing leads to another and, now, 16 years later she was back — this time on the Long Beach Peninsula to find out about Henrietta’s grandparents (and her own great-great-great-grandparents), the John Briscoes. “Finding out about the Peninsula was the biggest surprise!”
‘Introductions’ to her ancestral Briscoe family were provided by local Community Historian Michael Lemeshko. His recent biography of John Briscoe, The Cantankerous Farmer vs The Ilwaco Railway & Navigation Company and the rest of his neighbors on the Long Beach Peninsula, gives a definitive picture of Briscoe’s life here on the North Beach Peninsula (as it was then called) from the time of his arrival in 1853 until his death in 1901.
During their prearranged meeting, Lemeshko acted as tour guide, showing Rosemary the important places connected with her great-great-great-grandparents’ life here — Briscoe’s 320-acre Donation Land Claim, the whereabouts of the family farm, their homesite in Oysterville, their small, still extant cabin in Long Beach, and the tiny, well-kept Briscoe cemetery, the only Briscoe remnant on the original claim.
As they toured, Lemeshko filled Rosemary in on what he had learned during his research about her ancestor. He told of the family’s arrival in 1853 when their nearest neighbors were James Johnson and J.D. Holman who lived three or four miles away on Baker’s Bay and George Easterbrook who lived on a Donation Land Claim somewhat to the north. Briscoe later wrote that “wild Indians roamed at will, hunting all kinds of game, which was abundant…” Briscoe followed their example and the family “lived the best we could through the following winter on game, fish, clams, elk, deer, and bear.”
Not every family would have stayed under such circumstances but the Briscoes not only stayed, they established a lucrative farm on their land north of present-day Long Beach. Briscoe was ambitious and soon made himself known to the movers and shakers of the Washington Territorial Government. In less than a year after their arrival, Governor Isaac Stevens appointed him Probate Judge, a position he held for eleven years. In addition, he was elected to the Legislature in 1854, 1856, and 1859.
It was just a year after the Briscoe family’s arrival that Oysterville became the first settlement on the bay side of the Peninsula. During the town’s first boom years, men flocked to the oyster beds of Shoalwater Bay, sending for sweethearts and fiancés when they were sure of a firm grip on an oyster patch. Briscoe, the only available official on the weather beach to “do the honors,” soon became famous “as a marrying justice.”
Apparently, Briscoe was also known for his wisdom — at least in the early days of his Peninsula residency. In 1860, Briscoe’s advice to a candidate for the Territorial Legislature was, “Keep your mouth shut and give a knowing smile, and you will soon be reckoned the smartest man in the legislative body.” Upon hearing that story, Rosemary said, “it sounds like advice that could be given these days, as well!”
Lemeshko showed Rosemary where Briscoe had built a fine town house (no longer standing) back in the days that Oysterville was the newly created Pacific County Seat. They looked at some of the oldest homes in the village where, between legislative sessions, Briscoe might have held court “in whatever space was available” as the historical record indicates.
In 1875, the two-story courthouse — the first building paid for with County tax dollars — was built on School Street, just three blocks from Briscoe’s home. From that time forward, the judge could be found during court week presiding over the spacious courtroom on the second floor of the new Pacific County Courthouse.
Oysterville’s 1870 census lists John Briscoe, 57; wife, Lucia [sic] age 53; and three children: Joseph, 21, Burr Pacific, 15, and Ida Grace, 11. A fourth child, John, Jr. died at 18 in 1869 of a fire arms accident. He is buried at the small family gravesite, known as the Briscoe Burying Ground, in north Long Beach. Years later, the lonely little gravesite would contain both young John’s mother and father and perhaps other family members, as well.
It is no wonder that Rosemary did not immediately connect her Australian ancestor, Henrietta Emeline Hoyt, with the Briscoes or with Oysterville. It was all a matter of timing. Henrietta’s mother Catherine Hope was John and Lucy Briscoe’s oldest child. She was born in Connecticut “about 1836” and, by the time the Briscoes were listed in that 1870 Oysterville census, Catherine had married and left home long since. It took quite a bit of sleuthing with LDS genealogy sites for Rosemary to connect the dots.
Briscoe territory: “We call it God’s Country,” says his great-great grandson.
“My family and I will be travelling to Washington to see the land that my grandfather always referred to as ‘God’s Country’…” Abigail Briscoe wrote to Lemeshko. And so, hard on the heels of Rosemary Peeler’s visit, her fourth and fifth cousins, the Glenn Briscoes of Newtown, PA. also visited Oysterville.
With Glenn were his wife, Cathy, and their daughters Abigail (Abby) and Jess — great-great-grandson and great-great-great granddaughters of Judge John and Lucy. The four Pennsylvania Briscoes arrived in Oysterville just a few short days after Rosemary Peeler had returned to Melbourne. “Maybe someday we’ll meet Rosemary,” said Glenn. “She’s a cousin for sure — but I don’t know to what degree or how many times removed. We’d have to figure that out.”
Unlike Rosemary, the Glenn Briscoes have long known about the Long Beach Peninsula and their illustrious forebear, John Briscoe. “My father was born in Montesano,” Glenn said. “Back in the days when a long-distance phone call was a luxury, part of our Christmas tradition was spending some time on the phone with my uncle and aunt who still lived in Montesano,” Glenn said. “My father always spoke with such reverence about Washington. Between that and those yearly phone calls, Washington became someplace that I needed to know more about.”
Glenn first became aware of his great-great grandfather John when his father showed him a copy of Briscoe’s autobiography, written in September 1899, just eighteen months before the family patriarch’s death. In it, Briscoe mentioned his Pilgrim ancestors and that, said Glenn, “made me aware that my family history was a part of the entire history of the country. My dad and I began to plan a trip out to Washington so he could show me some places…”
But, as so often happens, their busy lives got in the way. “After my dad passed in 2004,” Glenn said,” I would occasionally Google ‘John Briscoe,’ but that was the extent of my research for over ten years.” Then, for Christmas 2016, Glenn’s daughter Abby gave him Lemeshko’s book. “I believe she discovered it on the Oysterville Daybook blog. That began the discussion of going on the trip that we never were able to take with my father.”
Abby, correspondent for the group, first contacted Lemeshko in August: “I found your book, The Cantankerous Farmer, shortly after its publication and immediately purchased it for my father as a Christmas gift,” she wrote. “He was thrilled and, frankly, shocked that someone had written a book about John Briscoe!! Your book was an unbelievable find and each member of this East Coast branch of Briscoes has enjoyed learning about our fascinating past… In September, my family and I will be in Washington…”
In Oysterville, the entire Glenn Briscoe family expressed delight at being able to stand on the very property that once belonged to their ancestor judge. They speculated about the date his house and store were built and what other buildings were in the immediate vicinity at that time. And they expressed curiosity about the other Oysterville properties Briscoe had owned. (In his book, Lemeshko wrote: In all, Briscoe purchased over 25 different lots in Oysterville, spanning 35 years from 1860 through 1895.)
“I wonder if they were here when the house just across Division Street was being built?” mused one of the girls about the Espy house, built in 1872. They looked at the composite map of historic Oysterville with interest, noting the other neighbors — J.A. Morehead, John Crellin, Osborne Goulter.
They gazed at the bay, fascinated that in John and Lucy’s time it had been the “main highway” between Oysterville and the rest of the world. They marveled that there were no roads at first — only cart paths, perhaps to the next farm. They asked about the treasure that the oysters fetched — a peach basket filled with tiny bivalves brought a dollar in gold on delivery to a schooner anchored on the tide flats just a stone’s throw from Briscoe’s store. And everything the enterprising storeowner sold to his customers came into Oysterville by schooner from San Francisco in those early days.
The store also served as the post office from 1874 to 1879, and again from 1889 to 1893. Briscoe, his son Burr, and his second wife, Julia, each served several years as Oysterville Postmaster. His name can also be found on the roster of the Pacific County Reserve Rifle Company and he served as the fourth Deputy Sheriff of Pacific County as well a representative to the Territorial legislature, and Probate Judge for Pacific County. He was a busy man. The main occupation, however, of the enterprising Briscoe remained “Farmer” as listed in both the 1860 and 1870 censuses.
Even with so many interests and duties, Briscoe still had plenty of energy left over — energy that seemed focused on stirring up trouble among his business associates and neighbors, according to biographer, Lemeshko. The first case involving him as a litigant was in 1873 when he was sued by Edwin Loomis for $37.36 and, when all was said and done, had to pay that amount, himself, plus court costs. From then on, the Judge actually seemed to enjoy being on the ‘wrong side of the bench’ and appeared to thrive on being party to lawsuit after lawsuit — whether or not he won.
Briscoe’s other great passion was in the acquisition of land. During his years on the Peninsula, he sold numerous lots, blocks, and parcels. Some of his sales netted him thousands of dollars; others, not so much. He was involved in more than 70 land transactions in all — apparently almost half of them in Oysterville.
But those aspects of their distant ancestor’s personality were not on anyone’s mind on that beautiful day in mid-September. The bay sparkled in the sunlight, the Monterey Cypress trees shaded Territory Road, and an eagle worked the meadow to the east of the long-ago Briscoe place. “God’s Country,” Glenn’s dad had said. And Oysterville complied.