THE GENERAL'S SECOND FAMILY: THE ONE THAT HISTORY FORGOT

By Martha M. Boltz
Special to The Washington Times (reproduced with permission)

[©2001 by Martha M. Boltz. All right reserved. May not be reproduced without express permission of the author.]

James Tilton Pickett - age 18

James Tilton Pickett (age 18)

 
 

Captain George E. Pickett of the U.S. Army was sent to the Northwest Territory to keep peace between the Americans living there and the non-friendly Indians. In addition he was there to protect the local Indian groups, some of whom even served in the area militia, against the marauding tribes from the North. Peace keeping took on an added dimension, although few remember that he fell in love and married an Indian maiden. Or that they had a son.

Historians writing about Pickett, the Confederate General, mention his first wife, Sally Harrison Steward Minge, their brief marriage ending with her death, and Sallie Ann ("LaSalle") Corbell, his third wife, who survived him both in life and in numerous writings. Little is said about the second wife who he married during his years in Washington state, or about their son.

The "Little Indian Girl"

They met when Pickett visited Semiahmoo Bay, now the town of Blaine, Washington, on a survey trip. One writer pictures the village being overrun by Pickett's soldiers, the young girl meeting Pickett while returning with a jug of water for her father; another says it happened during a treaty discussion with her father, who, if not a tribal chief, was an influential member.

There is no substantiation of either meeting. And Pickett was still mourning the loss of his first wife at the time.

Since she was a young girl of the Kaigani Haidas living at Semiahmoo, little definitive genealogical proof exists. Writers of the time and slim documentary evidence produce a remarkable picture of their relationship and most importantly, of their son.

Her name was said to be Sâkis Tiigang, meaning "mist lying down" in the Haida language, or "Morning Mist." While actual research is difficult, Gen. Pickett's great grandson, Christiancy Pickett, confirmed before his death in 1999 that older relatives acknowledged that as her name, and ensuing generations accept its accuracy. As he said, "we accepted her as one of the historical family; she's one of us." In attitudes typical of the time, she was referred to as the daughter of a chief, thus identified as a princess. Both are probably a slight stretch of the actual truth. Local indigenous Indians did not use those terms and had difficulty comprehending what the white settlers were talking about.

Relationships With Indian Women

Pickett had been posted to Ft. Bellingham with the sixty-eight men of Company "D", Ninth Infantry, near the Canadian border, Indian tribes living on both sides. Since the days of Hudson Bay trappers and hunters, relationships with Indian girls had become more numerous. Several writers indicate that the men frequently entered into sham marriages for a night, a week, or a month, then left and never returned, unaware (and uncaring) of the resulting children. To the Indian families, these had been presumed to be permanent liaisons, and they found such treatment unacceptable.

By contrast, it appears Pickett required his men to go through a marriage ceremony indicating commitment. Confederate President Jefferson Davis' nephew, Robert H. Davis, had married a Swinomish woman, producing a son, Sam Davis. And supposedly Pickett's good friend, Sam Grant, had also entered into such a marriage several years prior during a posting to Oregon; his wife chose to go by her English name of Caroline.

Marriages between the soldiers and Indian upper class women existed as valid relationships; the mores of the Native Americans of that era precluded the girls' even being alone with these men unless their fathers and grandfathers saw a marriage ceremony occurring. In 1879 Chief Justice Roger Greene of the Washington Territorial Supreme Court declared Tribal Custom Marriages to be as legal as any other kind. His ruling negated the idea that Americans would recognize no marriages in cultures around the world but their own. While later writers may discount Pickett's marriage to Morning Mist, his devotion to her remains unquestioned.

Married Twice

 

The white gloves worn by George Pickett and Morning Mist at their Haida marriage; now in the Washington Capitol Museum, Olympia, WA.

 

It appears that they were married twice: first, in a traditional Haida ceremony. Again there is no definitive proof, and the story that the bride and groom each wore one white glove, their joined gloved hands symbolizing the marriage union, may well be apocryphal. Tribal custom ceremonies as late as the early 1900's seemed to involve an exchange of goods as well as obligations. It is possible that Pickett used the gloves in lieu of exchanging wedding rings, or it may have been a carry-over of an old West Point tradition. The gloves obviously held some deep meaning for him, since they were packed in the little red chest Morning Mist had brought with her. Afterward, they were married in the "Boston" manner in a more traditional ceremony, which took place in the home of a prominent individual in the community, sometime in 1856. The wedding site was probably the home of Edward and Theresa Eldridge, a local businessman, founder of the first school, and in general a trend setter in the early years of the new town.

Pickett had a small house built for his new bride at 910 Bancroft Street in Bellingham, today maintained as a tourist attraction by the Whatcom (WA) County Daughters of the Pioneers. The first house built in Bellingham, this modest frame house consisted of a main portion 25 feet long and 15 feet wide, with an upper level; it was heated by a stick and mud fireplace.

Jimmie Is Born

On December 31, 1857 James Tilton Pickett was born, named in honor of Pickett's good friend, Major James Tilton. The young mother never fully recovered from a difficult delivery. Pickett summoned his own physician, Lt. George Suckley, for assistance but he did not arrive in time, and she died within weeks.

Jimmie at age 3

Jimmie at age 3

 
 

Pickett was inconsolable with grief; he had loved her deeply and she had given him his first son. And he had put down roots in the beautiful country of the vast Northwest where he intended to remain.

Four years passed, during which he cared for young Jimmie. When he was assigned elsewhere for active duty, the child was apparently sent to stay with his Indian grandmother, or may have been cared for by local women. Then came the fall of Ft. Sumter, and Pickett faced a dilemma. He could stay in Washington state with his son and ignore the coming invasion, or return to Virginia joining his friends to defend his state.

The Choice is Made

While formal miscegenation laws were not yet enacted, old line Virginians would not accept a child of mixed race; Jimmie could never hope to grow up in Old Dominion society with his background. Doubtless Pickett agonized over the decision, but there was no escaping devotion to his original home.

Taking the only course open to him, he sent the the boy to Catherine and William Collins, local friends he had met earlier, whom he considered substantial citizens. The childless couple agreed to take care of Jimmie under the supervision of Pickett's friend, James Tilton.

His son's welfare assured, Pickett left for Virginia; he would never see his little boy again, even though a visit with friends in Olympia on the way back to Virginia put him within twenty miles of where the boy was living. Perhaps it would have been too painful. He did provide for his son financially, forwarding periodic sums of money to Tilton to be given to the Collins family for the next ten years, as well as gifts.

Mystery of the Missing Trunk

He kept in contact with the Collins family through Tilton, and, vicariously, with his son. He left Jimmie his official commission in the U.S. Army as well as a Bible, containing a letter written about Morning Mist, so that he would not forget the mother he could never know. The writing on the Bible's fly leaf states "May the memory of your mother always remain dear. Your father, George E. Pickett", strong evidence that Pickett wanted to provide reassurance of his son's legitimacy. A lock of the boy's hair was also in the Bible; with it were the two white gloves evidently worn as some part of a wedding ceremony.

 

The red camphorwood tea chest in which all of Jimmie's belongings were placed when he was brought to live with the Collins family. Now in the Washington Capitol Museum, Olympia, WA.

 
These items were packed carefully in a red, leather trimmed trunk, which Morning Mist had brought with her from "Russian America". It was typical of the Chinese tea chests brought to north coast Indians by Russian trappers to trade with the settlers. In it later would go the little red and white calico dress he wore when he was brought to the Collins family by his grandmother, and some of the boy's art work and poetry.

It also would contain some 13 letters written to him by his stepmother, LaSalle Pickett, and at least 18 written to him by his devoted foster mother, Catherine Collins. It seems the boy's entire family legacy was contained in the red camphor wood trunk studded with brass nails, which initially disappeared. Archie Binns, an author and former Scripps-Howard newspaper writer in the Washington DC area, was one of the more tenacious researchers on this early Pickett family, and scoured the entire country in an unsuccessful effort to find the missing trunk. Unfortunately, since Binns was a writer and novelist rather than an active historian, many of the assumptions and beliefs proposed in his writings have assumed the status of fact to later readers. It becomes difficult to separate fanciful fiction from absolute fact.

The Loner Who Painted

Jimmie Pickett was said to be a painfully shy child, who hid in his room when the Collinses entertained friends. He had few friends, always keeping alive the fantasy that one day he would be invited to join his distinguished Virginia family. This never happened. He buried himself in art, which became a lonely little boy's main interest.

Mrs. Collins (later Mrs. Walters) said that "he wanted to draw nearly all the time. In those days there were few pencils and very little paper. So the boy used chunks of charcoal from the burned logs and drew on the side of the barn and on all the smooth split cedar boards he could find. When he wished to color a picture, he used the juices from berries and leaves; he had inherited this gift from both his father and mother."

School at Olympia

James Tilton Pickett - age 20

Jimmie Pickett at age 20

   
 

The family felt this talent should be developed, saving funds to send him to Union Academy in Olympia, Washington in the fall of 1876 at the age of nineteen. He was a good student, though his diary reflected concern that his grades were not high enough. However, documentation indicates grades of Physiology, 98%; Grammar, 100%; English Literature, 90%; Arithmetic, 100%; and Philosophy, 99%.

His artistic work indicated obvious talent, especially with nature subjects: birds, mountain and seascapes. Recognizing this, his instructors put him to work giving regular instruction in design to younger pupils at the Academy, and teaching drawing and penmanship to primary grade students.

During the three terms at Union Academy, he spent his spare time drawing scenes on the campus, other students, ships and steamers he saw and landscapes around Olympia. He once sat for hours sketching a particularly scenic area at Tumwater Falls, unaware that the tide was gradually rising around the large rock which was his vantage point. He had to wade through the chilly water to get back to shore.

The Pickett Brothers Meet

Later he attended an art school in California and during these art school days, George E. Pickett, Jr., his half brother, came west to visit him. Sallie Ann, now known as LaSalle, had intended accompanying him, but was prevented by illness. No one knows what transpired, but it is thought that George, Jr. must have exhibited the typical Southerner's contempt for someone of mixed race. Jimmie took offense at some slight on the part of George, Jr., and never forgot it. There is no record of any further meeting between the two young men, or with his stepmother. Some writers have found evidence that Jimmie was financially persuaded to stay out of the picture when Pickett gatherings were held back in Virginia.

Newspaper Career

Finishing art studies, he took a position as artist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later with the Portland Oregonian, as both artist and occasional reporter. Additionally he painted seafaring scenes, landscapes and portraits. Indeed, Jimmie Pickett grew up to be quite an artist. His drawing of Bellingham Bay and the town of Whatcom in 1888 is exceptional in its detail and perspective. One painting was prominently displayed in the old Portland Art Gallery and used as cover art in a local arts magazine; several may be found today in the museums of Washington. Some of his drawings appeared in advertising copy.

LaSalle's "Gift" Story

In later years LaSalle was impressed with his art ability and offered to bring him east for additional formal art training, which he declined. When he became ill later on, she again offered to bring him east or south for medical treatment, and again he declined. It is interesting that in a book written in 1908, she presents the story that the child, Jimmie, was a "gift" from a grateful Indian chief to George Pickett. This may have been her way of dealing with the prospect of a half-breed stepson, or it may have been a story which Pickett himself told her. (Since she wrote the book nine years after Jimmie Pickett died, he was not around to challenge the fanciful version.) The marriage to Morning Mist, and the resulting son, seem carefully omitted from many biographies and lineage charts of the Pickett Family, but the young man was a talented artist whose life has been carefully preserved through his art.

Charcoal death portrait of Edna Mae Young

Charcoal "death portrait" of Edna Mae Young done by James T. Pickett in 1885

  Landscape by Jimmie Pickett

Oil painting of Mount Rainier by James T. Pickett
[From the collection of the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham, Washington]

"No More Crosses"

He never married. All records of his early life indicate that he had few friends, and that girls played only a small part in it. He was said to feel keenly the stigma of being of mixed parentage, his Indian blood becoming more apparent as he matured. At the same time, he made numerous friends during his art school days and later. In typical artistic introspection, he became a brooding artist: conscious of his past, cautious of his present, and caustic of his future. He considered his paintings his "children," saying that if he were either a white man or an Indian, he would take a woman; as it was, he felt "These crosses [of races] don't belong. We won't have any more of them."

When the General died in 1875, LaSalle Pickett notified Jimmie, and sent him his father's cavalry saber. This produced the only time he asserted his family connection, asking for the property located in Bellingham, Washington near the original home of Pickett and Morning Mist. For several years LaSalle opposed the request, but ultimately agreed when the young man threatened a law suit to obtain legal title.

Painting of a Shipwreck

Author Binns also searched extensively for a final nautical painting on which "J.T. Pickett" was working at the time of his death in 1889 from a combination of typhoid and tuberculosis. In one of Binns' last speeches he explained, "At the time he died, Jimmy [authors spell his first name variously ] had just finished a painting that he said would be his masterpiece...He also said it would be his last picture...Jimmy was living at a boarding house kept by a Mrs. Jones... Anyway, to this boarding house came a number of sailors that had been saved from a ship [probably the S.S. Alaskan] wrecked off the Alaskan coast. Most of the crew was lost, and when the survivors were brought into Portland by a resource ship, they went to the Jones boarding house to stay until they got other jobs."

"These sailors told their stories to Jimmy. He was a real artist and at one time, his stepmother whom he never saw, planned on having him come east to study art. You must understand this boy was a legitimate son of the famous Virginia soldier. The sailors would tell their stories to Jimmy as he worked on the picture. They would cry as they told of the deaths of their friends, and Jimmy would feel so badly he would have to quit painting."

Last Glimpses

"But just before he died, he completed the picture... he asked Mrs. Jones to bring the picture to his bedside. He also had a sword left him by his father when the soldier was called east. Jimmy asked that the sword also be brought . . . The artist died [August 28, 1889] looking at the picture of the shipwreck and at the sword." He was only thirty-two.

The painting was sold for $600.00, an amazing sum for an oil painting by an artist no one had heard of. It paid the remainder of his board bill and his funeral expenses. At one time it was owned by the Washington Capitol Museum in Olympia, WA.

History has recorded only minimally the artistic young man with the unique background. What HAS been recorded seems almost tainted by the attitudes of the time. Candace Wellman, a writer and researcher in Washington, describes Binns as "writing in a very culturally biased way, one that said to people what they wanted to hear about Indians. People wanted chiefs and princesses, and tragic love stories gone wrong, together with half-Indian children who were always unhappy." This may or may not have been the case with Jimmy Pickett.

The famous little red trunk was left with his other personal goods to the boarding house owner for overdue rent, according to his Will. However, it disappeared during the funeral, surfacing again in later years. Today it is in the Washington Capitol Museum in Olympia, with the gloves, red calico baby dress and other memorabilia. The cavalry saber has never been found.

A "Poem Half Written"

For a relative unknown in an area far removed from the accepted center of the arts, James Tilton Pickett left his mark as an artist in the northwest. Several days after his death, the painter and poet was remembered in a Eulogy written by David Wexler in the Portland Oregonian. Running almost a full newspaper column, Wexler summed up the feelings of many when he wrote:
"His life seems as a picture of magnificent conception laid away half finished As a beautiful poem half written, or a sweet sad song whose melody is shattered just as we begin to be enchanted by its music.

"James Pickett will ever live in the memory of those who knew him best as one of the truest, purest, manliest of men, as well as one of the rarest geniuses this Northwest has ever produced."

Young Pickett is buried in Riverview Cemetery in Portland, Oregon near a spot he visited often to paint pictures of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens, and sunsets over the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. While early writings indicate that his mother was buried at SeHome (now near Bellingham), the actual resting place of Morning Mist remains as elusive as her name implies.


Editor's Note: It has not been verified that James Tilton Pickett's mother was a Haida Indian. She has been described in historical letters and documents as being from a "northern" group. This could mean Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Tlingkit, Kwakiutl or Northern Straits Salish.

 


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