First, a welcome to our new subscribers. At some point we popped up over the 200 member mark, which I find pretty cool. So, thanks, all, for your interest.
My free time this weekend was spent backtracking. I’d started my research of Seattle’s history at 1860, heading up the years toward 1874, but it became clear that for my purposes, 1874 Seattle was just too big a town. I want a setting that is rougher, more primitive, and a town that is smaller.
Picking 1874, the backstory for my main “Old Seattle” character included experience in the Civil War, possibly with injuries, certainly with trauma. I wanted a reason for him to immigrate to the West, but also a reason for him to recoil from society and live outside the town.
But in 1874, there were too many in-town employment opportunities for a smart but troubled man with a bum leg. In that year Seattle had dozens of businesses that needed brute labor–mills, mines, shipwrights, smiths, and such–but it also had coopers, druggists, general stores, banks, bakeries, cobblers, saloons (of course), grocers, furniture sellers, courts, notaries, telegraph and post offices, cigar factories, laundries, barber shops, saddlers, gunsmiths, stationers, jewelers, hotels, door factories, liveries, and many, many others. It was, in short, a city, not a town.
To create a believable character who was outside this bustling place, but who also wasn’t a farmer, miner, or logger just required too much force. I could cram what I needed into this mold, but it wouldn’t ring true. It would seem contrived because, well, because it would be contrived.
Rather than change the character, though, I’m changing the setting. I’m going back ten years, to around 1864.
Naturally, the backstory needs to change, too. Action in the Civil War cannot be in his history, as he’ll be in Seattle during that conflict. But what will bring him out to the West, what will cause his injury, his trauma?
I found the seed of a solution in a small detail. Prosch writes that, in 1850, the cost of wheat was $6/bushel, eggs $2/dozen, flour $15 for a 50lb. sack. Laborers made $5/day and a mechanic would bring home $12/day. These were very high for the time. By comparison, five years later all of these prices and wages were anywhere from 50-75% lower.
What happened to drive up prices and wages in 1850?
The California Gold Rush of 1849.
What better draw for a young man, perhaps the youngest son of a struggling family, and what better place for a personal history filled with danger, injury, and trauma? How many lives were cast into the hazard during this time, and how many were ruined? Just thinking about it, his backstory began to create itself in my head.
It was perfect.
In 1864, Seattle was still a small but growing town, population about 600. Elk still wandered through town, cougars prowled the outskirts, and from Front Street the wilderness was still within sight. A troubled, intelligent man who eschews the society of others is completely believable in such a setting.
And so, from small details come a big solution…