(click to enlarge photos)
What to write about Dutch Ned – or what to re-write? The several short accounts of this Seattle pioneer are constructed of a few tidbits told and retold. And his surname is confusing: Ohn, Olm, Ohm and Ohmn, all appear in print. The last, Nils Jacob Ohmn, is chiseled on what remains of his tomb in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery. His more often used nickname, Dutch Ned, suggests one of Deutsch or German (not Dutch) descent.
Or was he Italian? C.T. Conover, the Seattle Times long-time heritage reporter, noted in a July 1, 1957, offering of his “Just Cogitating” feature (printed here two illustrations up) that a correspondent, Mrs. M.T. Jensen, remembered “Uncle Ned Ohm, a Sicilian, who carried mail weekly. He always stopped at my home in Auburn (then Slaughter) where I was born in 1876. There he would feed and rest his horse . . . [he was] a lone old man in a new world, his only relative a sister in far-away Sicily, to whom he always sent a part of his scant earnings.” In the featured photograph, from about 1880, Nils, holding his mail pack, poses with his horse on Cherry Street for a photographer looking east across Front Street (First Avenue).
In the 1934 clip printed above, the date 1880 is confidently given by the caption-writer, who then described the setting for Dutch Ned’s portrait with his horse as “in front of the Henry Yesler residence.” This does not lend confidence for the dating claim, for the scene here is almost surely on Cherry Street, looking east from Front Street and so one block north of the Yesler home at the northeast corner of James and Front. Still the date may be right; it falls within the 1878 and 1882 run of Ned’s or Nil’s or Nis”s first contract with the postal service. Below we’ll insert some nearby photos from the 1880 Big Snow (the biggest in the city’s history) including two snow-bound shots that also look east on Cherry from Front. The reader will be able, we hope, to decide for themselves that our locating is correct. The Times feature where these images and the text first appeared was published on December 19, 1982. This column was then still in its first year.
Dutch Ned’s weekly labor of delivering the mail on horseback between Seattle and Auburn was but one of the two full-time jobs ascribed to him. Born in 1820 (also chiseled on his tombstone), Ned reportedly arrived in Seattle in 1854 and soon landed the job of spreading sawdust from Henry Yesler’s sawmill to lift the pioneer village above its wetlands. Lucile McDonald, another of this newspaper’s most prolific history reporters, summed up the reclaiming half of Nels Olm as “a familiar figure of the period, who was kept busy filling swampy places with mill waste.” McDonald’s March 15,1953, feature in PacificNW’s predecessor, the Seattle Sunday Times Magazine, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opening of Yesler’s mill. On the cover was one of the Times’ staff artist Parker McAllister’s popular watercolors, a rendering of Yesler’s smoking mill. Dutch Ned and his packed “big red wheelbarrow” were part of the painting. [CLICK TWICE TO SEE AND READ]
Posthumous sketches of Dutch Ned often characterize him as “soft-brained” and “dimwitted.” Some of this probably stems from his tomb and denouement. Nils or Nels Ohmn lived in a shack on the western brow of Capitol Hill overlooking the south end of Lake Union. A few years before his death in 1898, he prepaid for his funeral and bought a burial site in Lake View Cemetery. It was near his home. There on Lot 470 he built his own mausoleum and, once completed, entertained friends in or beside what he called his “little house.” Stranger still, he often visited for long hours the lobby of Bonney-Watson, the funeral home he had paid to bury him.
Above: Two pages from Bob Ferguson’s “The Stones of Lake View,” a pocket-guide t o the cemetery. I knew Bob and can testify to his zest on the top of Capitol Hill. Below: Bob poses beside the cedar tree that rises above the Maynard graves at the high point in the Lake View Cemetery.
Anything to add, lads? Yup and compact too. The three links that Ron Edge has attached below are packed with neighborhood subjects – some of them repeated, of course. By the direction of the clock on the wall it is falling well into Sunday morning, so we will need to wait for our innovative “Uncle Ned Invitation to a Contest” – for our readers. We’ll assemble what factoids we have on the postman with a red wheelbarrow and offer prizes for readers who will be encouraged to elaborate on the Dutchman’s life, encouraged by their own imagination. This approach, we know, is not so rare among pop historians and many pros as well. So check back mid-week for details – we hope.
ABOVE: The Merchants bank before the 1889 Great Fire and, below, the rebuilt merchants – along with the Kenneth Hotel – after the fire. The photographers for both shots (especially for the one above) stood near where about six and thirteen years earlier Dutch Ned posed on his horse for the featured photo at the top.
BELOW: LOOKING NORTH ON FRONT STREET FROM THE PETERSON & BROS STUDIO at the FOOT of CHERRY STREET.
3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Dutch Ned”
Hello Paul, not sure if this is the best place to contact you, but my name is Karen and I am on the board of the Kirkland Heritage Society and would be very interested to have you come after January 2016 to do a program for us. Jean also if she’d like. You can contact me at my email
email@example.com or 425-273-6299. Thanks!
I really enjoyed your story in todays Sunday pictorial(Pacific NW), on “The legend of Dutch Ned, Seattle’s pioneer mailman”
What great little piece of history!
He sounds like he was a good guy in a city that was full of characters in the rough and tumble pioneer era of Seattle. Also enjoyed the accompanying video on your visit to the Lake View Cemetary, and Ned’s resting place, as well as the story behind it.
John: Jean and I continue to wonder about Ned’s or Nils’ or Nis’ story and are thinking – still – about asking our readers (those among them who are interested) to take the few tidbits of narrative available on his life and fill them in for some historical fiction Does this seem like something you might do? We will give prizes. Does that advance the request? We’ll ask – if we do this – Kurt Armbruster, the noted regional historian and also short story writer, to choose the one he likes the best, and then we will give out that prize, as noted in the video, probably an old VHS tape. Paul