Dean Kahn

Is this mystery man the rebel soldier whose family saved the historic Pickett house?

Take a tour of historic Pickett House in Bellingham

The historic Pickett House at 910 Bancroft St. in Bellingham is open for public tours on the second Sunday of the month from 1-4 p.m. It's free, but donations are appreciated.
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The historic Pickett House at 910 Bancroft St. in Bellingham is open for public tours on the second Sunday of the month from 1-4 p.m. It's free, but donations are appreciated.

The serious young man stares straight at the camera, his back straight as if he’s holding his breath for the camera to complete its work.

The tintype photograph has sat on display for many years without identifying details at the Pickett House in Bellingham. Now, the group that owns and maintains the historic house hopes to learn the identity of the man who posed for posterity so long ago.

“Nobody in our organization knows anything about it,” said Edradine Hovde, vice president of Whatcom Chapter No. 5 of the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington.

The Pickett house is the cedar-slab residence that was home to George Pickett, a U.S. Army officer assigned to Bellingham Bay in 1856. He left five years later to fight for his native Virginia as a Confederate leader in the Civil War.

A hero of the Mexican War, Pickett built Fort Bellingham in the 1850s to provide security to local Indians and early settlers on Bellingham Bay. He also engaged in the short-lived Pig War standoff with British forces on San Juan Island, and later led a famous but doomed Confederate charge at Gettysburg.

Pickett didn’t own the house in Bellingham, but it carries his name as perhaps the oldest, documented wooden building on its original site in Washington.

Hovde said the unidentified man in the photograph might be Robert F. Strother, a Confederate veteran who bought the house in 1889 and lived there with his two daughters and their domestic helper, a mixed race woman named Mary Smith. The era of tintypes, and the clothes the man wears in the photo, suggests it could have been taken during the mid-1800s.

“That’s why we thought it might be Robert Franklin Strother,” Hovde said.

While in Bellingham, Pickett was married to a Native American woman, a likely Haida tribal member with whom he had a son, James. His wife died a few months after giving birth to their child, but Pickett maintained contact with – and financially supported – his son after Pickett returned to Virginia.

There’s a lot of history in this building and it has nothing to do with blacks and slavery, or it has everything to do with it.

Edradine Hovde, Whatcom Chapter, Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington

Given Pickett’s active support for the pro-slavery South, some community groups have called for his name to be removed from a memorial sign at the Dupont Street bridge over Whatcom Creek.

Even if the man in the photo isn’t Strother, the house’s longtime occupancy by a Confederate family with a woman of mixed-race descent adds an extra layer of nuance to the legacy of the residence after Pickett left the Northwest. And it was one of Strother’s two daughters who later donated the house and its belongings for historic preservation.

“There’s a lot of history in this building and it has nothing to do with blacks and slavery,” Hovde said, “or it has everything to do with it.”

Pickett house after Pickett

After Pickett left Bellingham Bay in 1861, the house at 910 Bancroft St. went through at least nine owners or occupants until 1889, when Strother bought it.

A native of Tennessee, (or maybe Ohio or Virginia), Strother had two young daughters, Hattie and Willie, before he joined the war with the 12th Virginia Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia.

More than 200 Civil War veterans, representing both sides, are estimated to be buried in Bayview Cemetery.

Hovde isn’t sure why Strother moved to the far Northwest after the war.

Many Confederates left their devastated states in search of land or jobs, or to get as far away as they could from the hated national government. Indeed, more than 200 Civil War veterans, representing both sides, are estimated to be buried in Bayview Cemetery, with perhaps three dozen or more buried in other cemeteries in the county.

Whatever his motivation, Strother initially bought two lots in Blaine in 1889 to set up a tailoring, hat and dressmaking business. His daughters were both dressmakers. But later that year he bought the Pickett house and they apparently set up shop there, Hovde said.

Joining them was Mary Smith, a domestic worker then in her mid-40s who was of mixed black-and-white heritage, judging by her 1910 Census listing as a mulatto.

Strother’s daughter Willie died of kidney disease in 1893. She was 32.

Strother himself died in 1922. He was 97, or close to it.

Mary Smith died in 1932 at the age of 92, or thereabouts.

Hattie, the remaining daughter, died in 1936 at the age of 76. She willed the house and its furnishings to the Washington State Historical Society, which later turned over the property to the Whatcom Chapter of the Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington.

Today, an upstairs room in the house has been converted into the Hattie Strother sewing room, one of many ongoing changes and repairs to the house.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

Pickett House tours

Public tours of the Pickett House museum, 910 Bancroft St., are 1 to 4 p.m. the second Sunday of the month. The next tour is Sept. 11. Tours are free, but donations are accepted.

People with information about the man in the tintype photograph should contact Edradine Hovde at 360-733 5873.

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