When Edgar Franks looks at the Pickett Bridge sign near the downtown post office, he sees a reminder of the legacy of white supremacy in Whatcom County.
When Candace Wellman looks at the sign, she sees public recognition of an important pioneer figure on Bellingham Bay who happened to become a Confederate general.
“Pickett” refers to George Edward Pickett, the U.S. Army officer who built Fort Bellingham in the 1850s and supervised construction of the first bridge across Whatcom Creek. He left the area in 1861 to fight for his home state of Virginia in the Civil War.
When Community to Community, the local social justice organization that Franks works for, and another Bellingham group, the Racial Justice Coalition, held a protest in mid-August about crime-mapping software for local police, they chose the bridge as their protest site to bring attention to Pickett.
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Franks hopes the bridge will be given a different name some day.
“Why would you want to name a bridge after a general with this history behind him?” he asked.
Wellman, a Bellingham history writer, considers Pickett’s story too nuanced to fit easy categories. She recently finished her draft of a book tentatively titled “The Peace Weavers,” about eight Native American women who married local military officers or white settlers in the 1850s to 1860s. One of the couples was a likely Haida tribal member whose name has disappeared in history, and her military husband, George Pickett.
“It’s part of our history,” Wellman said, “not just his history as a military man.”
Pickett grew up in what historian Lesley Gordon calls an “elite slaveholding Virginia family.”
“He willingly fought for the Confederacy, which was unquestionably formed to protect and spread the enslavement of African Americans,” she said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.
Gordon, a history professor at the University of Akron, is the author of several books on the Civil War, including “General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend.”
“During the Civil War, Pickett was appalled by the notion of freeing slaves and arming black men to fight,” Gordon said. “I argue that Pickett suffered from a sort of ‘breakdown’ during the war, and never really recovered from it. He simply could not cope with the vast changes occurring, changes he simply never anticipated — and I’d include emancipation among those changes.”
Wellman acknowledged that Pickett was a “man of his times” in regards to his view of blacks. However, he was reluctant to fight for the Confederacy, in part because his only child, an infant son from his marriage to the Native American woman, was in Bellingham.
“He did not want to leave,” Wellman said. “He didn’t want war.”
Pickett would have avoided some infamy if he had stayed out of the war. In July 1863, he led a doomed attack at the Battle of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, that became known as Pickett’s Charge.
Half a year later, he oversaw the hanging of 22 soldiers captured in North Carolina. Confederates said the men were Southern deserters, so hanging was justified. Northerners said the men were Union soldiers who should be treated as prisoners of war, not hanged.
Fearing he might be tried as a war criminal, Pickett and his white wife from Virginia fled to Montreal, until an old Army comrade, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, put in a good word for him. The prosecution was dropped and Pickett retired to Virginia.
As a young man, Pickett remained unsettled about a career until he went to West Point and become a solider. After graduation, he fought and earned honors for bravery in the Mexican-American War.
Gordon said her research turned up little about Pickett’s views of Mexicans, “although he did remark once that Mexicans were ‘more civilized’ than he expected.”
The war in which Pickett fought occurred during the administration of President James Polk, who endorsed the idea that the U.S. had a “manifest destiny” to control lands to the Pacific Ocean.
Franks, who is of Mexican descent, sees Pickett’s participation in the war as part of that westward drive.
“He was involved in expanding the American empire,” Franks said. “From our point of view, the war was kind of like an imperialist war.”
U.S. Army Capt. Pickett was next assigned to the Northwest. His orders included building a fort to protect local residents — Lummis and other area tribes, as well as white settlers — from attacks by tribes from Canada and farther north. He built Fort Bellingham on a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bay, near what today is Smith Gardens, on Marine Drive.
Pickett gained a solid footnote in history in 1859 when he and his troops become involved in the Pig War, a dust-up with British forces in the San Juans. The standoff, whose only victim was a British pig killed by an American, eventually led to a settlement on the islands’ watery boundary between the U.S. and Canada.
While at Bellingham, Pickett, like many other whites at the time, married a Native American woman. Such marriages were prohibited by territorial law, so they usually weren’t recorded in formal documents because officials presiding over the ceremonies didn’t want to pay a hefty fine, Wellman said.
Still, the pairings were marriages in fact, if not in law, Wellman said, and that included Pickett and his native wife.
“The townspeople called her Mrs. Pickett,” she said.
The Picketts lived in a fortified house in town, near Henry Roeder’s lumber mill on Whatcom Creek. The house, built in 1856, is still at its original location, at 910 Bancroft St.
Pickett’s wife gave birth to a son, James, but she died a few months later, likely from one of the diseases that periodically swept the area, Wellman said.
Pickett’s first wife and child had both died during childbirth in Texas, so Pickett felt especially attentive toward James, Wellman said.
“He was a very emotional, sentimental man,” she said.
When Pickett left the Northwest, he sent money to support his son, who was in the care of a couple near Olympia, and he corresponded regularly with James, Wellman said.
Pickett’s Army duties in Bellingham included overseeing the construction of part of a military road linking Fort Bellingham with Fort Steilacoom, near Tacoma. For that, a bridge was built across Whatcom Creek. The wooden bridge was located a short distance upstream from the newer concrete span with the Pickett Bridge sign.
The original bridge enabled armaments and people to move from the Fort Bellingham side of the creek to the town side, in case water travel was blocked by marauding tribes, Wellman said. The bridge also allowed children to easily reach a new school in Sehome.
In 1920, a plaque was placed low on the newly finished concrete bridge by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution that maintains the Pickett House. Because the plaque isn’t readily visible, chapter members asked the city several years ago to post larger signs, one at each end of the bridge.
“I thought it would be a great idea to advertise the Pickett House,” said Edradine Hovde, chapter vice-president and a longtime volunteer at the Pickett House.
Hovde, like Wellman, said Pickett’s role in Whatcom County history warrants keeping his name on the bridge.
Franks would like like to see broader community discussion about local history, including whether Pickett’s name should remain on the bridge.
Gordon, the history professor, said she understands the desire to rename public sites such as the bridge.
“But I think renaming such sites doesn’t entirely do justice to coming to terms with the racial injustices of our past,” she continued. “It takes much more, I think, to debate and discuss openly the complicated legacy of that past.”
The house of George Pickett and his Native-American wife at 910 Bancroft St., Bellingham, will be open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 13. The house is open for tours the second Sunday of each month. Admission is free; donations are appreciated.
George Pickett resources
Candace Wellman article: http://pickettsociety.com/BereavementLeave1858.pdf
The Pickett Society: pickettsociety.com
The Pig War: nps.gov/sajh/learn/historyculture/the-pig-war.htm