Arthur A. Denny

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Arthur Armstrong Denny

Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Salem, IN, USA
Death: January 9, 1899 (76)
Seattle, WA, USA
Place of Burial: Seattle, King County, Washington, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Denny and Sarah Denny
Husband of Mary Ann Denny
Father of Louisa Catherine Frye; Rolland Herschell Denny; Orion Orville Denny; Charles Latimer Denny; Margaret Lenora Denny and 1 other
Brother of David Thomas Denny; Lewis Helms Denny; Alford Wilson Denny; John Fletcher Denny and Allen Wylie Denny
Half brother of Sarah Loretta Denny

Occupation: was one of the founders of Seattle, Washington
Managed by: Katherine Quiroz
Last Updated:

About Arthur A. Denny

Arthur Armstrong Denny (June 20, 1822 – January 9, 1899) was one of the founders of Seattle, Washington, the acknowledged leader of the pioneer Denny Party, and later the city's wealthiest citizen and a 9-term member of the territorial legislature. Seattle's former Denny Hill was named after him; it was flattened in a series of regrading projects and its former site is now known as the Denny Regrade. The city's Denny Way, however, is named not after Arthur Denny, but after his younger brother David Denny.

Indiana, Illinois, and the way West

Denny was born near Salem Washington County, Indiana; by the time he was attending school his family had settled in Knox County, Illinois. Both his parents were of Irish descent. His father John Denny (1793–1875), fought in the western battles of the War of 1812 and later served in the Illinois state legislature, elected as a Whig. (He eventually traveled west with the Denny Party, but stayed on in Oregon's Willamette River Valley when Arthur and several others moved north to Puget Sound.)

Denny did not have an easy childhood. He cared for his invalid mother while attending half-days in a log schoolhouse. He learned carpentry, taught school, studied surveying, and became a civil engineer and Knox County surveyor starting in 1843. In 1843, he married Mary Ann Boren; they were to have six children: Louisa Catherine Frye, Margaret Leona Denny, Rolland Herschell Denny, Orion Orvil Denny, Arthur Wilson Denny, and Charles Latimer Denny.

In 1851 he led the Denny Party west. Leaving Illinois in April, they arrived in Portland, Oregon on August 23. In November, he sailed on to Puget Sound, arriving at Alki Point on Elliott Bay on November 13, 1851. It soon became clear that Alki was not the best spot for a settlement. The Denny Party soon relocated to the east shore of Elliott Bay, near what is now Pioneer Square, the original heart of what soon became the city of Seattle.


On February 15, 1852, Denny and others filed their claims. Denny soon established himself selling cargo on commission for ship captains. In 1854 when he began a general merchandise partnership with Dexter Horton and David Phillips. In 1855, he volunteered to serve in the Indian War then taking place in Washington Territory. He served in several political offices. He was a county commissioner first for Thurston County (in what was then still part of the Oregon Territory), and then, after Washington became a separate territory, for King County, where Seattle is located.

He also served as Seattle's first postmaster and in the territorial House of Representatives for nine consecutive terms, including serving a term as speaker. From 1861 to 1865 he was registrar of the General Land Office. He served as territorial delegate to the thirty-ninth United States Congress.

Denny soon turned from politics to business. He returned to being a partner with Horton and Phillips, this time by taking a half interest in Dexter Horton and Co., the bank founded by Horton and Phillips in 1870, which would eventually become Seattle-First National Bank. It was named Seafirst Bank, when first absorbed by Bank of America. and eventually wholly absorbed by the Bank of America. He was president of the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad Company. Later in life, he was active in Society of Washington Pioneers and wrote a memoir, Pioneer Days in Puget Sound.

Among his other achievements, he was involved in founding the University of Washington and donated much of the land for its original site. On the current U.W. campus, Denny Hall, the former administration building (built 1895) is named in his honor.

Contention over his intentions

However, Denny's land donation should not be attributed to a sense of civic duty. Denny donated the land in an effort to save face with the Methodist Church.[citation needed] The original land donation for the purposes of an institution of higher learning was made by David Swinson "Doc" Maynard but Maynard repossessed the land when he suspected members of the Denny party were spreading rumors about his wife. Blaming Denny for this disaster, the church was able to bring considerable pressure to bear on him. This pressure manifested itself in the form of the Rev. Daniel Bagley who using this information to the fullest was able to convince Denny to give the best 8½ acres in his donation claim to replace that which he had lost.

Personality and politics

Denny was an ascetic, a devout Christian (conservative in his religion to the point of opposing a divorce law), and a lifelong teetotaler. Indeed, he was teetotal to the point where he had the customers of his store buy their liquor direct from visiting ship captains so that he would not be involved in the transactions. He was a political conservative, and a cautious and conservative businessman and investor. Denny, in his memoir, described his decision to head north from Portland to Puget Sound as a "desperate venture". Lorraine McConaghy, historian at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, agrees, but characterizes it further as "the only one he ever undertook."

Women's suffrage

Denny supported the right of women to vote, going so far as to introduce legislation in 1854 to allow white women of 18 years and older the right to vote. The resolution was voted down.

Argument over land

This dour man is nonetheless remembered for at least one example of his wit. Also in his memoir, recounting his failure in 1853 to reach agreement with David Swinson "Doc" Maynard over what was intended to be a joint plat of the town of Seattle, he wrote, "it was found that the doctor, who occasionally stimulated a little, had that day taken enough to cause him to feel that he was not only monarch of all he surveyed, but what Boren and I had surveyed as well."

It was later shown in a review done by a professional engineering firm on behalf of the city that it was in fact Denny that was wrong about the direction the streets should run and had actually violated the law in his plat of the city.


Pioneer Days on Puget Sound (1888).
Pioneer Days on Puget sound, published by The Alice Harriman Company, Seattle, 1908 


The Dennys are a very ancient family of England, Ireland and Scotland. I trace my branch from Ireland to America in my great-grandparents, David and Margaret Denny, who came to America before the Revolution, and settled in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where my grandfather, Robert Denny, was born in the year 1753. In early life he removed to Frederick County, Virginia, where he, in the year 1778 married Rachel Thomas, and in about 1790 removed to and settled in Mercer County, Kentucky, where my father, John Denny, was born May 4th, 1793. On August 25th, 1814, he was married to Sarah Wilson, my mother, the daughter of Bassel and Ann Wilson. My mother was born in the old town of Bladensberg, near Washington City, February 3rd, 1797. Her mother’s name was Scott, but I cannot trace the families of my maternal grandparents beyond America, but they, doubtless, came to America in very early times.

Both of my grandparents rendered service in the Revolutionary war, and my grandfather Wilson belonged to Washington’s command at Broddock’s defeat.

My father was a soldier in the War of 1812, and belonged to Colonel Richard M. Johnson’s regiment of Kentucky Volunteers. He was also an ensign in Captain McAfee’s company. He was with Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, when Proctor was defeated and the noted Tecumseh was killed. He was a member of the Illinois legislature in 1840-41, with Lincoln, Yates, Baker and others, who afterwards became noted in national affairs. He was a Whig in politics, and a Republican after the formation of that party. For many years he was a justice of the peace, and it was his custom to induce litigants, if possible, to settle without a resort to law; I do not think he was ever himself a party in an action at law. He died July 28th, 1875, in his eighty-third year. My mother died on March 25th, 1841, in her forty-fifth year. For her I had the greatest reverence, and as I now look back and contemplate her character, it seems to me that she was as nearly perfect as it is possible to find any one in this world.

About the year 1816 my parents removed from Kentucky to Washington County, Indiana, and settled near Salem, where I was born, June 20th, 1822. When I was about one year old they removed to Putnam County, six miles east of Greencastle, where they remained until I was in my thirteenth year, when they removed to Knox County, Illinois. The first land entered in Putnam county by my father was March 12th, 1823. My impression is that he went there and made the selection at that time and moved the family some time in the summer or fall of the same year.

My education began in the log school house so familiar to the early settler in the old west. The teachers were paid by subscription, so much per pupil, and the schools rarely lasted more than half the year, and often but three months. Among the earliest of my recollections is one of my father hewing out a farm in the beech woods of Indiana; and I well remember that the first school I attended was two and a half miles distant from my home. When I became older it was often necessary for me to attend the home duties one-half of the day and then go to school, a mile distant; but by close application I was able to keep up with my class. My opportunities, to some extent, improved as time advanced, but I never got beyond the boarding school and seminary. I spent my vacation with older brothers at carpenter and joiner work, to obtain the means to pay my expenses during the terms of time.

On November 23, 1843, I was married to Mary Ann Boren, to whom I am very largely indebted for any success which I may have achieved in life. She has been kind and indulgent to all my faults, and in cases of doubt and difficulty in the long voyage we have made together she has always been, without the least disposition to dictate, a safe and prudent advisor.

I was eight years county surveyor of Knox County, Illinois, and resigned that position to come to the Pacific coast. On April 10, 1851, I started with my family across the plains, and reached The Dalles, August 11, and arrived in Portland August 23. On the 5th of November we sailed for Puget Sound on the schooner Exact, and arrived at our destination on Elliott’s Bay, November 13, 1851.

The place where we landed we called Alki Point, at that time as wild a spot as any on earth. We were landed in the ship’s boat when the tide was well out; and while the men of the party were all actively engaged in removing our goods to a point above high tide, the women and children had crawled into the brush, made a fire and spread a cloth to shelter them from the rain. When the goods were secured I went to look after the women, and found on my approach that their faces were concealed. On a closer inspection I discovered that they were in tears, having already discovered the gravity of the situation; but I did not for some time discover that I had gone a step too far. In fact, it was not until I became aware that my wife and helpless children were exposed to the murderous attacks of hostile savages that it dawned upon me that I had made a desperate venture. My motto in life was to never go backward, and in fact if I had wished to retrace my steps it was about as nearly impossible to do so if I had taken the bridge up behind me. I had brought my family from a good home surrounded by comforts and luxuries, and landed them in a wilderness, and I do not now think that it was at all strange that a woman who had, without complaint, endured all the dangers and hardships of a trip across the great plains should be found shedding tears when contemplating the hard prospect then so plainly in view. Now, in looking back to the experiences of those times, it seems to me that it is not boasting to say that it required quite an amount of energy and some little courage to contend with and overcome the difficulties and dangers we had to meet. For myself, I was for the first several weeks after our landing, so thoroughly occupied in building a cabin to shelter my family for the winter that I had not much time to think of the future. About the time we got our houses completed our little settlement was fortunately visited by Captain Daniel S. Howard, of the Brig Leoness, seeking a cargo of piles which we contracted to furnish. This gave us profitable employment, and, although the labor was severe, as we did it mostly without a team, we were cheered on with the thought that we were providing food for our families. A circumstance occurred just at the close of our labor which for a few hours caused us the greatest anxiety and even consternation, but resulted in considerable amusement afterwards. We finished the cargo late in the afternoon, and it was agreed between us and the captain that he would settle with us the next day. The vessel was anchored near the Point, and that night there was a stiff gale from the south, which caused the anchor to drag, and carried the brig before it until the anchor caught in mud at Smith’s Cove. The Indians soon discovered it and came and reported that the ship had "clatiwad" (left), which caused in our little settlement great astonishment and concern. We were forced to the conclusion that the captain had absconded to avoid paying us for our hard work and the time we had put in on the cargo was not counted by eight-hour days, but from daylight until darkness. The ship’s unexpected departure added a sleepless night to our arduous toil. In the morning, when it grew light enough to see, to our great joy, we discovered the brig getting under way and she soon returned. The captain came on shore and gave a most satisfactory explanation, and he was ever afterwards, to the day of his death, the especial favorite of every one of our little community.

In Feburary, 1852, in company with William N. Bell and C. D. Boren, I made soundings of Elliott’s Bay along with the eastern shore and towards the foot of the tide flats to determine the character of the harbor, using for that purpose a clothes line and a bunch of horse shoes. After the survey of the harbor we next examined the land and timber around the bay, and after three days’ careful investigation we located claims with a view of lumbering, and, ultimately, of laying off a town.

I came to the coast impressed with the belief that a railroad would be built across the continent to some point on the northern coast within the next fifteen or twenty years, and located on the Sound with that expectation. I imagined that Oregon would receive large annual accessions to its population, but in this I was mistaken, mainly by the opening of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement. The bitter contest which arose there over the slavery question had the effect to attract and absorb the moving population to such an extent that very few, for several years, found their way through those territories; and a large proportion of those who did pass through were gold seekers bound for California.

Arthur Armstrong Denny (June 20, 1822 – January 9, 1899) was one of the founders of Seattle, Washington,[1] the acknowledged leader of the pioneer Denny Party,[1][2] and later the city's wealthiest citizen and a 9-term member of the territorial legislature.[1] Seattle's former Denny Hill was named after him; it was flattened in a series of regrading projects and its former site is now known as the Denny Regrade.[3] The city's Denny Way, however, is named not after Arthur Denny, but after his younger brother David Denny.[4]

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Arthur A. Denny's Timeline

June 20, 1822
Salem, IN, USA
Age 21
Age 24
Age 28
July 17, 1853
Age 31
Seattle, King County, Washington, United States
Age 38
January 9, 1899
Age 76
Seattle, WA, USA
Seattle, King County, Washington, United States