Mrs. Pickett

The story of George Pickett and his second wife, an Indigenous woman, is a known aspect of Pacific Northwest History, but it is also the subject of misinformation.  Author and researcher, Candace Wellman was determined to correctly illuminate the hidden history of cross-cultural marriages, like the Picketts, within her books Peaceweavers and Interwoven Lives.  In Interwoven Lives, Wellman, corrects the history surrounding the second Mrs. Pickett by rejecting the myths that labeled her a “Lummi lover” or claims that she was a Hiada “princess” named Morning Mist.  In fact, her personal name was never shared by her son, James Tilton Pickett, or friends and she was always referred to as Mrs. Pickett, the fort commander’s wife. 

William Walter, the second foster parent of Mrs. Pickett’s son Jimmie, stated that she was of Alaskan Indian descent and Haida, but without complete records it is impossible to confirm these claims. If she was Kaigani Haida of Prince Wales Island, her people were described as intelligent and strong, and early travelers wrote of the beauty and strength of their women.  Her family most likely settled near Semichoo in Northern Whatcom County where her father could work for the Hudson Bay Company.  This is where she would have met General George Pickett upon his arrival to the region in the late 1850s. Intermarriage was not uncommon, and American military officers married Native women as forts opened in the western territories. For Mrs. Pickett, intermarriage had been practiced within her community since Russian settlement and marriage to newcomers was a common occurrence. 

George Pickett entered the military as a second lieutenant and served in the Mexican American War and in the Texas frontier where he was promoted to captain. He married his first wife, Sally Harrison Minge, in 1851 and she died that same year during childbirth.  Pickett then served in the Washington territory where he commanded the construction of Fort Bellingham. While serving in the region Pickett entered a society where prominent white men married Indigenous women. Wellman wrote, “Picket could not avoid noticing that companionship was easily available only with the young indigenous women. The community had no eligible Euro-American women.”  

The couple met seven months into Pickett’s command.  She was a young attractive teenager with dark hair and eyes and he was a thirty-one-year old widower.  Not much more is known, but witnesses claim that Pickett wanted a legal marriage. In 1857 the Justice of the Peace married them after a tribal gift exchange ceremony. This would have been an illegal marriage because territorials laws prevented civil officials and clergy from officiating interracial marriages. Not long after, officers under Pickett’s command began marrying young women from the Swinomish village south of Bellingham Bay. 

James Tilton Pickett Courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation

The couple resided in Bellingham and Mrs. Pickett became pregnant by April 1857 and their son, James Tilton, was born on New Year’s Eve.  The exact date and cause of Mrs. Pickett’s death is uncertain because no record was kept. It is known that she died a short time after the birth of her child and that she was the first Indigenous women interred in a local “white” cemetery.  After her death, George Pickett sent his son, along with $100, to a couple in Olympia. When he went east to participate in the American Civil War, he never saw Jimmie again.  After his father’s death in 1875, Jimmie began corresponding with his third wife, Sallie Corbell Pickett. She acknowledged that Jimmie was the son of George Pickett but she insisted he was illegitimate with no inheritance rights. Jimmie fought back because anti-miscegenation laws changed to legitimize the mixed-race children of common-law marriages, and the family settled out of court.  Before his death in 1889, Jimmie had become a successful artist and illustrator for the Portland Oregonian and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 

Sources:

Scott D. Sagan, and Samuel K. Sagan. “Pickett’s Other Charge; On the 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg, a Look at the Family Secrets Its Officers Kept.” The Wall Street Journal. Eastern Edition. 2013.

Wellman, Candace. Interwoven Lives Indigenous Mothers of Salish Coast Communities. Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2019. 

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