George W. France and Seatco Prison at Bucoda: Preface

George W. FranceMr. France, who lived from 1865 to 1889, left us a record of his life in his book, The Struggles for Life and Home in the North-West: By a Pioneer Homebuilder.  Unfortunately, for him, he was compelled to spend numerous years of his life in “Hell on Earth” – the Seatco Prison.  His misfortune was to some degree our good fortune because it gives us a detailed view of what life was like in that institution.

Mr. France was arrested for murder.  He contended all his life that the arrest was part of a conspiracy by members of the secret Masonic society, which either included or controlled the government and judicial officials for their personal profit.  If his version of the story is true he was undoubtedly convicted unjustly and incarcerated for years.

On Nov. 25th, 1889, Congressman Thomas H., Brents wrote, “To Whom It May Concern:–”  a personal recommendation of Mr. France stating that he had been convicted of second degree murder but, “it is now generally believed that he committed the homicide in necessary self-defence and, is innocent of any crime whatever.”

An interesting aside here is that prison records list Mr. France as prisoner 53, convicted in Dayton, WA, and incarcerated in 1879 for the crime of Grand Larceny.

Born in New York, George left home during the last winter of the Civil War; 1984-65, and headed west.  I assume that he was too young to have fought in that war; he makes no mention of any military service.  He was bored, and wanted to, “…see and know more of the living, bustling, wild and wide world.”  He clarified that it was, “…not exactly to hunt buffalo and kill Indians on the plains, for killing was never sport to me…”.  His travels took him to the oil fields of Pennsylvania, across the country to Utah and California.  He drilled for oil, drove wagons, hauled freight, cut timber, farmed, and worked in mines.  In 1870 he arrived in the Washington Territory making his way through Lewiston, the Walla Walla area and finally to Dayton, where he spent some time working and building up a nest egg with which he bought a piece of property and built a cabin on it.  He sold the improved land and with his savings was finally able to obtain land for himself and his new wife somewhere between the Pataha and Alowa creeks in what is now Garfield County.

It was this land, which France worked and built upon until 1879, that led to his incarceration at Seatco.  He became the target of a claim jumper who he had allowed to build a cabin on a small part of his land.  The guest soon began a campaign to wrest France’s land from him.  In 1878 the situation escalated until the claim jumper came after France with a rifle, threatened to kill him and, in fact, shot at him.  A gun battle ensued during which France managed to place four chunks of lead in his assailant.  Wounds not withstanding, it took two men to wrestle the man’s rifle away from him, after which, “[Mr.] Jumper,” (not his name, merely referring to him as a claim jumper), “went to his house, boasted that ‘he had shot my companion as well as me,’ and in 12 hours died….”

In fact, although he had fired several shots, neither France or his friend were hit.

The GunfightMr. France dedicates much of his book to his belief that the courts, the government, and the judicial system were controlled by the secret brotherhood of the Masons. Unfortunately for him, his claim jumping neighbor was either one of the brotherhood or was used as a convenient tool in a protracted attempt to gain possession of the land he had put so much sweat into.

Now, while this appears to be a clear-cut case of self-defence, Mr. France was subsequently arrested, witnesses for his defense intimidated and a conviction for murder rendered. Thus began his years in Seatco prison, during which he was often told that his case would be reviewed and that he would undoubtedly be found innocent, but it would help of he would just sign over his land to the right people.

According to Mr. France, his trial was a mockery, he was prevented from subpoenaing witnesses–two of which were thrown in jail and threatened until they refused to testify–was denied knowledge or review of the jurors and “defended” by lawyers aligned with the corrupt judicial system.  Despite preparing his own motion for a new trial, his counsel advised the court that, “it would not be in their client’s interest to have a new trial.”

Convicted he was, and convicted he stayed, and the next years of his life were spent in Seatco Prison — Hell on Earth.

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Bucoda nee Seatco Intro. WA

I’m not nearly finished with Orting, but I felt the need to take a break and decided to do it with Bucoda.  When I first found the name I pondered over whether it was pronounced, Byou-ko-da, or Boo-ko-da. then someone sent me a note saying it was Buh-ko-da. Recently I found this at the Bucoda website, “During the Regular Town Council Meeting on September 10th The Town Council Adopted a Proclamation for the name BOO-CODA for the month of October.  Wherever possible, within and promotional item, BOO-CODA shall be the Town Name in order to create a branded identification for Bucoda, Washington.” So ends the cogitation on this subject.

Located between Centralia and Tenino on Hwy 507, along the Skookumchuck River in Thurston County, WA, it was named using the first two letters of the names of three of the founders of the city, James. M. Buckley, Samuel Coulter and John D. David.  Not the most imaginative method, but it worked.

Aaron Webster Arrived in 1854 and was the first settler at the site.  He established a small saw mill, Apparently also had a farm which he sold to Oliver Shead. The original name of the town was Seatco, and I’ve found two explanations of how it came to have that name. First, that the Indians gave it the Chinook name which meant, “ghost,” or “devil,” when they saw  Mr. Webster’s saw mill eating up the trees.

According to Indian legend, Seatco is the evil one; demon of the dark forest.  In the form of a large Indian, he robs traps, breaks canoes, steals food and goods and when bodies are found dead without explanation, their deaths are attributed to him.  In short, he is responsible for all unexplained bad things.  I think this explains how they felt about Mr. Webster’s saw mill.

The second. according to Neal Corcoran, one time mayor of the town, is that Oliver Shead chose that name and that it was probably a reflection of Shead’s personality.  More on Mr. Shead and why the name might apply later.

Probably the most documented piece of history relating to this little town is that it was the home of the first Washington Territorial prison.  Seatco prison deserves a whole post, or maybe two, all to itself.  For the moment I will merely say that it was called, ” Hell on earth,” and Mr. Shead figured prominently in its reputation.

Poured concrete Odd Fellows Hall, 2009
copyright-Optical Reflex/Ray Elliott

Bucoda Odd Fellows Hall 2009
Copyright – Optical Reflex/Ray Elliott

I visited Bucoda in 2009 on a whim.  The main building, and the one that caught my eye, was what turned out to be the Odd Fellows Hall; unique in that it is a two-story, poured concrete building. Recently I read that there has been some renovation done to this building, one more thing to check out.

Officially incorporated as Bucoda on June 7th, 1910, this little town has a rich history in the coal, timber and railroad industries and as I further research and photograph it I will post more information about this.

According to an undated newspaper clipping, from an unidentified newspaper languishing in a file at the Tacoma Library, “In its heyday, Bucoda was a town of 400; saw mills, two coal mines, box factory, shingle mill, brickyard, door factory. Town consisted of 2 churches, 3 general stores, drug store, 2 barber shops, 2 pool halls, 5 saloons. Fir Tree Saloon, still standing in ’65, had been converted into a church. Had railroad passenger and freight station. Blacksmith shop. Seatco prison, 60×120 feet, two stories but had been converted to town hall and civic center. Became a liability in 1936 and was torn down.”

The other prominent structure on Main street is Joe’s Place, which advertises good food. Joe’s, it is said, has been in operation since the aforementioned heyday.  I didn’t get the chance to try the food, but I will be making the trip back soon.

Joe’s Place, Main St., Bucoda, WA
Copyright – Optical Reflex/Ray Elliott

As I noted in my first post, not every photo will be on subject, and this one is a favorite of mine that I took a few miles up the road on this trip.  More on Bucoda at some future date.  Meanwhile, if you’d like to see more of my photography, visit my photostream at Flickr.

1948 Dodge Club Coupe at rest
Copyright – Optical Reflex/Ray Elliott