Cowiche Calls: A Local History
"Tieton From Hatton Road Looking Northeast"
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Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery

When the Pioneers and the early Settlers came along Cowiche Creek beginning in 1867 and up until March 1881, there was no community burial site for the graves of the immigrant dead. Yakama Indian burial grounds existed on the north side of Cowiche Mountain along what is now Pioneer Way, and north of Cowiche Mill Road on the hill north of the old Adrian Wagner homestead down along the South Fork of Cowiche Creek at the west end of Cowiche Valley.

I-90 West bound North of freeway West of Exit 101

Early immigrants buried their dead in family burial plots set aside for that purpose on each of their farms and homesteads. The whereabouts of these family burial sites in Cowiche are lost to the ages in the fields, orchards and brush of the area. A number of individual gravesites however, have been unearthed along the ancient Indian trail that passes over Naches Heights. It is likely that such graves are those of individual cowboys, Indians, and miners as they died along the old Eel trail. On occasion a farmer may unearth a skeleton, but there is seldom identification of the remains. A typical Pioneer/Settler family burial plot would have appeared as the one in the photo above of the old Thorp-Splawn Pioneer Family Cemetery visible today when driving west bound on Interstate Highway I-90, near the small town of Thorp in Eastern Washington.

There may well have been over fifty or more who died in the community of Cowiche from 1867 to 1880. During this time period some who died may have been interred in the old Pioneer Cemetery along Ahtanum Creek in Yakima City (Union Gap) shown in the photo below. However, many of those graves are now lost to changing stream flow, floods, and grave erosion over the years, which has occurred just beyond the current tree line shown in the photo. It is reasonable to believe that the majority of the early dead of Cowiche were buried in local family gravesites similar to that shown above in the photo, rather than in the old Pioneer Cemetery in Yakima City.

Pioneer Cemetery in Union Gap, Looking Southeast from Northwest Corner

Ironically, a Splawn family member is responsible for the Cowiche-Natchez Cemetery that we find in Cowiche today. The Splawn boys came with Major F. M. Thorp’s family, when in 1861 the Thorp family was the first Settlers in the Yakima Valley. The Thorp family first homesteaded east of the Yakima River across from where the Ahtanum empties into the river. It became too crowded for the Major by 1869 across the river from Yakima City, so he moved his family on to the location of the small village of Thorp that bears his family name.

Charles Splawn married Major Thorp’s daughter, thus the name on the grave yard marker in the photo above. Charles Splawn’s younger brother, Andrew J. Splawn, settled in Cowiche Valley and the family owned property in the area until 1950. A. J. Splawn became one of the most prominent ranchers and cattlemen of the 1870s and 1880s, and the first mayor of North Yakima in 1911.

A. J. Splawn, who owned hundreds of acres in the Cowiche area, gave the land where the Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery is today to the community as a communal place to bury its dead. The date was March 1881 and the location was a five acre plot (since reduced to approximately two acres) on the bluff overlooking Pioneer Way N. just as that road turns west after crossing the South Fork of Cowiche Creek at Mahoney Road. The cemetery is believed to be the second oldest registered cemetery in Yakima County. Although the first grave was dug in March 1881, it would be eight more years before the cemetery became registered in 1889. Andrew J. Splawn died in Yakima in March 1917 and is buried near the west entrance to Tahoma Cemetery. The family burial area is marked by a large Egyptian style obelisk easily visible once a person enters the west entrance of Tahoma Cemetery.

The first to be buried in the local Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery was a young man in his early twenties. The Kelly family of five came from the area known today as Tigard, Oregon sometime in the 1870s. They settled on a ranch in what today would be considered Lower Naches not far from Gleed, Washington. There were two sons and a daughter. Within a short period the eldest son lost his life to drowning trying to cross the swollen Naches River with a team and wagon, rather than hiring J. B. Nelson’s rope ferry near Painted Rocks. Not long thereafter, the father succumbed to pneumonia and died. Philander Kelly the remaining son, became the man of the house living with his sister and mother on the ranch his father had started.

Fall-Winter view of Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery

By 1880 families were moving north and west along the North Fork of the Cowiche and Philander wanting a place of his own and knowing of a spring that flowed year round, he rushed to file for a homestead patent on a piece of property at the location of that spring. Today most residence remember the site as that of the Highland Saddle Club. The spring at the site was used by many in the hot summer months to water stock and for many years was known as Kelly’s Spring. Ultimately, the site became the first school in the Tieton area in 1882. The school was called North Fork School. The name of the spring later became known as Donnelly Spring when that family acquired the same homestead property.

On a cold blustery January Morning in 1881, Philander was seen by Anson White coming up out of Cowiche Valley on horseback headed north along what today is Old Cowiche Road. White tells the story of asking Kelly where he was headed on such a miserable day. Philander responded by telling White that earlier a company of beef packers from Seattle had packed out a quantity of beef up along the North Fork in the area we think of today as French Canyon and had abandoned a small herd of horses when they left. Kelly explained to White that it was his plan to find the horses and claim them for himself.

White tells the story that the weather couldn’t have been more miserable that day with heavy dark clouds even at mid-day along the North Fork, bone biting cold and a bit of a snow-sleet in the air. He said he pointed out to Kelly that he was taking a risk; everybody knew the winter in those hills already had been a bad one and it wasn’t half over. White said he told Kelly, “You could get up in those hills and it starts snowing and you won’t be able to find your way out.” Kelly was determined stating he knew right where the horses were and he would be in and out of there before any heavy snow could settle in. With that, Anson White said Kelly turned and headed toward the North Fork. He passed the old mountain-man turned farmer, Joe Robbins’ place up on the North Fork near where Forney Road passes over the North Fork, but no one else saw him that day.

Anson White said that Kelly had no more than gotten out of sight and it commenced to snowing and snowing hard. It snowed all that afternoon and night, and off and on for two more days. White was sure Kelly had not gotten out and organized a search party which included White and Kelly’s friend, Andrew J. Splawn. They rode as far as they could up on Loudon Hill near French Canyon, but the snow became too deep for the horses and they turned back in hopes that Kelly had dug in somewhere waiting for better conditions.

The winter of 1880/1881 turned out to be one of the worst on record in the area. As told elsewhere on this website, over 100,000 head of free range cattle were lost that winter all directly or indirectly due to the weather. It was March before enough snow had melt to warrant another search for Kelly. This time the search party rode back to the spot they had turned back from earlier in January. There, some one hundred yards further north and west they found Kelly sitting at the base of the southeast side of a tree. The area showed evidence that he had made an attempt to get a fire going, but he had been unsuccessful and had fr

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