The Donaldsons Stand Among Roslyn's Black Pioneers Part 3
This is the third part of a series on Roslyn’s Black Pioneers, made possible due to the diligent research of Lillian “Babe” (Donaldson) Warren and her husband Robert E. Williams through “The Donaldson Odyssey: Footsteps to Freedom” and the continued efforts of Donaldson family to bring their family history to light.
By Alisa Weis and Ryan Anthony Donaldson
(From left) Man believed to be General Donaldson with his brother George “Sharkey” Donaldson, ca. 1904. (Al “Butch” Smith).
With a growing family of seven children living in Tennessee, Jessee and Anna Donaldson kept hearing of improved opportunities for African Americans in a small town called Roslyn way out west in Washington state. At the end of the 19th century, Roslyn was quickly becoming a coveted destination for diverse and immigrant populations. Coal was an ever-increasing energy commodity, fueled by the Northern Pacific Railroad’s expansion. Opportunity abounded for those willing to work hard with long hours. African American labor recruiter James “Big Jim” Shepperson led hiring efforts. Big Jim was also a politician, business owner, and community leader for African American families ready to spread roots west.
Not quite ready to relocate their entire family to the Pacific Northwest, Jessee and Anna made the difficult decision to send their oldest son solo, thirteen-year-old General. He was (named after Jessee’s friend General Townsend who served with him in the United States Colored Troops 15th Regiment. General was entrusted to scout out the region for them first. Soon after General boarded the Franklin, WA bound company train, he was taken under Big Jim’s wing, and the Donaldsons came to regard him as a benevolent family friend. General is referenced by one of his nicknames “James Donaldson” in Ernest Moore’s The Coal Miner Who Came West for the May 1891 passenger record, disembarking in Cle Elum prior to the train’s final stop.
Despite Mr. Shepperson’s valuable aid, the modern-day Donaldsons shake their heads in wonder, envisioning their own thirteen-year-old family members taking a train across the country. So often kids this age are just coming into their own, taking off on bike rides or starting to go to the movies with their friends. Moving to another state alone full of uncertainty of how you’ll be received for the color of your skin is hard to fathom.
“General inspires me almost as much as Jessee for traveling to Roslyn by himself,” Butch said. “He may have had Big Jim’s guidance, but he decided to travel ahead of his family, and it was a [contentious/difficult time]. They didn’t know they’d be breaking a white coal miner’s strike and issued rifles. Some Black men got off the train rather than [enter the fray]. They were considered “scabs” for being the replacement to white miners. They weren’t well received, and it was a difficult beginning in Roslyn.”
Though recognized for his vast influence as a leader, including his founding of the Black Masonic Lodge, Shepperson remains a controversial character in Roslyn’s history. He appealed directly to Black families, promising opportunities to own land, but he reportedly failed to mention that they’d be breaking white coal miners’ strikes. When revealed, this intentionally omitted information tempered the enthusiasm of the recruited Black families seeking a better life. When Black male miners and their families arrived, they were met with an intense and oppressive environment. One telegram sent to Tacoma in December of 1888 details how the “new men were badly used up” and how “mob reign rules in Roslyn tonight.” Families customarily traveled later to join their brothers, uncles, and husbands.
"Mine No. 3, Ronald, Washington" (1915). Roslyn African American History Photographs. 48. https://digitalcommons.cwu.edu/roslyn_african_american_history/48 (Central Washington University Libraries) As Black miners first arrived at their worksite, they were often escorted by Pinkerton guards and carried weapons to defend themselves. The #3 mine was protected with barbed wire, a dirt barrier, and logs to fortify safety for Black miners to work. (Roslyn: Images of America). Many Black workers made their first homes in makeshift shanties in the old town of Jonesville nearby, just beyond Ronald. Within time, Shepperson began a popular recreation hall in Roslyn, and The Seattle Republican praised him as “the power in Kittitas County politics” (James Edward Shepperson (1858-1934) • (blackpast.org)). Community clubs and churches were established through local networks with connections back home.
Though some historical accounts tend to gloss over the ease at which Black families were accepted and enabled to earn equal pay, not all accounts mention the first years when African Americans were threatened and treated with hostility. In the first year they arrived, they froze through the winter in inadequate housing and their loved ones were reportedly not even permitted burial in the Roslyn Cemetery (see Coal Town in the Cascades). Organizations like the Knights of Pythias would soon enough form to cover such essential expenses with Mount Olivet designated as the separated African American burial site.
General saw enough potential beyond the shortcomings of this new Pacific Northwest destination that he urged his entire family to join him. General began mining soon after his arrival in Roslyn and survived the deadly explosion that claimed many lives on that notorious day of May 13, 1892. Regarded as Roslyn’s bleakest time to this date, General experienced the dangerous gas filling the air and the subsequent wave of sadness that enshrouded Roslyn in the wake of 45 men killed. One doesn’t have to look too hard to realize General inherited his father Jessee’s persistence and fortitude. Surviving through the town’s tragedy, General continued to work the coal mines and learned the trade of carpentry in his spare hours. He had the support of Big Jim and so did his father. Shepperson’s signature is found on one of Jessee’s many petitions for his pension.
According to his McNeil Island prisoner intake ledger, Jessee Donaldson and the rest of his family finally set out for the land of purple wildflowers, plunging blue waters, and evergreen surroundings in 1894. In 1897, Jessee realized his dream, becoming property owner of a Roslyn frame house and all outhouses on the south and east of the 6th block. He stepped into the dual roles of coal miner and farmer for the next five to seven years. It took 15 years for Jessee to receive his first pension check. To obtain it, he’d applied repeatedly, enlisted the testimonies of friends, and endured setbacks from his injuries without it. The musket that had blown up in his face took a lot of his eyesight along with a diagnosis of photophobia. To imagine that he endured this plight and still tunneled below ground with his pickaxe and lamp on his hat for years is humbling. There’s record that Jessee finally received his first pension check for $24 in 1908.
Though living in the Pacific Northwest demanded much of his sweat and toil, Jessee didn’t allow anything to hold him back. He kept one foot in front of the other. What’s monumental about his time in Roslyn is that he was able to put down roots on land that belonged to him. It was a dream fulfilled after sixteen years enslaved by his birth father and his white stepmother, his four years of service in the War, three years of jailtime in Tennessee, and more years of waiting until he had an adequate income stream. But life didn’t get easier for Jessee.
He unfortunately lost his wife of 30 years, Anna, to tuberculosis in 1904 and was tasked with raising his children alone. It’s a responsibility he took to heart like all the rest that crossed his path.
One instance of Jessee looking out for his own occurred soon after his son, George “Sharkey”, was injured in the mines. When he was nineteen, Sharkey was working as a switcher in Mine #2 and was in an accident that injured his leg and his foot. His father filed guardianship of Sharkey’s affairs and obtained his son’s settlement from the Northwestern Improvement Company. Sharkey was awarded $400 for damages caused, and Jessee continued to look out for his son’s accounts until he was 21 years of age.
Sharkey worked the Roslyn mines for years, even after he married his wife, Pearl, and they had three children of their own. Sharkey dabbled in gold mining for a time under his father-in-law’s direction, but his mining years began to wane after his wife’s tragic death, also to tuberculosis. He eventually followed in his family’s footsteps and moved further west to Seattle seeking opportunities.
1902 Roslyn Map with magnified view showing Donaldson property at the corner of 1st Street and Montana Avenue. (Roslyn Ronald Cle Elum Heritage Club).
Though the Donaldsons didn’t remain Roslyn residents beyond the 1910s, the town’s significance is paramount to them. One of the Donaldson’s precious keepsakes is the land deed to the family’s home on 1st Street and Montana Avenue. A Roslyn map gifted by the Roslyn Ronald Cle Elum Heritage Club is one of the family’s most cherished documents. Moved by the sacrifices of his ancestors, Ray Donaldson presented a script on Jessee’s life (co-written by son Ryan and cousin Butch) as part of the Living History Portrayal at the Roslyn Cemetery Kiosk Dedication in June 2021. Donaldson family members made the trip over the Cascade mountains, some for the first time, in honor of this event. For all involved, and it was an enriching experience to return to the stomping grounds of ancestors. “It’s intriguing to consider what Jessee and Anna endured, but I also can’t imagine it,” Ray said of his family’s determination to forge forward in a society so often opposed to their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Forced to grow up quickly, General forged his own Pacific Northwest path. In 1897, he married Louisa “Ollie” Nicholas-Clark, the daughter of another Roslyn Black pioneer family hailing from Illinois. General learned that the Nicholas family traveled to Roslyn on the same train as he, though he didn’t make their acquaintance until later.
Though skilled at coal mining, General’s first love was always carpentry. Babe writes in the Red Book that “every opportunity that was made available to him, he would remodel, repair, or build homes. Not only did he enjoy this work, but he was also able to supplement and provide for his growing family.”
General and Louisa were blessed with 12 children. Ray and his son Ryan Anthony Donaldson emerged from this branch. The family house that General built at the turn of the century, called “The Robin’s Nest” still stands in Roslyn today. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a renovated, painted-blue home available for vacation renters in near downtown. General sold the home back in 1916 to a Roslyn resident named Eva Strong. General had decided it was time for his branch to move to Yakima, WA to farm. With the demand for coal decreasing in Roslyn, General felt the need to put down roots where he could make more of a living.
Before he took up farming onions, General and his family weathered uncomfortable living arrangements in Yakima. They had to reside in large wooden boxes with tarps for roofs as they awaited ownership of a new home. His son, Henry Donaldson, later attested to them being warm, but it still took considerable time and patience for the large family to have a more suitable home.
The area where the Donaldsons first lived in Yakima was called “Shanty Town.” In 1918, General found the land for his family to settle. Unable to produce a down payment, he and his family had to stay in tents and rent the acreage until they could save enough money to purchase it. Fortunately, the onion crop of 1920 was so strong that General was able to afford the down payment.
Over time, General owned 20 acres of orchard and 30 acres of farmland. The going wasn’t easy from thereon out, especially as the Depression swept over the nation and diminished the value of farm products. Though General had a surplus of apples on his farm, he sometimes had to dump them when they didn’t sell.
He was forced into the wrenching decision to give up owning his land and work as a ranch foreman for white rancher Harold Cahoon. Through saving up, General eventually was able to purchase the Yakima family home his children had grown up in.
General’s perseverance against the odds--which mirrors that of his parents, Jessee and Anna—is indicative of the resolve that runs in the Donaldson bloodline. Whereas General traveled east to farm, many Black miners moved west to Seattle and other nearby cities once work in the mines leveled out.