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John and Clara Tennant

P.R. Jeffcott Collection:  Center for Pacific NW Studies Western Washington University      John and Clara Tennant were settlers, missionaries, teachers, civil servants, and as a couple are representative of the ways in which native and Euro-American cultures were merging and interacting in the early settlement period. Born in the family longhouse at Lummi Peninsula, Clara's father, a Lummi tribal member, and his wife, a Duwamish woman from the White River area east of Tacoma were leaders in the Lummi tribe. In her childhood, Clara learned farming practices, the schedule of seasonal fruits, shellfish harvesting, uses of medicinal plants, childcare, cooking, and food preservation and basketry, an art she practiced the rest of her life. By the time she was about 14, she had completed her education, and was ready to marry and participate in village and family life as an adult.
     John Tennant (1829-1893) was the son of a part-Quapaw woman and a famous Arkansas Methodist preacher. One of 13 children, John grew up in the Ozark hills where life was a seasonal round of constant work. Farming and religious devotion dictated the family's calendar while his father pursued his preaching career.  John arrived in California on an 1853 cattle drive and migrated to Whatcom in 1856. Before leaving Arkansas, he studied surveying and civil engineering at a small college near home, and began to study law after arriving in Whatcom.
P.R. Jeffcott Collection:  Center for Pacific NW Studies Western Washington University      In 1859, Clara married John Tennant and moved to a cabin on his land claim at the edge of the reservation, established by the Point Elliot treaty. Their home was at today's "Tennant Lake" near Ferndale, but called by its Lummi name "Si-lat-sis" by John. Like other farm wives of the period, Clara was half of an economic partnership, whose agricultural and food preservation skills were crucial to their survival. She contributed to their income with the sale of butter and eggs to the McDonough Trading Post. Their second house, built in 1872, became the social center of the rural neighborhood. They hosted many all-night dances and seasonal celebrations. In 1863, Clara had a son that died at age 2, but son Bayard was born fourteen months later. The center of her and John's lives, Bayard acquired tuberculosis while attending the Territorial Institute in Seattle, and died at age 17.
     John Tennant's activities from 1856 to 1878 were an ambitious list, even for a man who seemed tireless. Foremost, he was a farmer, but carried his interest in gardening to the development of new fruit varieties. He became a mountain climber, and with 3 others in 1868, was the first to scale Mt. Baker. In 1870, he worked as interpreter, guide, and tribal negotiator for a railroad exploration trip across the North Cascades. By the time of his marriage, he had already been a legislator, deputy sheriff, deputy county auditor and Democratic Party worker. At various times in the next 20 years, he was a lawyer, probate judge, county school superintendent, county commissioner, assistant U.S. surveyor, assistant Indian Agent, real estate agent, and found other tasks of public service. However, it is for their missionary work that John and Clara Tennant are most remembered. Clara was Catholic, and John, a Methodist, had left his faith behind in the California gold fields where drinking and gambling were the main pastimes. Even so, in 1876, John organized a Sunday school for the children around Ferndale. The next year, he helped with the first camp meeting held at Ferndale by itinerant Methodist ministers. These meetings were welcome summer gatherings for everyone, native and non-native. The next summer meeting, John officially returned to Methodism, and Clara and Bayard also converted. Clara became a Methodist leader among the Nooksacks, at the same time as her brother, Lummi Chief Henry Kwina, became the Catholic lay leader of the area. Clara's connections with the tribes and her knowledge of languages were an asset for John's work. Other missionary projects included a church on Orcas Island and the development of the Nooksack Indian Mission church and school. Their friend, Chief Jim Seclamatan of the nearby Nooksack village, donated part of his own land for the school.
     In 1887, John suffered the first of 3 strokes at their Lynden home and died in 1893.  Clara administered his will, in which he gave all he had to "my beloved wife." Clara was widowed for ten years, and managed the funds and real estate the couple had accumulated over the years. She continued to fulfill her role as a Lummi family elder, and was a Methodist woman leader among the Nooksacks and others. In 1903, the now 60ish Clara married her old friend Chief Jim Yellakanim Seclamatan, known to non-native residents as "Lynden Jim." They shared a common interest in the Nooksack Indian Mission and Stickney School. Clara Tennant Yellakanim died of pneumonia 3 months after her second marriage. She was buried next to Reverend John Tennant and their children at Lynden Cemetery.

Archival Collections

Frank Teck Papers. Alvord, Gertrude Matz. Interview., CPNWS.
Howard Buswell Collection, Bernard McDonough Store Account Books, 1874 -
1878., Box 15. CPNWS.
WA State Archives, NW Region., Probate Cases #424 and #1080 (John Tennant,
Clara Yellakanim). Whatcom County Probate Court Records. Whatcom County Clerk's Office.