Profiles in Washington Territorial Librarians- Bion Freeman Kendall
[The Territorial Librarian profiles were compiled by Sean Lanksbury, Mary Schaff, Kim Smeenk, and Steve Willis]
Bion (Benjamin) Freeman Kendall, 1853 – 1857
Born Oct. 1827 in Bethel, Maine. Fresh out of Bowdoin College in 1852, Kendall found employment as a government clerk in the Survey Land Office in Washington, D.C. He served as an aide (along with future Territorial Librarian Elwood Evans) on the 1853 Isaac Stevens survey team when the first Territorial Governor made his way to Olympia. Governor Stevens had arranged for the selection of the Territorial Library prior to his departure, and the books arrived by ship in October 1853. The Governor made it to Olympia in November, and Kendall a month later. As Louise Morrison wrote, “Governor Stevens’ first message to the Legislature implied that he considered Kendall the librarian,” but he wasn’t officially elected to the post by the Legislature until April 17, 1854. In that election he defeated attorney Frank Clark on vote of 17-9.
On his qualifications and legacy as Librarian, Maryan Reynolds writes, “Kendall’s political activity and connections were his primary qualifications for the post. Kendall immediately built a small facility at Fourth and Main Streets (now Capitol Way) to house the library. The legislators, holding a proprietary attitude toward the library, bridled at Kendall’s action; they fully expected the Territorial Library to be located under the same roof as themselves …” In his reports to the Legislature, Kendall also provided a listing of the Library’s holdings, the first version of the catalog. He was also appointed as Chief Clerk of the House, February 27, 1854, and was admitted to the bar later that year. In April 1855 his short and meteoric rise found him in the office of acting U.S. District Attorney, and he was elected Prosecuting Attorney for the 2nd District in 1856. Although he eventually became “bitterly opposed” to Governor Stevens, he successfully prosecuted Leschi in his 2nd trial held in Olympia, going against defense attorney Frank Clark.
Realizing he was not making any friends in Olympia, he visited Washington D.C. in early 1861 to lobby for a new post, and was actually present when Fort Sumter was attacked. He served as a spy at the bequest of General Scott, gathering intelligence for the Union government during a swing through the Southern States. As a reward, Kendall was appointed Washington Territory Superintendent of Indian Affairs for awhile. One writer has observed that “Kendall, though an eloquent orator, able, energetic and industrious, was noted for his unyielding opinions, bitter and juvenile prejudices, high-handed contempt for the views of others and his indiscreet utterances.” He was called Bezaleel Freeman Kendall by his political opponents. His editorship of the Olympia newspaper Overland Press gave him ample opportunity to expand the number of his enemies, and one them shot and killed him in his business office in January 1863. Frank Clark, who had been defeated by Kendall for the post of librarian and was also bested by him at the Leschi trial, was the defense attorney for the man charged with Bion’s murder. The accused man fled, never to be seen again. Some historians have suggested it was Clark’s firearm that was used as the murder weapon and the killer was merely an instrument of broad conspiracy.
Contemporary accounts of Kendall’s murder can be found in the WSL newspapers on microfilm collection or online on our digital historic newspapers site (The Puget Sound Herald of Steilacoom covered the story)
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