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November 20, 2022

Robert W. Patten, the Iconic Seattle Street Character Known as the Umbrella Man

Robert W. Patten (1832–1913) was an American eccentric from Seattle, Washington. Few people in Seattle knew much about his past and he was seen as eccentric because of his lifestyle and outrageous claims. He lived on a houseboat, walked around town with an umbrella on his head and spent most of his time outdoors. He claimed to have been a significant historical figure in his own right rating alongside Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson.

He did become a historical figure in a different way, as a recognized part of Seattle’s cultural landscape, especially after cartoonist Dok Hager created a daily comic featuring his image. He was known as Old Sport or the Umbrella Man.

Born in New York in 1832, Robert Patten served in the Civil War from which he drew a small pension. While prospecting in Mexico, he devised his signature hat with an umbrella mounted atop and mosquito netting tucked within.

Coming to Seattle in 1890, Patten told many colorful tales of early life. He claimed that he was born in 1811, ran away from home at age nine, was adopted by Winnebago Chief Big John and romanced the chief’s daughter. Later (he said) he scouted with Kit Carson and saved John Fremont from death, for which heroics (he said) Abraham Lincoln made him Chief Scout of the Army, and that he later gave up the position to Buffalo Bill. As to the veracity of his claims, it may be said that the evidence is scanty.

Living on a Lake Union houseboat, and supporting himself by fishing and doing odd jobs, The Umbrella Man was a colorful figure of early Seattle. Patten was well enough known that when he had a stroke in 1910, he made the front page of the Seattle Daily Times. The Times also ran a story on his life in the Old Soldiers’ Home in Los Angeles. Papers in San Jose and Seattle ran stories which documented his bigger–than–life claims.


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