J. Ross Browne and Port
difficulty with a federal payroll is that it means federal
inspectors. For Port Townsend, one trouble with being port of
entry for Puget Sound was J. Ross Browne.
the presidential election of 1856, the faithful followers of James
A. Buchanan lined up hopefully. Among the job hunters was a
heavy-shouldered young Democrat from New York, J. Ross Browne. He
listed his qualifications for government service as including
employment as blubber-stripper on an Antarctic whaler, squirrel
hunter in the Kentucky backwoods, ferry-keeper, flatboat hand,
short-story writer, and all-important-campaigner for Buchanan.He
was offered an appointment as special agent for the United States
Treasury Department on the Pacific Coast. Browne said later, "At
great pecuniary sacrifice (in a prospective sense, for I hadn't a
dime in the world), I announced myself as ready to proceed to
reports may well be unique in the history of the Treasury
Department. What experience he lacked as an accountant he
attempted to compensate for by his talent for burlesque. His
reports on the revenue service operation on Puget Sound were
models of unrestrained unenthusiasm. Of the revenue cutter based
on Port Townsend he wrote:
She finds occasional
occupation in chasing porpoises and wild Indians. It is to be
regretted that but little revenue has yet been derived from either
of these sources; but should she persist in her efforts there is
hope that at no distant day she may overhaul a canoe containing a
keg of British brandy that is to say, in case the paddles are
lost, and the Indians have no means of propelling it out of the
way. . . .
Now and then they run
on the rocks in trying to find their way from one anchorage to
another, in which event they require extra repairs. As this is for
the benefit of navigation, it should not be included in the
account. They generally avoid running on the same rock, and
endeavor to find out a new one not laid down upon the
charts-unless perhaps, by some reckless fly-in order that their
vessels may enjoy the advantage of additional experience.
was Browne swept off his feet by the charms of Port Townsend,
which now termed itself Hub City of Puget Sound:
Port Townsend is
indeed a remarkable place. The houses, of which there must be at
least twenty in the city and suburbs, are built chiefly of pine
boards, thatched with shingles, canvas and wood slabs. The streets
of Port Townsend are paved with sand, and the public squares are
curiously ornamented with dead horses and the bones of many dead
This of course gives
a very original appearance to the public pleasure grounds and
enables strangers to know when they arrive in the city, by reason
of the peculiar odor, so that, even admitting the absence of
lamps, no person can fail to recognize Port Townsend in the
languages spoken are the Clallam, Chinook and Skookum-Chuck, or
Strong Water, with a mixture of broken English; and all the public
notices are written on shingles with burnt sticks, and nailed up
over the door of the town-hall. A newspaper, issued here once
every six months, is printed by means of wooden types whittled out
of pine knots by the Indians, and rubbed against the bottom of the
editor's potato pot. The cast-off shirts of the inhabitants answer
affairs, Browne indicated, were oddly managed. He said the jail, a
log edifice, bad been built on beach sand and that some Indian
prisoners, "rooting for clams, happened to come up at the
outside." He went on to discuss the manner in which the
pioneers determined those best suited for civic leadership:
On the day of
election, notice having been previously given on the town
shingles, all the candidates for corporate honors go up on the top
of the hill back of the waterfront and play at pitch penny and
quoits till a certain number are declared eligible; after which
all the eligible candidates are required to climb a greased pole
in the center of the main public square. The two best then become
eligible for the mayorally, and the twelve next best for the
candidates then get on the roof of the town hall and begin to yell
like Indians. Whoever can yell the loudest is declared mayor, and
the six next loudest become members of the common council for the
purpose of Browne's visit to Port Townsend was to have an audience
with the Duke of York, a chief of the Clallams. Opinions differ
about the duke, whose Indian name was Chetzemoka. Local residents
considered him strong and intelligent, a friend of the white man,
and a pillar of strength for his people.
Welsh, an authority on Port Townsend, says,
"His part in the
development of the Northwest, and more especially, Port Townsend,
has reserved a place for him on the historical honor roll of the
region. Beautiful little Chetzemoka Park is named for the gallant
Indian who many times saved the settlement from extermination."
Theodore Winthrop, who rented a canoe from him in 1853, begins his
description of the incident with the remark, "The Duke of
York was ducally drunk." And Browne, who called on him four
years later, said that not only the Duke but his two wives, known
to the whites as Queen Victoria and Jenny Lind, had had a
I complimented him
upon his general reputation as a good man and proceeded to make
the usual speech, derived from the official formula, about the
Great Chief in Washington, whose children were as numerous as the
leaves on the trees and the grass on the plains.
said the duke, impatiently. "Him send any whisky?"
No, on the contrary,
the Great Chief had beard with profound regret that the Indians of
Puget Sound were addicted to the evil practice of drinking whisky,
and it made his heart bleed to learn that it was killing them off
rapidly, and was the principal cause of all their misery. It was
very cruel and very wicked for white men to sell whisky to the
Indians and it was his earnest wish that the law against this
illicit traffic might be enforced and the offenders punished.
said the duke, turning over on his bed and contemptuously waving
his hand in termination of the interview. "This Tyee no
accounts of life in the Pacific Northwest came to the attention of
a congressman who, during a debate on the budget, inserted some
quotations in the Congressional Record. And Browne sent articles
to magazines and newspapers for publication. In time some of the
documents were reprinted in the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat and
reached Port Townsend.
may have callused hands, but their skins are thin. The dullest
barb pricks them painfully. Browne's broad axe cut deep into Port
Townsend's pride. Civic leaders, including Plummer, Pettygrove,
and Hastings, composed a long and humorless letter of protest.
Browne replied with an open letter in the San Francisco Bulletin,
in which he apologized, after a fashion:
You do not think it
can possibly have escaped my memory that I found you engaged in
your peaceful avocations as useful and respectable members of
society. Now upon my honor I can not remember who it was
particularly that I saw engaged in peaceful avocations, but I
certainly saw a good many white men lying about in sunny places
fast asleep and a good many more sitting on logs of wood whittling
small sticks, and apparently waiting for somebody to invite them
into the nearest saloon; others I saw playing billiards and some
few standing about the corners of the streets, waiting for the
houses to grow.
apology was not accepted. There followed a vigorous public
correspondence, the result of which, Browne was to argue later,
made Port Townsend the Northwest city best known to Californians.
this period a bearded young Scot passed through Port Townsend en
route to Olympia.
tattered appearance attracted little attention, but when he bought
a new wardrobe and paid for it with gold dust poured from a poke
made of the scrotum of a bull elk, he no longer went unnoticed.
All at once he had a hundred friends and a thousand questioners.
He was a reticent man, but he could not keep his secret.
name was McDonald, and he had found the gold himself up in Canada,
on the Fraser River. He and a partner named Adams had spent the
preceding year on the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, and they had, in
what was then a fresh and lovely phrase, "struck it rich."
Long afterward some people paused to wonder what had become of
Adams, and the legend grew that McDonald had arrived with gold
enough for two. But at first no one had time for such speculation.
Everyone along the coast was outfitting-or helping others to
outfit for the rush to the Fraser.
traffic picked up. Port Townsend had more than its share of
visitors. For this Browne publicly took credit.
people of California were well acquainted, through the Newspapers,
with at least one town on Puget's Sound. If they knew nothing of
Whatcomb, Squill-chuck and other rival places that aspired to
popular favor, they were no strangers to the reputation of Port
Townsend. Thousands, who had no particular business there, went to
look at this wonderful town, which had given rise to so much
citizens were soon forced to build a fine hotel. Traders came and
set up stores; new whisky saloons were built; customers crowded in
from all parts; in short it became a gay and dashing sort of place
and very soon had quite the appearance of a city.
it was that when official duty brought Browne back to Port
Townsend be was met not by a tar-and-feather brigade but by a
delegation from the common council, who made speeches of welcome.
Then they escorted him to a saloon, where, Browne recalled in an
article in Harpers Monthly, "we buried the hatchet in an
ocean of the best Port Townsend whisky."
was mellow enough to add a careful postscript.
"It is due the
citizens to say that not one of them went beyond reasonable bounds
on this joyous occasion, by which I do not mean to intimate that
they were accustomed to the beverage referred to."
time few took offense. Browne kept up a correspondence with
several of his former antagonists, sending them presents from
out-of-the-way places. In 1867 he came back again, this time in a
private capacity. Waiting for him on the dock, a bottle of whisky
under his arm, was the Duke of York. And in the Port Townsend
Weekly Message there appeared a poem of greeting:
Welcome stranger, to
our clam beach,
To our clams and tangling whisky.
The Duke and wives all wait to greet you:
Toothless, blear-eyed, dusky matrons-
Matrons soaked in strychnine whisky,
On the clam beach at Port Townsend.
All were drunk, though patient waiting,
For the hyas Boston tyee
Who remembered them in Lapland
And their dear Port Townsend whisky.
generations of Port Townsend residents cherished the reputation
that their waterfront first achieved during the Fraser gold rush.
Even the reformers took pride in the gaudiness of night life down
on the beach; one Christian lady boasted, "Sodom and Gomorrah
wasn't in it." A pamphlet issued by the Chamber of Commerce a
few years ago wistfully quoted a retired admiral on the good old
There was a man's
town! Port Townsend was wild and prosperous then. A little too
wild for a young ensign from the East. The first night I spent in
a hotel there a man came down with smallpox in one room next to
mine, and in the other a man was murdered.
were giants in those days. You could smell the whisky in the dirt
along Water Street to a depth of ten feet, they said. There was
one saloon for every seventy inhabitants-man, woman, and child.
Local bad men formed a union known as the Forty Thieves. So many
men, after visiting Victoria, returned to Port Townsend with
bottles concealed in their high rubber boots that peninsula
philologists claim the town gave to the language the word "bootlegger."