Murray C. Morgan
J. Ross Browne and Port Townsend
The Last Wilderness
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1955.
P. 39-45.

Northwest Room & Special Collections
Murray's People: A collection of essays

J. Ross Browne and Port Townsend

spacerOne 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.
spacerAfter 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 duty."
spacerBrowne's 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.

spacerNor 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 cows.
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 darkest night.
The prevailing 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 for paper.

spacerPublic 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 common council.
These fourteen 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 ensuing year.

spacerOne 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.
spacerWilliam 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."

spacerBut 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 snootful:

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.
"Oh damn," 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.
"Oh, damn," said the duke, turning over on his bed and contemptuously waving his hand in termination of the interview. "This Tyee no 'count!"

spacerBrowne's 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.
spacerPioneers 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.

spacerThis 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.
spacerDuring this period a bearded young Scot passed through Port Townsend en route to Olympia.
spacerHis 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.
spacerHis 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.
spacerMarine traffic picked up. Port Townsend had more than its share of visitors. For this Browne publicly took credit.
spacerThe 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 controversy.
spacerThe 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.
spacerSo 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."
spacerHe 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."

spacerThis 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.

spacerSeveral 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 days:

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.

spacerThere 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."

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