The Ms. Chief and
the Big Trees
the two vessels Lieutenant Charles Wilkes had used in charting
Puget Sound were working down the coast to assist the men off the
brig Peacock which had been wrecked on the ominous
Columbia River bar, a shore party went by canoe from Fort
Nisqually to Grays Harbor.
with most activities of the Wilkes Expedition, the canoe survey
was conducted amid controversy. Robert E. Johnson, a young
lieutenant with a weakness for medicinal whiskey was assigned to
lead the party. Then Wilkes learned that while on a trip to
Eastern Washington, Johnson had rewarded a Hudson's Bay Company
employee who helped him with a bowie-knife pistol.
cut-and-shoot weapon was government issue. Wilkes was upset. He
wrote an amendment to Johnson's orders stating that no government
property was to be disposed of "...except through absolute
necessity," in which decision the officer who accompanies you
officer accompanying Johnson was Passed Midshipman Henry Eld.
Johnson, protested that the order made a lieutenant subject to
veto by an inferior. Wilkes didn't like back talk. He ordered
Johnson to go below and think things over for five minutes.
Johnson reappeared he was wearing an Indian hat of spruce root.
Wilkes would not listen to him as "...he was dressed very
unofficerlike... and showed marked disrespect in his manner and
dress to the rules of the Ship and Navy."
he sent Johnson below, this time with orders to be ready to leave
in five minutes, only to have him reappear "..in some temper
and in the same dress."
had Johnson arrested on the spot. He put Eld in command and named
Passed Midshipman George Colvocoresses as second-in-command. (When
the expedition returned to the United states in 1842, Johnson was
court martialled on charges of illegally disposing of government
property and of disobeying a proper order. He was acquitted on
the canoe party made the first American crossing between Puget
Sound and Grays Harbor. Besides the midshipmen, the surveying
expedition consisted of Marine Sergeant Simeon Stearns, Privates
George Rogers and Samuel Dinsman, Seamen Thomas Ford and Henry
Waltham, a half Indian interpreter called Joe, and William D.
Brackenridge, the expedition's civilian horticulturalist.
was a dour thirty year old Scot, a practical man rather than a
scholar. He had been hired because it was hoped his experience as
a nurseryman in Philadelphia might enable him to keep botanical
specimens alive on the long voyage home.
whose salty journal is in the possession of the Maryland
Historical Society was no admirer of the deposed Lieutenant
Johnson. He was especially critical of the young officer for
keeping the party on short supplies in Eastern Washington. At Fort
Colville he groused:
a fact as singular as tis true that after starving for ten days we
arrived this place with not less than fifteen lbs pork, 3 whole
cheese, 3 cases of sardines...Had I the least idea that such
conduct would be approved by the Commander, I would certainly have
taken the shortest way for the Untied States, namely across the
did Brackenridge approve of Johnson's successor, describing Eld
and Colvocoresses as "...about the poorest hands to conduct
an expedition of this sort that I have ever fallen in with."
It was a trip to try men's patience.
canoes purchased form the Indians at Nisqually were rotten and
leaky. The party's bread was soaked and spoiled on the first day's
paddle to the southern extremity of the Sound.
Eld negotiated with an unusual Indian chief for horses and porters
to carry their canoes and gear across the portage to a tributary
of the Chehalis River.
chief was a woman. She impressed the Americans deeply. "The
squaw chief seemed to exercises more authority than any chief that
had been met with; indeed her whole character and conduct placed
her much above those around her.
horses were remarkably fine animals; her dress was neat, and her
whole establishment bore the indications of Indian opulence.
Although her husband was present, he seemed under such good
discipline as to warrant the belief that the wife ....wore the
canoe trip down the "Sachal" and the "Chickeeles"
was difficult, "...the turns were sometimes so short that the
larger canoe would be in contact with thickets on the banks at
both ends" and mosquitoes added to their exasperation. But
they were impressed by the magnificence of the trees, and by a
stand of planks on the south bank of the Chehalis, rudely carved,
painted with bright red pigment, of which "...nothing could
be learned as to origin."
sketched the carvings on the planks and he and Brackenridge wrote
the first American description of the huge pines (Douglas fir) of
the Grays Harbor hinterland. Wilkes summarized their timber cruise
in his official Narrative of the United States Exploring
Expedition published in 1845.
of these had been burnt, and in consequence had fallen. Mr. Eld
thus had an opportunity of measuring them. One that was not
selected as the largest, for there were many of equal if not
greater length and diameter was measured, and the part that lay in
one piece was found to be two hundred feet long; another piece of
the same tree was twenty-five feet long and at the small end still
ten inches in diameter.
twelve feet for the portion destroyed by fire, Mr. Eld thought
twenty-five feet ought to be added for its top; which makes the
whole tree when growing 260 feet. Others were believed to exceed
this, both in height and diameter."
wonder that when the Gold Rush to California created an immense
demand for boards and timbers in the early 1850s lumbermen looked
north to Washington Territory.