Robinson at Nisqually
the morning of April 29,  a day of haze and high wind, the
Vincennes and Porpoise were racing north through the murk under
heavy sail. Suddenly, about 10 A.M., "Breakers under the lee!
Breakers under the lee!" The white water was less than a
pistol shot distant. The helmsmen fought to hold the ships clear.
B. Robinson, a purser's clerk on the Vincennes, stood transfixed,
...waiting with breathless
interest, expecting every moment to feel the strike, our ship
driving bows completely under. A man aloft reported land on the
lee bow, over breakers. The Captain would not believe it, at
first, as his reckoning places us at some distance from land. We
were going at a tremendous rate through the water and in less
than a minute I saw land myself from the weather passway about
one point on the lee bow.
It looked very high, shaped
like a sugar loaf, and real dismal through the mist and spray.
The sea was breaking tremendous heavy against it, and over some
smaller ones just showing their heads out of the water alongside
it. We lay well up and weathered it by about a third of a mile.
As we passed abreast of it we saw an aperture through the center
of it of considerable size, and leeward was a still higher and
larger rock or island.
As we weathered it we passed
clear of the breakers and left as we thought all danger astern
but just as we were congratulating ourselves on our narrow
escape the cry of Breakers Ahead and to Leeward brought all
hands to stations. We had but faint hope of saving the old
barkey. We got a cast of lead in five fathoms, the breakers
making a clean breach over the bows and almost drowning the
armorers who were shackling the chains.
As we were just passing out
of this dangerous situation a large rock was discovered about a
pistol shot to leeward but it was passed almost as soon as
discovered and we were out of the labyrinth of dangers
triumphant and grateful for our miraculous deliverance. We now
stood off again to get an offing. Had this occurred at night
instead of daylight, not a soul of our whole crew would have
lived to reach land.
praised all hands for their seamanship, a compliment not returned.
George Sinclair, sailing master of the Porpoise, felt they
had escaped disaster by good luck, not good management. The
commander, he wrote, "Insisted on running by his own
reckoning and as a matter of course, and thereby he came within an
ace of losing both vessels."
days beyond their brush with disaster on the Point Grenville
rocks, the ships anchored in Discovery Bay, forty-nine years to
the day after Vancouver.
was unsure how the presence of United States naval vessels,
obviously sent to strengthen their country's claim in the disputed
land north of the Columbia, would be received by the Hudson's Bay
Company garrison at Fort Nisqually. To test the British attitude,
Wilkes dispatched a message by longboat asking the help of a pilot
and interpreter. After waiting a week he decided that no answer
was answer enough and started south on his own. the next day, off
Whidbey Island, a day so gusty that the Vincennes' lee guns
sometimes went muzzle under, a dugout came alongside with William
Heath, a dark-haired Englishman off the HBC supply ship Cowlitz.
piloted them to Port Orchard, where they spent the night. The next
morning the Vincennes' crew put on a display of bad seamanship.
They set out a light warping anchor while raising their heavy
bower anchor and began to set sail; the kedge failed to hold and
the ship drifted ashore. They worked her clear before she was hard
aground but then the starboard anchor was let go by mistake.
were hum-bugging around for two hours," the purser lamented,
concerned that all this took place under British eyes. But the
cruise south under clearing skies calmed even Wilkes.
Americans took the west channel past Vashon Island and anchored
about 7:30 P.M. across from Point Defiance, a mile north of the
Narrows and only a cable's length (720 feet) from shore, Wilkes
remarking the extraordinary deepness of the water, seventeen
fathoms (102 feet).
have a splendid view of Mt. Ranier, which is conical & covered
about 2/3 of its height with snow," said the first American
to describe it. "Last evening the weather cleared
sufficiently to see it and also Mt. Baker at the Entrance of
Admiralty Inlet. If the weather should prove calm in the morning I
shall make a survey of this part of the Sound. I deem it highly
important because vessels are likely to be detained here in
consequence of the difficulty in getting through the Narrows,
which I trust we shall pass tomorrow and reach the Fort."
morning brought favorable wind and tide so no surveying was done.
Again they had trouble keeping the ships off shore when they
raised anchor, but once underway, clear sailing.
is one of the most Majestic sheets of Warter I ever saw in all my
life," observed the usually dour John W. W. Dyes, one of the
scientists' helpers, who specialized in taxidermy and temperance
lectures to his mates. "The forrist trees of the largist size
grow to the Very Warter's Edge where you may cut a mast or stick
for a Line of Battle Ship. I never saw Sutch large forrist trees
in any part of the world before. This is principally Pine tho
there is considerable oak maple and other branch wood common in
the U States."
too admired the waterway: "Nothing can be more striking than
the beauty of these waters without a shoal or rock or any danger
whatever for the whole length of this Internal Navigation, the
finest in the world."
eight that morning, Tuesday, May 11, 1841, the Vincennes and
Porpoise dropped anchor below the bluff just south of Sequalitchew
Creek, a little seaward of the blackhulled, paddlewheeled Beaver,
the first steamship on the Northwest Coast. "Appears to be a
fine vessel," commented purser's steward Robinson. From the
water they could see no sign of the fort, but soon a boat bearing
two officers rowed out to the flagship.
the first time, British and American officials faced each other on
the water their countries coveted. Alexander Canfield Anderson,
the slight, thoughtful chief trader at Nisqually, and Henry
McNeill, the burly, short-tempered captain of the Beaver, introduced
themselves to Wilkes. They promised the Americans "all
assistance in their power" or, Wilkes added skeptically in
his journal, "at least that was their offer. A few days will
show the extent of it."
meant it. The Hudson's Bay Company gave Wilkes some supplies,
loaned or sold equipment, helped line up Indian guides and
interpreters, showed the Americans around the post. The fort begun
by Heron was complete now. As described by the Vincennes' armorer,
William Brisco, the stockade was an oblong, 200 by 250 feet, of "upright
posts eight or ten feet high, at each corner a Sentry Box or house
large enough to hold fifteen or Twenty persons, perforated with
holes of sufficient size to admit the muzzle of a musket."
Sinclair noted that "the site was never chosen by an Engineer
or wasn't calculated to stand a seige, as its inmates are
compelled to go nearly a mile to get their water." Besides, "the
Stockade is falling to decay and they are about to build another
in a better site."
new establishment was to be farther north, closer to the farm and
dairy. Wilkes inspected the farm and was surprised to find peas
about eight inches high, strawberries and gooseberries in full
blossom, and lettuce already gone to seed, some plants three feet
high. Out on the plain wheat was growing but not doing well: "They
do not average even two Bushels to the acre. I think Rye would
have answered better."
the purser's steward, hiked up the Nisqually valley about fifteen
miles to an Indian fishing station:
We descended a bluff covered
with Pine about 200 feet deep & almost immediately came to
the river which ran very Swift. It is about 30 yards wide and
close to the banks were several huts, just erected, and a basket
work dam, just finished.
The stakes for the dam were
about 3 inches apart, and there was a double line of them, about
four feet apart, and cross pieces to support them both, & on
which the Indians stand and spear the Salmon as they leap the
barrier. Between the two rows of stakes are nets spread to catch
those who fall between the lines. They catch a great quantity of
salmon, which they dispose of to the company agents.
the fish were brought to the Station, Nisqually women cut out the
backbones and chopped off the heads. The salter placed them in a
large hogshead with a quantity of coarse salt. There they remained
for several days until they became quite firm. The pickle this
process produced was boiled in a large copper kettle; the blood
which was floated by the boiling was skimmed, leaving the pickle
salmon were then taken out and packed in forty-two-gallon casks,
more salt was added, and the casks were sealed and laid on their
sides with the bunghole left open. The pickle recovered from the
boiling process was poured in until the cask was full. A circle of
clay about four inches high was made around the bunghole, into
which the oil from the salmon rose. The oil was skimmed, and as
the salmon absorbed the pickle more was poured in.
the oil ceased to rise, the clay circle was removed and the cask
sealed. Salmon cured in this manner would keep at least three
years. The preserved salmon was sent to Vancouver and relayed to
the interior posts as emergency food. Any surplus was sold in the
livestock remained the principal source of income at Nisqually.
Robinson noted "horned cattle in great abundance" and
about a thousand sheep. "I am astonished that our Country
should let them get such a secure footing as they already have got
on this land."
was busy organizing parties to chart the shore and survey the
interior. Anderson gave him permission to build two log workshops
on the hill above the Sequalitchew. One housed the telescopes and
the pendulum clock which was used ashore to check the accuracy of
the ships' chronometers; the other served as a storehouse and as
drafting room for the chart makers.
one corner of the observatory, Carpenter Amos Chick buried two
pennies, one minted in 1817, the other in 1838, both borrowed from
John Dyes, and a bit of doggerel written by Robinson about the
British/American rivalry for land still occupied by the Nisqually.
Though far from our homes,
yet still in our land
True Yankee enterprise will ever expand
And publish to all, each side of the main
We triumphed once and can do it again.
A problem, a problem, oh! hear great and small
The true owners of the country are still on their soil
Whilst Jonathan and John Bull are growling together
For land which by rights belongs not to either.
Philosopher, listen & solve me this doubt
Which has troubled so many wiseacres about.
By what right does the Bull claim pasturage here
Whilst he has plenty of pasturage elsewhere?