Murray's People: A collection of essays about fthe fascinating people who settled and developed the Pacific Northwest

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Murray C. Morgan
Peter Puget on Puget's Sound
Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound
University of Washington Press, 1979
P. 4-14

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Copyright, 1979, Murray Morgan
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Peter Puget on Puget's Sound

spacerThe British merchant captains who visited Northwest America in the sea otter trade that commenced after Cook's voyage reported the existence of the Strait of Juan de Fuca leading toward the interior. The Admiralty instructed Vancouver to explore it, reminding him that "the discovery of a new communication between any such sea or strait and any river running into or from the Lake of the Woods [in northern Minnesota] would be particularly useful."
spacerThese orders had brought Vancouver to the Sound. His hope was that this inland sea might swing eastward through the Cascades or at least be fed by a river that did. But there were complications to exploring it. The waterway just ahead was split by a headland: a broad channel to port slanting southeast, a narrow arm to starboard leading south.
spacerThese were constricted waters and the 330-ton Discovery drew fifteen feet. Vancouver decided it would be prudent to leave the ship at anchor awaiting the arrival of its small consort, the Chatham, which was making a reconnaissance along the eastern shore. He would send a party to explore the southern Sound in small boats "although the execution of such a service in open boats would necessarily be extremely laborious, and expose those so employed to numerous dangerous and unpleasant situations."
spacerHaving made his decision, Vancouver seated himself on a chest that doubled as chair, laid paper on the slanted surface of his writing box, and took up a quill pen. I like to imagine the scene: the ship rocking gently, rigging creaking, small waves slapping, gulls mewing as they wheeled on steady wings. Somewhere out in the darkness a loon laughed. In the cabin, the soft light of the whale oil lamp; ashore, the flare of the Indian fires.
spacerMemo (to Lieutenant Peter Puget):

Concerning a further Examination of the Inlet we are in Necessary and capable of being executed by the Boats. You are at 4 o'Clock tomorrow Morning to proceed with the Launch accompanied by Mr. Whidbey in the Cutter (whose Directions You will follow in such points as appertain to the Surveying of the Shore etc) & being provided with a Weeks Provision you will proceed up the said Inlet keeping the Starboard or Continental shore on board. Having proceeded three Days up the Inlet, should it then appear to you of that Extent that you cannot finally determine its limits and return to the Ship by Thursday next, You are then to return on board, reporting to me an account of your Proceedings and also noticing the appearance of the country, its Productions and Inhabitants, if varying from what we have already seen. Given on board his Britannic Majesty's Sloop Discovery

spacerIn the predawn darkness of Sunday, May 20, the longboats were stowed with muskets, pistols, cutlasses, powder and ball, presents and trading goods, tents, navigating equipment, survey equipment, food, and wine for the officers. The launch was clinker built, twenty feet long and broad enough to seat five pairs of oarsmen, two abreast; it had two demountable masts which, when in place, carried lugsails.
spacerThe cutter was smaller, eighteen feet, with six oars and a single mast. Neither had cabin or decking, though a canvas awning astern gave the officers some protection from the weather.
spacerThey were a young lot, accustomed to hardship. Nearly all of the enlisted men were in their teens or early twenties. Second Lieutenant Peter Puget was twenty-seven or twenty-eight his exact birthday is unknown and had spent half his life in the Navy, having entered service as a midshipman in 1778.
spacerPuget had attracted Vancouver's attention while serving under Captain James Vashon in the West Indies after the Revolutionary War. Joseph Whidbey, master on the Discovery, was about Puget's age, had served under Vancouver in the West Indies, and was the best man with instruments on the expedition.
spacerA fine mathematician, Whidbey had perfected the method of surveying from small boats. His system was to land on conspicuous points, take compass bearings of other prominent landmarks, and, whenever possible, make observations of the sun at noon to determine latitude. As the boats cruised between landings, the officers sketched and took notes. On return to the Discovery, the data were put down on a smooth map and tied into the charts already drawn.
spacerThe oldest man in the longboat party was Archibald Menzies, thirty-eight, a spare, craggy Scot who had visited the Northwest Coast in 1787 as physician aboard the sea otter vessel Prince of Wales and now represented the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific organization, as botanist.
spacerHe had asked to accompany the Puget party "though their mode of procedure in surveying Cruizes was not very favorable for my pursuits as it afforded me so little time on shore . . . yet it was the most eligible I could at this time adopt in obtaining a general knowledge of the Country."
spacerIt was still dark when the longboats pulled away from the Discovery, heading south. A small island (Blake) loomed dim, ragged with fir, against the eastern sky. By the time they entered the chute of Colvos Passage, the Cascades were silhouetted black against an orange sunrise. The tide was against the oarsmen. Squadrons of coots flipped below the surface as the boats approached with thrashing oars.
spacerGulls circled, crying warnings to their nesting young. Seals surveyed them with round, blank eyes, leaned back, and disappeared, the memory of their closing nostrils lingering like the smile of the Cheshire. Herons lifted from the surf-line on somber wings and, with cries like tearing canvas, settled into the tree tops.
spacerThe English were not alone. A small, dark dugout followed them, its two paddlers holding close to the western shore, responding neither to waved handkerchiefs nor to the flourish of fir branches, a sign of peace among Indians farther north.
spacerAbout eight o'Clock the canoe spurted ahead and turned into a narrow cove (Olalla, "the place of many berries"). It was time for breakfast. Perhaps the natives would join them. Puget gave orders to enter the inlet. They found the canoe "hauled up close to the trees" among the salal and huckleberry, but the Indians had disappeared. "Some Beads, Medals and Trinkets were put among their other articles in the Canoe as a Proof that our Intentions were Friendly."
spacerThe tide was slack when they again took to the water, but a fair north wind helped them down a channel two miles wide and so deep that though "soundings were frequently tried no Bottom could be reached with 40 fathoms of line." The sky was clear, the sun hot. About noon, the shore on their left curved away to the east. They found themselves tooling up Dalco Passage into Commencement Bay where Tacoma now stands.
spacerAh, to have been with those first Europeans to see the bay, see it unimproved, the cone of the slumbering volcano heavy with winter's snow sweeping up from green tideflat and dark forest to dominate the Cascade barrier. They had sighted the Mountain before - Vancouver first noted it from Marrowstone Point up by Port Townsend on May 8 and named it in honor of an old friend, the myopic Rear Admiral Peter Rainier - but no view of Mount Rainier surpasses this one.
spacer"A most charming prospect," wrote the scientist Menzies. The Mountain "appeared close to us though at least 10 to 12 leagues off. The low land at the head of the Bay swelled out very gradually to form a most beautiful and majestic Mountain of great elevation whose line of ascent appeared equally smooth & gradual on every side with a round obtuse summit covered two thirds of its height down with perpetual Snow as were also the summits of a rugged ridge of Mountains that proceed from it to the Northward."
spacerFrom the poor vantage of sea level, they puzzled out the pattern of waterways and guessed correctly that the land they had coasted on the port side was an island (which Vancouver later named for Puget's old commanding officer, James Vashon). Their instructions were clear; they were to follow the shore to starboard, so they did not inspect Commencement Bay, instead entering the Narrows where "a most Rapid Tide from the northward hurried us so fast past the shore that we could scarce land."
spacerFor five miles the rowboat flotilla rode the tidal stream south. Then an arm opened to westward, Hale Passage, and they entered it only to find to their surprise the current so strong against them they could make little progress. (It sweeps clockwise around Fox Island, the southern shore of the passage.)
spacerSo Puget's party put ashore on Point Fosdick to take their noon meal and wait a change of tide. As they dined, two canoes which had followed them through the Narrows passed the picnic spot and disappeared into an inlet farther west.
spacerThe Puget party reached the inlet about three in the afternoon. Wollochet Bay, the place of squirting clams, is narrow but about two miles in length. The evergreen forest was interspersed with the cinnamon boles of madronas and the rounded crowns of mountain ash, the first ash they had seen on the Sound. "The Soil appeared good and produced a quantity of Gooseberry, Raspberry and Current Berries now highly in Blossom which intermixed with Roses, exhibited a Strange Varigation of Flowers but by no Means unpleasant to the Eye."
spacerJust inside the eastern entrance they detected the house frames of a deserted village, but not until they were leaving the cove did they see Indians. Then they heard a shout from the western shore and saw a party digging clams. When it became clear the English intended to land, the women and children gathered their baskets and "scudded into the woods loaded with parcels."
spacerThe men came out in two canoes to meet the strangers. They were all naked. "In their Persons these People are slenderly made. They wear their Hair long which is quite Black and exceeding Dirty. Both Nose and Ears are perforated, to which were affixed Copper Ornaments & Beads." This first meeting of the Puyallup-Nisqually people with the whites went well.
spacer"We made them some little presents to convince them of our amicable intentions, on which they invited us by signs to land," says Menzies. "The only one we found remaining on the Beach was an old woman without either hut or shelter, setting near their baskets of provisions & stores. The former consisted chiefly of Clams, some of which were dried and smoked and strung up for the convenience of carrying them about their Necks, but a great number of them were sill fresh in the shell, which they readily parted with to our people for buttons, beads & bits of Copper."
spacerThe women and children who had hidden in the forest were lured from the woods and were also presented with beads and bits of metal.
spacerWhen the explorers set out, the Indian men followed in their canoes. Puget made camp about eight o'Clock on Green Point, where Hale Passage merges into Carr Inlet. As the seamen erected the marquee, a large field tent, for the officers and smaller shelters for themselves, the Indians "lay on their Paddles about one Hundred Yards from the Beach attentively viewing our operations."
spacerThe presence of the Indians presented Puget with a bit of a problem. It was customary when making camp to discharge the firearms that had been carried primed and shotted in the boats during the day. But Puget was afraid the shots would alarm the natives.
spacer"Finding however they kept hovering about the Boats & being apprehensive they would be endeavoring to commit Deprecations during the night, I ordered a Musket fired but so far was it from intimidating or alarming them they remained stationary, only exclaiming Poh at every report, in way of Derision."
spacerWhether the Indians were mocking the whites or merely mimicking the sound remains in doubt. No matter. They soon withdrew and made camp on Fox Island. The night passed without incident.
spacerThe Englishmen awoke Monday morning in light rain and set off without breakfast. The tide ran against them but the rain soon stopped. Flocks of pigeon guillemots cruised the heavy green waters; some dived as the longboats approached but most skittered across the surface in long take-off runs, trailing hoarse whispers of protest as they curved toward land to fire themselves point blank into nest holes in the clay cliffs.
spacerWhen the English landed on a small island off the mouth of Horsehead Bay (the journals do not make clear whether it was Raft Island or tiny Cutts), a host of crows voiced objection. In vain: the explorers shot some fledglings and breakfasted on young crow cooked on spits over a beach fire. Puget was pleased. He jotted a note that his men's willingness to eat crow meant the provender in the boats could, if necessary, be stretched across extra days of exploration.
spacerPuget thought the inlet led nowhere, but. . . more clearly to ascertain what appeared almost a Certainty, we continued pulling up for its head till near Eleven, when the Beach was close to the Boats. [They were in Burley Lagoon.] In the SW Corner of the Cove was a Small Village among the Pines, and beyond the termination the country had the appearance of a Level Forest, but close to the water it was covered with small Green Bushes. We pulled in toward the Village but seeing a Canoe paddling from it towards us induced us to lay on our Oars to wait their Approach, but neither Copper nor any Article in our Possession had sufficient allurement to get them close to the Boats.
spacerThey lay about twenty yards from us and kept continually pointing to the Eastward, expressing of a Wish that our Departure would be more agreeable than our Visit. Knowing all our Solicitations would not bring on a Reciprocal Friendship, & we were only losing time, therefore we left Those Surly Gentlemen and Kept along the Opposite or Southern Shore of this Western Branch. However I did not like to quit these Indians altogether without giving some evident Proof that our Intention was perfectly friendly, & an Expedient was hit on that soon answered our Purpose.
spacerSome Copper, Medals, Looking Glasses & other Articles were tied on a Peece of Wood & left floating on the water. We then pulled away to a Small Distance. The Indians immediately Picked them up. Eventually they ventured alongside the Boat but not with that Confidence I could have wished.
spacerThese Indians were "more Stout than any we have hitherto seen," and two of the three in the canoe had lost their right eyes and were pitted with smallpox. "During the time they were alongside the Boats they appeared exceeding shy and distrustful, notwithstanding our Liberality towards them. . . . Though they wanted Copper from us they would not part with their Bows or Arrows in Exchange."
spacerThe English rowed southward along the western shore of the inlet.
spacerThe day had cleared; it was hot and muggy, Puget's thermometer registering 90 degrees, very warm for May. Early in the afternoon they put into a small cove, probably the lagoon at the mouth of Minter Creek, to dine. "Here," says Menzies' journal, "we found two or three small runs of water & was going to haul a small Seine we had in the Launch, but the appearance of six Canoes with about 20 people in them which our shy followers had collected by their vociferous noise prevented it."
spacerThe first confrontation between whites and Indians on Puget Sound occurred in a dispute over fishing. The Salish peoples were not greatly concerned with material possessions but were jealous of songs, prayers, insignia of rank and kinship, and of places where a man had the right to hunt or fish, first or exclusively.
spacerSuch rights were sacred possessions passed between generations; they could not be sold or traded, though they might in desperation be risked in gambling. Their protection was integral to the Indians' web of culture, a basic strand in the fabric of society. For someone to violate such rights was stealing; worse than stealing, it was insult, implying a master/slave relationship: "I am so much above you I need not even ask." And here were these strangers beside the stream with a net.
spacerPuget knew none of this. What he did know was that his party was confronted by men, hostile and armed. He knew, too, that five years earlier a landing party from the British sea otter vessel Imperial Eagle had simply disappeared at the mouth of the Hoh River on the western side of the Olympic Mountains. He need not be an anthropologist to recognize danger.
spacerQuietly he told his men to fold up the net but to act unconcerned. He drew a line in the beach gravel and by gestures "the intent of which they perfectly understood" asked the Indians to stay on the far side.
spacerSeveral of the landing party had brought their muskets ashore. Puget reasoned that to go back to the boats for more weapons might precipitate trouble. Instead he led the party up the bank and settled down nonchalantly to eat, keeping unobtrusive watch. The Indians got back in their canoes and began a lively discussion among themselves, pointing sometimes to the boats, sometimes at the shore party, gesturing as if planning tactics.
spacerSome canoes began to move toward the launch and cutter. Puget's group shouted and pointed their guns. The Indians paddled back to the mouth of the stream.
spacerAt this point, a seventh canoe carrying four men entered the cove. As it approached, the Indians already present splashed ashore and began stringing their bows, but whether for an attack on the new-comers or the whites Puget could not be sure. He found his position most awkward, being unwilling to fire on these poor People, who might have been unacquainted with the advantage we had over them, and not wishing to run the Risk of having my People wounded by the first discharge of their Arrows, I absolutely felt at a Loss how to Act."
spacerDoubts about the Indians' intentions were quickly resolved: the men from the new canoe joined the party on the beach and strung their bows.
spacerFor a moment they formed an ancient frieze, motionless under the midday sun, red confronting white, native facing invader, stone age man resisting the intrusion of change. No one spoke. The very crows were quiet. Then a lone warrior edged up the bank, bow in hand, quiver bristling, and moved toward the protection of a tree only fifteen feet from Puget's party.
spacerThe English arose, muskets ready. The men in the launch and cutter swung the small cannon mounted on swivels at the prow of each craft to menace the Indians by the stream. One of Puget's men approached the young man who had climbed the bank, put a musket to his chest and marched him, unresisting, back to the beach.
spacerOn the bank the seamen quickly gathered the equipment they had brought ashore and made ready to leave. The Indians remained on their side of the line in the gravel, shouting, gesturing, sharpening their arrowheads on the beach rocks. Puget ordered one of the swivel guns to be fired across the water as a demonstration of the power of cannon. Neither the explosion and smoke nor the distant splash of grapeshot seemed at first to impress the Indians. Poh, they exclaimed, more loudly than before.
spacerAbruptly, unexpectedly, the confrontation ended. The Indians now offered for Sale those Bows and Arrows which had shortly before been strung for the worst of Purposes." They even sold the garments from their backs, and, as the explorers rowed away, offered what remaining articles they had to trade. At last "finding we were drawing fast from their Habitations they began to leave us. In half an hour we were again left to ourselves but we had the Satisfaction of having convinced them of our Friendship before their Departure."
spacerThe weather, too, had changed. Clouds drawn from the ocean by the unseasonable heat released "a perfect deluge of rain" and about five miles from Alarm Cove, Puget landed at South Head and made camp.
spacerFor the next five days in weather that ranged from rain to fog "so thick we could not see the boats from the tents" to a thunder storm, then back to brilliant sunshine, the survey party traced the outlines of the inland sea, circling its islands, probing its inlets.
spacerThey noted flora and fauna. They found delicious small oysters, abundant clams, "luxuriant ferns that grow over head." They reported few streams, failing to locate the mouth of the Nisqually among the cattails.
spacerEverywhere they found the Indians friendly. Indians brought them presents of wild raspberry shoots, arrow grass, and (on request) salmon while the party camped on Anderson Island; happily traded from their canoes in the shoals off Nisqually Reach; taught Menzies how to count from one to ten in Salish; gave navigating directions by sign language; and on the last day of the survey entertained the English ashore in a village on Eld Inlet.
spacer"We landed for a short time and were received by the Inhabitants with all the Friendship and Hospitality we could have expected," said Puget:

These people I should suppose were about Sixty in Numbers of all Ages and Descriptions. They lived under a kind of Shed open at the Front and Sides. The women appeared employed in the Domestic Duties such as curing Clams & Fish, making baskets of various reeds, so neatly woven that they were perfectly water tight. The occupations of the men I believe consist chiefly in Fishing, constructing Canoes and performing all the laborious work of the Village. . . .

The only Difference I perceived between our present companions and former visitors were the Extravagance with which their Faces were ornamented. Streaks of Red Ochre & Black Glimmer were on some, others entirely with the Former, and a few gave the Preferences to the latter.

Every person had a fashion of his own, and to us who were Strangers to Indians this Sight conveyed a Stronger Force of the Savageness of the Native Inhabitants than any other Circumstance we had hitherto met with; not but their Conduct, friendly and inoffensive had already merited our warmest Approbation, but their Appearance was absolutely terrific.

It will frequently occur that the Imagination receives a much greater Shock by such unusual Objects than it would was that object divested of its Exterior Ornaments or Dress, or the Sight was more familiarized to People in a State of Nature. Though we could not behold these Ornaments with the same satisfactory Eye as themselves, yet in receiving the Looking Glasses, each native appeared well satisfied with his own Fashion; at least the Paint was not at all Altered.

They likewise had the Hair covered with the Down of Birds, which certainly was a good substitute for Powder. near Paint only differed in the Colour and not the Quantity used by our own Fair Countrywomen. In these two Instances we meet with some Resemblance to our Customs and I believe the above mentioned Ornaments were of a Ceremonious Nature for our Reception at the Village. . . .

They appear much attached to the Women and hold Chastity as one of the Cardinal Virtues, and not like our friends at the Sandwich Islands make Prostitution a Trade. Immense Presents would not tempt these Girls, though coaxed with Rage to violate the Marriage Bed and much to their Credit be it Spokan they remained Stedfast in this Refusal.

Credit is apparently due for this steady attachment and affectionate Conduct to their Husbands in such trying Situations, as the Articles offered were of inestimable Value in their opinions, and such as would have flattered their Vanity; not that their Beauty or Appearance created any violent Desire for the possession of their Persons. Such Questions were put merely to try, howfar they conceived Good Conduct was binding in the Matrimonial State, and I may say from these Circumstances that a Contract of that high Importance to Civil Society is among these poor and uncivilized Indians preserved in its greatest Purity.

spacerBy Saturday afternoon the explorers had completed their investigation of the inlets. Beautiful as was the inland sea, it was a dead end, offering no waterway to the interior. Had the apocryphal Greek, Juan de Fuca, actually entered the strait now named for him and sailed, as alleged, for twenty days he would have ended not in the North Sea, as myth would have it, but at Mud Bay.
spacerThe Puget party dined at Johnson Point. "A favorable breeze sprung up from the Southward which we made use of to return to the ship." The wind strengthened to a gale; though rain began to fall heavily Puget risked sailing by night. The boats swept north through the tide race of the Narrows, crossed the lumpy waters between Point Defiance and Vashon, and rode the gale and current up Colvos Passage. At two in the morning they were back on the Discovery, having completed their assignment in two hours less than seven days.
spacerPuget when he reported to Vancouver was enthusiastic about the area that bears his name:

The Land in the Southern Inlets of these strates is most greatfull to the Eye. . . . rising in Small Hillocks and Mounts till the more inland parts. It is overlooked by Lofty Snow Mountains and indeed Nature as if she studied the Convenience of Mankind, has so disposed of the Trees as to form on the Rising Grounds the most beautiful Lawns on which I have seen Grass Man Height.

Little would the Labour be in its Cultivation, yet the Natives either from Ignorance or indolence prefer the Stony Beach to the more healthfull and delightfull plains which distinguish this favored Land from the Rest of the Coast of America. . . . An Island distinguished in the General Chart by the name of Whidbey's Island is absolutely as fine a tract of Land as I ever saw, at least apparently so.

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