Murray C. Morgan
Peter Puget on Puget's Sound
Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the
University of Washington Press, 1979
Northwest Room Home
Copyright, 1979, Murray Morgan
All Rights Reserved
This information may not be reprinted in any manner without
the written permission of the author.
Peter Puget on Puget's
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
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.
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."
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.
(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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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.)
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
women and children who had hidden in the forest were lured from
the woods and were also presented with beads and bits of metal.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
English rowed southward along the western shore of the inlet.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
about the Indians' intentions were quickly resolved: the men from
the new canoe joined the party on the beach and strung their bows.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
landed for a short time and were received by the Inhabitants with
all the Friendship and Hospitality we could have expected,"
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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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