This is a summer residence
circa 1912 on the Skokomish River, which empties into Hood
Canal. Those who lived around Hood Canal spoke Twana, a Coast
Salish dialect. This photo is by Edward Curtis, from his monumental
20-volume The North American Indian. (Courtesy
Seattle Public Library)
Editors note: This is an edited excerpt from David
B. Williams new book, Homewaters: A Human and Natural
History of Puget Sound, published by University of Washington
About the Book
For more information about this, or any of David B. Williams
books, go to his website at geologywriter.com.
THE BACKSTORY Learning and appreciating the history of Puget Sounds
Indigenous people is the key to creating a positive future
DURING A ROUTINE archaeological survey in 2009 for a project to
restore salmon habitat in Bear Creek, in Redmond, Bob Kopperl and
other archaeologists uncovered several artifacts. Digging deeper,
they excavated a foot-thick mat of reddish-brown peat. Tests showed
that the peat might be as much as 10,000 years old. Bob and his
team eventually unearthed several thousand artifacts at the Bear
Creek site, which he describes as the oldest evidence of human existence
in Puget Sound so far. The archaeologists concluded that the areas
first human residents arrived at least 12,500 years ago, making
Puget Sound one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes
in the Lower 48 states.
Pollen studies show that Puget Sounds first human inhabitants
would have found an open habitat of bogs, wetlands and ponds interspersed
with pine and minimal amounts of spruce, Douglas fir and true fir.
The Savannah-like habitat was ideal territory for hunting the great
beasts that had moved into the postglacial landscape, including
mastodon, giant sloth, bison and short-faced bear.
Homewaters: A Human
and Natural History of Puget Sound is the new book from
David B. Williams. (Tom Reese Photography)
Unfortunately for archaeologists, the Redmond site does not include
any mammal bones. It does offer rich evidence of stone tools, such
as projectile points, knives, scrapers and hammerstones, made primarily
from local rock. The diversity of artifacts at the site implies
a deep connection between the people who made the tools and the
landscape they inhabited, Kopperl says. They knew where to find
the raw materials they needed, and most likely they traveled to
gather them. They knew how to make use of different rock types to
manufacture tools for specific purposes. These were people
who had an intimate knowledge of subsistence across several habitats.
They knew where to stop, find good stone, and make a living,
I cannot leave Puget Sounds first people without considering
one of the smallest and rarest artifacts discovered in the Bear
Creek dig: a salmon bone, the only bone found at the Redmond site.
It is brownish-gray from heating, cracked in half, and smaller than
a raisin. Because the bone was burned, no DNA remains by which to
identify the species it came from, though sockeye, which makes use
of lakes, seems the most likely.
The bone and the salmon protein residue found on the Bear Creek
tool might be the earliest evidence for people eating salmon in
Puget Sound. No sooner had our species arrived here than we discovered
what is arguably the most defining and sustaining food of the region.
Emma (Napoleon) Capoeman,
Lizzie Capoeman and Sarah Sotomish (date unknown), preparing
to bake salmon over an open fire using ironwood sticks to
splay out the fish. (Courtesy Suquamish Museum)
Although evidence for land use at Redmond ends around 10,000 years
ago, other local sites show that the sheltered body of water continued
to attract people. Until around 7,000 years ago, there were still
small, highly mobile groups of hunters and gatherers living in an
environment far different from what we know at present. The climate
was hotter and drier; the ecosystem was Savannah-like with vast
open spaces and big vistas, amply populated with oaks. Great herds
of deer and elk would have roamed the lands and fed on nutritious
Beginning around 7,000 years ago, though, the Puget Sound climate
gradually grew cooler and moister, becoming comparable to the areas
current climate by about 5,000 years ago. The new conditions led
to the development of closed-canopy forest of the kind familiar
to present-day residents of Puget Sound, with conifers towering
over a nearly impenetrable understory.
OVER TIME, THE people of Puget Sound developed a culture based
on coexistence with the regions abundant natural resources.
Extended family groups established winter villages, which were the
home base and heart of social and ceremonial life. At other times
of year, they moved to seasonal camps to acquire useful plants and
animals. They continuously modified their technologies and strategies
to increase their food harvests. In doing so, they created a sustainable
and resilient lifestyle based on reciprocity between bands of people
inhabiting different watersheds, which persisted up to the time
of contact with Europeans.
Two men harvesting oysters
at low tide, circa 1900-1920. First- and second-generation
Japanese workers were the dominant labor force in the Puget
Sound area during the 1900s until World War II, when Japanese
and Japanese Americans in the United States were forcibly
moved to internment camps. (Washington State Historical Society)
Oyster shells dry at
the J.J. Brenner Oyster Company in Olympia, 1910, historically
one of the largest Puget Sound oyster companies. These shells
would have been ground for chicken feed. Photograph by Asahel
Curtis. (Courtesy Washington State Historical Society)
A drag seine of herring
is hauled in along Vashon Island, south of Burton Dock, circa
1920. Nets such as this, which indiscriminately captured all
fish, were detrimental to herring and other fish such as salmon.
(Courtesy Washington State Historical Society)
The great accumulations
of forage fish such as these herring are essential to a healthy
Puget Sound ecosystem. (Margaret Siple)
A commercial herring
drying and processing business, circa 1900. Within a few years
after this photograph was taken, a local fishing magazine
reported that the rapid extermination of herring had reduced
the fishery to two locations, Port Discovery Bay and Nanaimo,
British Columbia. (Courtesy Washington State Historical Society)
Despite numerous attempts to eliminate the Native people of Puget
Sound, they survived, and continue to maintain their long-term traditions
and connections. In essence, the treaties created two distinct ways
of relating to the land in the Puget Sound region. Gone was the
stewardship of the past 12,500 years. Plants and animals were now
products to be acquired, processed and sold. In the view of the
waves of newcomers, the land was there to be owned and used, water
a dumping ground. At the same time, the treaties codified Native
peoples rights to hunting, fishing and gathering, which preserved,
albeit on the margins, a traditional way of life. The paradigm established
by the treaties is still shaping the relationship to place of the
residents of Puget Sound.
David B. Williams is an author, naturalist, educator and an archaeology
curatorial associate at the Burke Museum. His newest book is "Homewaters:
A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound." His many books
include the award-winning "Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping
Seattles Topography." Find him on Twitter at @geologywriter.
Two events in the last quarter of the 18th century forever changed
the lives and culture of Puget Sounds Indigenous residents.
The first was the arrival of smallpox around 1781-82, which led
to the deaths of a catastrophically high number of Coast Salish
people. The second was the arrival of Europeans, the first of whom
sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1788. That discovery
of the Strait ultimately led to George Vancouvers sailing
into x???lc (the Lushootseed name for Puget Sound) four years later.
How did smallpox reach the Sound before Europeans did? Historian
Robert Boyd believes it was introduced via a shipwreck on the Oregon
coast. A second theory holds that Spanish explorers could have brought
the disease during their journeys to Nootka Sound on the west side
of Vancouver Island in the late 1770s. Cole Harris, a retired University
of British Columbia geographer, believes that Native people carried
the smallpox virus from the Great Plains to the Columbia River and
finally north into Puget Sound via trade networks. After initial
contact, the disease spread through Coast Salish populations.
Although we might never know exactly how smallpox reached Puget
Sound, we understand how it enabled postcontact settlers to wrest
control of the land. The eventual result, everywhere,
wrote Harris, was severe depopulation at precisely the time
that changing technologies of transportation and communication brought
more and more of the resources of the northwestern corner of North
America within reach of the capitalist world economy. Here was an
empty land, so it seemed, for the taking, and the means of developing
and transporting many of its resources.
Detail of Captain George
Vancouvers 1792 map of the Northwest Coast, the first
European map to show Puget Sound. On this map, what Vancouver
named Puget Sound refers only to the southernmost
part of the body of water, while Admiralty Inlet extends into
what is now known as Puget Sound. (Courtesy the Library of
This map shows the origin
of some of the Puget Sound place names (David B. Williams)
Although the Spanish had been the first Europeans to arrive in
the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it was George Vancouvers expedition
that explored the inlet to the south. During their month of exploration
in the waterway (in May 1792), the British came away with two distinct
impressions. Their disparaging descriptions of Indigenous people
were typical of European explorers of the time. One village was
the most lowly and meanest of its kind and the people
ill made and of pilfering dispositions.
And yet the explorers observed that the Native residents had abundant
and varied food, including salmon, deer, clams and a small
well tasted wild onion. They were also willing to share their
knowledge of the geography and to help free a British boat stuck
in the mud. Vancouver further wrote of several tribes of Indians,
whose behavior had been uniformly civil, courteous, and friendly.
The British were much more complimentary about the landscape. (Archibald)
Menzies wrote of towering ferns, bountiful oysters, thick forests
and salubrious & vivifying air. (Peter) Puget added
that the flowers were by no Means unpleasant to the Eye.
Vancouver summed up their thoughts. To describe the beauties
of this region, will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful
task to the pen of a skilful panegyrist, he wrote.
The British reaction to the people and landscape of Puget Sound
at the time of first contact makes sense in context. It was an encounter
of groups with two completely different worldviews. In a land of
abundance, the Coast Salish people had thrived for thousands of
years with relatively little negative impact on the areas
natural resources; they hunted, fished, gathered, traded and traveled
according to the seasons. Their major worries had been warfare and
raids from other Salish Sea inhabitants. Just as they probably found
it hard to grasp the motives and culture of the British explorers,
the explorers struggled to understand a culture without any form
of industry they recognized. Britain at this time was in the midst
of the Industrial Revolution; progress and success were signaled
by steam, brick and metal, not hook and line or bow and arrow. There
was virtually no chance that men who represented this new world
of industrialization could have responded positively to the peoples
and cultures they encountered in Puget Sound. And, clearly they
made little effort to learn from, understand, or respect the people
The next Britons to reach Puget Sound had a different mindset.
Instead of pursuing imperial expansion, they came in search of trade.
They also came by a much different route, traveling overland from
the south. The first to do so, 40 or so men on an exploratory trip
for the Hudsons Bay Company, reached present-day Eld Inlet,
at the southernmost end of Puget Sound, on Dec. 5, 1824.
Although the HBC men found the route favorable, the land bountiful,
and the Coast Salish people friendly, nine more years passed before
the HBC arrived to stay. In the spring of 1833, the company started
erecting Fort Nisqually in an open space about 12 miles east of
modern-day Olympia. By October, houses, a store with space for trading,
and sheds had been built.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF Fort Nisqually marked a new era in Puget Sound.
For the first time, Coast Salish people and King George men,
as the locals called the British arrivals, had a chance to live
and work together. Whether they were involved in trade, religion,
medicine, or conflict, both sides developed ways of dealing
with each other that usually worked to all parties perceived
advantage, according to the historian Alexandra Harmon.
The British harbored negative stereotypes, attempted to proselytize,
and exploited Native resources, but they also learned to respect
the trading and hunting skills of the people who visited the forts,
recognizing that their own survival depended on good relations with
the Indigenous people. In Harmons view, the Native residents
might have seen the new arrivals as unclean, bad-mannered, and ignorant
of basic survival skills, but interaction with the King George men
could increase prestige and lead to better relations with other
Coast Salish people long considered to be enemies.
Unfortunately, the mostly positive initial relations between newcomers
and longtime residents did not last. Whereas the British had built
their relationship on lucrative trade and coexistence,
wrote Harmon, the United States was a nation that had limited
citizenship to whites and defined itself largely in
opposition to Indians.
The first town to be named was New Market, at the falls on the
Deschutes River, where it enters Budd Inlet. Among its first settlers
were the families of Michael Simmons and George Washington Bush,
who had traveled together from Missouri.
Of longer-lasting importance than the new town name, which survived
only a few years before being changed to Tumwater the Chinook
jargon place name Bush, Simmons and the other settlers built
a gristmill and sawmill, the first on Puget Sound. On Oct. 27, 1848,
the Puget Sound Milling Company delivered 12,993 board feet of lumber
to the Hudsons Bay Company at Fort Nisqually.
By 1853, as the logging industry thrived, the population of Bostons
(the Native term for settlers from the United States) in the counties
bordering Puget Sound had increased to 2,058. In contrast, the number
of Indigenous people had plummeted because of the introduction of
smallpox, measles, influenza and syphilis. Cole Harris and Robert
Boyd estimate that in the 100 years after Europeans arrived, diseases
led to a population decline that exceeded 30 percent and might have
been as high as 80 to 90 percent.
The new arrivals brought with them a fundamentally different attitude
than had prevailed for thousands of years in the Puget Sound area.
An individual Coast Salish family might retain the right, or privilege,
to fish or harvest shellfish from a particular location, but that
spot was not owned by the family in the sense that settlers understood
ownership, whereby one could claim exclusive use of it and transfer
that right to other people. Indigenous peoples relationship
to land and natural resources focused (and still focuses) more on
maintaining the productivity of living resources and the relationships
between those who controlled access to these resources and those
allowed to use them. This control equated to wealth and the ability
to give away goods. These relationships centered on sharing access
and building connections and reciprocity: they involved stewardship
rather than outright ownership.
Amelia Sneatlum, great-grandniece
of Chief Siahl (Anglicized as Seattle), date unknown.
Sneatlum told anthropologist Warren Snyder that as a young
girl she dug clams with her mother at night. They were a food
source, along with ducks, in winter, and she and her family
sold the clams in Seattle. (Courtesy Suquamish Museum)
In contrast, to the newcomers, private land ownership in the American
sense was a source of status and power. The Bostons believed that
ownership was their natural right and their destiny; they were supposed
to own the land from sea to shining sea. They did not see Indigenous
people as rightful or legitimate owners of the land.
BY THE SUMMER of 1854, Washington Territory Gov. Isaac I. Stevens
had begun to consider how to address the struggles between settlers
and residents. Stevens held his first treaty signing at Medicine
Creek, where it empties into Puget Sound near the Nisqually River.
Negotiation is often the word associated with a treaty,
but, as J. Ross Browne wrote in an 1858 report, none of the
so-called treaties with the Indians are anything more than forced
agreements, which the stronger power can violate or reject at pleasure.
Two more treaties quickly followed.
The treaty signings were the most significant steps in a process
that had begun with George Vancouver and his men. When the British
first arrived, they had claimed the land around Puget
Sound for King George III. These gestures had little practical meaning,
as they consisted primarily of naming features on the landscape
after themselves and discharging the royal salute.
Nor had settler actions during the years 1792-1853 had much official
or permanent effect, except for the horrible spread of disease.
Though HBC employees had moved into the area, their claims to the
land were only slightly less tenuous than Vancouvers, and
only the King George men inhabited the HBC land in 1846, when Britain
ceded its claims to the United States. Few believed that this new
American claim meant much, either. On Nov. 4, 1846, the chief factors
of HBC at Fort Vancouver, James Douglas and Peter Skene Ogden, wrote
to William Tolmie at Fort Nisqually, Business will of course
go on as usual, as the treaty will not take effect on us for many
years to come.
By 1853, though, the Americans had begun to establish a new reality
in Puget Sound. With the signing of the treaties, the Bostons, or
at least the federal government, now owned nearly all the land around
Puget Sound. The new arrivals had begun to develop towns and to
extract natural resources, often at rates that far exceeded the
environments capacity to replenish them. Their population
grew from 4,928 in 1860 to 180,812 in 1890.
The Coast Salish people certainly were not gone. Many of them had
been shunted to reservations with drastically reduced access to
the lands that had sustained them, but they still retained and practiced
many of their cultural traditions. They maintained complex kinship
relations over long distances. They fished, collected shellfish,
harvested roots and berries, and hunted marine mammals at the usual
and accustomed places guaranteed by the treaties. They also
found employment in Puget Sounds nascent towns, providing
key labor in many logging communities.
Seahurst Park in Burien
in 2008 exemplified how shoreline armoring narrowed the beach
and degraded habitat. A concrete wall, also called a bulkhead
or seawall, is a typical armoring technique. (Courtesy Hugh
Seahurst Park in 2015
after removal of armoring, resulting in a wide beach, additional
habitat and debris such as logs. (Courtesy Hugh Shipman)
The Kalakala, pictured
on this brochure, was built in 1935 for the Puget Sound Navigation
Company and was the largest and fastest ferry in the Sound.
The Kalakala operated in the Sound until 1967, then was used
in Alaska, and ultimately ended up in Tacoma, where the ship
was parted out in a 2017 auction. (Courtesy Paul Dorpat)
This copper rockfish
was caught as part of a Washington Department of Fish and
Wildlife study in 2017. The distended eyes resulted from a
pressure change as the fish was pulled up from a depth of
250 feet. (David B. Williams)
A 12-inch mortar like
this one from Fort Casey, circa 1910-1916, could accurately
shoot a 700-pound shell and hit a moving target 7 miles away.
(Courtesy the Coast Defenses Study Group Inc.)
Built in San Francisco in 1862, the Yosemite
was one of the more elegant mosquito fleet vessels. The ship
started to operate in Puget Sound in 1906, often carrying
up to 1,000 passengers between Seattle and Bremerton. The
Yosemite ran aground on July 9, 1909, at Port Orchard and
was a total loss. (Courtesy Cherie Christensen)
Built in Ballard in 1890,
the Bailey Gatzert had a 22-foot-diameter sternwheel, had
a top speed of more than 20 miles per hour, and was one of
the fastest ships in the Puget Sound. Named for Seattles
first Jewish mayor, the Bailey Gatzert operated in the Sound
until the 1920s. (Courtesy Cherie Christensen)
The water cycle in Puget
Sound, illustrating how the sills influence circulation and
create reflux. (Courtesy Su Kim, Northwest Fisheries Science