7
winter
2013
arches
Memo [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 keep-
ing 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 can-
not 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.
Geo. Vancouver
In the predawn darkness of Sunday, May 20,
1792, the longboats were stowed with muskets,
pistols, cutlasses, powder and ball, presents and
trading goods, tents, navigating equipment, sur-
vey equipment, food, and wine for the officers.
The launch was clinker built, 20 feet long, and
broad enough to seat five pairs of oarsmen, two
abreast; it had two demountable masts which,
when in place, carried lugsails. The cutter was
smaller, 18 feet, with six oars and a single mast.
Neither had cabin or decking, although a canvas
awning astern gave the officers some protection
from the weather.
They were a young lot, accustomed to hard-
ship. Nearly all of the enlisted men were in their
teens or early 20s.
Second Lieutenant Peter Puget was 27 or 28
(his exact birthday is unknown) and had spent
half his life in the Navy, having entered service
as a midshipman in 1778. Puget 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. A
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 land-
marks, and, whenever possible, make observa-
tions 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.
The oldest man in the longboat party was
Archibald Menzies, 38, a spare, craggy Scot who
had visited the northwest coast in 1787 as physi-
cian aboard the sea otter vessel
Prince of Wales
and now represented the Royal Society, Britain’s
leading scientific organization, as botanist.
He 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.”
It 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. Gulls 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 surfline on
somber wings and, with cries like tearing canvas,
settled into the treetops.
The 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. About 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.”
The 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 tool-
ing up Dalco Passage into Commencement Bay,
where Tacoma now stands.
Ah, 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 hon-
or of an old friend, the myopic Rear Admiral
Peter Rainier—but no view of Mount Rainier
surpasses this one.
“A most charming prospect,” wrote the sci-
entist 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 majes-
tic 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.”
From 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 com-
manding officer, James Vashon). Their in-
structions 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.”
Puget, 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 in-
deed 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.
Murray Morgan taught writing at Puget Sound
from 1947 to 1952. This article is excerpted from
Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and
the Southern Sound,
University of Washington
Press, 1979, and is reprinted with permission.