And I think of my happy condition,
Surrounded by Acres of Clams.

Lay of the Old Settler

(Early Northwest folk song by The Brothers Four)

Dominic Vautier

When I was quite young in Everett I used to go down to the long narrow park on Grand Avenue near 22nd street a few blocks from where I lived.  A big tree hung out over the steep bluff dangling a sturdy rope, and it was great fun to grab the rope and swing out into the abyss way over the brambles and blackberries far below. It was rumored that a kid had been killed on those bluffs. Today the place is called Bayside Park.

A little noticed park stone was there containing a large impressive bronze plaque which read “ON THE BEACH NEAR THIS SPOT VANCOUVER LANDED, JUNE 4, 1792”.  I don’t know if the plaque is still there but my memory of it is.

puget sound by mike kicinskiCasual research leads me to wonder why and how Seattle and Puget Sound ever managed to wind up in the United States, a question that may surprise some but still a very worthwhile question to ask. Consider that all this area was explored by the British, settled by the British, fortified by the British and occupied by the British.  So what happened?

Some may have a vague recollection that Britain and the U.S. extended the 49th parallel because it made good sense and looked like a clean way to settle a long and festering dispute (which actually makes no sense--artificial lines never make any particular sense).  Also since we had a lot of settlers here and the “54 40 or fight” rage was at a high peak by 1846, it may have somehow convinced England to back down and give up all their land and settlements north of the Columbia River.  Not too likely I think. Too wasn’t it somehow our destiny to conquer and own this area of the Northwest under the so-called oft-preached concept of “Manifest Destiny”?  This may be one way to explain why the British decided to freely gave up their land, or at least that’s what the history books try to tell us? No, not quite. I found that there is a more complex story here.

Even as late as 1840 few Americans actually lived north of the Columbia River thanks to the continuing efforts of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to settle the region, work closely with the Indian populations and occupy all the good fir trading areas (Stark, 299). By the early part of that century HBC had successfully driven out all competing interests including Aster’s Northwest Company along with the North American Fir Company.  This was largely due to continuing government support, a keen management spirit, a strong maritime transportation structure, and an active and well connected fir trading market throughout the world.

rink, "polk" p. 45There is no question that Great Britain had a strong claim to Cascadia, (the Disputed Area as it was known), that is, the land north of the Columbia River now western Washington State.  Early explorations by Cooke, Vancouver, Mackenzie, and settlers such as John McLaughlin (Bown, 60) had solidly established these territories as British.  After the treaties of 1817 Great Britain ALLOWED joint occupation of the Oregon Territory for 10 years, (to be extended indefinitely in 1827), knowing full well that the land north of the Columbia was theirs by right of discovery and occupation.  The British immediately seized the opportunity by encouraging HBC to continue expanding an already strong presence by constructing many Columbia River based forts (fir trading centers) even in Puget sound itself; Ft. Colville (1825), Ft. Vancouver (1825), Ft. Nisqually near Tacoma (1843) as well as Astoria which itself was briefly held by Britain during the 1812 war.  These forts were all north of the Columbia River occupying Cascadia. The forts were, by the way, not really forts but factories in the sense that fur was purchased, brought in, collected, sorted, tanned and stored for shipment.  The designation Ft. may have been an abbreviation for factory and the factory boss or director was called the factor.  Meanwhile the US government did nothing to strengthen or support any kind of effort to colonize or occupy the region.

Dr. John McLaughlin, who was the factor of Ft. Vancouver from 1824 to 1845, encouraged newly arrived settlers to move south of the Columbia and establish settlements in and around Oregon City on the Willamette River where he claimed the soil was much richer. It was. He had long convinced himself that the Cascadia region would absolutely become British territory once the American Government came to its senses, so he retained his Canadian citizenship. By 1840 that area was under total control and administration of the British.

John McLaughlin was a good man.  He helped many of the early pioneers with loans, supplies and advice.  He worked tirelessly for HBC but was ignominiously dismissed 1845 because of non-performance.  Actually it was because the fir trade had collapsed.  One year later the treaty was signed giving Cascadia to America.  He retired to his home in Oregon City and was resented by the locals who were quick to accuse him of injustices and misappropriations.  After his death his memory was exonerated and he became sort of a folk hero.

But 1840 became a year of turmoil for the young United States.  Our government was hopelessly and completely torn over Texas and slavery issues, we were still recovering from the disastrous 1812 war with Britain, and the stock market had crashed in 1837 creating a large population of restless homeless farmers.  Uncertainty and revolt was upon the land.

I have indentified three major events which probably shaped the future of northwest and western Washington.  These events very likely persuaded the British that a prolonged struggle to retain its Cascadia lands was not only futile but hopeless.  It was no small task to force Britain to give up its solid hold on Cascadia, especially in light of it’s long colonial tradition.  The Americans were not getting away with it again, or were they?

The Nootka Affair


Buck, Rinker, The Oregon Trail , 2015

Toll, Ian, Six Frigates, 2006
Horwitz, Tony, Blue Latitudes, 2003
Borneman, Walter R., Polk, 2008
Borneman, Walter R.,Rival Rails, 2002
Bown, Stephen R., Madness Betrayal and the Lash, 2008
McCrum, Robert; Cran, William; MacNeil, Robert., The Story of English, 1986 
Stark, Peter, Astoria, 2015
* Borneman cited from Polk unless otherwise indicated