Document 4: James Swan Settles in Washington Territory and Comes to Terms with Its Forests

James Swan, The Northwest Coast; or Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857),
p. 32, 49-55, 134, 397-99.

Return to Document Concordance

Russell [Swan's nearest neighbor], after an absence of a few weeks, returned, bringing with him Captain James S. Purrington, formerly master of a whale-ship, and who, for forty years, had been engaged in the whaling business. Captain Purrington had been at work on the Columbia, and had lost all his labor by two successive freshets [floods], and he concluded to try his hand in Shoal-water Bay [Shoal-water Bay is now called Willapa Bay]. Russell was desirous of making a garden, and we all went to work clearing up a spot near the house. This was not so easy a task as might be imagined. The proposed garden was occupied by some thirty or more immense spruce-trees, from six to eight feet in diameter, and over a hundred feet high.

These immense trees, falling from time to time, make a walk through the forest very difficult, and at times dangerous. I was out one day with Captain Purrington, a few months afterward, to examine a piece of land on our claim, when we came to an open space apparently quite level, and covered with dead wood, moss, and a fine growth of raspberry bushes laden with fruit. While we were engaged picking and eating the berries, all at once the captain disappeared. I called out for him, and directly heard a faint halloo, as I thought, under ground. Directly after, down I went, and then found that the place was a small ravine about thirty feet deep, over which the trees had fallen in every direction so as to completely cover it over, and these, in their turn, had been covered over by an accumulation of limbs, branches, moss, and at last by the bushes. The falling of the trees had been evidently caused by some whirlwind years previous. I asked the captain if he was hurt. "No," said he, "I came down as easy as if I had lit on a feather bed; but if you have a match about you, pass it to me, and I will soon let daylight into this heap. I don't like the ideas of burning up all those nice berries, but I have a great curiosity to see how this place will look when it is cleared up." The old man soon kindled a blaze, which very materially altered the appearance of the country before it was put out by the rain. We were fortunate in escaping without injury; but the experience was useful, for, in our future explorations, we were more careful where we went.

The enormous growth of the timber trees on the Pacific coast, from California to Hudson's Bay, has often been written about. Ross Cox writes: "The general size of the different species of fir far exceeds any thing east of the Rocky Mountains, and prime sound pine (spruce) from two hundred and eighty feet in height, and from twenty and forty feet in circumference, are by no means uncommon. A pine tree discovered in Umpqua county, to the southeast of the Columbia, measured two hundred and sixteen feet to its lowest branch, and in circumference fifty-seven feet."

 Ross Cox speaks of these trees as pine, but he is mistaken; for, with the exception of a scrubby growth of the Pinus palustris, found directly on the sea-coast, I have never seen a specimen of pine from the Columbia to the Fuca Strait. The timber is white and yellow spruce, red, white, and yellow fir, hemlock, cedar, and yew. Oak is not found on the immediate range of the coast, but is plentiful on the Columbia, and in the region of Puget Sound. A fine quality of ash is also found in those localities. Lewis and Clarke, speaking of the immense size of the trees near Astoria, mention a fir two hundred and thirty feet high, and one hundred and twenty feet of that height without a limb, and its circumference twenty-seven feet. These trees are not to be confounded with the great trees of California: they are a distinct species, and are known as red-wood trees, and the wood bears a resemblance to Spanish cedar. But the growth of Oregon and Washington is like the spruce, fir, and hemlock of the State of Maine.

We soon, with the aid of some of the settlers, made a havoc among the trees, and in a few days most of them were cut down. News now came that several vessels had been wrecked on the coast, north of Cape Disappointment, and Russell and the captain, with several others, started off to render assistance, leaving Joe [a sailor who stayed at Swan's when his ship was anchored at Willapa Bay] and myself once more to make and eat curry stews. It is one thing to cut down a big tree, and quite another to clear it away; but, by the time Russell returned, we, with the help of the Indians, had cleared away all the branches, leaving the trunks of the trees ready for the saw. The wrecking party was absent a week, and brought, on their return, a quantity of boards from the wrecks, which were much needed, as at that time there were no saw-mills in the Bay. They reported that the small-pox had broken out at Clatsop, south of the Columbia. Russell was in great fear lest the Indians should bring the disease over to Shoal-water Bay, and remarked that if he thought it would come, he would at once leave for San Francisco, for he dreaded the small-pox more than any other complaint, although he had been vaccinated.

Joe and the captain now went to work to cut the trees into logs, which we then blew open with powder, and then with beetle [large mallets] and wedges reduced the blocks small enough to handle, and then piled them round the stumps and set fire to them. We usually kept these fires going all night, and the light these tremendous bonfires made could be seen for miles. The Indians enjoyed the fun of piling on logs and making a blaze, and every evening were sure to gather round and have a frolic. We had two young Indians, brothers, working for us, He-yal-ma and Que-a-quim, funny, lively fellows, always in good nature, and the smartest and best Indians I ever saw. Que-a-quim, the younger, was a great favorite with us all, and, when we had a gang of Indians at work, could always, by his pranks and fun, keep them pleasant. This young fellow took delight in perching himself on a log every night near the fire, and, pointing out the different constellations in the starry heavens, would tell me the legendary tales of their mythological belief. At such times his demeanor was entirely changed, and, gazing upward with a wild and excited look, would impart his information in an earnest and solemn manner, that showed how deeply he was interested in his subject.

. . .

[Later Swan joined other American settlers to celebrate the Fourth of July. They had a picnic and read portions of the Declaration of Independence and other works aloud.] These ceremonies over, it was proposed to close the performances for the day by going on top of the cliff opposite, and make a tremendous big blaze. This was acceded to, and some six or eight immediately crossed the creek and soon scrambled to the top of the hill, where we found an old hollow cedar stump about twenty feet high. We could enter this on one side, and found it a mere shell of what had once been a monster tree.

I had with me a little rifle, which measured, stock and all, but three feet long. With this I measured across the space, and found it was just six lengths of my rifle, or eighteen feet, and the tree undoubtedly, when sound, must have measured, with the bark on, at least sixty feet in circumference.

We went to work with a will, and soon the old stump filled full of dry spruce limbs, which were lying about in great quantities, and then set fire to the whole. It made the best bonfire I ever saw; and after burning all night and part of the next day, finally set fire to the forest, which continued to burn for several months, till the winter rains finally extinguished it. The party broke up at an early hour, and all declared that, with the exception of the absence of a cannon, they never had a pleasanter "fourth."

. . .

[Swan concluded his book by describing Washington Territory and encouraging more Americans to move there.] The soil of all the prairie lands [in Washington], with the exception of those directly around Puget Sound, is exceedingly fertile. Those of the Sound are of a sandy, gravelly nature, not readily cultivated, but producing enormous fir and cedar trees. The soil on the mountains, wherever I have seen any attempt at a clearing, is generally very rich; but the dense growth of forest deters the emigrant from attempting clearings on a large extent, as the fine, fertile plains and prairie offer far greater inducements. Fruit of various kinds, particularly apples, can be cultivated very readily, and in the greatest perfection. Indian-corn does not thrive well, as the seasons are not hot enough; but wheat, barley, oats, and potatoes yield the most abundant crops, of the finest quality. The potatoes, in particular, are the best I have ever met with in any part of the world. The wheat on the Columbia, called Oregon wheat, is too well known for its superior excellence to need further remark at this time.

Although the Territory is a very mountainous country, yet there are many immense plains and prairies; and, by reference to the map, it will be seen that innumerable streams, like veins, permeate the whole region, and each of them, from the largest to the smallest, flows in its course through rich and fertile plains, of various sizes, lying between the mountains. Governor Stevens, in January, 1854, writing of the Territory, says of the waters of Puget Sound, and adjacent ones of Hood's Canal, Admiralty Inlet, and Fuca Straits, "that their maritime advantages are very great, in affording a series of harbors almost unequaled in the world for capacity, safety, and facility of access, and they are in the immediate neighborhood to what are now the best whaling grounds in the Pacific. That portion of Washington Territory lying between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, although equaling, in richness of soil and ease of transportation, the best lands of Oregon, is heavily timbered, and time and labor are required for clearing its forests and opening the earth to the production of its fruits. The great body of the country, on the other hand, stretching eastward from the range to the Rocky Mountains, while it contains many fertile valleys and much land suitable to the farmer, is yet more especially a grazing country-one which, as its population increases, promises, in its cattle, its horses, and, above all, its wool, to open a vast field to American enterprise. But, in the mean time, the staple of the land must continue to be the one which Nature herself has planted, in the inexhaustible forests of fir, of spruce, and of cedar. Either in furnishing manufactured timber, or spars of the first description for vessels, Washington Territory is unsurpassed by any portion of the Pacific coast."

Washington Territory abounds in fine timber, and the enormous growth of its spruce and fir excites the admiration of every one who sees them. The trees in the region about Puget Sound are especially large, comprising the spruce, hemlock, yew, cedar, fir, oak, ash, maple, and alder. There are now about thirty-seven saw-mills in the Territory, the largest of which is that of Pope, Talbot & Co., under the charge of Captain J. P. Kellar, at Teekalet (Port Gamble), on Hood's Canal.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest