Discovering the Region: Commentary

11. James G. Swan, The Northwest Coast

James G. Swan was born in Massachusetts in 1818. He had an uncle who had sailed to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1806-1810 as part of the maritime fur trade, so from his very early days Swan was exposed to lore about the Northwest Coast. He pursued a career in maritime trade and law in New England, all the while reading widely about the geography and Native peoples of the Far West. Swan was a generally unhappy man who drank heavily. In the late 1840s, having already left his wife and two children, he joined the California Gold Rush and ended up working as a shipfitter in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1852 he moved to Willapa (he called it Shoalwater) Bay to participate in the oyster trade, and received an appointment as customs collector. (Oysters had rapidly become a highly prized delicacy among miners and urbanites in California.) After spending three years on the ocean shore of Washington Territory, Swan returned to the East in 1855, and wrote and published The Northwest Coast. He clearly had an eastern audience in mind for the book, for he intended to educate people to the realities, needs, and opportunities of a distant territory.

During his stay in Washington Territory, Swan met the first territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, and worked with him during treaty negotiations with coastal tribes. In 1858 Swan accompanied Stevens to Washington, D.C., as his personal secretary. There Stevens introduced Swan to people at the Smithsonian Institution, and for the next quarter century Swan worked off and on for the Smithsonian, collecting artifacts and information from Indians of the Northwest Coast. Returning to Washington Territory in 1858, he also became an agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, mapping out potential routes and collecting information about possible termini. From 1862 to 1866 Swan served as U.S. Indian agent for the Makah at Neah Bay. There he composed The Indians of Cape Flattery (1870), a quite informative account of the Makah people. He later wrote The Haidah Indians of the Queen Charlottes Islands, British Columbia (1874), and served as an agent for the U.S. Fish Commission.

Although Swan held a number of government offices and left behind important information about Indians, he and his contemporaries regarded his life as a failure. He tried to make money in frontier Washington—as an agent for the railroad, as customs collector, as oysterman, as land speculator, and as federal officeholder—but he never succeeded in becoming wealthy. Believing that shallow Willapa Bay might become a great harbor, he lost money investing in lands around it. He similarly lost money investing in Port Townsend real estate, after concluding that that town would become a railroad terminus. His attempts to strike it rich were rather typical of many American pioneers in the Northwest, and his lack of success was also rather typical. Despite his personal failures, Swan has attracted much favorable attention from historians. Lucile McDonald’s Swan Among the Indians (1972) provides more background to his life, and Ivan Doig’s remarkable Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (1980) juxtaposes Swan’s nineteenth-century life to Doig’s twentieth-century concerns and interests.

The passages chosen for inclusion here illustrate three themes in this phase of discovering the Northwest. First are two scenes where Swan helped to set forest fires in the area around Willapa Bay. His descriptions suggested something about his generation’s confidence in the virtually limitless supply of natural resources in the Northwest. Other passages in the book reiterated this theme, e.g. his depiction of the tremendous numbers of salmon and trout in Northwest streams. Second is a section where Swan depicted U.S. government policy toward Indians. Swan could not denounce that policy too stridently, but he did assess some of its shortcomings sharply. At the same time, he conveyed his own somewhat unfavorable estimation of Native peoples. Third is the concluding section of The Northwest Coast in which Swan turned promoter and played up for readers the resources in Washington that, in his mind, would quickly attract so many immigrants that the territory would soon surpass California in both population and prosperity. The Northwest Coast is a complex book because it combines fairly formulaic booster literature with fairly sensitive accounts of native peoples and with sometimes disarmingly honest accounts of early pioneer life.

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