Reading the Region: Discovering the Region

Stories of non-Native discovery—like stories by Indians—tend to get pushed toward the beginning of anthologies and interpretations of Pacific Northwest writing. This makes sense in that explorers such as James Cook, George Vancouver, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark produced the first written, eyewitness accounts of the region, and their texts loomed large in generating outside interest in and knowledge about the Pacific Northwest. However, the literary process of discovering the region did not conclude with the end of exploration, or the demise of the fur trade, or the close of the first wave of missionaries and settlers. Through the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, people continued to “discover” the Northwest anew and to write about it in ways that resembled what explorers had done. To be sure, different generations of discoverers looked for different things in the Northwest, and they adopted different formats for writing about it. Cognizant of these distinctions, we identify these latter-day explorers as fur traders, immigrants, travel writers, mountaineers, tourists, or just newcomers. Yet in many crucial respects their writings about the region have resembled the initial European explorers’ accounts. In short, the literature of discovery has continued to expand for more than two centuries.

Whether writing in the eighteenth century or the twenty-first, discoverers of the Northwest have tended to share many of the same preoccupations and orientations. Explorers and pioneers were quite concerned in their writing to “establish the fact of place” (Simonson 1980:147). They were quite conscious that they were viewing something that few (or no) non-Native eyes had seen before.  Moreover, by detailing the places they visited, they established not only “the fact of place” but also the fact that they had arrived at that place. In the highly competitive worlds of exploring territory and claiming land, it was essential to demonstrate that one had arrived first. Other discoverers also competed in various ways—to suggest reforms in the fur trade, to put personal impressions into print, to report on a place just before or after a seminal event such as the arrival of a transcontinental railroad, to be the first to climb a mountain peak and live to tell about it. Writing by discoverers has placed a premium on being first or new, while in some sense claiming the already settled place for themselves.

In a region where scenery has captivated nearly everyone, the literature of discovery has mostly emphasized description of the physical setting over investigation of “interior life.” Discoverers have mostly written without taking the time to understand fully the complexities of human cultures and societies. They have spoken about environment and they have spoken about themselves, but seldom have they measured the world of the natives they were visiting, or observed themselves as visitors to an established culture.  Instead, they have tended to relate day-to-day experiences and accomplishments, most frequently within the context of a journey (Venn 1979: 100-102). Finally, discoverers have generally written not for Northwest natives but for distant audiences—usually readers back east somewhere—assumed to have an interest in the region as an exotic or intriguing or profitable place. The literature of discovery has tended to be a dialogue among and for outsiders rather than locals. Yet this dialogue did a great deal to establish ideas about the Pacific Northwest in the minds of the region’s people as well. Like the stories of pre-contact Indians, the accounts of discoverers profoundly shaped regional identity.

In reading about discoveries of the Northwest, it is important to keep in mind the purposes and preconceptions of authors.  Biographical information about each writer, knowledge of his or her intended audience, and assorted clues in the texts themselves suggest what each discoverer was looking for in the region. From the very first explorers, no generation of observers approached the Northwest without preconceptions about it. When the initial Russian, Spanish, British, and American expeditions arrived during the eighteenth century, these non-Native discoverers brought with them all kinds of mental baggage about the Northwest. For instance, the belief in the existence of a relatively easy route of communication through North America—some version of a Northwest Passage, through either salt or fresh water—influenced the travels and the perceptions of such distinguished explorers as the Englishmen James Cook and George Vancouver. Speculative notions about the region emerged years before the first documented European contact with the Northwest Coast, creating a regional identity of sorts long before the region was known in fact. Among the best known of these stories was the tale of Juan de Fuca, who claimed not only to have discovered, around 1592, the body of water that bears his name, but also to have sailed out the eastern end of that strait and into the Atlantic Ocean! The productive European imagination continued to view the Northwest Coast of North America in different ways. Thus when Jonathan Swift mapped his land of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), he placed it at the northern tip of the west coast of North America. 

The publication of Gulliver’s Travels preceded by two years the start of sustained European exploration in the North Pacific.  In 1728 a Russian expedition led by Vitus Bering sailed into the Bering Strait. Thirteen years later, in 1741, Bering returned to the North Pacific with Aleksei Chirikov and viewed portions of Alaska. These voyages precipitated a contest among European powers to scout out and claim the lands north of New Spain (Mexico) along the west coast of North America.  Spaniards made the first recorded voyages off the coast of what would become known as the American Northwest and British Columbia in 1774 and 1775, and thereafter developed a sporadic record of exploration and claiming (Spanish discoveries). The English sailor James Cook arrived off the coast of Washington in 1778, and stayed for a month or so at Nootka Sound, on the western coast of Vancouver Island.  Aboard Cook’s ship was the young George Vancouver, who would return on his own exploring expedition in 1790-1795. In 1792 he became the first non-Indian to view Puget Sound. Vancouver’s narrative of his journey captures, among other things, the spirit of competition that guided this generation of discoverers.

Although George Vancouver was guided in large part by considerations of empire, he perceived his efforts as part of the “noble science of discovery.” His purported approach thus stood in contrast to the efforts of other early arrivals whose approach to the Northwest was motivated not so much by national and intellectual claims but by capitalist trade. During the 1780s a lively maritime commerce in sea otter pelts began to draw merchants and sailors to the Northwest. These men explored the coastline, too, not so much to chart landforms or measure the water’s depths as to find cheaper sources of fur. The trade was dominated by British and American interests (with Russians to the north in Alaska), and produced accounts of discovery that diverged from what explorers like Vancouver generated. The records of the American ship Columbia captained by Robert Gray, the first vessel to enter the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, offer an example.

In the initial decade of the nineteenth century, more discoverers of the Pacific Northwest began arriving by land—an approach that afforded quite a different perspective on the region. Among Americans, the most famous expedition to the region was that of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which arrived in autumn of 1805, spent the winter of 1805-1806 at Fort Clatsop near present-day Astoria, and returned overland to the east in 1806. The Lewis and Clark expedition produced an immense written record of the Pacific Northwest, one that is still used by students of Native peoples and the environment. What the explorers recorded was determined in no small part by President Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis and Clark, for Jefferson was the principal architect of the expedition. Selections from William Clark’s journals of travel along the Columbia River in November 1805 remind us that the emotions and interests of the Captains themselves also shaped the written text. Finally, we need to remember that, like Natives’ stories, the explorers’ writings have been appropriated for multiple uses by later generations. Their claims and experiences have continued to captivate people. 

A few exploring expeditions followed Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest (see, for example, Wilkes 1845), but between 1806 and 1834 the majority of observers arriving in the region were connected with the fur trade. Reflecting the geopolitical dominance of British fur companies, most of those observers were British. By 1821 this trade had been consolidated in the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose strategies for the next two decades were shaped primarily by the Englishman George Simpson. Excerpts from Simpson’s corporate report of 1824–25 about the regional fur trade show how fur traders such as Simpson, even more than explorers like Lewis and Clark, had a very practical interest in not only the physical environs but also the human societies and cultures. That pragmatism affected the kind of writings they left behind. (Valuable accounts of how fur traders’ perceptions differed from explorers’ can be found in Goetzmann [1966] and Barth [1999].)

As discoverers who stayed in the Northwest for a time, fur traders also differed from explorers in expressing some regret about the changes they helped to initiate in the region. This sense of loss became a common motif among regional writers, even though colonizing societies in the nineteenth century generally placed a premium on the transformation of the landscape. The fur traders’ lament was captured admirably in literature by the character of Uncle Zeb in The Big Sky (1947), A. B. Guthrie’s classic and well-researched novel of the trade in the Rocky Mountains. An American who had traded and hunted for fur since around 1820, Uncle Zeb grew discouraged over the constant arrival of more newcomers in fur country, and in the early 1830s told two recent arrivals they were ten years too late. 

…“She’s gone, goddam it! Gone!”

“What’s gone,” asked Summers….

“The whole shitaree. Gone, by God, and naught to care savin’ some of us who seen ‘er new.” He took the knife from his belt and started jabbing at the ground with it, as if it eased his feelings. He was silent for a while.

“This was man’s country onc’t. Every water full of beaver and a galore of buffler any ways a man looked, and no crampin’ and crowdin’. Christ sake!”

To the east, where the hill and sky met, Boone saw a surge of movement and guessed that it was buffalo until it streamed down the slope, making for them, and came to be a horse herd.

Summers’ gray eye slipped from Boone to Uncle Zeb. “She ain’t sp’iled, Zeb,” he said quietly. “Depends on who’s lookin’.”

“Not sp’iled! Forts all up and down the river, and folk everywhere a man might think to lay a trap. And greenhorns comin’ up, a heap of ‘em—greenhorns on every boat, hornin’ in and sp’ilin’ the fun.  Christ sake! Why’n’t they stay to home? Why’n’t they leave it to us as found it? By God, she’s ours by rights.” His mouth lifted for the bottle. “God, she was purty onc’t. Purty and new, and not a man track, savin’ Injuns’, on the whole scoop of her”  (Guthrie 1964: 147).

The decline of the fur trade after 1840 or so coincided with reduced interest on the part of Britain in the Pacific Northwest, and heightened interest on the part of the United States. This shift resulted in American pressure for a relatively favorable settlement of the boundary question, which was attained in the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Even before that document was signed, however, a steady stream of Americans had begun making their way to the region. American fur traders like Zeb and Boone often led the way, followed by assorted boosters, overland migrants intending to settle in the region, and missionaries devoted to converting Indians to Christianity. Such pioneers tended to leave two kinds of writing about the Northwest—more immediate texts, composed at the time of travel, promotion, or missionizing and less likely to be reflective; and prose written considerably after the fact, which emphasized lessons arrived at in retrospect rather than immediate concerns and issues. Letters written by missionary Narcissa Whitman show the immediacy of one woman’s observations in the 1830s and 1840s. Like other discoverers, Whitman wrote largely to introduce the exotic Northwest and its Natives to an eastern audience. (Writings by other pioneers have been included in Writing Home.)

The incorporation of the Oregon country into the United States in 1846 piqued the interest of reading audiences back east. Many of these Americans had been instrumental in pressuring the government to acquire the far western territory, and they remained eager to learn more about just what the United States had acquired. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 precipitated a mass migration of folk to the region, which in turn produced a literary outpouring about the Far West.  Among the more thorough and witty observers of the Northwest during the 1850s was James Swan, whose book The Northwest Coast both described life in Washington Territory and promoted the region to prospective immigrants and investors. Unlike most travel writers, Swan decided to make his home in the Far West—in large part among its Indian tribes. No doubt as a consequence, Swan demonstrated, for a discoverer, an unusual level of sensitivity to Native peoples. Other nineteenth-century travel writers followed. Theodore Winthrop published The Canoe and the Saddle in the early 1860s. In 1882, on the eve of the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, Helen Hunt Jackson wrote about Puget Sound for the eastern audience served by Atlantic Monthly. Railroad companies reprinted Jackson’s observations in their promotional literature, but only after deleting some less complimentary passages (Jackson 1883b).

By the late nineteenth century, outsiders had begun to discover the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Jackson wrote from a distance about the forests and scenery, but other observers sought a more intimate or direct experience with the natural Northwest.  Both John Muir and Rudyard Kipling arrived in 1889—the former to climb Mount Rainier and the latter to fish regional streams.  If both men’s accounts remind us that the technology used by discoverers to travel through the region shaped their experience of it, the point is made even more clearly by the 1938 journals of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who sped around the West from one national park to another in an astounding automobile trip. At the end of his first day of traveling, Wolfe (1967: 4-5) jotted down:  “404 miles….The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation—C ‘making every national park’ without seeing any of them—the main thing is to ‘make them’—and so on and on tomorrow.” In some contrast to Wolfe’s account stands the prose of Fred Beckey on the North Cascades. A famous Northwest mountain climber, Beckey carried on the tradition of discovery by becoming the first to experience and document many of the peaks in the northern Cascades. In many respects Beckey wrote for the same reasons that Vancouver did—to establish the fact of place; to establish the fact of the writer’s presence in a place otherwise undocumented; and to leave a record so that others could follow in his initial footsteps. Though Beckey is certainly more appreciative than Wolfe of the wilderness around him, he too is as concerned with the quantity as with the quality of his outdoor experiences.

In contrast to scorekeeping tourists and climbers were hordes of immigrants intending to make a new home in the Pacific Northwest.  These newcomers “discovered” the region, too. Like any other recent arrival, their experience was shaped significantly by the expectations they brought to the region. During the later nineteenth century the territory and state of Washington acquired a reputation as a relatively progressive—even radical—state. This image ensured that Washington got more than its share of populists, progressives, and socialists (LeWarne 1975; Schwantes 1979). Utopian communities appeared all around Puget Sound, and the Industrial Workers of the World scored some of their greatest organizing achievements in the state. Among the newcomers carrying high hopes for the region was Anna Louise Strong, who became radicalized during World War One and helped to lead the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Another common experience among newcomers (including radicals) may have been disillusionment.  Washington’s reputation aside, newcomers found most of the same impediments to opportunity that they had encountered elsewhere in the United States. Two accounts of migrants during the 1930s illustrate this experience. Immigrant Carlos Bulosan encountered racism and exploitation upon his arrival from the Philippines, and an autobiographical short story by Lois Phillips Hudson recalls the treatment of Dust Bowl refugees in eastern Washington. 

Finally, we conclude this section with excerpts from two more recent immigrants. In the early 1990s the poet Denise Levertov moved to Seattle and began an enduring fascination with Mount Rainier, always hovering on the city’s horizon. Like many others before her, she quickly felt at home in the place, and in a poem called “Settling” Levertov (1997:58) described the process of adjustment from discovery to inhabitation.

I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing itself unclouded, its snow
tinted apricot as it looked west,
tolerant, in its steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill.  I’ve boasted I would not care,
I’m London-born.  And I won’t.  I’ll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain’s vast presence, seen or unseen.

Another immigrant from England, Jonathan Raban, visited Seattle during the late 1980s as a kind of travel writer. His humorous account of the city, in Hunting Mister Heartbreak, reminds us just how much the Northwest remains a land of newcomers and tourists, a place being discovered and rediscovered continuously. In the process of observing and reporting about Seattle, Raban decided—like Levertov—to become a resident and has continued to write about the region. These rather recent immigrants have been adopted as regional authors. All protests against immigrants aside, it sometimes doesn’t take long for some newcomers to go native—or for natives to concede that discoverers may see things about a place that are not so apparent to earlier settlers.

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Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest