Maybe the most compelling proof that Tacoma is a seaport city is the fact that seafarers and their vessels have been landing here for thousands of years. Because boats leave no trail and well told stories create no material document its easy to overlook a distant maritime past that is foundational to Tacoma’s history.

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This spellbinding photograph from about 1880 shows the end of the Prairie Line-the Northern Pacific Dock where the transcontinental railroad reached its Pacific conclusion at Commencement Bay in 1873. The legendary Blackwell Hotel is silhouetted on the wharf and a standing train of boxcars are parked along the last few yards of tracks ready to load onto the steamers and sailing ship in the distance.

But the story in this photograph is in the foreground where a small flotilla of immense carved red cedar canoes are moored against the shoreline. These are exquisitely engineered ocean going vessels, some more than 50 feet in length and capable of  carrying a ton of cargo along with paddlers and passengers. Carved from single centuries old cedar trees, the hand carved and shaped crafts were almost mystical in their endurance and handling. Before the arrival of European and Asian explorers and colonizers off our shores these were the largest transport vessels afloat and their crews could routinely travel a hundred of miles in a single day.

By the 1880’s the Northern tribes paddled

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Companion photo to one above, angle changed

from Southeast Alaska and Haida Quai to Tacoma during the summer to work the hop fields and trade for goods. Its probable that the canoes and people in this photograph are part of that seasonal migration. The opened umbrellas being used for sun shades are amusing markers of the cultural exchange.

 

The Tacoma waterfront was a crowded place for the big canoes during hop harvest season and there is a valuable collection of early photographs that capture the time and place. In them are the everyday details of a seafaring people that moved through the natural world with ease and invention. The 1880’s were a time when the potlatch was outlawed by governmental authorities in the U.S. and Canada but the hop harvest provided a chance for social gatherings and perhaps cover for the traditional potlatch ceremonies. The Puyallup people were and continue to be part of the great Northwest canoe culture, based at one of the region’s most important protected harbors and recognized for their welcoming hospitality to mariners. As today they were resourceful in finding work-arounds and the seasonal canoe gatherings were a thinly veiled way of preserving the potlatch tradition.

While the images that follow capture a time now past, the summer of 2018 will once again bring the great tribal canoe flotillas to Puyallup territory. The 2018 Canoe Journey that brings indigenous paddlers and canoe families from the entire Pacific Northwest is being hosted by the Puyallup tribe in late July and early August. More on this later.

 

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ca. 1889
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1884
1880
Companion to the above 1884 photograph
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ca. 1880

 

The 1914 film made at Haida Quai by Seattle photographer Edwards Curtis is a famous example of cultural appropriation but this clip does record the power and grandeur of the great canoes carved along the Northwest Coast.

 

 

To follow planning for the 2018 Canoe Journey:

http://paddletopuyallup.org/index.php

 

Written by tacomahistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

4 comments

  1. “a famous example of cultural appropriation…”

    Gosh, it sure would be nice to be able to read this history without having it salted with lefty political claptrap.

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    1. Sorry you feel that way and harbor an angry political resentment of the statement. I have to defend it with the observation that the valuable cultural record captured in the film was diminished by the thin melodramatic storyline Curtis added to the film. If you have seen the whole film I think you will agree that the best parts are the authentic objects, dance movements and tribal context. The romantic tangle and unbelievable resolution is purely cinematic pulp that clashes with the authenticity of the cultural information visible in the footage. Curtis romanticized the historic records he created and stepped back from objectivity and reality in the images he made and interpreted. You may be looking through the same lens in politicizing my caption explaining his work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you may be unclear about just who is “looking through a lens”. The phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ is a modern construct, virtually unknown prior to 1980, and whether you realize it or not, is almost exclusively a watchword of the political left. Your application of it here is what is known as ‘presentism’; it diminishes your otherwise very valuable presentation of history. Your follow-up comment about the filmmaker is useful and objective–that’s the approach you should have taken in the article.

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