In some of his writing James G. Swan tended to cast Native groups in the broad stereotypes of his time, as thieves, murders, drunks, savages and heathen. Themes very consistent with American history and culture of the time. So ingrained were these views Swan had a difficult time thinking of Native people in any other way.

Yet, despite this overriding belief in the sanctity of mission of “white” society to “civilize” and “settle” the Northwest Coast region, at the same time, and to his credit, James G. Swan could also be sympathetic to Coastal Native culture and society. For this reason and others, and despite some of its flaws, Swan’s work remains an invaluable treasure trove of information about our ancestors.

In fact, Swan’s history of the area ranks as one of the most important eye witness accounts of the Northwest Coast People, our lands, language, and beliefs. The way of life that our ancestors led–despite what Swan or the society he lived in may have felt about it at the time–were recorded and preserved as a rich resource for future generations of our people.

Writer, Artist, and Settler, James G. Swan’s Voyage from San Francisco to Shoalwater Bay.

by James G. Swan

DURING the fall of 1852, having received an invitation from my friend, Mr. Charles J. W. Russell, of Shoalwater Bay, to make him a visit, I determined to accept his kind offer, and accordingly secured a passage on board the brig Oriental, Captain Hill, which was bound up the Bay for a cargo of piles and spruce timber. I had always, from my earliest recollections, a strong de­sire to see the great River Columbia, and to learn some­thing of the habits and customs of the tribes of the Northwest. This desire had been increased by the visit of a chief of the Clalam tribe of Indians from Puget Sound, who arrived at San Francisco, where I was then residing, and who received a great deal of attention from me during his visit of two or three weeks.

This chief, whose name was Chetzamokha, and who is known by the whites as the Duke of York, was very urgent to have me visit his people. Subsequently, on his return home, he sent me a present of a beautiful ca­noe, and a bag containing a quantity of cornelians, which are found along the shores of the bays and rivers of Washington and Oregon Territories.


We left the harbor of San Francisco about noon on the 20th of November, and the old brig being very light, we were tumbled about in a lively manner while cross­ing the bar, where there was a tremendous swell running in from the southwest. However, we suffered no dam­age, and soon found ourselves on our course with a fair wind. We continued on in this manner for three days, without any thing occurring of interest, and the monot­ony of the scene only broken by the stories of the com­pany of captains, who, sailor-like, never let slip an op­portunity of relating a jest or an anecdote.


The other passengers had turned into their berths, where they lay telling stories, and they were most in­tensely delighted with the adventure. The steward soon came, who lighted the lamp, swabbed up the floor, and set us to rights. The next morning we found ourselves about thirty miles to the westward of the Columbia Riv­er, from which a huge volume of water was running, car­rying in its course great quantities of drift-logs, boards, chips, and saw-dust, with which the whole water around us was covered. During the freshets in this river, the force of the current of fresh water discharged from it is sufficient to discolor the ocean for sixty miles from the coast.

The wind continuing to blow from the northwest, we beat about till the 28th, when, running in-shore, we made cape Shoalwater, the northern point at the entrance to Shoalwater Bay. A heavy sea was breaking on the bar, and no opening presented itself to us. Russell, who was acting pilot, felt afraid to venture, and wished to stand off; but, by the time he had made up his mind, we had neared the entrance, so that it was impossible for us to turn to windward, and the only alternative was to go ashore or go into the harbor.

Every man was stationed at his post—Captain Hill and one man at the wheel, Captains Swain and Russell on the fore-yard, looking out, Captain Weldon heaving the lead, the sailors at the braces, and Captain Baker and myself watching to see the fan. The breakers were very high, and foamed, and roared, and dashed around us in the most terrific manner; but the old brig was as light on them as a gull, and, without shipping a drop of water, passed over and through them all; and after run­ning up the channel about two miles, we came to an­chor in smooth water, and found ourselves safe and sound in Shoalwater Bay.


Swan, James G. The Northwest Coast; or Three Years’ Residence In Washington Territory. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1857. [Excerpt from pages 17-19].