It was in the fall of 1852 that Shoalwater Bay settler-resident Charles Russell invited James G. Swan to visit the Bay. Swan traveled by ocean from San Francisco along the Oregon Coast past the Columbia River inlet; finally making it to the northern point of the Bay at Cape Shoalwater. From there Swan traveled into the Bay itself.

Northwest Coastal Land and Sea Life Described by James G. Swan in the 1850’s.

The next morning after our arrival I went ashore with the rest of the passengers to the house of Mr. Russell, with whom I intended to remain for a short time. I found a few other settlers in the Bay, who were located there (as was also Mr. Russell) for the purpose of procuring oysters for the market of San Francisco.


Varieties of Fish and Sea Food on the Bay

The shoals are covered with shell-fish, among which the oyster is the most abundant, and constitutes the principal article of export. Several varieties of clams, crabs of the largest size, and of a most delicious flavor, shrimps, mussels, and a small species of sand-lobster, are in the greatest abundance, and furnish nutritious food, not only to the different tribes of Indians who resort to the Bay at different seasons to procure supplies, but also to the white settler, who is thus enabled to greatly reduce the expenses of living when compared with those settlements on the Columbia River and interior where provisions of all kinds are usually scarce and high.

The waters of the Bay, and all the streams that enter into it, are well stocked with fish. Salmon of several varieties abound, and are taken in great numbers by the Indians for their own food or for trading with the whites. Sturgeon of a very superior quality are plenty, and form a principal item in the stock of provisions the Indians lay by for their winter use*

The rivers and mountain streams abound in trout. Flatfish, such as turbot, soles, and flounders, are plenty, and in the spring, innumerable shoals of herring visit the Bay, and are readily caught by the Indians, either with nets, or in weirs and traps, rudely constructed of twigs and brush.

Land and Trees.

The shores of the Bay, with the exception of the west or peninsular side, are mostly composed of high banks of a sandy clay, intermingled with strata of shells and remains of ancient forest-trees that for ages have been buried. The faces of these cliffs are generally perpendicular, particularly when washed by the waves of the Bay; but in some places they gradually descend to the water, having a level space, covered either with grass or bushes, close to the water’s edge. The peninsula is a flat, marshy, and sandy plain, elevated but a few feet from the water level, and covered, as is also the whole region around the Bay, with a dense growth of gigantic forest trees, principally spruce, fir, and cedar, with a few specimens of maple and ash, and black alder, which here grows to a tree.



Elk, deer, and antelope are very plenty, and find ample sustenance at all seasons of the year. The other wild animals which abound are black bears, wolves, lynx, panthers, and in the streams are otter and beaver. There are also raccoons, foxes, rabbits, skunks and squirrels, minks, martens, and a singular species of rat, called the bush-tailed rat (JVeutomaJDrummondii). This animal is of a very mischievous nature, seeming to take delight in collecting all sorts of things, and conveying them to its nest; instances are known of great confusion being occasioned among settlers at the sudden disappearance of articles which were afterward found hidden away by these rats. I have found in an old boot, that had been laid away during the summer, coffee, beans, dried apples, nails, ends of cigars, old pipes, and a variety of other loose trash, which were not fit for food, and could only have been collected for mischief.


The feathered tribe are numerous, and during the season flock hither in clouds: white and black swans, white geese, Canada geese, brant, sheldrake, cormorants, loons, mallard ducks, red-head, gray, and canvas-back ducks, teal, curlew, snipe, plover, pheasant, quail, pigeons, and robins. During the summer months pelican are plenty, and go sailing round in their heavy, lazy flight, occasionally dashing down into the water in the most clumsy manner to catch a fish, and at all times an easy prey and an acceptable banquet to the Indians, who swallow their coarse, fishy, oily flesh with the greatest avidity. Innumerable flocks of gulls of various species are constantly to be seen, and at times, when attracted by any quantities of food, appear like clouds. These birds, also, are readily eaten by the Indians, who never are at-a loss to find means to appease their appetite.

Porpoises, Seals, and Whales.

Porpoises and seals are plenty in the Bay, and the latter are very easily killed either with spears or by shooting. Their flesh, particularly the young ones, is very palatable, and their blubber makes excellent oil, which is eaten by the Indians. Whales are frequently thrown ashore on the beach bordering the Pacific during the winter and spring months, and their blubber forms an important article of diet with the natives. The salmon, seal, and whale oils form the same important part of the domestic economy of the coast Indians as lard, butter, or olive oil do with the whites; and the Indian who has not at all times in his lodge a good supply of oil or blubber not only feels very poor, but is so considered by all his acquaintance and friends.

Swan, James G. The Northwest Coast; or Three Years’ Residence In Washington Territory. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1857. [Excerpt from chapter 2, pages 20-33]