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Scalps, Seeds, and Sails

A Historic Tour of the Salish Sea

The Pacific Northwest’s maritime history is infused with enough drama, intrigue, and romance to fill a hefty bestseller. The marine industry and the evolution of nautical technologies, together with the growth of natural resource exploitation and the ever-present lure of prospective gold, helped propel Northwest society from frontier living to gentrification in the span of a short century. The four vignettes that follow in many ways typify the seeming disparate events that shaped our region’s zeitgeist, and through them we can appreciate our beautiful backyard on a new, more intimate level. For example, the Indian Chestnut (Aesculus indica) tree from the Himalayas that you’ve probably walked by at the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at the Ballard Locks has a story to tell, as does the once-blood-soaked ground of Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island. All the stories become one. They become the story of us all.

The Ebey Incident

Isaac EbeyIsaac Ebey, just 39 years old in 1857, had already panned for gold in California, bought a boat and sailed to Puget Sound, suggested “Olympia” for the name of a collection of rude shacks at the head of Budd Inlet, worked as a customs agent, claimed and farmed 641 acres of prime soil on Whidbey Island, built a landing and dock on Admiralty Inlet at the southern extent of his farm, and was appointed colonel in the local volunteer militia to defend against the native uprisings of 1855-56. He was enough of a public figure that a Port Townsend entrepreneur named his coastal trading sloop after him.

A large band of Tlingits from Kake, Alaska harassed settlers and natives as far south as Nisqually between April and October 1856. The naval commander at Fort Steilacoom dispatched the Massachusetts, a coastal patrol gunboat refitted from a commercial transatlantic steam packet, to confront the group and convince them to leave the area. After a short pursuit and failed negotiation, the Navy killed or wounded twenty-seven of the raiders in a skirmish at Port Gamble, took the survivors north, and admonished them to never return.

Because one of the fatalities was a chief, the Tlingits returned in August 1857 bent on securing a high-value target for revenge and after some deliberation decided on Ebey. Near midnight on August 11, they ambushed the Ebey homestead and took his head as a trophy. The news alarmed Americans and British alike who feared another outbreak of hostilities.

Since the Tlingits lived in Russian territory, they could not be punished without inviting political incident. James Douglas, once a Hudson Bay Company (HBC) factor (manager) and now governor of the British Columbia colony, instructed Charles Dodd (Dodd Narrows, Dodd Rock), captain of the HBC steamer Beaver and later her replacement Labouchere, to initiate enquiries in the hope of reclaiming Ebey’s scalp. On October 8, 1858, while on a HBC trading mission Dodd negotiated the exchange for six blankets, three pipes, one cotton handkerchief, six heads of tobacco, and one fathom of cotton cloth.

Ebey’s prairie is the remnant of a shallow meltwater lake formed during the retreat of the Vashon glacier. Today, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is the first of its kind created by the National Park Service to preserve the history, culture, and natural elements of Whidbey Island, such as the Golden Paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) and the Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha taylori).

Ebey’s landing and dock provided fair weather access by canoe or small ship and was used primarily for passenger access, mail transfer, and light cargo. The Whidbey Island post office was located there for a while, but by the 1880s the lack of expedient transportation to the mainland rendered the landing and dock obsolete.

In 2014, on the 157th anniversary of Ebey’s assassination, members of the Kake community of Tlingits visited the site to establish a re-connection to the event. “We come in peace,” said tribal elder Ruth Demmert by way of introduction.

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