Friday, October 07, 2005


A glimpse into early Seattle


The Seattle Times
By Stuart Eskenazi
October 06, 2005

A local historian's plunge into the records of a naval warship anchored in Elliott Bay 150 years ago has resulted in a richer understanding of early Seattle, while revealing saucy details about the ship's crew.

The USS Decatur's nine-month tour in Puget Sound, which ended in June 1856, came as Seattle was a budding settlement, anxious about a rise in attacks by Native Americans over land treaties that were deceitful and overly restrictive.

"The Decatur is a vessel full of stories," said Lorraine McConaghy, historian for Seattle's Museum of History & Industry, where she will talk tonight about her discoveries. The one-hour lecture is free.

The heavily armed Decatur's place in local history has been limited to its role in beating back Indian warriors during the Battle of Seattle on Jan. 26, 1856. Two settlers and an unknown number of Indians died during the daylong fight, which historians say took a break around noon so both sides could eat lunch.

But the ship's voluminous records — log books, trial transcripts and physician's notes — expose glimpses into a Seattle never before seen, said McConaghy, whose research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., was supported through a U.S. Naval Historical Center grant.

The three-masted sloop-of-war — 117 feet long and 32 feet wide — carried a crew of 145 officers, marines and seamen to Seattle, which itself had only about that many citizens at the time. About 30 percent of the crew was foreign-born and 10 percent was African American, a few as young as 15 years old.

McConaghy learned that rather than remaining on board each night, the crew went ashore to protect the settlement. The extent of the social interaction between crew and settlers had not been known until now.

The Decatur, one of five ships that made up the Pacific Squadron, set sail for Puget Sound after receiving orders to investigate reports of rising hostilities between Indians and settlers in the new Washington Territory.

"This ship brought vice, violence, protection and cash into Seattle," said McConaghy, who found petitions from settlers pleading that the ship remain in Elliott Bay until all danger had passed.

The transcript of one, signed by about 50 settlers including Henry Yesler, David Denny, Dexter Horton, Henry Van Asselt and Carson Boren, will be on display tonight.

"You have been amongst us, and know our condition; you have fought for us and we all have confidence in your zeal, energy and talents," the petition says. "You are perfectly advised of our exposed situation and the absolute certainty that exists of our being destroyed if left to defend ourselves, without assistance."

McConaghy said the ship's crew seemed to have little regard for Seattle's settlers, dismissing them as sniveling cowards. There were exceptions, however, with admiration expressed for Yesler, Arthur Denny and Luther Collins. The crew also belittled Seattle's local militia as occasionally too drunk to protect the settlement.

But the Decatur's salty crew had plenty of its own vices. The records expose instances of drunken seamen marauding through the settlement and getting in trouble for it. While the Decatur was in Elliott Bay, the Navy relieved the ship's captain of his duties for ineffectiveness, his downfall hastened by excessive drinking and gambling.

McConaghy reviewed several types of records, including rain-splashed log books covering the entire time the sloop was anchored in Elliott Bay.

"These were the real deal — five feet wide when open and three feet high," she said. "I'd be leaning over these huge books, transcribing what I was reading, and I was so far away, I couldn't even see the top of the page."

An Oct. 31, 1855, entry describes Chief Seattle being welcomed on deck and shown the ship's powerful arsenal. Friendly to the settlers, he was the only Native American ever allowed to board the Decatur during its five-year tour of the Pacific, McConaghy said.

McConaghy also read transcripts of courts-martial, including one that describes the follies of a seaman accused of stealing money from a shipmate.

His journey takes him to the Elliott House, a respectable hotel within the settlement. Inside, he sees four Indians playing cards and drinking at a table in the middle of the afternoon. Historians had never before been aware that Indians were allowed inside the hotel, McConaghy said.

She also read through medical records, including detailed descriptions of cases admitted to sick bay.

"At least 25 percent of the crew had a venereal infection at any given time," McConaghy said. The percentage probably was higher because the count includes only crew members who sought treatment for symptoms.

During the Decatur's time in Seattle, five crew members deserted ship. Three died and were buried on shore. Two were dishonorably discharged, and McConaghy wants to find out what became of them. "These men are incorrigible and they were discharged into a very thinly settled population," she said.

Historian Lorraine McConaghy talks about discoveries about early Seattle gleaned from her research of USS Decatur records at the National Archives this past summer

Where: Museum of History & Industry, 2700 24th Ave. E., Seattle

When: Tonight at 7

Cost: Free

More information: or 206-324-1685


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