USSEX at Nisqually

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

In 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition, whose name is often shortened to USSEX, is about to arrive at Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound! He had first attempted to enter the Columbia River, but high seas prevented his ships from making a crossing of the bar. Instead, he sailed north, up the Pacific Coast, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then Puget Sound, where Fort Nisqually stood. But in doing so, Captain Wilkes almost lost his two ships on Destruction Island! Captain Charles Wilkes had judged that the coast was some distance away — but not so! An easterly current had brought the ships toward the coast, and Wilkes was awoken by the cries of “Rocks Ahead!”

It was close, but the two ships escaped the disaster. On May 2, they anchored in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and were soon surrounded by First Nations people in their canoes, asking whether they were Boston (American) or King George (British) men. The ships made their way through Admiralty Inlet and into Puget Sound itself, and Wilkes was amazed by the beauty and apparent safety of the waterway. He wrote: “Nothing can exceed the beauty of these waters, and their safety: not a shoal exists… There is no country in the world that possesses waters equal to these.” On May 6th, he wrote: “the Indians inhabiting the surrounding shores are clad in blankets and skins of wild beasts, and appear friendly. They are passionately fond of smoking, and will exchange anything they have for pipes of tobacco.” On May 6th they were sailing confidently down Puget Sound, and on May 8th, the two USSEX ships received two pilots in the employ of the HBC to take the Squadron up to Fort Nisqually. (I believe Wilkes had sent a messenger ahead, asking for guidance to the Fort). Wilkes wrote:

“Twelve miles more brought us to the anchorage off Nisqually, where both vessels dropped their anchors abut eight o’clock. Here we found an English steamer (Beaver) undergoing repairs. Soon after we anchored I had the pleasure of a visit from Mr. [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson, who is in charge of the fort, and Captain [William Henry] McNeill. They gave me a warm welcome, and offered every assistance in their power to aid me in my operations. (From Washington Geographic Names, by Edmond S. Meany. Wilkes “honored these two men by naming for them the nearly Islands — Anderson and McNeil.” However, the Inskip chart of 1846 shows Anderson Island as Fisgard Island, after the British frigate which was on this station, 1844-1847, and for a while McNeill Island bore the name of Duntze, for the captain of the Royal Navy ship, Fisgard.

To continue: “On the 11th of May, 1841, Captain Charles Wilkes dropped anchor off Fort Nisqually, in command of the Vincennes and Porpoise.” Vincennes was a sloop of war of 780 tons (and 127 feet in length), and the Porpoise an 88 foot long brig, captained by Lieutenant Commander Ringgold. George Colvocoresses (one of the members of the USSXX expedition) reported that on May 12th “they hauled in close to shore and moored ship, as we are to remain here some weeks and perhaps months. Sent all the scientific instruments to the Observatory, except the pendulum…” Wilkes wrote in his Life in Oregon Country Before the Emigration, that “The establishment of an observatory also claimed my attention, a suitable site was found on the top of the hill, within hail of the ship. Here the instruments and clocks were landed, and put up in a small clearing, whence the trees had been cut in order to supply the steamer with fuel.”

I have a description of this observatory somewhere, I will see if I can find it. Anderson described it as “of temporary construction which had been established on the hill in the vicinity of the Fort. Here, observations with transit instruments and the pendulum were constantly carried on by the officers appointed for te purpose, the transit instruments being affixed to solid stumps sawn off level for the purpose. I was much indebted to Capt. Wilkes and his officers for the invitation to indulge occasionally, unprofessionally, in the interesting occupation. Meanwhile, I had equipped Lieutenant Johnson of the Vincennes with horses and other necessities to enable him to cross by Mt. Rainier Pass to the Columbia River, and he went as far, I think, as Colvile, returning thence by the same route.”

Wiles’s writing continues: “Lieutenant Johnson has been temporarily detached from the Porpoise and ordered to take charge of a party that is to examine the interior.” That seems to be the first thing that the USSEX did, but its not the only thing.

From Wilkes’s Life in Oregon Country: “The Porpoise with two of the Vincennes boats, under Lieutenant Commander Ringgold, were directed to take up the survey of Admiralty Inlet. The launch, first cutter and two boats of the Vincennes were placed under the command of Lieutenant Case, to survey Hood’s Canal. The land party intended to explore the interior, was placed under the command of Lieutenant Johnson of the Porpoise. With him were associated Dr. Pickering, Mr. T.W. Waldron of the Porpoise, Mr. Brackenridge, Sergeant Stearns, and two men. Eight days were allowed for the operations of this party, which it was intended should cross the Cascade range of mountains, towards the Columbia, proceed thence to Fort Colvile, thence south to Lapwai, the mission station on the Kooskooskee River, thence to Walla Walla, and returning by the way of the Yakima River, repass the mountains to Nisqually.” 

One more land party was planned, consisting of “Messrs Drayton and Waldron of the Vincennes, myself [Wilkes], and two servants. Our intended route lay across the country to the Columbia River. First, I proposed to visit Astoria, then Fort Vancouver, and the Willamette settlement, and to proceed up the river as far as Walla Walla. From Astoria I proposed to send parties from the Peacock into the interior, and to set on foot the survey of the Columbia River, by means of her boats.” Well, as we know the Peacock wrecked on the Columbia River bar, and so that plan went west.

“All these preparations occupied us until the 15th [May], when the brig was reported as ready, and sailed the same day. During the above interval I had the pleasure of visits from Dr. Richmond and Mr. Wilson, of the Methodist Mission stationed at this place. In returning the visits of Mr. Anderson and Captain McNeill, I had an opportunity of seeing the so-called fort. It is constructed of pickets, enclosing a space about two hundred feet square, with four corner bastions. Within this enclosure are the agents’ stores, and about half a dozen houses built of logs, and roofed with bark. This fort was considered quite large when it was first established, but since it has become an agricultural post as well as a trading one, it is found to be too small. Its locality is also ill chosen on account of the difficulty of obtaining water, which has to brought from a distance of nearly a mile. I was informed that there was now little necessity for any sort of protection against the Indians, who are but few in number, and very peaceably disposed.

“Mr. Anderson and Captain McNeill both reside in the fort with their families: both are married to half-breeds, and have several fine children.” He does not mention that Betsy, Anderson’s wife, was extremely pregnant at the time of Wilkes’s visit: her second child and first son, James Robert Anderson, would be born in June — only a month away, if that. The other thing he makes no mention of is that both McNeill and Anderson, and their families, resided in the same house! Considering the two men did not seem to get along well together, this must have been very uncomfortable quarters. “After spending some time in conversing about my plans, Mr. Anderson was kind enough to show me his garden, which is in an enclosure just without the pickets. Here I saw peas a foot high, strawberries and gooseberries in full bloom, and some of the former nearly ripe, with salad that had gone to seed, three feet high, very large and thrifty.

“Near by were to be seen fine fields of grain, large barns and sheep-folds, agricultural implements, and workmen with cattle engaged in the various employments of husbandry.” He also described “the large dairy, several hundred head of cattle, and among them seventy milch cows which yield a large supply of butter and cheese.” He admired the plains that surrounded the fort, which when the USSXX arrived were full of wild flowers in bloom — “flowers of every color and kind,” Wilkes said. “Among these were to be seen Ranunculus, Scilla, Lupines, Collinsia, and Balsamoriza (a small sunflower peculiar to Oregon); but the soil is quite thin, and barely sufficient for these in many places. The best land occurs where the prairies are intersected or broken by belts of woods that have a dense undergrowth, consisting of Hazel, Spiraea, Bornus, and Prunus. On the borers of these belts are scattered oaks and some ash, arbutus, birch, and poplars, and in some places the yew is to found, but the predominant character of the vegetation is of the tribe of Coniferae, which seem to occupy large ranges of the country, and among which the cedar is found to attain a large size.”

A missionary lived outside the fort. From A Document of Mission History, by R.M. Gatke: “The Reverend J. P. Richmond, M.D., was stationed at Jacksonville, Illinois, when in 1839 he was appointed a missionary to Oregon. He was sent to the new Nisqually Mission on Puget Sound.” Wilkes said, “I also visited Dr. Richmond, who had been settled here for some months, and occupies a nice log house built on the borders of one of the beautiful prairies.” It sounds as if the Missionary lived in a better house than Anderson and McNeill did, doesn’t it? “Here I found Mrs. Richmond and Mrs Wilson, with four fine, rosy, and fat children, whose appearance spoke volumes for the health of the climate. This mission has recently been established: so far as respects its prospects, they are not very flattering….”

So Wilkes has given us a good description of the country that lay around the first Fort Nisqually, which the USSEX visited in summer, 1841. As you see above, the first ship departed Fort Nisqually for its expedition around the sound on May 15, 1841. Lieutenant Johnson’s party was ready for departure on the 18th of May, Wilkes said: This is the party that was travelling through Naches Pass on its way to Fort Colvile and other places on the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range — they would also return home, to Fort Nisqually, by Naches Pass. “I must do justice to the exertions of this officer in getting ready for his journey” Wilkes said, “which he accomplished in less time than I anticipated, as the delays incident to setting out on a novel expedition, and one believed by most persons to be scarcely practicable in the summer season, are great and tantalizing. In making preparations for such a journey, the Indians were to be bargained with, and, as I have before had occasion to remark, are enough to tire the patience of Job himself. First, the Indian himself is to be sought out; then the horse is to be tried; next the price is to be discussed, then the mode of payment, and finally the potlatch…” Now, isn’t that interesting — the potlatch!

But they were fortunate in that Pierre Charles “who resided at the Cowlitz River,” was willing to work for them. We remember, of course, he is the same Pierre Charles who accompanied James McMillan, John Work, and Francis Annance to the Fraser River in winter, 1823. “He was at once sent for; but I did not think it worth while to detain the party until his arrival, as he could easily overtake it. Lieutenant Johnson, therefore, was directed to hurry his departure, and to set out, which he did on the 19th May, at noon, and proceeded to the prairie about two miles distant, where the party encamped…”

Pierre Charles’s response was quick. In the evening, “Mr. Anderson rode to the encampment just before night, bringing the news of the arrival of Pierre Charles at the fort; whereupon Lieutenant Johnson returned to make an agreement with him and his companion. This was done, although, as is to be supposed, their demands were exorbitant, in consequence of the belief that their services were indispensable.” I think they were indispensable: after all, who else did the USSEX parties have to guide them? “Pierre Charles’s companion was a young man, named Peter Bercier, (a connection of Simon Plomondon) who spoke English and all the languages of the country. 

On the morning of the 20th, they set out on their route towards the mountains. Wilkes [in an article on] says that, “Although the possibility of crossing them was doubted, yet I felt satisfied if exertion and perseverance could effect the object, the officer who had charge of the party would succeed. This day they made but five miles; after which they encamped, at the reommendation of Pierre Charles, in order that the horses might not be over-fatigued, and be able to get good pasture and water… On the 21st they made an early start, and in the forenoon crossed the Puyallup, a stream about seventy feet wide; along which is a fine meadow of some extent, with clumps of alder and willow, the soil was of a thlck turfy nature.” The streams were beginning to swell, it seems, owing to the melting of the snows in the mountains. “In order to cross the streams it became necessary to cut down large trees over which the packs were carried, while the horses swam over. These were not the only difficulties they had to encounter; the path was to be cut for miles through thickets of brushwood and fallen timber; steep precipices were to be ascended, with slippery sides and entangled with roots of every variety of shape and size, in which the horses’ legs would become entangled; and before reaching the top, precipitated loads and all, to the bottom. The horses would at time become jammed with their packs between trees, and were not to be disengaged withoug great toil, trouble, and damage to their burdens. In some cases, after succeeding in getting through nearly to the top of a hill thirty or forty feet igh, they would become exhausted and fall over backwards, making two or three somersets, until they reached the bottom, when their loads were again to be arranged.”

It wasn’t an easy trip, it seems — the horses reached the east side of the mountains, exhausted. The Amerians accidently set fire to one of their camps and had to move. They met the chief of the Yakima tribe, who waited to meet them, and who promised them horses by ten o’clock the next day. When the USSEX  men reached the chief’s camp, however, no horses awaited them. “The chief “had a game to play by procrastination,” the article reads, “in which he thoroughly succeeded.”

So I have no idea if these Americans ever reached Fort Colvile, their destination: although Anderson thinks he might have made it that far, as you see above, in the description of the Observatory. We will return to Fort Nisqually at this point, where Lieutenant Wilkes has departed on his expedition to Fort George, Fort Vancouver, and the Willamette. And this sounds quite interesting, and a lot more successful than the route over Naches Pass, I must say. First Wilkes describes Michel Laframboise, someone we all know something of. In fact, I followed LaFramboise around for a while, because one of the members of his Southern Expedition was named Joseph Beaulieu, and I thought he might have been Charlotte Birnie’s brother. I don’t think he was, however. But it would have been nice to have discovered that he was a member of my family.

“In the morning,” Wilkes wrote, “we found horses waiting, under charge of Michel La Framboise, who is in the employ of the Company, and was very happy to see us. He originally came out in the ship Tonquin, and was one of the party that landed at Astoria, where he has resided ever since, either in the company of the Northwest or Hudson Bay Company. Michel Laframboise is of low stature, and rather corpulent, but has great energy and activity of both mind and body, indomitable courage, and all the vivacity of a Frenchman. He has travelled in all parts of the country, and says that he has a wife of high rank in eery tribe, by which means he has insured his safety. From him I derived much information, and to him all parties refer as possessing the most accurate knowledge of the country. He generally has charge of a party, and was formerly enaged in trapping, but of late years passing through the country to California and back. Had it not been for his proneness to dissipation, I am informated he would have risen in the Company’s service. To me he complained that he had not received what he considered his due, and that he was no better off than twenty years before, saying, “he was still Michel LaFramboise, only older.”

So this might be a good place to stop, for now: When I write the next post it will appear here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.