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Canoes and the Carr Family

Written by Greg Brewis, Board Member

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2010 Spring issue

Updated for blog publication in 2019 by: Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the second in a two-part series about canoes on Commencement Bay

The first post is available here.

Finding a Homestead by Canoe

Experienced canoe carvers and navigators from the Puyallup Tribe had much to teach non-Native settlers, including Job Carr. Early settlers quickly learned the importance of having a canoe for transportation. In 1864, Job spent 5 months navigating around Puget Sound to find the place where he would settle.

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The canoe model at the Museum is a scale-sized model with a Salish design, built and installed for the public's enjoyment.

The Douglas Fir forests surrounding Commencement Bay were thick, growing right down to the water’s edge. Since the only practical way to search was by water, he went along with a group of men from the Reservation (occupying land near where the Emerald Queen Casino is now located) on a Christmas Day fishing trip in 1864.

Mr. Billings telling me there were several nice places along the shore of the bay, as we went along in our canoe. When we came opposite where Old Tacoma now stands, I raised on my feet and exclaimed ‘Eureka, Eureka’ and told my companions there was my claim.

However, before making a permanent settlement, I procured a canoe and spent five months in exploring - up and down the sound - every bay and nook from Olympia to the Snohomish River: the shore lines, facilities for wharfage, anchorage, protection of harbors, inlets and outlets, etc. Then I would go ashore and climb through the brush and examine the land approaches and surroundings, etc., etc." -- Job Carr

At the time Job Carr arrived in the area in 1864, the early foot trails that connected his homestead site to Olympia, Steilacoom and Puyallup tribal lands had been supplemented with horse and ox cart paths. Still, travel over land was difficult under good conditions and near impossible in the mud during the rainy season. Travel by water was far easier in almost any weather.

Water Trails

The Carr’s quickly procured canoes for their own use. Both Anthony and Howard Carr (Job’s sons) mention canoe travel in their journals. One canoe was even named – “The Red, White and Blue.” Howard mentions pulling this canoe out of the water to paint it in 1867. The canoe's colors may have been chosen in tribute to the Carr family's service in the Union Army, prior to homesteading on Commencement Bay.

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Northwest native canoe interiors were often painted oxide red.

The use of Puget Sound as a waterway was an integral part of the family's livelihood. A trip from Job's cabin to the mouth of the Puyallup River took about 20 minutes. In his diaries, Anthony Carr talks about his travels on the sound, especially trips between Old Town and Steilacoom - approximately 15 miles or 3 hours one way when weather was favorable. Anthony made this trip regularly as Tacoma’s first postal carrier. Many of Anthony’s entries talk about the rough and “heavy sea” that made for difficult travel on the sound during the winter months, including several “swamping” incidents that left him stranded.

Unfortunately, there are no records as to the type of canoe the Carr’s used on the sound. From Anthony’s descriptive entries, it was most likely similar to Coast Salish style canoe – a typical model used in the Pacific Northwest’s inner waters including Puget Sound. These utilitarian canoes were similar in style to the “one-man” or fishing canoe because they were small enough to be handled by one person but similar in form to larger dugout canoes.

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The museum's canoe replica was installed in 2010 and quickly became a favorite local landmark for Tacoma children and families.

Canoe travel by settlers, however, was not long lived. It was only six year between Carr's claim and the 1870 advent of stagecoach travel to Olympia, as well as the arrival of regular steamship service on Commencement Bay.