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Commencement Bay & the Natural Economy of Tacoma - Part III

Written by Olivia Inglin | Edited by Mary Bowlby

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2017 Spring issue

This is the last in a three-part series about maritime development on Commencement Bay

The first post is available here. The second post is available here.

An Indian dugout canoe rests on the shore as a cargo ship sails out of the Bay. Both are rigged for sail.

Source: Tacoma Public Library, Northwest Room, G51023

Competition for Space and Resources

Steamships were not the only actors competing for a piece of the waterway. Long before George Vancouver entered the Pacific Northwest region, Native Americans used the waterways and land as resources for their basic needs including food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. The water was especially important to The Salish people as a method of transportation and a food source. On Commencement Bay the Puyallup Tribe would, “trail a line of tough nettle string from a canoe. On the end of the line was a hook made of bone and on that hook was a clam. In the rivers, salmon were trapped in nets or fences woven from branches that were placed across narrow streams. Smelt and herring were caught using cedar rakes at night. Large seals and sturgeon were speared using sharp wooden shafts. Shrimp and crab were gathered from the deep waters of the Puget Sound using small nets” (Jennings, online). This type of activity was largely uninterrupted by the first European settlers in the region. Journalist Craig Sailor explained that up until the 1850’s settlers saw the best path to success was for there to be peaceful relationships between Native Americans and the European settlers (online).

However, as expansion started to ramp up these peaceful relationships did not always last. Instead Native Americans lost land and (in some cases) the ability to use natural resources as a result of treaties and general growth. In 1854, the Puyallup & other Salish tribes were forced to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty, which gave up a large portion of their reservation land in return for fishing and hunting rights. At this point it was becoming clear that industries such as lumber and commercial fishing would continue to expand and become permanent on the waterfront. Thus, the once calm waterways of Tacoma soon became a crowded place of competition for both space and resources.

Canoes moored along the shoreline near Old Town, ca 1885

Source: Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room, King Collection 3746

By the 1860s some 2,000 Puyallups had been relocated in outskirt areas away from major resources (Craig, online). The Tribe lost even more land surrounding the water in 1887 when the U.S. congress signed the Dawes Act. This Act divided reservation land between individuals or families. Land not directly given to Native Americans was later available for sale, which resulted in more land loses for the Puyallup Tribe as a whole (Wilma, online).

“In 1855 many natives were unhappy with the [Medicine Creek] treaty which relegated the Puyallups and other tribes to small and often poorly situated reservations…’They put people on reservations that weren’t going to support them,’ McCloud said” (Craig, online).

The Native Americans in the Puget Sound area, like those in much of the United States, saw many of the drawbacks to the expansion of the American way of life.

Canoe on Puget Sound, ca. 1898

Source: Tacoma Public Library, Northwest Room, AC024

Maritime Development on Commencement Bay

In the end, the City of Destiny expanded largely due to the commercial use of Commencement Bay. The coal and lumber industries were able to broaden because of the good anchorage and deep shorelines on Commencement Bay. Likewise, local ship and boat building companies thrived as commerce within and outside of the United States kept expanding. The introduction of a transcontinental railway on Commencement Bay brought many settlers, but it was the natural mode of transportation, which eased travel in the region, that often enticed them to stay. The Mosquito Fleet’s ability to continually adapt to growing needs for faster and larger ships allowed citizens to live on the Puget Sound, settling across a challenging terrain.

Expansion did have its complications. Native Americans were uniformly put at a disadvantage as the city kept growing, and local workers often had to fight for wage adjustments and rights. Nevertheless, the waterways of Tacoma were the first true transportation system in the Puget Sound region. Ships across the water not only allowed people to travel with ease across a forested region, but the water also enabled a fishing, lumber, and shipping economy to be born.

Works Cited

Colton, Tim. "Babare Bros. Shipbuilding, Tacoma WA." Blog post. Babare Bros. Shipbuilding, Tacoma WA. N.p., 10 May 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Jennings, Matt. "The Native Peoples of Points NorthEast Historical Society - Brown's Point, Tacoma, Washington." The Native Peoples of Points NorthEast Historical Society - Brown's Point, Tacoma, Washington. Oint NE Historical Society, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.Long, Priscilla. "HistoryLink.org." Longshoremen Strike the Tacoma Mill Company on March 22, 1886. - The Free Encyclopedia of Washington State History, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

Magden, Ronald, and A. D. Martinson. The Working Waterfront: The Story of Tacoma's Ships and Men. Tacoma, WA: International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, Local 23 of Tacoma, 1982.

Thompson, Wilbur, and Allen Beach. Steamer to Tacoma. Bainbridge Island, WA: Driftwood, 1963. Print.

"Pacific Marine Review." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

"Tacoma: History." Tacoma: History. Washington State History Museum, 2017. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.

Wilma, David. "HistoryLink.org." Puyallup Tribe of Indians Accepts a $162 Million Settlement for Lost Land on March 25, 1990". – The Free Encyclopedia of Washington State History, 21 Oct. 2006. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

Wilma, David, and Walt Crowley. "HistoryLink.org." Tacoma -- Thumbnail History." The Free Encyclopedia of Washington State History, 17 Jan. 2003. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

About the Author

Olivia Inglin volunteered with Job Carr Cabin Museum in 2016 and 2017. She graduated from Western Washington University with a bachelor's degree in History and Political Science. She follows her passion for American history through volunteer work. We are grateful for Olivia's willingness to put her knowledge to work assisting us with research and writing.

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