Scientists dine with Major Haller at Port Townsend on March 1, 1859.

  • By Russel Lawrence Barsh
  • Posted 3/01/2016
  • Essay 11196

On March 1, 1859, as the sun sets over the small American military camp of Fort Townsend, a few miles south of Port Townsend at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, an unusual group young men assembles at the quarters of Brevet Major Granville O. Haller (1819-1897), Fourth Infantry, where they share "a very nice oyster supper" (Kennerly journal, March 1, 1859) and discuss the present state and future of the San Juan Islands, located some 20 miles north of Port Townsend across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, whose ownership is in dispute between the United States and Great Britain. Among the diners is C. B. R. Kennerly (ca. 1830-1861), a young naturalist exploring the islands for the U.S. Boundary Commission, whose notes will provide some of the earliest recorded glimpses of the natural history of the San Juan archipelago.

Haller, Gibbs, and Kennerly

Major Haller commanded Fort Townsend, which was established in 1856 to protect American settlers in and around Port Townsend from Indians raids, although by early 1859 he and other U.S. Army officers in the region were also focused on the growing boundary dispute with the British Empire over American taxation of British subjects at the Hudson's Bay Company post and farm on San Juan Island, where the Pig War confrontation would break out later that year.

Among Haller's guests was George Gibbs (1815-1873), a Harvard-educated lawyer who left his New York law practice in 1849 to seek his fortune in the California gold fields, but found instead a calling as a scholar of Native American peoples. He had already played a major historical role in Washington Territory as secretary of the Indian Treaty Commissions (1854-1856) that opened Puget Sound to American settlers.

Accompanying Gibbs was Caleb Burwell Rowan Kennerly, a young Virginia-born naturalist who had studied ornithology at Dickinson College with Spencer Baird (1823-1887) before completing his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1852. Meanwhile, Baird became Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1853 he recruited Kennerly to accompany the 1853-1854 Pacific Railroad Survey and the 1855-1857 Mexican Boundary Survey across the continent. Kennerly was officially a physician, but his real assignment from Baird was collecting specimens for display and study in the nation's capitol.

"Tedious and Long Separation"

When the southern boundary survey reached the Pacific Coast, Baird arranged for Kennerly to join the recently organized Northwest Boundary Commission in Washington Territory. Already five years separated from East Coast society, Kennerly appears to have agreed somewhat reluctantly to his new role. Two years into his sojourn in the Northwest, Kennerly wrote to Baird, "We must resign ourselves to a tedious & long separation from our friends & home; for really I think three years more may find us still west of the Rocky Mts" (January 5, 1859).

Kennerly always addressed Baird formally as "Professor," but his references to Baird's wife Mary Helen and her daughter Lucy reveal that Kennerly had been a frequent social visitor to Baird's home. In one letter he asks, "What plans have you for the summer ... How I [wish I] was so situated as to accompany you!" (Kennerly to Spencer Baird, June 13, 1858). There are other references to "seaside" holidays together, cruises, the New Jersey shore, and "Beesley's," probably the Thomas Beesley House at Cape May on the southern tip of New Jersey (Kennerly to Mary Helen Baird, August 10, 1859). (The Beesley or Naylor House, Cape May home of New Jersey State Senator Thomas Beesley from 1850-1874, is listed on the National Historic Register.) Kennerly also refers to letters he received regularly from 10-year-old Lucy, but her letters have not survived.

George Gibbs was already serving as a linguist, naturalist, and scout for the U.S. boundary commissioners when Kennerly arrived at their base camp on Semiahmoo Bay in 1857. Gibbs helped Kennerly to speak with Native people about wildlife and recruit them to hunt for specimens. Gibbs thought Kennerly charmingly innocent, and Kennerly wrote despairingly of Gibbs's addiction to whiskey.

"Examine into the Resources of the Islands"

It was Gibbs's idea to ask the U.S. Collector of Customs in Port Townsend to loan Kennerly the use of the revenue cutter USRC Jefferson Davis, a 90-foot Cushing Class topsail schooner completed in 1853 in Rhode Island and sailed around Cape Horn to the Salish Sea. It was the first revenue cutter to represent American interests in Washington Territory, although it yielded to steam-powered vessels within a decade of being placed in service.

The occasion of Gibbs's solicitation was a special assignment entrusted to Kennerly by Archibald Campbell, the U.S. Boundary Commissioner by whom Gibbs and Kennerly were officially employed. As tensions between American and British settlers in the San Juan Islands continued to smolder, Campbell instructed Kennerly "to examine into the mineral, agricultural & other resources of the islands in dispute & especially San Juan" (Kennerly journal, February 20, 1859), implicitly to determine whether they were worth a fight.

Difficult Voyage

Kennerly was spending the winter drying and canning specimens for Baird at the boundary commission's base camp in Semiahmoo Bay, on the Whatcom County mainland just south of the international border, without the means to travel to the islands in obedience to Campbell's directive. Today, by ferry and automobile, the short distance between Semiahmoo Bay and San Juan Island is traversed within a few hours. The same voyage could be much longer and more dangerous 150 years ago, in the age of sail. Kennerly was nonetheless delighted when the Jefferson Davis anchored at Semiahmoo on February 18, 1859, with Gibbs on hand to invite him aboard.

Gibbs's agreement with the U.S. Collector of Customs at Port Townsend was for a week to 10 days of exploration. Kennerly suggested asking for an extension of this time, which necessitated returning to Port Townsend before proceeding to the islands. February in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is often stormy, however, and on its first day under sail with Kennerly aboard, the Jefferson Davis was struck by a "tremendous gale ... with snow & rain" (Kennerly journal, February 21, 1859). It took the party the entire day to make the short crossing from Semiahmoo to Orcas Island, where they took shelter from the wind for the night. Kennerly confessed in his journal to having suffered from seasickness, "more possibly than usual" (February 21, 1859).

His ordeal was not yet over. The storm continued and when the Jefferson Davis left its anchorage on Orcas Island, it was blown back northward to Lummi Island, where Kennerly noted in his journal "we are now rolling & rocking though comparatively safe" (February 22, 1859). He added that it was a miserable way to celebrate Washington's Birthday. By afternoon he was sufficiently recovered from his seasickness to do some collecting with his dredge and rifle. The next day the storm worsened, and after another attempt to cross the channel back to Orcas, the cutter was forced back to Lummi Island.

On San Juan Island

Four days outbound from Semiahmoo, the cutter finally struggled across Rosario Strait to San Juan Island, where Kennerly interviewed the U.S. customs officer, Paul Hubbs, and "other American gentlemen" about the resources of the island. Kennerly and Gibbs dined with Hubbs, together with the general manager of the Hudson's Bay establishment on the island, Charles Griffin, and Captain Denman, a British surveyor. Kennerly noted that the British gentlemen were "greatly puzzled to know what we are up to" but that, nonetheless, they shared "considerable information" about San Juan Island (Kennerly journal, February 25, 1859).

Before leaving San Juan Island, Kennerly was eager to sample an Olympia oyster reef in Griffin Bay along the island's southeastern shore. After two tries, he managed to fashion a pair of oyster tongs that did the trick. Olympia oysters were "miserable little things," he wrote, "but of better quality than the oysters of this coast generally" (Kennerly journal, February 26, 1859). Kennerly was probably accustomed to enjoying the large flat oysters (Crassostrea virginica) of Chesapeake Bay.

Dinner and Aftermath

The Jefferson Davis weighed anchor on Sunday morning (February 27, 1859) and again the weather was squally. The crew struggled for 12 hours in the Strait of Juan de Fuca before a flood tide helped push them toward Port Townsend. Early on Monday morning, Kennerly and Gibbs were able to make social calls and visit the U.S. Collector of Customs. The following morning, March 1, the cutter rode four miles south along the coast to an anchorage "opposite to the Military Station" to take on wood and water (Kennerly journal, March 1, 1859). That evening the party dined with Major Haller and discussed the risk of war with the British Empire.

Four days later, seasick again on the Jefferson Davis as it struggled against a gale in the strait, Kennerly confided to his diary: "Today I complete my 29th year; the first time that I ever spent a birthday as this" (Kennerly journal, March 5, 1859).

In less than two years the United States would be at war, but with itself. Haller would fight on the Union side, while George Pickett (1825-1875), who a few months later in 1859 led the U.S. landing on San Juan Island at the start of the Pig War, would achieve fame for leading the Confederate infantry charge against Union artillery batteries at Gettysburg. Kennerly was spared the necessity of taking sides in that war by perishing at sea on his journey home to Washington, D.C. in 1861. The Mississippi Senator and Secretary of War for whom the Jefferson Davis had been named became the first and last president of the Confederate States of America. The ship disappeared after the war; the Coast Guard has several conflicting stories of its fate. The oyster reefs that delighted Major Haller's dinner guests also perished, victims of overharvesting, careless logging, and shipping.

Kennerly's notes on the resources of the San Juan Islands remain unpublished and may never have reached the eyes of decision makers in the national capitol. The report of the boundary commission was not published until 1900. It mentions in passing that there were supposed to be a number of scientific reports accompanying the survey data, but no one could find them.


C. B. R. Kennerly journal, February-March 1859 (notebook titled "N.W.B.S. Cruise Among the Islands of Puget Sound on U.S. Revenue Cutter 'Jeff Davis'"), Folder 3, Box 1, Caleb Burwell Rowan Kennerly Papers, 1855-1860, Record Unit 7202, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C.; C. B. R. Kennerly correspondence, Folders 16-20, Box 26, Spencer F. Baird Collection, 1833-1889, Record Unit 7002, Smithsonian Institution Archives; Marcus Baker, Survey of the Northwestern Boundary of the United States 1857-1861, Bulletin of the U.S. Geological Survey, No. 174 (GPO: Washington, D.C., 1900); John Austin Stevens Jr., A Memorial of George Gibbs Read Before the New York Historical Society, Oct. 7, 1873 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1873); City of Dreams: A Guide to Port Townsend ed. by Peter Simpson (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1986), 91, 104; J; Russel Barsh, "Use of Coast Salish Knowledge in Early Studies of Pacific Salmon Zoology, 1855-1860," slideshow and paper presented to the Georgia Basin Puget Sound Research Conference, Vancouver, B.C., March 26-29, 2007, copy in possession of Russel Barsh, Lopez Island, Washington (abstract available at

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