On December 11, 1851, the schooner Robert Bruce is deliberately set on fire by the ship's cook and burns to the water line. The schooner is in Willapa Bay in what is now Pacific County in southwest Washington, where it is loading a cargo of oysters from the bay for shipment to San Francisco. The oystermen aboard are all rescued, and having lost their ship and belongings they build cabins on the beach and settle at the spot. The "Bruce boys," as they come to be called, continue in the oyster trade and soon earn enough money to buy new ships. The new settlement is named after the burned ship -- it is first called Bruceville and shortly thereafter changed to Bruceport.
Willapa Bay was known in the early days of Washington Territory as Shoalwater Bay, an appropriate name for the broad, shallow bay that contained wide stretches of shoals, or mud flats, which were rich in shellfish of all kinds. Chinook and Chehalis villages ringed the bay, and the inhabitants gathered the abundant oysters, which they dried for storage and trade.
An Oyster Craze
New settlers at the mouth of the Columbia River, whose north bank was a short portage from the south end of Shoalwater Bay, were attracted by the abundance of oysters. America was in the midst of an oyster craze, which had begun in the early 1800s, and there was a huge demand for the shellfish. In the summer of 1851 Charles J. W. Russell, a settler from Virginia, introduced the first oysters to the booming San Francisco market. Russell followed Chinook portage trails from the Columbia to Shoalwater Bay, hired Indians to harvest a load of oysters and carry them back to the Columbia, then shipped the fresh oysters by steamboat to San Francisco.
In the fall of 1851, schooners began sailing directly into Shoalwater Bay to obtain oysters from the Chinook and Chehalis inhabitants. A Captain Fieldsted collected the first load, but it spoiled before reaching San Francisco. The second attempt, by Anthony Ludlam in the schooner Sea Serpent, was a success.
The third schooner to enter the Bay in search of oysters was the Robert Bruce. It carried, among others, Mark Winant, Alexander Hanson, John Morgan, and Richard J. Milward, who had organized a company to go into the oyster trade. The schooner anchored off the east shore of the Bay near its northern end, not far from the mouth of the Willapa River, and began loading oysters. For some reason the ship's cook harbored a grudge against the oystermen or the schooner's captain. On December 11, 1851, after reportedly putting laudanum in the food to make the crew and oystermen unconscious, the cook set the schooner on fire and departed in the only rowboat, never to be seen again.
The Bruce Boys
Fortunately for the unconscious men on the burning ship, the fire was spotted by Bill McCarty, a settler who lived on the portage route south of the Bay, who happened to be cutting timber at the Bay's north end. McCarty and the Indians he was with were able to reach the schooner in the shallow harbor and carry the men to safety. However, the Robert Bruce burned to the water line and Winant, Hanson, Morgan, and Milward lost almost all their possessions. Undeterred, the "Bruce boys," as they were called, built cabins on the beach near an Indian village where Russell had built a house and trading post. They began hiring Indians to collect oysters to sell to arriving ships, and soon made enough money to buy ships of their own.
The settlement established by the Bruce boys grew slowly. There were 14 inhabitants in the fall of 1852, when James G. Swan (1818-1900), who went on to play a varied and colorful role in the early history of Washington, first arrived in the region at the invitation of his friend Charles Russell. Swan spent three years on Shoalwater Bay, and in 1857 described his experiences there in The Northwest Coast, Or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory, one of the earliest books about life in Washington.
In his 1857 book, Swan wrote that by 1854, "We had now grown into the dignity of a village, and, at a meeting of the settlers, it was voted to name the town Bruceville (which has since been changed to Bruceport)" (Swan, 319). The community had its own court, where Swan occasionally appeared as a lawyer, and for a time served as county seat. The area is still called Bruceport today, and Bruceport County Park is located near where the oystermen settled when their ship was burned.