Wilkes Expedition holds Puget Sound's first Fourth of July celebration on July 5, 1841.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/22/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20395
See Additional Media

On July 5, 1841, the seamen and Marines of the Wilkes Expedition hold the first Fourth of July celebration in the Puget Sound region. The men are from two expedition ships anchored in the sound off the British trading post Fort Nisqually, at what will later become the city of DuPont in western Pierce County. The celebration takes place on Mission Prairie, with events at the Wilkes Observatory, Fort Nisqually, and the Nisqually Mission House. Expedition crews enjoy a roasted ox and horse races on Indian horses. Sixty-five years after the festivities, the Pierce County Pioneer Association will ask Slugimas Koquilton (1816-1909) of the Yakama Tribe, who was present at the celebration, to identify the site. A monument will be erected at the Lake Sequalitchew location he identifies, about four miles from the actual location of the first Fourth of July celebration.

An Exploratory Expedition

The United States Exploring Expedition, also known as the Wilkes Expedition, sailed into Puget Sound in May 1841. Under the command of then Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), two ships came to the site of Fort Nisqually, a Hudson's Bay trading post established in 1833. The two ships, the flagship U.S.S. Vincennes and brig U.S.S. Porpoise, anchored in Puget Sound near Sequalitchew Creek, just off Fort Nisqually.

Lieutenant Wilkes brought the expedition to the area to map, chart, and document the Puget Sound region. A secondary outcome was fostering American expansion into the previously British-dominated area. Wilkes established an observatory on a bluff over the sound near Sequalitchew Creek. The observatory collected scientific data and developed charts of Puget Sound.

Patriotic Performances

Wilkes decided to give his crew a Fourth of July celebration on July 5, since the Fourth itself fell on Sunday, the Sabbath. That day, 100 seamen and Marines of the flagship U.S.S. Vincennes and brig U.S.S. Porpoise disembarked, all dressed in their whites. Carrying two howitzers, the men marched to the Wilkes Observatory, where Lieutenant Wilkes had his residence. There they organized a procession with Wilkes in the lead and marched on to Fort Nisqually with drums and fifes active all the way.

At the fort the procession shouted out three cheers, which received a muted answer from the British subjects inside the Hudson's Bay stockade. From there the enthusiastic group of Americans headed to a corner of Mission Prairie, one mile from the shore, where the main Fourth of July events would take place. Here an ox, purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company, was roasted over an open fire.

In addition to the picnic, the celebration included sports events such as horse races on Indian-supplied horses, singing patriotic songs, and listening to patriotic speeches. John P. Richmond (1803-1866), the American Methodist missionary at the Nisqually Mission House, spoke of a day in the future when the surrounding hills and valleys would be peopled by their free and enterprising fellow countrymen. Watching the events were 300 to 400 Indians and Hudson's Bay Company employees.

At noon a gun salute was fired. While quarter gunner (assistant gunner) Daniel Whitehorn was loading one of the guns, it prematurely discharged. He was seriously injured, suffering a lacerated arm that the expedition doctor wanted to amputate. Whitehorn resisted the amputation, so an effort to save his arm followed and he eventually recovered, but his injuries put something of a damper on the festivities.

Following the celebration, two ship's cooks wandered off into the forest to explore, where they became lost and were not found until July 12 by a search team that included Nisqually Indians.

The expedition departed soon after the celebration. By the following year, Richmond had become disenchanted, and he left the area in the summer of 1842. Shortly after his departure, in September 1842, the Mission House burned down. In 1843 Fort Nisqually was moved to a new site.

Monuments and Memorials

In 1906 a Pierce County Pioneer Association committee led an effort to erect a monument for the 65th anniversary of the 1841 celebration. The association found someone who had been at the event, who then took several pioneers to the location he remembered. Ninety-year-old Slugimas Koquilton, a Yakama Indian, identified a spot on Lake Sequalitchew along a county road. The site was on the land of George Lyon Jr. (1849-1929), of Nelson, Nebraska. He donated to the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) a tract of his property to house the monument.

Assisting the pioneers and historical society in erecting the monument was the Mary Ball Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The monument was constructed of granite, with an inscription recalling the 1841 celebration. An impressive commemoration was held for the 65th anniversary of the first known Fourth of July observance in the Pacific Northwest, or at least the Puget Sound region. Speakers at the dedication included Washington Governor Albert E. Mead (1861-1913); Stephen B. L. Penrose (1865-1947), president of Whitman College; and Reverend George F. Whitworth (1816-1907), president of the State Pioneer Society.

The monument site became part of the U.S. Army's Camp Lewis in 1917. A century later the monument is located on Vancouver Road in the Lewis North portion of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). WSHS retains access to the monument for repairs. In 2011 the Mary Ball Chapter of the DAR restored the monument. The DAR chapter and the state historical society held a rededication ceremony on July 5, 2011.

Mistakes and Misrememberings

In 1921, Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), a well-known Washington pioneer who arrived via the Oregon Trail just a decade after the Wilkes Expedition celebration, asserted that the monument was in the wrong location. His argument was that first-person accounts from participants at the event place it in the DuPont area. Published accounts of known attendees, such as Lieutenant Wilkes's 1856 narrative, seaman Joseph G. Clark's 1848 memoir, and midshipman Charles Erskine's 1896 telling all agreed in location, referencing what would later become the city of DuPont.

This location was almost four miles from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord monument site. The firsthand accounts record the Wilkes crew at the Wilkes Observatory, Nisqually Mission, Fort Nisqually, and Mission Prairie. In 1841 this was the only part of the area to have been developed by the non-Indian newcomers. No mention is made in any account of a four-mile hike to Lake Sequalitchew.

Markers were placed in DuPont at or near the actual location of the first Fourth of July celebration. The DuPont Powder Works Company (E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company) installed plaques on concrete bases identifying the Wilkes Observatory, the Mission House and Fourth of July celebration location, and the 1833 Fort Nisqually site. When the DuPont Powder Works plant was in operation access was limited. When DuPont Powder Works closed in 1976, the historic sites became more accessible.

Visiting Wilkes Sites

As of 2017, there is at least limited access to all the sites. The 1906 granite marker at Lewis North on Joint Base Lewis-McChord is located about one mile north of I-5 exit 120. Access to this monument is limited to those with military-access cards. The well-maintained monument is surrounded by a white picket fence and is visible from Vancouver Road.

In DuPont, the Wilkes Observatory site on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound is reached by a trail. Off the Sequalitchew Creek trail there is a monument to the Mission House and the Fourth of July celebration, on private property but accessible. The 1833 Fort Nisqually site is just off a trail that travels along the bluff above Puget Sound.

The Joint Base Lewis-McChord monument may not be at the correct location, but it does recall a historic event of importance in the American settlement of what would become Camp Lewis, then Fort Lewis and eventually JBLM. It is not far from American Lake, which was probably named some time after Wilkes's departure to record the American settlement following the expedition. The Wilkes expedition and American settlement set the stage for DuPont's development, Camp Lewis, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.


Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, vol. 4 (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1856); Charles Erskine, Twenty Years Before the Mast: With the More Thrilling Scenes and Incidents While Circumnavigating the Globe Under the Command of the Late Admiral Charles Wilkes 1838-1842 (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1896); Joseph G. Clark, Lights and Shadows of Sailor Life: As Exemplified in Fifteen Years' Experience, Including the More Thrilling Events of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, and Reminiscences of an Eventful Life on the "Mountain Wave" (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey & Co., 1848); George M. Colvocoresses, Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition: To the Island of Madeira, Cape Verd Islands, Brazil, Coast of Patagonia, Chili, Peru, Paumato Group, Society Islands, Navigator Group, Australia, Antarctic Continent, New Zealand, Friendly Islands, ... (Sydney: Wentworth Press, 2016); Drew Crooks, "Beginnings: The Origins of Fort Nisqually and Euro-American Settlement on Puget Sound," Occurrences, Vol. XXVI, No. 3 (2008), 7-13; "DuPont Heritage Plan," 2014, report presented to the City of DuPont by the DuPont Historical Society (http://www.ci.dupont.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/1314); "Today Last of the Tacoma Celebration," The Seattle Times, July 5, 1906, p. 9; "Monument Dedicated," Morning Olympian, July 6, 1906, p. 1; "Old Celebration was Real Winner," Olympia Record, July 4, 1921, p. 3; "Ezra Meeker Declares Big Mistake Made in Placing Pioneer Mark," Morning Olympian, July 9, 1921, p. 1; "Remembering the First Independence Day Celebration in Puget Sound," July 2, 1998, p. B-3; "DAR Chapter Cleans Up Monument on JBLM," Ranger, July 7, 2011, p. 1.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You