William Seward starts two-day visit to Puget Sound on July 21, 1869.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 11/20/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9969
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On July 21, 1869, former Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) starts a two-day visit to Puget Sound, during which he will tour more than half a dozen settlements, traveling on the steamer Wilson G. Hunt. He gives speeches encouraging the development of Washington Territory, shakes hundreds of hands, and overall wows the settlers with his brief but exciting visit.

The Mediterranean of the Pacific

In 1867 U.S. Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the American purchase of Alaska from Russia. Though many of his countrymen were skeptical of the purchase --  detractors called it "Seward's Folly" -- it was ratified by the U.S. Senate later that year.  Two years later Seward's term ended and he retired to his home in Auburn, New York. He soon decided on a trip to the West.  America's first transcontinental railroad had been just been completed, and in June 1869 he hopped a train to San Francisco.    

After a little more than a week there, Seward decided to visit Alaska. He headed north on the steamer Active on July 13, and arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, on July 20.  The next morning he left for a tour of Puget Sound on the steamer Wilson G. Hunt, accompanied by a party of more than a dozen men and women that included Thomas Somerville (d. 1915), a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Somerville later wrote a vivid narrative of the trip titled "The Mediterranean of the Pacific" that appeared in the September 1870 edition of Harper's magazine.

A Splendid Country  

The Hunt arrived at Port Townsend at noon. It was greeted by a delighted crowd of both Native Americans and non-Indian settlers, including the chief of the Clallam (Klallam) tribe, Chetzemoka (ca. 1808-1888), called by the new settlers the "Duke of York."  The town's cannon boomed a greeting and the crowd cheered a welcome, then called for a speech.  After a bit of coaxing, Seward mounted the deck of the steamer and said:   

"You have got a splendid country here. What you need is population. Now don't be foolish and send any from your gate. Take all you can get -- Boston man and Irishman, white man and black man, and John Chinaman, if he will come" (Somerville, 485). "God is no respecter of persons, [and] neither should you be; but look upon all as belonging to one great brotherhood, destined to populate this wonderful region and make the wilderness to bloom like the rose" ("Mr. Seward on the Sound").  

South to Seattle

The Hunt briefly stopped at Port Ludlow, where an equally excited crowd greeted Seward. The proprietor of the local hotel brought his 400-pound pet elk to the wharf to show off, delighting the travelers. (Somerville writes that the elk was introduced at the next stop, Port Gamble.)  When the party arrived at Port Gamble they were greeted by an impressive sight: All of the ships in the harbor, both American and foreign, were decked out with flags -- not only national flags, but telegraphic and private flags too.  Seward and his entourage disembarked and toured the local mill, where they were treated to a demonstration of a six-foot-thick log cut into boards.

After a brief stop in Port Madison ("a model establishment," declared Somerville) the steamer proceeded to Seattle, then a city of about 1,000 people.  The telegraph line from Victoria to Seattle was down, so no one in Seattle knew Seward was coming. But it didn't matter. In the early days of the Puget Sound's settlement whenever a steamer arrived at the local wharf it was a big enough event that the townspeople often came down to see what was happening.  Such was the case when the Hunt pulled up that evening, and Yesler's Wharf was soon jammed with hundreds of excited Seattleites.

Seward gave a short speech in which he congratulated the gathering on living in a place with seemingly boundless resources, predicted a bright future for the new territory, and encouraged his listeners to do everything they could to make it grow. He spent most of the next hour shaking hands with nearly everyone on the wharf, and left Seattle late in the evening.   

Making the Rounds

The steamer passed the infant settlement of Tacoma ("this future New York of the West," predicted Somerville) and after midnight arrived in Steilacoom, the destination for the night. The town's welcoming party had given up waiting and gone to bed, so the Hunt quietly cast anchor and spent the night on the water. It slipped away first thing in the morning, and arrived at Olympia before breakfast.  A group that included Governor Alvin Flanders (1825-1894) escorted Seward and others to Tumwater, where the party viewed the falls and visited Judge Christopher Hewitt (1809-1891), chief justice of the Washington Territorial Supreme Court for most of the 1860s. 

At 2 p.m. Seward gave a speech at Olympic Hall in Olympia. The reporter covering it noted that Seward (who, at age 68, was quite elderly by 1869 standards) spoke with difficulty and was hard to hear even to those seated nearby. "He looked extremely feeble, and yet betrayed remarkable energy for one of his years and active life" ("Mr. Seward on the Sound"). As he had in Port Townsend and Seattle, Seward exhorted the crowd on its duty to do all it could to develop the Pacific Coast.

In the late afternoon Seward's party left Olympia and motored up the sound, reaching Seattle about 9 p.m., where it was greeted with a 13-gun salute. After a brief stop at Yesler's Wharf, the Hunt continued north, passing Whidbey Island the next day.  As the steamer passed through the San Juan Islands, Seward enjoyed a debate with his shipmates over the then-simmering debate between the U.S. and Great Britain over where its boundary through the San Juans should be drawn.  (Three years later, it would be decided in America's favor at Haro Strait.)  At 4 p.m. the party reached Nanaimo, B.C., where the Active was waiting to take Seward to Alaska.  


Paul Dorpat, The Seattle Waterfront -- An Illustrated History (Seattle: City of Seattle, 2005), 26, 27;  Herbert Hunt and Floyd Kaylor, Washington, West of the Cascades, Vol. 3 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1917), 568, 571;  William Henry Seward, Frederick William Seward, William H. Seward (New York: Derby & Miller, 1891), 402, 413, 415-417; Thomas Somerville, "The Mediterranean Of The Pacific," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1870, pp. 481-498; "Mr. Seward on the Sound," The Weekly Pacific Tribune (Olympia), July 24, 1869, p. 3;  "Distinguished Visitors," The Weekly Intelligencer (Seattle), July 26, 1869, p. 3;  HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Dungeness Massacre occurs on September 21, 1868" (by Daryl McClary), and "U.S. Senate ratifies purchase of Alaska from Russia on April 9, 1867" (by Greg Lange), http://www.historylink.org (accessed November 2, 2011);  "The Reverend Thomas Somerville, MA," University of Victoria website accessed November 2, 2011 (http:// http://web.uvic.ca/vv/student/st_andrews/somerville.php).

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