THE NORTHWEST COAST - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE NORTHWEST COAST. Stretching from the Columbia River north to Yakutat Bay, Alaska, the Northwest Coast is a region of rugged mountains and dense forests. From ancient times, the sea provided abundant natural resources as well as the easiest means of travel for trade and communication. The literature that grew up on the Pacific Ocean coast of North America is consequently infused with salt water.

In anthropological terms, the Northwest Coast is the native home of more than a dozen groups of people, related through cultural characteristics but not sharing a common language. Northwest Coast Indians were expert mariners, regularly taking their large cedar dugout canoes on trading or warring expeditions along 1,000 miles of coastline and effectively harvesting the abundant stocks of fish, roe, shellfish, and sea mammals that lived along their coast. According to native tradition, humans were first discovered in a clamshell on the beach by Raven, the primary character of Northwest Coast Indian legend. Numerous stories describe historic and mythic relationships between people and sea creatures, and rituals still survive that honor the animals harvested for human consumption.

Though Captain James Cook was not the first European to arrive on the Northwest Coast, the description of his arrival in 1778 was the first to appear in print. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Undertaken by the Command of His Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere (1784) described in detail the native people and landscape of the region. The official narrative was actually preceded by several unofficial accounts, including John Rickman’s Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage (1781), an account in German by Henrich Zimmermann, Reise um die Welt (1781), William Ellis’ two- volume Authentic Narrative of a Voyage Performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke (1782), and A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1783) by the American John Ledyard.* Several of the men who were with Cook when he reached the Northwest Coast, on the third of his voyages to the Pacific, made subsequent visits for which Admiralty accounts were published. These include George Dixon’s A Voyage round the World; but More Particularly to the Northwest Coast of America (1789), James Colnett’s A Voyage to the South Atlantic and round Cape Horn* into the Pacific Ocean, for the Purpose of Extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries (1798), and George Vancouver’s A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and round the World; in Which the Coast of Northwest America Has Been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed (1798).

Americans followed closely in the wake of Cook, with an important trade that brought manufactured goods to the Northwest Coast from Boston and sea otter pelts from British Columbia and Alaska to Canton. The competitive American entrepreneurs who sponsored trading voyages were less willing to share the results of their endeavors through publication than the British government, which used the publications to document their claims to territory.

The Englishman John Jewitt* described the capture of the ship Boston in his popular Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt (1815), but, for the most part, American shipboard accounts remained unpublished until the twentieth century. There were some exceptions, and Northwest Coast passages are included in the following: Archibald Campbell’s Voyage around the World (1825), Captain Richard J. Cleveland’s Narrative of Voyages and Commercial Enterprises (1842), Peter Corney’s Voyages in the Northern Pacific (1896), Edmund Fanning’s* Voyages to the South Seas, Indian and Pacific Oceans, China Sea, North West Coast, Feejee Islands, South Shetlands, & c. (1838), Ebenezer Johnson’s A Short Account of a Northwest Voyage (1798), Benjamin Morrell’s* A Narrative of Four Voyages in the South Seas and Pacific Ocean (1832), Samuel Patterson’s Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Samuel Patterson, Experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and Many Other Parts of the World (1817), and the accounts of the Astoria venture, most notably Washington Irving’s* Astoria: or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), but also including Gabriel Franchere’s Relation d’un Voyage a la Cote du Nord-ouest de l’Amerique (1820), Ross Cox’s Adventures on the Columbia River (1831), and Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River (1849) by Alexander Ross.

Among recent publications of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century shipboard manuscript accounts are John Boit’s Log of the Union (1981), Joseph Ingraham’s Journal of the Brigantine Hope on a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of North America, 1790-1792 (1971), Stephen Reynolds’ Voyage of the New Hazard to the Northwest Coast, Hawai’i and China, 1810-1813 (1938), and several publications edited by Frederick Howay, including The Voyages of the Columbia to the Northwest Coast 1787-1790 and 1790-1793 (1941).

Charles Wilkes described the region between Puget Sound and the Columbia River in detail in his Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition* (1844), and James G. Swan was among the first of the permanent settlers to publish an account, entitled The Northwest Coast; or, Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory (1857). As the region began to be populated by immigrants from the eastern United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa, the maritime trades maintained their economic supremacy, and several authors incorporated them into novels. In addition to his history of the port of Seattle, Northwest Gateway (1941), and his biography of Peter Skene Ogden: Fur Trader (1967), sailor-author Archie Binns* incorporated maritime themes into You Rolling River (1947), The Timber Beast (1944), and especially the powerful novel Lightship (1934). The maritime industries continue to inspire writers, and the modern fishery in Puget Sound is the setting for David Guterson’s* Snow Falling on Cedars (1994). Theodore Roethke, the dean of Northwest poets, celebrates the sea in a number of poems, including “The Whale” (published in I Am! Says the Lamb [1961] but composed much earlier). [See also AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; CANADIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA]

FURTHER READING: Barcott, Bruce, ed. Northwest Passages: A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest from Coyote Tales to Roadside Attractions. Seattle: Sas- quatch, 1994; Malloy, Mary. Boston Men on the Northwest Coast: The American Fur Trade 1788-1844. Fairbanks: U of Alaska P, 1998; Silveira de Braganza, Ronald Louis, et al. The Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages. San Diego: U of California P, 1974.

Mary Malloy