The first Fourth of July celebrated in the Puget Sound region? It happened 177 years ago near what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord and included some of the same festivities we enjoy these days. Well, kind of.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — It’s in a pretty sorry location, this granite monument to the first official Fourth of July celebration held west of the Mississippi.
The background for the marker consists of the barbed-wire fencing and the buildings for the Sequalitchew Springs Water Treatment Facility. It has few visitors, especially since the public can’t just drive onto a military base.
The monument commemorates Puget Sound’s original July Fourth party on a day that, according to a historical journal, registered 120 degrees. That was 177 years ago, actually on July 5, 1841, as the Fourth fell on a Sunday and the Methodist missionaries here declined to party on the Sabbath.
“Perhaps some of the hot air was created by the speeches and ceremony,” writes Jerry V. Ramsey, of Tacoma, in his historical book, “Stealing Puget Sound.”
Still, back then it was quite a party for the Navy sailors, Marines and civilian scientists from the historic Wilkes expedition, along with a handful of local whites and curious Native Americans. In total the count was some 500.
The expedition was named after its leader, Lt. Charles Wilkes, who led six ships on a four-year exploration that ranged from Antarctica to Samoa to Puget Sound.
It never received the glory and renown of the Lewis and Clark expedition, despite the staggering research collection the voyage brought back: 50,000 specimens of plants, 2,150 bird skins to be mounted for display and 588 species of fish.
The legacy of the Wilkes expedition survives in the 261 names he bestowed on sites throughout Puget Sound.
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McNeil Island is named after William Henry McNeill, captain of a steamer (Wilkes wasn’t into spell-checking). Commencement Bay got its name because that’s where Wilkes began surveying southern Puget Sound. Then there are Bainbridge Island, Colvos Passage, Budd Inlet, Elliott Bay, Agate Passage, American Lake.
On that first Fourth, two ships from the Wilkes expedition — the Vincennes and the Porpoise — anchored near what was then the location for Fort Nisqually, a fur-trading and farming post in southern Puget Sound. Some of the doings that Monday will sound familiar to modern Fourth of July partyers.
They had a barbecue, although not our modern fare of hamburgers and hot dogs. They barbecued an entire ox.
They shot off explosives, but in their case it was two howitzers, the heavy artillery the sailors carried off the ship. And like all-too-many fireworks displays, it resulted in mishap when a sailor accidentally blew up his left hand.
They also managed to get into ill-advised situations. Two sailors wandered into the woods and weren’t found until days later by tribal folks.
They gambled — a game shown to them by Native Americans, and at which the whites weren’t very good.
They indulged in drink, although it’s not clear how much. After all, the Methodists were leaders in the temperance movement.
Fort Nisqually was there with provisions; it was run by the British Hudson’s Bay Company, and it stored shirts, knives, ammunition, traps and other goods used in bartering with the tribes. “Their policy was to never sell or trade in hooch,” says Ramsey.
The party took place, Wilkes wrote in his journal, because given the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he would allow his men “to have a full day’s frolic and pleasure.”
The men certainly deserved it, and it was an unusual gesture by Wilkes. History notes he was a leader easy to loathe.
Writing for the Washington State Historical Society, author David Buerge describes Wilkes: “Innately suspicious, he frequently imagined mutinous cabals. Officers were demoted or sacked and sent home, and seamen flogged with depressing regularity. Naval regulations forbade more than 12 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails, but on one occasion Wilkes had 50 meted out. He complained to the scientists that their specimens smelled bad.”
So, yes, the men welcomed a day of relief.
The ox was bought from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
It was quite a barbecue, executed under the direction of John Sac, the chef boss for one of the ships. He was a Maori, a Polynesian. He knew the intricacies of barbecuing an entire ox.
In his reminiscences of the expedition, sailor Charles Erskine remembers:
“We ran a pole through the ox from end to end, and then placed the end of this pole upon two forked tree-trunks which had been securely planted in the earth. A trench was dug under him in which a fire was built, and a windlass arranged with which to turn him at intervals, while a committee detailed from the crew dredged him with flour and basted him every hour.”
Two brass howitzers had been carried off a ship to a prairie near Fort Nisqually. They would have weighed several hundred pounds.
After all that effort, Wilkes did something else nice for the crew.
“ … all hands were called to ‘splice the mainbrace,’ ” writes Erskine, using a sailing term derived about one of the most difficult chores in a sailing, repairing rigging, a hard bit of work deserving a drink afterward.
Erskine concludes about the drinking, “Not a man being sick, all indulged.”
Coincidentally or not, it was after that, around noon, that the howitzers were discharged. An assistant gunner rammed a charge into a howitzer and it prematurely exploded.
Wilkes writes, in a bit of an understatement, “The accident put a momentary stop to the hilarity of the occasion.”
Sometime that afternoon, too — coincidentally or not — two cooks, Thomas Harden and John McKean, wandered off into the woods and got lost.
They were found three days later by Nisquallies.
“They were nicknamed the ‘Babes in the Wood,’ ” writes Erskine.
Definitive accuracy in recounting history is a tough task.
In 1921, Ezra Meeker, a Northwest pioneer, disputed that the marker at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was the site of the celebration.
Using the journals, he placed it three miles away in DuPont, just across Interstate 5 from the base and closer to the fort. It certainly was a much shorter distance to lug the heavy howitzers. (The fort now is replicated at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.)
What can be said is that at the first Fourth celebration — held at a region that then both Britain and the United States coveted — the sailors poked fun at the Brits.
They dressed in their starched white uniforms, behind fife and drums, and marched with the U.S. flag.
They gave three cheers to the Brits at the fort and sang “Yankee Doodle.” The sailors waited for the Brits to cheer back.
They did cheer back, Wilkes writes in his journal, but “by only a few voices.”