AT THIS TIME of year, we like to feel proud to be Americans. They say there’s a lot wrong with this country, but compared to what? The history of the Olympic Peninsula is a story of invasive exploitation since the beginning.
The oldest evidence of human activity on the Peninsula and Washington State is in Sequim, at the Manis Mastodon site where a spear point was found in the rib bone of an aged mastodon that was killed 13,000 years ago. Tooth wear patterns of the mastodon show the creature was extremely old, proving Sequim has always been a retirement community.
The mastodon hunters may have been related to the invasion of Siberians that came across the land bridge to settle a new world. These people were blamed for the extinction of the mastodons, mammoth and other Pleistocene megafauna long before game laws were invented.
Once the mastodons died off, the trees sprouted. The most important tree was the cedar. It provided everything from clothing to canoes to the people of the Pacific Northwest. They were a wealthy people, rich in timber, salmon, animals, and artistry, with a spiritual and societal relationship to the land. Most of which was swept away by an invasion of Europeans that began in the 1500s when either Sir Francis Drake or Juan de Fuca may have been the first to sail into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The further back in time we go, the less we really know.
In 1792, Captain George Vancouver noted abandoned villages and Natives displaying “evidence of the pox” along the Strait, an indication that Europeans had been here.
The Spanish, who had just conquered, slaughtered and enslaved much of South America, and what is now Mexico and the American Southwest came north to build a fort at Neah Bay from which they hoped to find gold to send back to Spain and stop the expected Russian invasion.
The Russians followed Vitus Bering south from the Aleutian Islands, building a fur empire by kidnapping and enslaving entire villages of Native Alaskans, as indentured hunters chased sea otters to extinction as far south as California.
About this time a new country arrived. The Americans were a former British colony that found itself deeply in debt and economically depressed from their Revolutionary War.
America sailed into a global trade where ships from Boston traded commodities such as steel, gunpowder and alcohol to the people of the Northwest Coast for furs traded in China for tea, porcelain and cloth that were traded in England for manufactured goods that were brought back to Boston.
During the course of this trade, the American Captain Robert Gray discovered the Columbia River, which along with the Lewis and Clark expedition, gave the United States a right to claim what Drake called, “New Albion.” Vancouver called it ” New Georgia.” Spain called this land “Quivira,” or “New Spain.” The U.S. called it Oregon. It would become Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
At the time, it seemed as if the U.S. had almost no chance of owning this vast territory when the most powerful nations in the world were also laying claim to it. But these Europeans were going broke fighting among themselves and the Native inhabitants who were engaged in a constant struggle to reclaim their lands, natural resources and culture.The British beat the French and Spanish. The Hoh, Quileute and Tlingit people beat the Russians. The Americans out-numbered and bluffed the British. It was an invasive exploitation that took our salmon and cedar, but left us with the Olympic Peninsula we love today. Happy 4th of July