Discovering Discovery Bay.

IT WAS GOING to be one of those days. With the razor clam season shut down, the blackmouth salmon season shut down and the steelhead fishing restricted to where you could only keep imaginary hatchery steelhead, seafood harvesting on the Olympic Peninsula has been limited.

Then the first daylight low tide exposed the clam beds and oysters just like the old days when the old-timers said, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

Nothing compares to the succulent steamers, meaty butter clams, monster horse clams and oysters there for the picking. Unless it’s the jumbo Dungeness crab, prawns, scallops, halibut and cod lurking offshore beneath the massive balls of bait fish, being chased by schools of salmon, that are stalked by seals and sea lions, which are all prey to the Orca. It was a web of life that made Discovery Bay the most fertile body of water in the Pacific Northwest. Until now.

Discovery Bay was carved by a lobe of the continental ice sheet that covered the area with about 3,500 feet of ice and melted roughly 16,000 years ago. Geologists consider the bay famous for having more tsunami deposits than anywhere else in Washington. There are 10 layers of these deposits that average about 300 years apart, hidden beneath the surface of the salt marsh. These represent Cascadia Subduction Events as recently as 1700.

Native Americans were probably living at Discovery Bay since the melting at the last Ice Age — if the nearby Manis Mastodon site in Sequim, where a spear point was stuck in a mastodon rib about 13,000 years ago, is any indication. That’s about how long people have been digging clams here.

The Englishman Robert Duffin was the first European to visit Discovery Bay in July 1788. He had been sent by Captain John Meares to examine the Strait of Juan de Fuca to see if it connected to Hudson Bay, claim land for Britain and establish trade with the Natives. Duffin traded halibut with the S’Klallam at what is now Port Townsend. Things did not go so well at Discovery Bay which Duffin didn’t have time to name before his long boat crew was wounded and the boat was pierced, “in a thousand places with arrows.”

English claim to the North West was based on Sir Francis Drakes’s voyage of 1579 and the discoveries of Captain Cook in 1778. Spain had based their title to the territory on Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1510 when he claimed all of the land it touched. The Spanish had come north to preclude the Russian advances to the south and confront the invasion of British explorers looking for furs to trade in China and a chance to claim the ₤20,000 the British Parliament would award to anyone who could find the fabled Northwest Passage.

By 1789 the English Captains, James Colnett, Thomas Hudson, William Douglas and John Meares had been arrested and their vessels seized at Nootka by the Spanish for violating Spain’s Territory. Meares had been trading along the Northwest Coast for sea-otter pelts flying Portuguese flags and using a fake Portuguese papers that would allow him to sell furs in Portuguese Macao to avoid the licensing requirements of the British East India Company and the South Sea Company in Canton all in an effort to save on the expense of Chinese port charges.

These arrests resulted in what was known as the Nootka Crisis in which the British Prime Minister William Pitt and the press were ready to go to war over freedom of navigation on the high seas. Spain had suffered repeated military defeats and rebellion at home and could not afford another war with England. The Nootka Convention of 1790 established a joint occupation between Spain and England where sovereignty would be determined by occupation.

The Spanish began their attempts to secure their territory by exploring the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1790 the Spanish Ensign Manuel Quimper landed in Neah Bay where he took formal possession in the name of the king of Spain calling it, Boca de Nunez Gaona. Quimper was the first Spaniard to see Discovery Bay naming it Puerta de Bodega y Quadra after his commandant at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island.

By 1793 the Spanish viceroy, Revilla Gigedo, wrote a report about the Northwest coast that said once the sea otter were gone there would be few reasons to colonize the area. There was no gold. It was too forested for farming. There were no major rivers to the interior so there was no reason to keep other countries away.

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca looking for the fabled Northwest Passage. He anchored in Discovery Bay, naming it after his ship Discovery. The S’Klallam traded with Vancouver while he made his astronomical observations and the crew made spruce beer. Vancouver described Discovery Bay as, “Almost as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds of Europe.”

S’Klallam tradition relates that about 1800, what they thought was a British Man of War anchored in front of their village at the head of Discovery Bay. Two S’Klallam men were invited to go aboard the ship, where one was dressed in European clothes and shot. The other escaped. The villagers scattered into the forest. That night 11 sailors from the ship went to shore to spend the night in one of the longhouses, where they were found clubbed to death the next morning. The bodies were taken aboard and the ship sailed away.

By the early 1800’s the Spanish had retreated south. The Russians were retreating north leaving the British and Americans competing for title to the Pacific Northwest. Confrontation was avoided. After the War of 1812 Britain did not want another war. With the Treaty of 1818, Britain and the United States agreed to a joint occupation of what became known as the Oregon country.

In the 1840’s American emigrants were arriving in Oregon in increasing numbers by wagon train from across the continent. The American President Polk’s militant expansionism had encouraged revolt in California and declared war with Mexico in 1846. Britain had its own problems with a famine in Ireland and a war in India. England did not want another war with the U.S. at the time so they agreed to a complete withdrawal from what is now western Washington retreating north of the 49 parallel.

In 1850, the English Captain Hinderwell started the first logging operation for her Majesty’s Navy on the shores of Discovery Bay, with a crew of 100 S’Klallam, who spent four months falling, trimming, skidding and loading 18 spars on his ship Albion. Then an American Customs Inspector appeared on the scene. He seized the Albion, towed it to Steilacoom, where the locals raided the ship’s liquor stores.  

The first thing the Bostons, a name given by the Native Americans because that’s where the first Yankee trading ships came from, noticed about Discovery Bay was the timber growing down to the water’s edge.  Trees could be felled and floated to a mill with a minimum of effort. In 1853, Captain Talbot and Cyrus Walker anchored their schooner, Junius Pringle, in Discovery Bay and went ashore where they measured a fallen Douglas fir 280 feet long and 14 feet in diameter. They got an idea to build a sawmill.

The California Gold Rush had created a huge demand for lumber. In 1858, the first saw mill was built on Discovery Bay. A clipper ship, The War Hawk, sailed lumber from Discovery Bay to San Francisco in a record four days before she sank in Discovery Bay. This began a legacy of environmental degradation we will continue next week.