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The Voyage of the “Unknown Steamer”


Governor Isaac Stevens

From the desk of Steve Willis, Central Library Services Program Manager of the Washington State Library:

160 years! And our flame continues to illuminate the world around us.

The Washington State Library is celebrating its 160th birthday in 2013. Why is this an important number? First, no other public cultural or educational institution in Washington can make this claim. And second, not only are we are still here but WSL staff continue to provide excellent access to the information needs of the people and libraries of The Evergreen State. And third, our story is the story of Washington Territory and State. We were here from the very start and have evolved with the times, consistently reflecting the history taking place around us.

So as we kick off a series of blogposts covering this event let us go back to the Organic Act of 1853, which created Washington Territory and included:

SEC. 17. And be it further enacted, That the sum of five thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, to be expended, by and under the direction of the Governor of Washington, in the purchase of a library, to be kept at the seat of government for the use of the Governor, legislative assembly, Judges of the Supreme Court, secretary, marshal, and Attorney of said Territory, and such other persons, and under such regulations, as shall be prescribed by law.


Millard FIllmore

The name of President Millard Fillmore usually evokes a snicker, but he was actually an important figure in our history since it was his signature that created Washington Territory. And yet, from what I can find, not one single political or geographic area is named in his honor here in Washington.

When Isaac Stevens was appointed the first territorial governor, among the many tasks he was charged with included the selection of the library. As our webpage states: “… Stevens purchased books from H. Bailliere of London and C.B. Norton and Co. of New York City; collected archival documents from all the states of the union; acquired the still unpublished Wilkes Expedition charts, having them printed by George F. Lewis of Philadelphia; and made arrangements for the casing and portage of these materials through vendors in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The first 2,000 books travelled by an unknown steamer.”

There’s more, but I’ll stop at the “unknown steamer” mention in order to present the first of many historical mysteries in the WSL story as we enlist the help of you readers and historians out there to participate in enriching our narrative.

The couple thousand or so volumes of the original Territorial Collection were loaded on the East Coast and made the journey around the tip of South America to San Francisco, where they changed ships. The brig Tarquinia, with the literary cargo, left the Bay Area and arrived in Olympia in October 23, 1853, a month before Stevens himself arrived via an overland route.


William Robertson

WSL librarian Hazel Mills back in the 1950s was the first to really start digging into the identity of the first ship, but the name of the craft has continually eluded researchers. We do have data on the second ship, the Tarquinia. It was built in Perth Amboy, NJ in 1844, a 90 ft. long two mast square-rigger and at the time of the library transfer was skippered by William Robertson (1809-1888), a native of Norfolk, Virginia, who later became the first lighthouse keeper on Whidbey Island. I find it fitting that the ship’s captain who delivered the first library collection to Washington later became someone who provided illumination for safe passage.

The Tarquinia was under consideration, as it turned out needlessly, by Olympia residents as a place of refuge during the conflicts with the Native Americans in 1856. Later that same year the ship went down in the Sea of Okhotsk while stuck in ice.

WSL still holds 400 titles (800 volumes) of the original Territorial Collection, as well as two globes that made the journey in 1853. Other additional Territorial volumes followed the State Law Library when they split from WSL a little over a century ago. So, hopefully I have presented a worthy research challenge to you marine historians out there. Anyone who can provide evidence of the name of the first ship would be giving WSL a great 160th birthday present!

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One Response to “The Voyage of the “Unknown Steamer””

  1. Richard A. Edwards Says:

    I have undertaken this research and believe I have found an answer for you. Happy Birthday!

    Daily Alta California, 26 September 1853, Page 2, column 5, Consignee Notices.

    “Consignees of the following goods, per ship Invincible, from New York, are hereby notified that if not called for on or before Monday, the 26th inst, sufficient of the same will be sold to pay freight and charges.
    Thirty-two cases books, marked Gen. J. J. Stevens, Olympia, Washington Territory, shipped by C.B. Norton, consigned to Major R.P.Hammond.
    Alsop & Co.”

    The same entry appears in the 24-25 September 1853 newspaper.

    In the 12 September 1853 newspaper, there is this announcement:
    “Ship Invincible, from New York will commence discharging this day, Saturday, Sept 10th at Cunningham’s wharf. Consignees are requested to call at our office, pay freight, and receive orders or their goods. All merchandise left on the wharf after 5 o’clock P M, will be stored at the expense and risk of the owners thereof. Alsop & Co.”

    The same entry appears in the 23 September 1853 newspaper.

    The Martime Heritage Virtual Archives has an entry: http://www.bruzelius.info/Nautica/Ships/Clippers/Invincible(1851).html
    1853 May 21 – September 9
    Sailed from New York to San Francisco in 110 days.

    The Daily Alta California for September 10, 1853, page 2, column 5, section “Shipping Intelligence”:
    “Sept 9-Clipper ship Invincible, Johnson, 110 days fm New York, mdse to Alsop & Co; 4 pass.”

    There is also a notice in the Daily Alta California on 17 August 1853, page 2, column 4, section “Spoken”:
    “June 1, lat 29 13, long 39 56, ship Invincible, from New York, (May 21).”

    There is a painting of The Invincible at this site:

    And here is a brief history: “The Invincible was designed by William H. Webb (1816-1899) and built in his prolific New York shipyard in 1851. The 221 ft. clipper was owned by J. W. Phillips, and others, of New York and commanded by Captain H. W. Johnson for several years. Built for speed she was an ideal vessel for trade conducted with China at that time. She was lost by fire in New York Harbor in 1867. (Arthur Hamilton Clark The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews, 1843-1869, New York and London 1910).”



    Richard A. Edwards, Historian
    South Thurston County Historical Society