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The Sea Runners: A Novel, by Ivan Doig.

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 Posted in Washington Reads | Comments Off on The Sea Runners: A Novel, by Ivan Doig.

waves-crashing-on-the-rocks-by-axel-rouvinThe Sea Runners: A Novel. By Ivan Doig. (New York: Atheneum, 1982. 279 pp. Map.)

Recommendation submitted by:
Will Stuivenga, Cooperative Projects Manager, Washington State Library, Tumwater, WA.

There exists an actual letter-to-the-editor published in the Oregon Weekly Times, mentioning three Scandinavians who had managed to travel by canoe from Russian Alaska to Shoalwater (now named Willapa) Bay in 1852/53. Doig’s novel imagines what their trek must have been like, full of trepidations and tribulations, all the way up to and including loss of life.

At the time, apparently the Russians recruited Swedes, Finns, and other “outlanders” as 7-year indentured laborers, to do the real work for the Russian-American Company’s fur-gathering enterprise headquartered in New Archangel, now Sitka, Alaska. It was not a pleasant place much of the time: cold, wet, rough, and not very civilized, with the Russians lording it over the “thugs, thieves, hopeless sots, no few murderers, . . . debtors, escaped serfs,” and the rest of “the flotsam of any vast frontier” as Doig describes them.

So perhaps it’s not too surprising that one of them, Melander by name, a former ship’s first mate, decides to plan a way out, recruiting a couple of his fellows to assist him. The idea is fairly straightforward: he engages the best thief among his fellows to squirrel away the supplies they need: food, maps, a compass, etc., and they intend to steal a large cedar canoe from the local native encampment and paddle their way south to Astoria, where they expect to find passage on the ships that stop there. As the story unfolds, the also indentured blacksmith notices what’s happening, and forces his way into the group, making for a frequently skeptical and less than enthusiastic fourth.

Their imagined adventures, replete with inner turmoil, plus all too real privations and misery, are ably described in intricate detail by the author. Doig’s language here is at times a bit convoluted, requiring careful attention to unravel his precise intent, which is not altogether a bad thing, given that the story and the imagery are worthy of the effort. As is not uncommon with Doig, the interior life, thoughts, and feelings of his characters are of at least equal significance to the landscape and actual events as they unfold. Recommended for anyone with a strong interest in NW history and landscape, and who enjoys well-crafted historical fiction.

ISBN: 978-0-15-603102-8

Available in the Pacific Northwest Collection at NW 813.6 DOIG 1982
Available as an eBook. Not yet available in Digital Talking Book or Braille format.

“Sensation John” Brings the Confederate Cause to Washington Territory

Thursday, June 6th, 2013 Posted in Articles, Digital Collections, For the Public, Random News from the Newspapers on Microfilm Collection, State Library Collections | 1 Comment »


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

The fun part about murky plots and conspiracies is that they are just that– murky, leaving a mystery for historians to argue about for decades. Even at the time the daring plan of Confederate agents in Victoria B.C. to capture a Port Townsend-based Revenue Cutter was exposed, rival newspapers could not agree on the facts of the case.

The following article was found in the March 7, 1863 Washington Statesman, a Walla Walla newspaper. John T. Jeffreys was apparently remembered in that city as “Sensation John,” from his exploits in the area serving as a lieutenant with the Oregon Volunteers during the Native American conflict of 1855-56.

The Plot to Seize the Shubricksensation

“John T. Jeffreys– ‘sensation John,’ and now, secession John– comes out in an article in the British Colonist, and acknowledges that the reported plot to seize the U.S. Steamer Shubrick and convert her into a privateer was an actuality. John’s article is characteristic, and were it not for the fact his statements are corroborated through other sources, we should be inclined to believe the whole thing a humbug. He pitches into the editor of the Colonist, for exposing the scheme, in this wise:”

“‘I admit freely that there was a Confederate Commodore here, and that he had a commission in his pocket. I admit that a crew was picked and that the object was to injure Federal commerce in these waters. In short, I admit everything that you have stated, except that the expedition was a piratical one, and that the design was to burn the mail steamer. That would never have been done, except in case of necessity, which, I think is safe to say, would never have arisen.'”

 “‘I make this statement boldly, not because I wish to render myself notorious, but because you have meanly– with a meaness which your friends never supposed you capable of– violated a confidence reposed in you, and made an affair public which you should have kept locked within your own breast. True, the thing had fallen through. True, the Commodore had left and the scheme had been abandoned; but, sir, by what right, or by whose permission, did you feel 

sensation 2

warranted in exposing the enterprise, without first consulting its leaders, or the parties who furnished you the information? I do not know who your informant was, and I do not care now, (time was when I might have cared, though) but this I will say, that he has betrayed a sacred confidence reposed in him, which he 

should have rather lost his life than to have done.'”

“Pity that this betrayer of ‘sacred confidence’ did not have the power to do it in such a manner as to have had the plotters ‘left dangling at a rope’s end.'”

Identified by some as an Alabaman, John Thomas Jeffreys was actually born in Independence, Missouri April 7, 1830. John, along with his parents and siblings, went overland by wagon train to northwest Oregon in 1845. After the 1849 death of their father Thomas Jeffreys, the family moved The Dalles.

John was in the cattle trade and along with his brother Oliver found an excellent market in British Columbia. According to F.W. Laing in the Oct. 1942 British Columbia Historical Quarterly, the brothers Jeffreys first show up in BC documents as early as 1860. Benjamin F. Gilbert in the July-Oct. 1954 issue of the same periodical has a long essay on the details of Jeffreys’ involvement in the Shubrick case.

The newspaperman who Jeffreys felt betrayed him was actually with the Victoria Daily Chronicle. His name was David Williams Higgins and he later wrote a memoir suggesting the plot was really exposed by Union intelligence rather than by journalists. According to Scott McArthur in The Enemy Never Came, the American Consul Mr. Francis informed the Shubrick’s pro-Union second in command, Lt. James M. Selden, of the plot. Apparently the skipper and other sailors were in on the plan. So when the Shubrick visited Victoria “while the ship’s captain and most of the crew were ashore, Selden and six members of the crew cast off and returned to Port Townsend.”

The rival Victoria newspaper, The Daily British Colonist, was openly critical of the Chronicle for being sensationalist and a scandal sheet. The publisher was none other than that steak-juggling eccentric, Amor de Cosmos, who we met in an earlier post.   De Cosmos had been Higgins’ mentor and employer before the two had a falling out in 1862.

Shortly after the Shubrick incident Jeffreys returned to Oregon, where he was arrested. He died in The Dalles Feb. 24, 1867, aged 36.

The Shubrick continued life as a government ship until 1886, when it was sold in Astoria, Oregon and scrapped.

Maryland native Lt. James M. Selden was promoted to Captain in the U.S. Revenue Marine Service in 1867. He died March 16, 1888, aged about 57, as the result of sunstroke while on duty.

The Washington Statesman is available in online form thanks to the efforts of our Digital and Historical Collections team. It provides a window into Washington Territory’s contemporary view of the Civil War.

WSL also holds copies of the Daily British Colonist on microfilm.

David Williams Higgins (1834-1917) merged his own newspaper with the Colonist in 1866 to form The Daily British Colonist and Victoria Chronicle which he used as a springboard for political office.

Amor de Cosmos Juggles a Sour Grass Steak in Kalama

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 Posted in Articles, Digital Collections, For the Public, Random News from the Newspapers on Microfilm Collection, State Library Collections | 1 Comment »


Amor de Cosmos

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

Now here’s a sentence I bet no one has constructed before: This is a tale of a crazed Canadian politician juggling and insulting a steak while in the process angering a future Washington Secretary of State to the point of near fisticuffs.

The following article was found at random in the Dec. 16, 1895 issue of The Spokesman-Review. It recalls a visit to Kalama in 1873 by British Columbia’s 2nd Premier, a gentleman by the unusual name of Amor de Cosmos.

Amor de Cosmos has been described as “flamboyant,” “eccentric,” “a racist drunk,” “egotistical,” “disorderly,” “a bad smell in a high wind,” and “fearfully tedious.” He was a major figure in BC journalism and politics from the late 1850s to early 1880s. Born William Alexander Smith in Nova Scotia in 1825, he appears to have been something of an outrageous character for most of his life. In 1895 he was officially declared “of unsound mind,” and died on July 4, 1897 while under the care of his brother. Amor Lake on Vancouver Island is named after him.




 An Eccentric Character Now Lying at Death’s Door in Victoria.




 His Remarkable Performance With a Tough Beefsteak at a Kalama Hotel — Member Parliament.

 “The Hon. Amor de Cosmos, one of the first members British Columbia sent to the Dominion parliament, is very ill at his home in Victoria. The forty-niners of California will best recall him under the name of John Smith, an American, who was something of a globe-trotter, and who was the hero of many adventures. He grew to be ‘well fixed’ while sojourning at the Golden gate, and to wear an expensive white shirt front about which a heavy gold chain meandered in connection with a flowing beard and locks that would put those of the Poet-Scout Crawford to the blush.”

“Comparative wealth spoiled him, and he sickened of the ancient family name of John Smith, so he sent a bill to the de cosmos 1California legislature, praying permission to change it to the more modern one of Amor de Cosmos. Such bills generally pass without any attention whatever, but in this case a member who was something of a wag, moved as an amendment that the name be changed to Patrick McFarlan McGinnin McGinty O’Rourke, and this amendment came within one vote of being carried.”

“Mr. de Cosmos carried his new name over the border to British Columbia, and there naturalized it. He left a record in the Dominion house of commons of having, on a filibustering occasion, addressed the house for 72 hours, one of the longest speeches on record there. One of the resolutions he introduced that created some laughter at the time, was that no man should be employed on the Canadian Pacific railroad, then a government undertaking, whose hair measured more than seven inches. This was aimed at Chinese labor. Mr. de Cosmos’ hair was then 17 inches probably, and the late Sir John A. Macdonald facetiously observed: ‘That settles the cosmogony of the road for all time.'”

“‘Yes,’ said ex-Senator Fairweather yesterday, ‘I knew De Cosmos very well. The forty-niners are getting scarce. De Cosmos is a character. He resembled in appearance the late Carter Harrison, Chicago’s famous mayor. His hair and whiskers were a trifle darker and his complexion, strange to say, more of a Burgundy tint than the illustrious democrat.'”

“‘He made a great speech to save some rights of settlers in British Columbia in the early ’70s, and was completely exhausted at the hour of final adjournment. This successful effort endeared him to the people and he was sent to the Dominion parliament from the province. His last name was chosen by himself, and was certainly an improvement on Smith, Smyth or Smithe.'”

“‘After his election to Ottawa he started for the seat of government in the winter of 1873 via Tacoma, Kalama, Portland and San Francisco. No steamships were running between Victoria and sound ports to San Francisco, no transcontinental railroads existed, but the Central and Union Pacific.'”


J. H. Price

“‘When he arrived in Kalama, to his disgust the Columbia river was frozen between that point and Portland, and he had to remain there until it was opened.'”

“‘He was a guest at the Fulton house, kept then by A.M. Patterson, now the big hop grower of Cowlitz county. Secretary of State J.H. Price, myself and others made that hotel our home. The morning succeeding De Cosmos’ arrival we were late at breakfast. The dining room had been closed, but as old patrons we were admitted and Mrs. Patterson herself was waiting on Jim Price and Bob McGregor and myself when De Cosmos woke up and was admitted to the table. His hair and whiskers were as long as described in the article you have shown me.'”

“‘We were eating our sour grass steak, as all lower Columbia beef was called at that time, with contentment. When De Cosmos was served with his, the first thing he did was to gaze at it suspiciously. It was to him neither beef nor bullion. He hit the steak with his knife viciously and made no impression on it. He turned it over and performed the same operation with the same result. He then gazed at us, at the walls and ceiling and proceeded to toy with that piece of meat in a manner that astonished us. We did not know him, but concluded at once that he was a juggler.'”

“‘He turned the fork in his left hand, jabbed it into the steak, raised it to the elevation of his nose, undercut it with his knife in his right, and tossing it to the ceiling, caught it on its return with his fork and took another whack at it. After repeating this two or three times he remarked that it was not fit for a dog to eat.'”

“‘At this Price jumped up and said he had been eating that kind of steak for six months and was no dog either, and demanded an apology.'”

“‘The lover of the world got into deep water and was taken out of the dining room by Mrs. Patterson and politely requested to go elsewhere. As he left the room, however, he looked at Price enviously, and remarked that a man who could exist on that kind of beef must have a stomach like a bullion retort?'”


John Wilson Sprague

“‘He reported to General Sprague that he had been assaulted by a lot of ruffians at the hotel and asked his protection. The general entertained him at his home, and Price, who was revenue inspector at Kalama then, did not annoy him on his departure by inspecting his baggage.'”

“‘I met him 10 years later at Victoria and he treated me nicely. He was a bright man and did much for the land of his adoption.'”

It is interesting the above article assumed Amor de Cosmos was originally an American.

The teller of the tale was Handford Wentworth Fairweather (1852-1919) who was a member of the 1889 Constitutional Convention and served in the 1st Washington State Legislature as a Senator from Lincoln County.

J.H. Price was James H. Price (1847-1919), Washington’s 2nd Secretary of State, serving from 1893-1897.

General Sprague was John Wilson Sprague (1817-1894), Civil War military figure and co-founder of Tacoma. Sprague, Washington, originally called Hoodooville,  (and where Sen. Fairweather later lived) was named in his honor.

The newspapers of Amor de Cosmos, The British Colonist and the Daily British Colonist, which he edited until 1863, are in the WSL newspapers on microfilm collection.

More information about Amor de Cosmos and other British Columbia premiers can be found in: British Columbia’s Premiers in Profile : the Good, the Bad, and the Transient by William Rayner.