Fish and Fish Products of Washington

One of the great natural resources of western Washington which has been turned to account is the fish product, although as yet imperfectly understood or developed. The whale fishery is prosecuted only by the Indians of Cape Flattery and the gulf of Georgia. Among the species taken on the coast are the sperm whale, California gray, right whale, and sulphur-bottom. Up the strait of Fuca and in the gulf of Georgia humpbacks are numerous. Formerly the Indians took more whales than now, their attention being at present turned to seal hunting. With only their canoes and rude appliances the Makahs of Cape Flattery saved in 1856 oil for export to the amount of $8,000. Olympia Pioneer and Dem., March 5, 1856; Stevens’ Northwest, 10; Wash. Topog., 15, 31; Rept. Com. Ind. Aff, 1858, 232. Cod of two or more varieties are found from Shoalwater Bay to Alaska and beyond. They are of excellent quality when properly cured. The climate of Alaska being too moist, and the air of California drying them too much in the curing process, rendering them hard, it is believed that in Puget Sound may be found the requisite moisture, coolness, and evenness of climate to properly save the cod for export, but no systematic experiments have been made. It was the practice as early as 1856-7 to pickle cod instead of drying, and for several years 200 barrels annually were put up. In 1861 cod were very plentiful in the strait of Fuca, so that the schooners Sarah Newton, the Elizabeth, and other Puget Sound vessels picked up several thousand pounds. In 1869 cod brought from $16 to $20 per barrel. In 1804 Thomas H. Stratton fitted out the sch. Brandt for the cod and halibut fisheries. Norse’s Wash. Ter., MS., xvii. 47-8. In Jan. 1860 the legislature memorialized the president, asking that arrangements be made with Russia to enable U. S. fishing vessels to visit the various ports in the Russian possessions to obtain supplies, cure fish, and make repairs; also to enable Puget Sound fishermen to obtain the same bounty paid to those of the Atlantic coast, and that ships be sent to survey the banks to Bering Straits. The same year Crosby took the forty-ton schooner Spray to the fishing-grounds, leaving Port Angeles June 1st, and returned in October with nine tons of codfish taken in the Kadiak Sea, 1,000 miles north of Puget Sound. In 1869 two schooners, the Ada Al. Frye and Shooting Star arrived on the Northwest Coast from Rockland, Maine, with full crews, to engage in cod fishing, other vessels following. Nineteen vessels sailed from S. F. the same season for the Okhotsk Sea on a fishing expedition, and returned with an average of 55,000 fish each. The ensuing year the catch amounted to 1,000 quintals. As late as 1878 Slocum, of the schooner Pato, advised the Portland board of trade concerning the existence of codfish banks off the coast of Washington, from Shoalwater to Noah bays, and solicited aid in establishing their existence.

Halibut grounds were known to be located nine miles west of Tatoosh Island, in 56 fathoms of water, and these fish abound in the Fuca Sea and Bellingham Bay, but are not found in the Sound or Hood Canal. Strong and Webster put up 100 barrels in 1857. In 1874 halibut was furnished to the S. F. market, packed in ice, and again in 1879, the fish arriving in good condition. The schooner Emily Stephens was built for this trade with ten ice compartments. Port Townsend Argus, Sept. 5, 1574; Hesperian Mag., iii. 409; Portland Oregonian, April 5, 1879; Hittell’s Commerce and Industries, 359. The average size of the halibut caught on this coast is 60 pounds, the largest weighing 200. They are taken with a hook and line from March to August.

Herring have for several years been an article of export from Puget Sound. E. Hammond and H. B. Emery established a fishery at Port Madison about 1870. The herring, though of good flavor, are smaller than those of the Atlantic, and are caught with a seine. A thousand barrels of fish have been taken at a single haul. This fishery has put up 10,000 boxes, of six dozen each, of smoked and dried herring in a season, and delivered them on the wharf for 30 cents a box. Seattle Rural, March 1877, 36. This establishment has pressed from herring 2,000 gallons of oil per month. Other herring fisheries were on San Juan Island and at various other points on the Sound.

The eulachon, or candlefish, so called because when dried it burns like a candle, is another marketable fish of the coast from Cape Blanco to Sitka. It resembles smelt, is very fat, and of fine grain and delicate flavor. it appears in shoals, and is caught with a scoop-net or rake. The Indians formerly took them to make oil, but the H. B. Co. salted them down in kegs for eating. They are now dried like herring.

Sturgeon are plentiful in the Columbia and Fraser Rivers, and in the interior lakes of British Columbia. They are superior in size and flavor to the Atlantic sturgeon, being less tough and less oily, and are found in the markets of Portland and S. F. The H. B. Co. manufactured isinglass from them for export.

Rock cod and tomcod are taken in the Sound, and are regularly furnished to the markets; as are also smelts, sardines, flounders, perch, turbot, skate, chub, plaice, stickleback, and other varieties. A kind of shark, known as dogfish from its long jaws and formidable teeth, visits the Sound in great shoals in the autumn, and is used by the Indians for food and oil. Ebey’s Journal, MS., iii. 42. In 1871 S. B. Pardee made oil from dogfish at Gig Harbor. Olympia Wash. Standard, April 8, 1871. In the following year a co. was incorporated under the laws of California as the North Pacific Commercial Company, the principal object of which was the taking of dogfish for oil. The works were located on Fox Island, ten miles from Steilacoom, the site taking the name of Castlenook. The daily catch by means of wears, pounds, seines, and trawls was from 3,000 to 4,000 large fish. One hundred and seventy-seven fish were taken at one set of the lines at Oyster Bay. Olympia Transcript, May 2, 1868.

Seal and Sea Otter

As soon as spring opens, or whenever the weather will permit after the first of Jan., the Indians at Cape Flattery put out to sea in their canoes a distance of 10 or 15 miles to catch seals, which at this season of the year are migrating north in myriads, and on a bright day may be seen for miles jumping, splashing, and playing in the water. When fatigued with this sport they turn over on their backs and go to sleep, at which time the Indians approach cautiously and dart their spears into the nearest. They catch eight or ten a day in this manner. Later they used the pilot-boat to go out and return, taking their canoes and cargoes on board. Part Townsend Message, Jan. 31, 1871. Occasionally they killed forty or fifty a day.

Ten vessels were employed in 1881, the catch being about 8,000 sealskins, worth from to each. The number of Indians engaged was over 200, and their profit en the season’s catch about $200 each for skins, besides 1,300 gallons of oil for food.

The sea otter, which formerly was taken in great numbers at Point Grenville, 60 miles north of Shoalwater Bay, has become comparatively rare. The Neah Bay Indians monopolize the limit on that part of the coast, while at Gray Harbor white men take them, using rides, and perching themselves on ladders placed at intervals along the beach, from which they can discern the otter, which seldom comes nearer than 300 yards. It requires skill to shoot them swimming at that distance, but they have been killed at 800 yards. The average was about two otter-skins a month to each limiter, worth from $30 to $50 each. Land otter-skins were very rare; but about four thousand beaver pelts were annually shipped from Washington.

The first discovery of oysters on the Pacific Coast was made at Shoalwater Bay by C. J. W. Russell, between 1849 and 1851. In the autumn of 1851 the schooner Two Brothers, Capt. Fieldsen, came into the bay and loaded with oysters for S. F. They all died on the way, but another attempt by Anthony Ludlum, was more successful. A writer in the Portland West Shore, Aug. 1878, claims the discovery for Fieldsen; but as Swan was on the ground soon after, and knew all the persons concerned, I adopt his account. Natural oyster beds stretched over a distance of thirty miles in length and from four to seven in width. These beds were common property. The first territorial legislature passed an act prohibiting the taking of oysters by any person who had not been a resident of the territory for one month, without a license. The next legislature prohibited their being gathered by non-residents. The use of drudgers was forbidden, the oystering season was designated, and all small oysters were to be returned to their beds. The legislature of 1804-5 granted Michael S. Drew and associates the exclusive privilege of planting, cultivating, and gathering oysters in Port Gamble Bay, and to Henry Winsor and L. D. Durgin the same exclusive right in Budd Inlet.

An act approved Oct. 31, 1873, granted to each person planting oysters in localities where no natural beds existed ten acres, to hold while the planting should be regularly maintained. Locations could be made in detached parcels, and in Shoalwater Bay 20 acres might be taken; but in no case might the beds interfere with the logging interest. Where marketable oysters were bedded a location was restricted to 20,000 feet superficial area. These privileges were to extend to citizens of the territory only.

In 1861-2 the oysters at Shoalwater Bay were nearly all destroyed by frost and low tides. Their enemies were the skates and drum-fish, to protect them against which it was sometimes necessary to surround the beds by a fence of closely set pickets.

In 1853-4 there were from 150 to 200 men on Shoalwater Bay and affluents who lived chiefly by oystering. Up to 1859 all the oysters shipped came from natural beds, but in that year planting began. The trade steadily increased until the opening of the first transcontinental railroad, when the shipment of eastern oysters began, which materially decreased the demand for the native mollusk. The shipments made from Shoalwater Bay in 1874 amounted to 120,000 baskets. Portland West Shore, Aug. 1878, 2. This locality had now to contend not only with the importation of eastern oysters, but with the beds of Totten Inlet and other parts of Puget Sound, which ship by railroad in any desired quantities, while the Shoalwater Bay oystermen must ship in large quantities, because they depend on vessels. Natural beds of oysters are found everywhere in Puget Sound, the quality and size being affected somewhat by the locality and the density of the masses in which they grow, the better fish being where they are most scattered. Near Olympia they exist in banks several feet thick. They are abundant in all the tidewaters adjacent to the strait of Fuca, in Bellingham Bay, in Commencement Bay, and are found in Cray Harbor. The native oyster has a slightly coppery taste, which does not come from copper beds, but from the mud flats in which they grow, and it disappears with cooking. They are of a delicate flavor, not so rank as the eastern oyster. The Olympia beds are said to be superior to others. In 1880 $100,000 worth were shipped from the beds in the Sound to Portland.

Another shell-fish which is found in inexhaustible quantities in Washington is the clam, of which there are several species, from the immense quahog, the meat of which will weigh three pounds, to the small blue clam, preferred by some to the oyster, the white clam, also small, and the long razor-clam of the ocean beach. This testaccous fish has furnished many generations of Indians with a considerable portion of their food supply, and fed hungry white men as well in the early settlements of the country. Narrative of B. F. Brown, MS. In 1879 a company was formed in Olympia for the preserving of clams by the process of canning, similar to the method used in preserving beef and salmon, and from which a delicious chowder was quickly prepared for the table. The company consisted of E. N. Ouinette, N. H. Ownings, S. G. Ward, J. R. Hayden. Olympia Wash. Standard, April 2, 1880.

Salmon-fishing, one of the most important of the resources of both Oregon and Washington, I have treated of in my History of Oregon. There are many salmon taken in the Sound and its affluents, though not so easily caught, or of so uniformly good quality, as those of the Columbia. In 1873 V. T. Tull of Olympia established a salmon fishery at Mukilteo, principally for putting up fish in barrels. The first year 500 bbls were packed at Mukilteo, after which the fishery was moved temporarily to Seattle to take the late run up the Dwamish River, which is usually large. Fifteen hundred good large salmon have been taken at one haul of the seine in the Puyallup. Olympia Columbian, Sept. 10, 1S53. In 1877 Jackson Myres & Co., formerly of Portland, erected a canning establishment at Mukilteo, and made of it a successful enterprise; but it had not, in 1880, been followed by any others. The catch of 1877 was estimated at 10,000 cases, and over 2,000 barrels, valued at $77,300. Snohomish Northern Star, Sept. 22, 1877; Olympia Transcript, Dee. l, 1877. In 1874 Corbett & Macleay, of Portland, founded a fishery at Tacoma, Sixty barrels were packed in five days, only three men being employed. New Tacoma Tribune, Nov. 14, 1874. In 1876 John Bryggot, Norwegian, founded another fishery at Salmon Bay, six miles north of Olympia. In 1878 a company of Puget Sound men established a fourth at Clallam Bay. They put up the first season 600 casks of salmon and 700 of halibut. Morse’s Wash. Ter., MS., xviii. 17-18. In the following season D. H. Hume established a fishery near Steilaeoom for the purpose of salting salmon. In 1880 H. Levy, of Seattle, went to London with 100 barrels to introduce Puget Sound salted salmon to that market. In 1882 a salmon packing establishment was opened at Old Tacoma by Williams. Salmon ran in great numbers this year. One boat brought in a thousand fish. Queniult River, on the coast, produced salmon quite equal to the best Chinook or Columbia River fish, though they were small, averaging five pounds. The territory has by legislative enactment endeavored to save the salmon product, it being unlawful to place traps, or other obstructions, across streams without leaving a chute for the passage of fish. An act of 1868 also provided for an inspector of salmon in each county where it was put up for export. All packages marked bad by the inspector were condemned. No packages could be sold unbranded with the name of the packer and the year of the catch; and penalties were imposed for counterfeiting brands.

In February 1859 an act was passed prohibiting non-residents from taking fish on the beach of the Columbia, between Point Ellis and Cape Hancock. Wash. Stat., 1858-9, 26. On the 26th of Jan., 1861, J. T. Lovelace and W.

H. Dillon were granted the exclusive right to fish in the Columbia for a distance of one mile along its banks, and extending from low-water mark half a mile toward the middle of the stream. An act of the legislature of 1865 gave C. C. Terry and Joseph Cushman the right to introduce into and stock the waters of lakes Washington and Union with shad and alewives, with the exclusive privilege for 30 years of taking all these fish in these lakes and their tributaries and outlets, provided the lakes should be stocked within 5 years. This law was modified in 1869 by substituting the name of Frank Matthias for that of Terry, by the addition of whitefish, and by extending the time for planting, and also making the grant 30 years from that time.

The value of the salmon exported in barrels or cans is not given authentically in any published reports. During the season of 1880, 100,000 cases of canned salmon were shipped from the Washington side of the Columbia to foreign markets, each case containing four dozen one-pound cans, or 7,680,000 pounds of fish ready for the table. The price varied from year to year. Between 1870 and 1881 it ranged from $9.50 to $4 a case, averaging nearly $6 a case, making a total average for canned salmon of about $900,000 annually. Pickled or salt salmon sold at from $6 to $8 a barrel, and each cannery puts up from 300 to 800 barrels in addition to the canned fish. Giving a value merely conjectural but moderate for the salted salmon of the Sound from half a dozen fisheries, and that of the Columbia pickled salmon from eight or more factories, another $50,000 may be safely supposed to have been added to the sum total for salmon.

There is but one other source of wealth to be noticed in this place, which pertains principally to the eastern division of the territory, namely, livestock. Two thirds of this part of the territory is excellent grazing land, and has raised immense herds of cattle and sheep, which have been a convenient means of income to the people. Nothing has been required generally, except to herd sheep and brand cattle, which fed at pleasure over the boundless stretches of unoccupied land. Great as has been the reputation of the Walla Walla Valley, from the time when Bonneville and Missionary Parker wondered at the riches of the Cayuses, represented by their hundreds of horses, the Yakima country eclipses it as a stock-range, both on account of pasturage and mildness of climate. The Palouse region, later converted into grain fields, has also been a famous stock range for many years; and for many years to come there will be enough unfenced land to support millions of dollars’ worth of cattle, horses, and sheep. About one winter in five is severe enough to require the housing and feeding of cattle. It is then that the stock-raiser, grown careless and confident, has cause to lament his indolence in not providing for the protection of his property. Yet, with occasional severe losses, Washington has had from an early day a sure and easy means of livelihood, if not of wealth.


Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890.

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