(Lucile McDonald, "Surveying Washington's Coastline, Intrepid scientist risked his life to make study, " (George Davidson). Seattle Times. August 24, 1952.)

A century ago this summer a small government steamer entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca and put ashore the first coast survey party ever to work on this section of the Pacific Coast.

It was headed by Lieut. George Davidson, then 27, who was to become the West's most prominent coastal scientist and surveyor, compiler of the first three editions of the Coast Pilot of California, Oregon and Washington. 

The vessel was the Active commanded by Lieut James Alden, who was engaged in survey work with Davidson. They sailed from San Francisco stopping at Port Orford, the Columbia River and Neah Bay, where they astronomical and topographical parties went ashore to make observations.

Among other things, they determined the latitude of Cape Flattery. One of the season's assignments was to discover the correct geographical position of principal coastal harbors.

Nothing had been done until then in this part of the United States to establish a basis for surveying. Latitude and longitude were not known accurately. The only navigation charts were made by Vancouver, Wilkes and other explorers. Names did not always agree with common usage. For instance, Davidson decided immediately to discard Wilkes' "Scarborough Harbor" for the Indians' "Neah Bay."

Davidson, born in England in 1825 was a genius in his field. He moved to the United States at the age of seven and had the luck to get some of his education under Alexander D. Bache, who became superintendent of the Coast Survey. Davidson was a magnetic observer when Bache took him to Washington as his secretary. After five years in the national capital he was sent to California in 1850 as head of a party directed to make an accurate survey of the Pacific Coast for navigation purposes.

One of the most exciting periods he ever put in was the first season at Juan De Fuca.

The base of operations was San Francisco and for two years Davidson sailed from there in the Active, working gradually north, checking on his previous observations and extending his triangulation, topography and hydrography.

A joint Army and Navy commission, which visited Puget Sound in 1849 on the Massachusetts had recommended construction of a light house at Cape Flattery. Davidson's first task on his arrival in 1852 was to select a site for it. He decided that it should be placed on the highest point of the island, one hundred feet above high water. 

The light from an 85 foot tower, he believed, could be seen from 18 miles away on the horizon, a long time before there was danger of a vessel going on Flattery Rocks. In his report Davidson said there was no wood on the island and no water that was any good. Indians, 150 strong, had been going there during the summers and cultivating the soil on top.

Davidson set up a secondary astronomical station near an Indian grave yard at the head of the harbor now known as Port Angeles. Mostly he worked along the seventeen and one half miles of shoreline from Sail Rock to Tatoosh Island.

"It was and is impossible to carry on any triangulation along the shore, " he wrote in his report for that year. "The hills are covered with an immense growth of fir and underbrush and the sides are cut up with gullies and rocks."

The only means of transportation available consisted of two small canoes, difficult to land at rocky points. The party suffered much from sickness and accidents due to the handicaps under which they worked.

Davidson wrote "Having been at Tatoosh in bad weather, I speak advisedly on the subject. The fact that the whole western swell breaks on the shore from Clisset's village, (an Indian summer camp northwest of Neah Bay) to the west and south will satisfy you of the dangers encountered and successfully overcome."

The perils to which the party were exposed were multiplied by the antagonism of the Makah Indians, Davidson related.

"It was necessary to entrench ourselves and keep a regular watch against the natives, who became very annoying during the progress of our observations, " Davidson wrote.

"I consider the station to have been occupied at very great risk from the hostility of the Indians, but a knowledge that we were always prepared for any attack without doubt prevented one. We built a breastwork and could fire sixty loads without reloading, Guard was kept every night."

Samuel Hancock, who was attempting to operate a trading post at Neah Bay the same year, also kept a records of the visit of the party from the Active. When the men were put ashore they pitched their tents near his house.

Hancock said, "They worked at surveying and all was well until forty canoes came from the north with oil." After the northern Indians traded for two days, Hancock overheard a plot to kill the whites and divide their property. He warned Davidson and the log breastwork was erected. when the Indians found the whites alerted both day and night they gave up and departed.

The Active picked up the surveyors about October 1. Davidson was out of funds and glad to be on his way. He dropped off at Astoria and sat up two nights working out latitudes from his zenith telescope observations in order to include this information in his report which Alden carried south.

It was August 18 the following summer before the Active again entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca. An account of the season's work left by the ship's carpenter, Hans Jacob Jepsen, and owned by his great grand daughter, Mrs. Kendon K. Smith of Seattle tells what Davidson found on his return.

Jepsen related that the Active went form the Columbia River directly to Cape Flattery. "There was a large Indian village there with l,000 inhabitants," he said, " and they were having the smallpox and half of them had died.

"The year before our steamer had been here and taken observations on the cape. They buried a bottle and marked the place where the instruments had stood, so as to be able to find it again. A white trader, who was living here, came alongside and told us that when the sickness broke out the Indians, thinking the white men had bewitched them, dug up the bottle, took it in a canoe and went out of sight of land and threw it into the sea."

Davidson stayed until February, chiefly in the Gulf of Georgia and Rosario Strait, erecting signals and making preliminary observations for triangulation. He suffered much that year from chronic rheumatism, but persisted in keeping in the field. Between seasons of work in the north he was busied with hydrography and surveying in California.

The third summer he procured a vessel to work entirely in Washington Territory, the Fauntleroy for which a district in Seattle is named. It was christened by Davidson in honor of R. H. Fauntleroy, one of the Coast Survey officers who died of exposure.

That year Alden sailed direct from the Columbia to Bellingham Bay, took on coal, then went to Admiralty Inlet, Duwamish Bay (Seattle's harbor) and the anchorage at Port Townsend. Davidson occupied 32 stations on Rosario Strait and the Canal de Haro, erecting 79 signals for his work.

Important results that year were the discoveries of existence of a shoal at the entrance to Rosario, two rocks in the same strait, one in Haro, a five fathom bank in Juan de Fuca, and "...the non existence of two islands at the northern end of the Canal de Haro, laid down on the charts."

They also examined light house sites at Smith Island and New Dungeness.

Davidson's work here was overshadowed by his later accomplishments. After fifty years in the Coast and Geodetic Survey he retired to become a professor of Geography at the University of California where he had already been a regent. It is said that for sixty years his name was more familiar to scientifically included persons on the Pacific Coast than that of any other resident.

Ill health in later life was laid to the exposure and bodily discomfort he underwent while doing the first topographic reconnaissance of the Puget Sound country's shoreline.

Descendants of at least two members of the Active's crew, those of Jepsen and of John Tarte, are numbered among present day Washington residents.

(Lucile McDonald, "Surveying Washington's Coastline," Seattle Times. August 24, 1952.)


(Lucile McDonald, "State's earliest coastal survey, Indians' concepts of 'bad spirits' played a role," Seattle Times. April 23, 1967.)

In a dusty cubbyhole in Washington D.C. last year two Seattle based Coast and Geodetic Survey officers discovered first hand accounts of the earliest coastal reconnaissance work in this state.

Lieut. Commander Ray M. Sundean of the Pathfinder and Commander Harley Nygren of the Surveyor happened to be on temporary assignments in the national capital when old records in a departmental library were being moved and sorted, some going to the federal archives.

Sundean, a native of Bellingham, poked around in the shelves and was rewarded by finding three forgotten reports dating from the arrival of topographical parties on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He brought home copies of them.

Latitude and longitude had not yet been established accurately when the first Coast Survey group was landed at Neah Bay in the summer of 1852. James S. Lawson, then topographical aide to George Davidson, who headed the work on the entire Pacific Coast wrote his recollections of that season in an autobiography that Sundean copied.

Lawson, 24, had been in field duty under Davidson two years on other parts of the West Coast when he traveled north in the Coast Survey ship Active to help ascertain the correct geographical position of Cape Flattery and the strait. Davidson was to select a site on Tatoosh Island for construction of a light house.

The most accessible place for a camp was at Neah Bay, and Davidson though it best to have an understand with the Indians before putting his men ashore. They met at Warm House, a fishing village between the cape and the bay.

As many Indians as could be accommodated crowded into the chief's house, Lawson related. All the men who could be spared from the Active attended. Everyone was armed and the officers were in uniform. Samuel Hancock, who had begun a trading post at Neah Bay, interpreted.

"It was explained to the Indians, " Lawson related," that we did not come to take away their lands, or interfere with their rights in any way; that our mission was for the benefit of shipping."

Davidson endeavored to convince the Makahs that they also would profit from the surveying. He promised that if an attack were made on the party, retribution was sure to follow.

"The Indians, while not exactly impudent were quite independent," Lawson said. One of them, Flattery Jack, seemed not averse to coming to blows.

It was finally understood that the surveyors would remain and that the tribe would not interfere. Camp was set up a few hundred yards east of Village Creek, near the trader's cabin.

The Active then went up the strait to make a reconnaissance of the south shore as far as Port Townsend. On her return, Davidson rejoined his men at Neah Bay and the vessel left for Willapa Bay, to be gone until the end of the Summer.

"All told in camp there were but nine of us," Lawson wrote," and when it is considered that in twenty-four hours about 500 Indians could be mustered against us, this might be considered a small force...We deemed it well to be prepared."

The men had enough rifles, revolvers, cavalry pistols, and shot guns so that more than sixty shots could be fired without the necessity of reloading.

One evening a fleet of canoes containing between a hundred fifty and two hundred Indians arrived from Vancouver Island. Instead of going on the beach, they anchored amid the floating kelp. The surveyors supposed this might be a precautionary measure in case the two tribes quarreled. Hancock soon enlightened the campers, saying he had learned of a plot to attack them that night, kill all of the white and divide the plunder.

"The Makahs, on account of threats of punishment," Lawson said," were afraid to commit the deed but the Vancouver Island Indians were to do so and after sharing the spoils, the latter would return home."

Guard was posted and frequently during the night an Indian would walk along the beach in front of the camp, but always he found an armed man on watch. No attack was made and the next day the islanders returned home.

The surveyors immediately constructed a log breast work with loopholes and continued to stand guard nightly. Davidson believed that since he had plenty of ammunition, a little could be expended in convincing the Indians that they should exercise restraint. Once a week, when a large number of Makahs were around, all the weapons were laid out on a table. A target was arranged about a hundred yards distant.

Lawson explained:

"We always fired more than one shot, but not all, and while one of us would examine the target and mark the score, then pistol was laid down. then another person would shoot, taking great care not to pick up the last pistol used, if the shots had been expended. Seeing pistols fired so often without being reloaded, the Indians thought they always could be so fired and they were possessed of a bad spirit, hence they had a wholesome dread of them. Still they wanted to purchase them, and the chief offered what in his estimation was a fabulous price."

No surveyor left camp without carrying arms, but often Lawson said his pistol did not contain a single charge. The fact that he had the weapon was all the protection he needed.

At the commencement of the work, Lawson was annoyed by the Indians stealing pieces of cloth used as flags on station marks. This occurred once when he was "chaining" a base line in front of camp. Without thinking of danger, he dropped notebook and pencil, drew his pistol and pursued the culprits, who escaped into the woods. The village was in an uproar.

"With pistol in hand, I passed them all," Lawson said, " not an Indian daring to touch me, but I could not resist presenting a leaden messenger to one of their dogs which came inconveniently close."

With Hancock as interpreter, Lawson delivered an ultimatum to Flattery Jack that, if he caught an Indian man destroying his signals, he would kill him on the spot. If a woman or boy took them, the guilty person would be brought into camp a publicly whipped. Lawson had no further trouble.

Lawson said that when the surveyors departed in the Active October 2, bottles were buried at the camp in order to mark the astronomical station site for future use.

The next year smallpox raged at Neah Bay, brought by Indians who had been to San Francisco. Some of the Makahs were convinced that the surveyors had left the disease in buried bottles. Hence they  took them up and got rid of them," he wrote.

Hancock told Davidson the Makahs took them to sea in a canoe. When out of sight of land they threw the bottles overboard. Thus they got rid of the bad spirits.

(Lucile McDonald, "State's earliest coastal survey," Seattle Times. April 23, 1967.)