Daily Archives: March 7, 2010

Swan Down

Watercolour by James Gilchrist Swan (1818-1900) of the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka (nicknamed 'the Duke of York'), with one of Chetzemoka's wives (nicknamed 'Jenny Lind') distributing potlatch at Port Townsend, Washington, USA. Source: Yale, via Wikipedia.

James Gilchrist Swan

lived one of the most varied and colorful lives in the early history of Washington Territory. He was variously an oysterman, customs inspector, secretary to Congressional delegate Isaac Stevens, journalist, reservation schoolteacher, lawyer, judge, school superintendent, railroad promoter, natural historian, and ethnographer. Above all, Swan was a chronicler. He wrote one of the earliest books describing life in Washington Territory, two Smithsonian monographs, many newspaper articles and technical publications, and more than 60 volumes of still-unpublished diaries. These works document not just pioneer society but also the Northwest Indian cultures that pre-dated white settlement and existed along-side it. Swan’s appreciation of and efforts to record Indian art, technology, history, legends, and language made him a rarity among early Washington settlers.

No doubt Swan wrote some of the most important and interesting accounts of early aboriginal life on the Northwest Coast and you would be lucky to own any of them as hardcopy editions. They are informative and vivid.  While they contain some of the biases of the day, there is absolutely no doubt that Swan was a sincere friend and companion of the Makah, Klallam and other Olympic Peninsula Tribes and he set out to tell their story fully in a way of which many anthropologists of the day would be proud.  Consider for example, this account of a Makah method of catching flatfish: Continue reading