United States Coast Survey in Washington Territory

  • By Mike Vouri
  • Posted 5/23/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11230

The United States Coast Survey began charting what was to become Washington Territory in June 1850 when naval assistant Lieutenant Commanding William Pope McArthur (1814-1850) crossed the Columbia River bar aboard the schooner Ewing. Thus began a 10-year project that would help promote commercial growth and maritime safety in the region by creating accurate topographic and hydrographic charts, tide tables, and geographic descriptions, and help establish lighthouse sites and buoy locations along the navigable reaches of the Columbia River and the territory's diverse saltwater shorelines and waterways. Those thumbing through bins of vintage nautical charts in rare-print shops or checking the coordinates on bluff-side benchmarks today will find the readings as precise as those now captured in seconds through GPS. However, it was not simply chart-making that made the Coast Survey indispensable to community building. Along the way Survey officers would also see to the immediate protection and wellbeing of fledgling towns and Indian villages alike by rescuing stranded vessels and providing swift communications and military and naval assistance in time of emergency.

Hidden Shoals

Following the Treaty of Oregon (1846) and the end of the Mexican-American War (1848), the volume of shipping traffic along the West Coast grew exponentially with settlement, commercial exploitation, and the California gold strike of 1849. But this expansion came at great risk because pilots were employing charts dating to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However innovative for their time, the maps of George Vancouver (1757-1798), Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), and others were primarily drawn for political and scientific purposes, featured only the barest navigational information, and were riddled with inaccuracies. Latitude at some points, for example, was as much as 15 degrees amiss. For coast-trade mariners -- already dealing with swift currents, sudden storms, and fogs that coaxed wayward ships upon the rocks -- this was a recipe for disaster.

The wave-tossed Columbia River bar and the hidden shoals and swift currents of Puget Sound and the Northern Straits region ranked high among the navigational challenges that demanded accurate and detailed surveys. The daunting river bar was one of the reasons that the Hudson's Bay Company moved its principle establishment from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island in 1843, while the U.S. Navy, as late as 1850, was reluctant to dispatch sailing warships up the sound, where currents, hazards, and reliable anchorages were little known. As McArthur wrote, the sound was "a strange and peculiar anomaly. The deep blue sea runs up inland passing between straits but half a mile wide with a depth of over an hundred fathoms. Bays, Harbours, Inlets and Roads startle you at every turning, forming a perfect labyrinth" (Lewis McArthur).

Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867), great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, had been politicking since the end of the Mexican War to extend the coastal survey to the Pacific Coast. Founded in 1807, during Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the then-called "Survey of the Coasts" was the first physical-science agency in the U.S. government, with the goal of developing an interlocking geodetic network that would tie all surveys together and serve as the basis for a national mapping standard.

Bache's maneuvering was rewarded in the summer of 1848 when Congress authorized a survey that would initially run from the mouth of the Columbia River to Monterey, California. The surveyors, including McArthur, were dispatched west in January 1849. But a combination of incompetence, mutiny, and poor health brought poor results. So many were heading for the gold fields (the root of the mutiny) and labor so scarce that McArthur elected to winter in Hawaii. He returned in May so pessimistic that he predicted Bache would cancel the West Coast survey in six months' time.

The Survey Goes North

Instead, Bache sent a new topographic team from Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1850, led by surveyor George Davidson (1825-1911). A native of England, Davidson had apprenticed to Bache after graduating from high school in 1845. Bache believed he was ready. "Let nothing daunt you," he wrote the youth, "Be determined to work hard to succeed and you will succeed" (Morrison, 7).

Meanwhile McArthur went north in command of the topsail schooner Ewing, unaware that help was on the way. One of 803 naval officers who served as assistants through end of the nineteenth century, McArthur was ordered to make a preliminary reconnaissance of the coast and survey the mouth of the Columbia. Bache sought "immediately useful" information "taking up first the parts necessary for the establishment of light-houses, beacons, buoys and other aids to navigation and using methods of the survey" to accumulate permanent marks that could be updated in ensuing years (1850 Annual Report, 52).

McArthur's posthumous report from the Northwest set the tone of all that follow, offering a glimpse of people and places and an economic potential that would birth a new territory three years later. En route, he recorded the effects of weather and seasons: Fog was prevalent in August and September, impeding and endangering safe navigation. Sailing vessels should stand at least 300 miles from land, March through October, so they would be beyond the influence of southerly currents. Just the opposite would be required in winter. Steamers, however, could engage in point-to-point navigation, 15 miles from shore in all seasons.

For navigational aids, the report recommended that a fire-proof, 40-foot light tower be erected at the summit of Cape Disappointment (also called Cape Hancock), more than 280 feet up from the shoreline on the north side of the mouth of the Columbia River and accessible by a 1,000-foot trail from Baker's Bay. The light should be visible from nine leagues at sea from any direction, as well as across the river mouth. Twelve "can buoys" were suggested for the Columbia's south channel (1850 Annual Report, 123).

First Reconnaissance of Puget Sound

Leaving his colleague Lieutenant Washington Bartlett (1816-1865) with the Ewing to see to details on the Columbia, McArthur boarded the steamer Carolina for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From there his reconnaissance took him through Admiralty Inlet to Puget Sound and Hood Canal, followed by an overland journey to the Cowlitz River and a reunion with Bartlett a month later.

McArthur's primary recommendation from this part of the coast was for a light on Tatoosh Island off Cape Flattery at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which would allow vessels to enter the strait at night "when the absence of a light would would frequently compel them to remain at sea until day light" (1850 Annual Report, 127). Commercial traffic, he noted, had increased not only on the Columbia, but also on Puget Sound, where "lumber has become an extensive article of export; and it is quite probable that there is no country on the face of the globe where it is so abundant, so good and so convenient" (1850 Annual Report, 127).

So "convenient" that McArthur urged the government to take steps to prevent "poaching" of timber from the shoreline by ships of all types, including those flying foreign flags. On one occasion revenue authorities asked for his assistance at Nisqually, where he "took possession of the 'Ship Albion' seized by the collector of the district ... for a most flagrant violation of the revenue laws and also for committing depredations on our timber" (Lewis McArthur). This was the first, and by no means the last, instance a naval assistant departed from his primary duty to enforce the law on the frontier.

Returning to the mouth of the Columbia by canoe, McArthur reflected on the agricultural bounty and "splendid grazing country" he witnessed at both Fort Victoria and Fort Nisqually, including the shearing of more than 10,000 sheep at the latter post, and he enthused "The wilderness is now in its incipient smile. In a few years it will increase to a broad grin" (Lewis McArthur).

McArthur returned to San Francisco on August 30 with a sheaf of data that would lay the groundwork for ensuing seasons north of the Columbia, in addition to 40 distinct reference points along the coast from San Francisco to Cape Disappointment. He learned that Davidson had arrived and had recommenced the topographic survey in southern California, and that he was to head east to commission and bring west the steamer Jefferson. But his partnership with Davidson in the West Coast survey was not to be. In December 1850 McArthur died of dysentery en route to Panama.

McArthur was mourned, but his death was only a temporary setback. Early in 1851 Bache dispatched another naval assistant with a pedigree for exploration and chart-making to head the hydrographic survey: James Alden Jr. (1810-1877), a veteran of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and a direct descent of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Mayflower fame.

Filling In the Details

Alden arrived in San Francisco in May 1851, met Davidson, and took command of the Ewing, which after two months he found unsuitable for inshore work. With the Jefferson overdue, he leased the steamer Quickstep and headed south to complete the reconnaissance, while Davidson went north to flesh out McArthur's work on the Columbia.

Landing in June at the mouth of the river, Davidson's crew erected an observatory atop the hill on Cape Disappointment identified the year before by Bartlett. It was no easy task. To follow Bache's "method of the survey" meant, at each point along the coast, hauling more than 300 pounds of equipment from the beach to a prominent location. To verify latitude and longitude, and create an overhead (or "satellite") image, required celestial observation by zenith telescope reconciled by chronometer to Greenwich, England. All subsequent work -- connecting the dots, as it were -- was based on this finding, including shape of terrain (topography), depths and hazards on sea floor (hydrography), and distances between points of the coastline (triangulation).

Triangulation could be especially challenging, especially in fog, heavy rain, or wildfire smoke. Signal towers erected on shorelines miles apart served as points for a pattern of triangles emanating from a mathematically precise baseline, usually two miles in length. Sometimes those employing telescopes, called theodolites, had to wait for days for fog or smoke to lift before measuring the angles between the points and creating new baselines. Davidson waited 30 days on smoke that season, and then discovered Bartlett's readings were in error. Eventually, 90 such triangulation points were established from the river mouth to the gorge.

As with McArthur before and Alden to follow, Davidson recorded all he saw and readily transcribed the records of other federal officials, including customs collectors. He was especially impressed by the accelerating volume of shipping crossing the bar since McArthur's visit the year before: More than 160 vessels had called totaling 80,000 tons, 144 of them sailing ships that, thanks to the newly surveyed and marked South Channel, came and went "without a solitary accident or loss of one dollar to owners or insurers by the passage of the bar. It is very doubtful whether the commercial statistics of any other port of equal commerce can show such an exhibit" (1852 Annual Report, 108).

Davidson and Alden Together

Davidson and Alden came to the Pacific Northwest together for the first time in July of 1852 aboard the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Active with Alden in command. Over the winter Bache had authorized purchase of the 172-foot, 432-ton side-wheel steamer after learning that the Jefferson had been wrecked off Uruguay.

Tensions already were simmering between the two men, most of it having to do with chain of command, transportation, and assignation of credit on published charts. Davidson would come to deeply resent Alden's readiness to employ the steamer as a naval rather than a survey vessel. Nonetheless, they approached their work as professionals, the naval officer doing the hydrographic survey based upon data gathered by Davidson's shore stations, Davidson blazing new trails in at-times-hazardous conditions.

One such occasion was when Alden dropped the surveyors at Neah Bay, at the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula just inside the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, en route to Vancouver Island for a call at Victoria and to get coal at Nanaimo. Davidson and the team ventured out to Tatoosh Island where, Davidson wrote, "The only means of conveyance I could furnish was two small canoes, which were forced to land on the rocks and rocky points" (1852 Annual Report, 102).

Davidson also had to be vigilant in dealing with local populations, including the Makah Tribe, whose homelands encompassed the area Davidson was surveying. According to his report, the Indians' "knowledge that we were always prepared to for any attack, without a doubt, prevented one. We built a breastwork, and could fire sixty loads without reloading. Guard was kept six hours each night" (1852 Annual Report, 102). Davidson eventually called a meeting with the Makah and for once was pleased to be accompanied by Alden's armed force. After being assured that the United States had no designs on their territory, the Makah pledged to leave the surveyors alone.

The balance of the 1852 season involved cruising the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which included establishing observation points at Port Angeles and Port Townsend and evaluating a lighthouse site at New Dungeness (near present-day Sequim). Alden also accomplished a preliminary hydrographic survey of Shoalwater (later Willapa) Bay on the Pacific coastline before picking up Davidson and crew at Neah Bay for the trip south.

By the time the Active returned north in 1853, Davidson and Alden had refined their working rhythm, taking advantage of the steamer's freedom from the wind to trace the coastline. The Active would run as close to shore as possible at low speed, the course taken by compass and the distances by patent log. The ship would anchor each day in the afternoon, whereupon the crew would lug the observatory to the station point. In this fashion time and latitude were logged every 40 miles.

Of this process, which he called measuring "course and distances," Davidson wrote, "This gave a good chart of the coast, and a lot of primary surveys of small harbors, all of which were promptly published" (King, 295). While Davidson was on the bluffs, Alden would dispatch longboats to take soundings with rope and weight keyed to signal towers ashore that were connected, in turn, by Davidson's celestial observations. A sextant captured the sounding location while a three-armed protractor marked the points on a map.

But Alden did not hesitate to abandon the survey to respond to maritime emergencies or provide a naval presence when needed. In early September he left Davidson after an Indian murdered a white man at New Dungeness. The Active anchored opposite the village and ran out her deck gun while Alden, in full dress uniform, entered the village and demanded the murderer. The Indians delivered the suspect, who was taken to Fort Steilacoom. Alden believed he was doing what came naturally as a naval officer and the only armed federal authority north of Fort Steilacoom, more than 80 miles away. However, Davidson continued to take a dim view of being stranded ashore while his colleague went "fishing for hazards."

Davidson and Alden Apart

This compelled Davidson in 1854 to acquire his own vessel, the brig R.H. Fauntleroy, which resulted in remarkable productivity until his departure from the northern survey in 1857. Prime baselines were established at Port Townsend and Lummi Island, while hundreds of survey locations and signals were established and thousands of measurements taken. Both crews also identified currents, took note of prevailing winds, and arrived at practical and immediate solutions to navigational hazards. One pertained to hidden rocks and shoals: "Where such exist there is sure to be kelp upon and about them unless torn away by very heavy weather. The deduction is short -- always avoid the kelp" (King, 296).They also pointed out a way to safely round Cape Flattery: "Vessels coming into the straits from sea should at first hold well to the Vancouver side, and thus avoid Duncan's rock and Tatoosh island if the wind fails, as there is generally a very short, heavy swell coming in, and vessels passing between the two incur much risk" (1855 Annual Report, 178).

Alden, meanwhile, continued to conduct his hydrographic survey each season through 1859, based on Davidson's readings, from the 49th parallel to Olympia, throughout the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Georgia. This included Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, which was the principle source of bituminous coal for steamers from all nations calling up the Strait of Juan d Fuca. Coal also was being mined on Bellingham Bay, but was found inadequate to power steamships. Periodically, the Active would either make direct contact or send a canoe with a survey officer many miles to retrieve Davidson's data. The steamer's crew also supported the operations of Lieutenant William Trowbridge (1828-1892), Superintendent of the Tides, who installed a self-registering gauge at Port Townsend in July 1855. It was one of three such instruments brought to the West Coast shortly after their invention in 1853, the others positioned in San Diego and San Francisco Bay.

Taken together, Davidson's and Alden's summations of navigation were complementary, each proposing the same locations for lighthouses -- each, for example urged lights be established at Smith (also called Blunt's) and Tatoosh islands, along with Point Wilson and Point Adams -- and both were taken with the potential for regular steam navigation between Olympia and Victoria.

They also, in separate reports, commented on the growing economy on the sound. Davidson wrote, "I was able observe the facilities which it offers for steamboat navigation. These will certainly be called for as population advances. The trade is already very considerable, a number of saw-mills giving freight for a large carrying trade to San Francisco, the Sandwich islands, and Australia," and he noted that shipping from the Port Gamble mill alone "coastwise and foreign, is greater than all other places on the Inlet and Sound combined" (1856 Annual Report, 178). Alden was less sanguine about the industry. In an appendix to Bache's 1856 report, Alden attached a glowing economic report of the territory from H. A. Goldsborough that included the combined board feet shipped from all 16 mills on the sound, plus the 30,000 gallons of whale oil produced by the Makah. But Alden also pointed out that while the mills were shipping timber the surrounding communities were sparse and labor was becoming a problem because of the gold strike at Fort Colville.

Coast Survey and the Indian War of 1855-1856

By 1855 the growing unrest of many Indians around the region in the wake of Isaac Stevens's treaties also found its way into reports of the surveyors. Davidson wrote, "The 'Indian War' has not yet stopped our work; the principal part of it doubtless exists in the paper. Some few atrocities have been committed, but the 'poor Indian' is more sinned against than sinning" (King, 298-299).Nonetheless, he requisitioned two brass cannon, muskets, and Colt revolvers from the navy and was given boarding pikes. He did not have the money to buy his own two cannon, price tag $1,200.

Alden expressed similar sentiments to Bache: "I have nothing more to communicate in regard to my movements, having been principally employed in passing up & down the Sound visiting the settlements & the different 'reserves' where there are some four or five thousand friendly Indians, but who require a great deal of care & looking after to keep them quiet" (Alden to Bache, January 22, 1855).

The Active assumed a primary role in military affairs when, in late November 1855, Captain William Mervine (1791-1868), commodore of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron based in San Francisco, accepted Alden's offer to come to the aid of the settlements on Puget Sound. Fighting between various Indian tribes and American settlers broke out around Washington Territory in October and the sloop of war USS Decatur had already been dispatched to deal with that threat in addition to incursions by Indians raiding south from Russian America. But even Mervine knew that sailing warships were inadequate on inland waterways -- a point Alden pressed home in a pre-departure missive to Bache:

"I am satisfied that this vessel is more capable of affording aid and comfort to our citizens by moving with celerity from one point to another, than two or three Sloops of War without the aid of steam, in such warfare. I think the Active can hardly be equaled by any vessel of her size ... I trust that if action & energy will accomplish anything, you will never have cause to regret our participation in this affair" (Alden to Bache, December 3, 1855).

The Active departed San Francisco on December 9, 1855, and following a stop for coal in Nanaimo anchored beside the Decatur on Christmas Day. As Mervine had feared, the sloop had run aground across the sound and had to be towed to Seattle, where she had tied up and run out her guns in expectation of attack. The Active replenished her stores with 40 muskets and 4,000 cartridges, 40 cavalry pistols and 2,000 cartridges, 50 infantry cartridge boxes and plates, 50 waist belts and plates, plus 50 cap boxes and picks.

From there on out the Active served as a dispatch ship, running between Fort Steilacoom, Olympia, and Seattle carrying men, supplies, ammunition, and on two occasions the territorial governor Isaac Stevens, the former assistant superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey and an old friend of Alden's. Following the January 26, 1856, attack on the fledgling settlement of Seattle, Alden also provided two officers and 15 sailors and a field piece to guard against a second attack, which never came. The ship also patrolled the sound and straits to guard against northern Indian incursions.

By the end of March 1856, the Active had completed her military assistance and with the steamer USS Massachusetts standing sentinel in the sound, returned to San Francisco -- but not before attempting (and failing) to tow the grounded Massachusetts off Sandy Point.

Survey Continues

Both Davidson and Alden were to return to the East Coast in 1857, Alden to escort home his wife, who had accompanied him during selected survey trips, Davidson to restore his fragile health and write his landmark "Directory for the Pacific Coast of the United States." This detailed navigational aid of the entire coast, including rivers and harbors, was the fruit of the labors of Davidson, Alden, and their crews and all who came before. It was published as an addendum to Bache's 1858 annual report, though the work of the survey was hardly complete.

The survey of Washington Territory would continue at land and sea through 1861, Alden returning west in June 1858 in time to enfold the Coast Survey work into the bi-national Northwest Boundary Survey, finally approved by Congress in 1857 in an attempt to settle the San Juan Boundary Dispute and to survey the 49th parallel to the Rocky Mountains. Alden primarily worked what was then called "Washington Sound" with assistant James S. Lawson.

Alden returned again in 1859, in time to abandon the survey once more, this time to respond to the Pig War crisis on San Juan Island, throughout which the Active again served as a dispatch ship. Alden even tried his hand at diplomacy, without official sanction, with Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas (1803-1877) and Royal Navy officers, all of whom he knew well from five seasons of calling at Victoria. Alden was successful only in convincing the British that U.S. Army Captain George E. Pickett (1825-1875) would fire on British troops attempting to land on the island. In the end not a shot was fired. But this had more to do with the forbearance of the British officials than any American overture.

The outbreak of the American Civil War ended the first major survey work in Washington Territory. A similar massive effort would not recommence until 1889. But the legacy of McArthur, Davidson, and Alden remains tangible to the present day in place names -- Active Pass, Davidson Rock, the Fauntleroy ferry landing and three peaks in the Olympic Mountains -- and in the safe passages assured by their untiring work and that of those who followed in their wake.


James Alden to Alexander Bache, December 3, 1855, Roll 125, p. 68, MF642, RG23, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; James Alden to Alexander Bache, January 22, 1855, Roll 149, p. 16, MF642, RG23, National Archives; Ship's Records, Vol. 1, E-102, RG23, National Archives; Letters Regarding San Juan Island, E-191, RG 76, National Archives; Report of the Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey Showing the Progress of the Work (Annual Reports), for the years 1850-1859, copies available at "U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Reports," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website accessed April 12, 2016 (http://www.lib.noaa.gov/collections/imgdocmaps/cgs_annual_reports.html); Albert E. Theberge, The Coast Survey 1807-1867: Volume I of the History of the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2001, copy available at NOAA website accessed April 12, 2016 (http://www.lib.noaa.gov/noaainfo/heritage/coastsurveyvol1/CONTENTS.html); Lewis A. McArthur, "Pacific Coast Survey of 1849 and 1850" (Portland, Oregon: 1915), copy available at NOAA website accessed April 12, 2016 (http://www.moc.noaa.gov/ar/pacific_survey.pdf); James S. Lawson, Autobiography of James S. Lawson, copy available at NOAA website accessed April 12, 2016 (http://www.history.noaa.gov/stories_tales/jlawson.html); Philip C. Johnson Jr., "On Board U.S.S. Active," typescript dated October 4, 1934, Washington State Historical Society; James P. Delgado, To California by Sea: A Maritime History of the California Gold Rush (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 17, 47-48, 161; John Haskell Kemble, The Panama Route, 1848-1869 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 118-121, 138; Arnold S. Lott, A Long Line of Ships: Mare Island's Century of Naval Activity in California (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1954), 17-35; Lorraine McConaghy, Warship under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 145-149; Taylor Morrison, The Coast Mappers (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 7-15; Franz Stenzel, James Madison Alden: Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast, 1854-1860 (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1975), 4, 12, 14-15, 17-18, 20, 24, 27-30, 32, 39, 53; Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest and University of Washington, [1999] 2013), 117-118; Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Review of the Growth and Development of the Maritime Industry, from the Advent of the Earliest Navigators to the Present Time, with Sketches and Portraits of a Number of Well Known Marine Men ed. by E. W. Wright (New York: Antiquarian Press, Ltd., 1961), 31; William F. King, "George Davidson and the Marine Survey in the Pacific Northwest," Western Historical Quarterly, July 1979, pp. 284-301; Albert E. Theberge Jr., "Coast Surveyors of the Pioneer Coast," Mains'l Haul: A Journal of Pacific Maritime History, Vol. 42, Nos. 2 and 3 (Spring/Summer 2006), pp. 8-17.

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