Colonel Isaac Ebey surveys Puget Sound in the spring or summer of 1850.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 11/03/2000
  • Essay 1748

In the spring or summer of 1850, Colonel Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) conducts a reconnaissance of Puget Sound, including Elliott Bay, the Duwamish River, and Lake Washington. His glowing description inspires several early settlers to make their homes in the Puget Sound region.

Ebey, drawn to the West by the California Gold Rush, had reached San Francisco in the fall of 1849, and decided to continue north to Puget Sound. On New Year's Day, 1850, he arrived at its southern end, at the newly established town of Olympia.

Some weeks later, Ebey likely hired Indians with a canoe to paddle him around Admiralty Inlet (another name for Puget Sound) to locate a farmsite. At the time, except for small settlements near Olympia and Nisqually, Puget Sound was populated exclusively by native peoples. Ebey and his guides proceeded north from Olympia along the eastern shore of the sound. Examining the coast along the way, the crew reached a bay Ebey called "Dewams" (Elliott Bay) and entered a river of the same name (Duwamish River) and continued on to Lake Washington.

Ebey was so taken by the lake that he named it Lake Geneva because of the “beauty of the lake and the scenery surrounding it.” That name never took hold. For a time it was referred to as Lake Duwamish and ultimately as Lake Washington. Ebey estimated he traveled 20 miles up the lake “without finding its terminus.” His estimate was off since the lake was no more than 18 miles long.

Ebey's Puget Sound Journey

Ebey recounted his exploration in a letter to one of the original Olympia settlers, Michael Simmons, dated September 1, 1850. The letter was printed in the Oregon Spectator and is here excerpted:

"Olympia, Oregon Sept 1, 1850
M.T. Simmons, Esq:

"Dear Sir – In reply to your letter of inquiry, concerning the character of the land on the east side of Admiralty in-let, in regard to its adaptedness to agriculture, grazing, &c., I would say that the time I have devoted in exploring that section, is not sufficient to warrant me in giving a minute description. What I have seen is no more than an a mere outline of a great country. The filling up must be done at a future day, and by persons who have more time and leisure to devote to it than has fallen to my lot the past season.

"The Powalp [Puyallup] is the first stream of any size falling into the bay north of the Nesqually River. This stream falls into the Powalp Bay a little south and east of Vashon’s Island. This bay is beautifully situated, with abundance of good anchorage. It is surrounded, and to a considerable distance in the interior, by a body of low timbered land, covered with a growth of cedar, fir, and maple timber. This character of land continues to a considerable distance up this river. The soil will be found of first quality, with easy access to navigation. The river is rapid and of no great depth. Fine mill privileges exist here, with an abundance of good timber. Many good situations for farms are to be met with, where the removal of the timber is by no means an undertaking of serious moment. I know of no plains on this river near the bay. Where the wagon road to Walla Walla via Mt. Rainier crosses this river, about thirty miles from the bay, fine rich plains are found, with a soil that will not suffer by comparison with the best land in Oregon. Of their extent I am unacquainted.

"The next river north is the Dewams. This river falls into a bay of the same name, below Vashon’s Island, and immediately opposite Port Orchard. This bay forms a beautiful little harbor of about four miles in width, and some six miles in length. This bay, like the Powalp, is surrounded by wood land. The river, for a distance of about twenty miles, has an average width of about forty yards, with a deep channel and placid current.

"The river meanders along through rich bottom land, not heavily timbered, with here and there a beautiful plain of unrivaled fertility, peeping out through a fringe of vine maple, alder or ash, or boldly presenting a full view of their native richness and undying verdure. Other plains of more extensive character are represented as being near at hand, and of sufficient fertility to satisfy the most fastidious taste.

"At a distance of about twenty miles from the bay, the river forks – the right fork bears the name of Dewams [the future Black River]. It has its source about ten miles to the north in a large clear lake. This stream has an average width of about twenty yards. The country along its banks partakes of the same character as that lower down the river. A few miles of this stream will be found quite rapid, offering very fine opportunities for mill privileges. Sandstone, of a good quality for building materials, makes its appearance along this stream.

"The lake from whence this stream has its source is of considerable extent, surrounded principally with wood land, consisting of cedar, fir, maple, ash, oak, &c. It varies in width from one to six miles. I traveled on it to the north, a distance of more than twenty miles, without finding its terminus. The water is clear and very deep; from the beauty of the lake and the scenery surrounding it, we christened it by the name of ‘Geneva’ [renamed Lake Washington] Another lake of less extent lies about six miles east of Geneva [Lake Sammamish], and connected with it by a small stream.

"Of the left bank of the Dewams very little is known, until you get into the region of country where the wagon [road?] crosses the same. The Indians represent the character of the country above much the same as that already described.

"Where the wagon road crosses this river, plains of unrivaled fertility are found, covered with the most luxuriant growth of grass I have ever met with, a great deal of it being from three to four feet high, in which the red and white clover are found sprinkled with liberal hand.

"The tide flows up this river a distance of more than twenty miles.

"Between Geneva lake and Admiralty Inlet, there appears an extensive country of low land, that has never been examined by white men, and when examined I have no doubt will be found very valuable. The distance from the Inlet to Geneva lake in many places cannot exceed a few miles, as the Indians make portages across with their canoes....

"I have extended this communication to a much greater length than I designed, but have not given as much description as I could wish, as my time is limited.

Yours truly,
J [actually Isaac] N Ebey" (Oregon Spectator).

Ebey's Life and Death on Whidbey Island

Ebey continued exploring Puget Sound and ended by settling on Whidbey Island. His first wife, Rebecca Davis Ebey (1823-1853), and their two sons joined him there in 1851. Ebey worked at farming, as a customs official, as a lawyer, and served on the Territorial legislature. Rebecca died at the age of 30 (probably of tuberculosis) and Ebey's second wife was Emily Sconce.

In the Oregon Territorial Legislature, Ebey was a vocal advocate of a separate Washington Territory and in 1852 sponsored the statute naming King County.

On August 11, 1857, Isaac Ebey was killed and beheaded by Indians from British Columbia or Alaska (probably not Haida, as inscribed on the historical marker at Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island). These Indians were likely retaliating for the killing of 27 tribal members, including a chief, by the U.S. warship Massachusetts the previous year. It is an oral tradition of the Kake tribe of Tlingits, that the raid was led by a female relative of a chief slain in the Massachusetts incident. The oral tradition  further specifies that the female leader of the raid was a member of the Tsaagweidi clan.


Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Jimmie Jean Cook, A Particular Friend: Penn's Cove (Coupeville: Island County Historical Society, 1973); Laura Arksey, "Beheaded Pioneer," Columbia, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1988), 24-30; Victor J. Farrar, “Diary of Colonel and Mrs. I. N. Ebey,” The Washington Historical Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1916), p. 240-241; Oregon Spectator, October 17, 1850, p. 1; Michael Coppock, "Kake Tribes Take the Head of an Official," Juneau, February 29, 2008 (; Mike Jackson (leader of Kakes) phone conversation with Michael Coppock, February 2008, and blog comment to Coppock article from ELJackson, February 29 2008; Michael Coppock email to Priscilla Long, November 23, 2008, in possession of, Seattle Washington.
To further specify the circumstances of Ebey's death, this essay was updated on November 24, 2008.

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