American customs inspector seizes the British ship Albion, whose crew is cutting timber at Discovery Bay, on April 22, 1850.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/06/2003
  • Essay 5181

On April 22, 1850, newly appointed American customs inspector Eben May Dorr seizes the British ship Albion, which is anchored in Discovery Bay at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in what is now Jefferson County. The crew of the Albion, with the help of Clallam Indians who live in the area, has spent four months laboriously harvesting 18 massive trees to sell to the British Royal Navy as ships’ spars. Announcing the British have violated revenue laws, Dorr has the Albion taken under armed guard to Steilacoom, where it is sold at auction for fraction of its value.

The story of the Albion’s foiled timber harvest is told by noted Washington author Murray Morgan (1916-2000) in The Last Wilderness, his history of the Olympic Peninsula. The 18 trees cut on Discovery Bay represented the first efforts at commercial logging on the Peninsula, marking the beginning of an industry that would dominate the region for years to come. The venture was the brainchild of British Captain William Brotchie. In the 1840s, Capt. Brotchie commanded the Beaver, the first steam ship in the Northwest, which the Hudson’s Bay Company used to deliver supplies to its post at Nisqually in present day Pierce County. As he sailed past the heavily forested shores of Puget Sound, Brotchie, like other ship captains before him, marveled that the huge fir, hemlock, cedar, and spruce trees, which often rose straight and branchless for 100 feet or more, would make ideal spars, or masts, for sailing ships.

When the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company cut back its presence in Puget Sound following the 1846 boundary treaty that gave the area to the United States, Brotchie returned to England with a proposal to supply spars to the British Royal Navy from the forests of the Northwest. In 1848, he sailed back to the Olympic Peninsula as supercargo on the Albion, commanded by Captain Richard O. Hinderwell.

At Discovery Bay, Brotchie and Hinderwell gave the Clallam leader called by the whites "King George" an assortment of trade goods, including clothing, tobacco, knives, files, fishhooks, and needles, in return for permission to work in the woods, and the assistance of many Clallam workers. Ship’s carpenter William Bolton directed the effort to cut the massive trees, whose size and toughness were unlike anything he had experienced before. Even though Bolton did not take the largest trees, the 70 to 90 foot logs he did select took 100 or more men to move painstakingly through the forest once the process of felling, squaring the boles, and removing the branches had been completed. It took four months to cut and prepare 18 trees, but by April 22, 1850, 17 of the 18 spars had been loaded on the Albion.

However, that morning, Eben May Dorr appeared in a small boat with six American soldiers from Fort Steilacoom, located up Puget Sound in present day Pierce County . Dorr was the customs inspector for the Oregon Territory (which at that time encompassed the future state of Washington). Although Congress had not created the customs post until January 1850, after the Albion had reached Discovery Bay, and Dorr had not assumed office until March, he announced that the British ship had violated the revenue laws by failing to register its entry into U.S. territory, and was engaged in illegal trade.

The Albion, under armed guard, was sent to Steilacoom. Following a libel action in the federal district court for Oregon Territory in Clark County, the ship and cargo, which Capt. Hinderwell estimated to be worth $50,000, were sold at auction for only $1,450. The outcome of the proceeding was likely influenced by the strained relations between Britain and the U.S. in the Northwest at the time, as well as the interest of influential settlers in buying the ship at auction.

After celebrating their windfall "by breaking open the ship’s stores and treating the little town [of Steilacoom] to a brandy and champagne drunk" (Morgan, 33), the winning bidders loaded food supplies on board and sent the Albion to San Francisco. The lumber and food commanded good prices in the gold rush boom, but there was already such a surplus of ships in San Francisco harbor that the Albion was sold as junk and sunk as fill along the San Francisco waterfront before the British owners could pay a fine to redeem her.

Morgan does not record what became of the Albion’s crew. However, another historian reports that three crew members, including ship’s carpenter Bolton, ended up living near Nisqually, where they cut timber, and Bolton started a shipyard.


Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 30-33; Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington (New York: The Century History Company, 1909), Vol. 2, 447-48.

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