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Historic Northwest book collection up for auction

A view of Mount Rainier included in George Vancouver's account of exploration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most knew him as a publisher or chief executive of regional newspapers (The Bellevue Journal-American; the Longview Daily News; the Port Angeles Daily News) and magazines (“Washington Magazine,” “Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History”).

Others knew John McClelland as the author of a handful of books: Wobbly War: The Story of Centralia, a history of the conflict involving International Workers of the World; R. A. Long’s Planned City: The Story of Longview; and Cowlitz Corridor: Historical River Highway of the Pacific Northwest, among others.

McClelland was also well known by those associated with organizations — about 30 of them — for which he served as a director. Among them were the Northwest Kidney Center, the advisory board of the Associated Press, Washington State Commission on Judicial Reform and, as chairman, the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission. Fittingly, he was also president of the Washington Historical Society for a few years.

As is evident, the Pacific Northwest was the common thread — vocational and avocational — that ran through his life. Although born in Arkansas and educated at Stanford (Class of ’37), John McClelland was a Northwesterner to the core. As such, one would expect to see a few books on his shelves concerning the history of our region.

In fact, his Denny Blaine home — built by Emil Sick, owner of Rainier Brewery — contained several hundred of them, organized in a well-appointed library akin to that found at a British university, replete with rolling ladder and an upper tier.

McClelland’s beloved collection has been moved to San Francisco where, on Thursday (Jan. 20), it will be dispersed through an auction held by PBA Galleries (online and phone bidding are available). The books document the European and American history of our region, from early Pacific explorers to overland exploration and migration to the age of the automobile.

Along with a significant collection of important maps and charts, the collection contains high spots of Northwest Americana. Chief among them is a first edition of George Vancouver’s Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World (published, 1798; low estimate: $25,000) in three volumes plus the atlas, which is often lacking.

One of Vancouver’s achievements was being the first non-Native American to explore Puget Sound. After crossing the Pacific, which can be far less than pacific, Vancouver entered the calm, hushed waters of our inland sea and set about charting its far reaches. Dropping anchor at the south tip of Bainbridge Island, he cited the “awful quiet,” indicating, perhaps, that he was unnerved by the primeval quietude of the Sound. The publication of this work for the first time announced to the outside world the existence of this place we now call home.

But, while Vancouver may be lauded as a gallant explorer, the implications of his accomplishment, which identified much of the Northwest Coast for eventual settlement by Europeans and Americans, should be considered catastrophic by the indigenous people displaced by those settlers.

Vancouver, noted for the accuracy of his charts, first visited the Northwest Coast as a lieutenant on Captain James Cook’s third voyage. An octavo copy of the first edition of that voyage is also included in the sale (1784; low estimate: $2,000). The voyage was Cook’s last as he was struck on the head and then stabbed to death while revisiting the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). The skirmish in which he was killed served to besmirch Cook’s well-deserved reputation as a conciliator between his crews and the indigenous people they encountered.

Depictions and accounts of Cook’s demise were tightly controlled by the Royal Navy; England’s valiant, intrepid hero, bewigged and wearing the pomp of a captain, being felled by mere “savages” while standing in two feet of water on the shore of Kealakekua Bay was an image that belied the projected omnipotence of the British empire.

The copy of the Voyage at hand contains the plate “The Death of Captain Cook,” which is often found to have been excised by previous owners.

Back to terra firma, McClelland’s collection contains important overland accounts that followed in the wake of maritime exploration. There’s a first edition of Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal (1801; low estimate $3,000), which documents the first cross-continent traverse, predating Lewis and Clark’s feat by 12 years.

Thereafter came the mountain men, the writings of whom compose some lots of the auction, followed by emigrants looking for promised lands under the Homestead Act. To guide them, boosters, entrepreneurs, and charlatans entered the picture, offering advice and physical guidance.

While a bit south of the purview of Northwest Americana, Lansford Hastings’ fatally flawed guide to California continues to resonate today: The Donner Party utilized his New Description of California … and the Various Routes over the Rocky Mountains (1857; low estimate: $2,000); by taking the so-called Hastings Cut-Off, a route Hastings himself had never traveled, the Donners and their party were unnecessarily delayed in reaching the Sierra Nevada, arriving late enough to meet an impassable redoubt of snow.

Notoriety can often pump up the value of an old book; Asa Shinn Mercer’s Banditti of the Plains (1894; low estimate: $2,400) is a choice example. In this case, the book’s suppression by the landowners (Mercer’s “banditti”) of Wyoming — cattlemen who imported hired guns from Texas to shoot down rustlers, settlers, and those perceived to be rustlers — has created more demand and attention than the book would have garnered otherwise. (This predictable result usually goes unnoticed by would-be book burners and book banners.)

Mercer is the man for whom the island in Lake Washington is named, the Seattle pioneer who hatched the bizarre plan to deliver a shipload of Eastern women to man-heavy Seattle, thereby marking himself as a panderer of epic proportion. After a stint as the University of Washington’s first president, Mercer moved east, landing in Cheyenne, from whence he witnessed and exposed in this book a level of collusion between cattle barons and state lawmakers – even pointing a finger at the White House – accusing them of state-sanctioned murder.

The cattlemen’s first move was to expropriate the bulk of copies printed; close down Mercer’s print shop; destroy the plates from which the book was printed, and; track down and destroy any copies that slipped through their net, as the absence of copies at the State Library of Wyoming and the Library of Congress attests. The copy in the McClelland collection, although a little beat up, escaped their desperate grasp.

Not all books in McClelland’s collection are expected to fetch four- and five-digit figures. The catalog is lousy with detracting qualifiers: “corners bumped,” “joints splitting,” “lacking map,” “stain to cloth,” etc. Indeed, the shabby condition of several important books makes estimates appear overly optimistic. To the collector for whom condition is paramount, this auction is not for him.

But nor is the auction exclusively for the well-heeled. The impecunious collector will find less valuable books bundled in lots, some listed as “Eighteen Volumes on the Nootka Sound Controversy” or “Twenty-five volumes on the Fur Trade and Trapping,” etc. Perhaps among them one can find McClelland’s own copy of Phoebe Goodell Judson’s narrative, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home. While president of the Washington Historical Society, McClelland oversaw the reprinting of that then-obscure title, adding an informed and sensitive foreword. Through McClelland’s efforts, Judson’s account — uncharacteristic in its sympathetic assessment of Native Americans and her support for women’s rights — has become a key title in the pantheon of Northwest Americana.

My first interaction with McClelland was by way of a letter wherein — characteristically — he kindly corrected my spelling of a Wobbly victim of the Centralia Massacre. In reference to the city in which he came of age, he began the letter, “I was not old enough ever to have written a letter to Mr. Long, the founder of my hometown, Longview, but I am pleased to make this salutation now.”

Upon reading that letter, I recognized at once that McClelland had a firm understanding of the region in which he lived, yet retained a curiosity that prompted continued reading of his beloved subject. That might surprise the critic of book collectors who assumes that valuable books are inert artifacts to be showcased as mere objets d’art.

Mark Wessel, co-proprietor of Pioneer Square’s bookstore Wessel and Lieberman, which in part specializes in Western Americana, recalls invitations to lunch at McClelland’s house for the chance to enjoy his library. And Crosscut’s Knute Berger, who worked under McClelland at “Washington Magazine,” was given full run of the collection for research purposes. Books, for McClelland, were living things.

The upcoming auction will disperse the collection, thereby allowing other up-and-coming collectors the opportunity to fill a gap in their growing collections. Just as the anachronism “newspaperman” will no longer apply as an appellation, so too will the McClelland collection dissipate in the four winds. As a steward and user of those books, McClelland filled the role admirably.

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