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‘There’s fish in them thar waters!’

Tribal fisherman setting nets at the mouth of the Klamath River. Credit: Credit: goingslo/Flickr

Editor's Note: This is part of our "Thanks for all the fish" series, which looks into the billion-dollar commercial fishing industry that has defined and sustained our fair city since its founding. 

Today, we take it for granted that Seattle is homeport to a large Alaska fishing fleet and a related multi-billion dollar fish and maritime industry. TV shows like the Discovery Channel’s "Deadliest Catch" have made people more aware of what goes on in the Northern Pacific and the lucrative dangers of the Bering Sea fishery. But that industry wouldn't have happened for us Americans if it weren't for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 — and that transaction might not have occurred without a nudge from Washington's own pioneers. It is little remembered today, but Seward's Folly, as the Alaska annexation was called, happened when it did in part because of a prod from the legislature in Olympia. Yes, sometimes they get it right.

Let's dial back to the mid-19th century when the Pacific Northwest was being settled. Pioneers fed on an abundance of local fish–salmon in particular — and seafaring Native Americans had been fishing and whaling our rich waters for generations. There was little incentive to go far afield for fish, and few major markets to sell to if you did. New England whalers plied the waters of the North Pacific, and reports filtered back that the Bering Sea and environs might make good fishing grounds, too. Russian explorers as far back as 1765 had noticed lots of cod and other fish up there — so too other 18th century voyagers such as Captain James Cook, who reported his crew catching abundant cod and a 250-pound halibut. Could the waters off Alaska be the Grand Banks of the Pacific?

The first indication of that didn't start to hit home until the mid-19th century when San Francisco-based fishing vessels began venturing as far as Russia's Okhotsk Sea, north of Japan and south of the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was a popular whaling ground, but a few venturesome U.S. ships started to return with holds full of fish. In 1865, the Seattle Weekly Gazette carried a San Francisco Call report that two years previously "a single vessel wandered off to the then unknown bank, on an uncertain adventure, and in a round voyage of three months brought in a cargo of codfish which opened the eyes of some of our incredulous merchants."

Cod has been credited with being "the fish that changed the world," and if it turned out to be plentiful in the Pacific, that would be big news. In 1863, apparently the first American vessel to visit Russian Alaska waters, the Alert, returned from a trading trip to Bristol Bay with nine tons of cod in its hold. In March 1865, a San Francisco schooner set off to fish off the Shumagin Islands in the Aleutians. It sailed back with some 30 tons of cod, and more fishing expeditions followed. These events, noted in official histories, served as the scaly equivalent to the discovery of gold. West Coast boosters realized, "There's fish in them thar waters!"

The Alaska industry was slow to develop: it was remote and there good fish closer to home. Still, its potential was seized upon by an Irishman named Joseph Lane McDonald. According to a 1921 article by Victor J. Farrar in Washington Historical Quarterly, McDonald was an unsuccessful sailor, fisherman and ship's carpenter who came west to California in the 1850s looking for commercial fishing and other opportunities. He eventually traveled north to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska and saw the possibilities before almost anyone else.

A steamer with its catch northwest of Cape Flattery. Credit: NOAA Photo Library

The problem was, there was no current treaty arrangement giving American fishermen access to Russian waters or allowing them to land there. In 1859, McDonald began pushing the James Buchanan administration for that access through political channels. He also tried partnering with Russians in Sitka to arrange for access, but failed. An ally of McDonald's was California Sen. William Gwin (the nascent Pacific fishing fleet was then based in San Francisco). Gwin was an expansionist who as early as 1852 had raised the idea of buying Alaska and had asked for a government survey of the Bering Strait. But the Civil War drew the government's attention elsewhere. In the meantime, McDonald settled in the Washington Territory and served as, among other things, a writer, trader and clerk in the territorial assembly. But his entrepreneurial dreams continued.

He proposed a steamship company and other ventures to capitalize on trade with Alaska and Asia, and he continued to press the case for American access to Russian waters. After the war, he convinced the Washington territorial legislature to write and approve a "memorial" — a formal request — to the new president to assist in getting that access. He drafted the memorial which passed the legislature January 10, 1866 and sent off to Washington, DC. It was H[ouse] J[oint] M[emorial] No. 14, Relative to Cod and Other Fisheries."

It petitioned the president, "His Excellency Andrew Johnson," to "obtain such rights and privileges of the government of Russia, as will enable our fishing vessels to visit the harbors of its possessions to the end that fuel, water and provisions may be obtained; that our sick and disabled fishermen may obtain sanitary assistance; together with the privilege of taking and curing fish and repairing vessels." The document also asked that a system of fish bounties, such as those paid to Atlantic fishermen, be instituted, and that the U.S. Navy survey the fishing banks from "the Cortez bank to the Behring [sic] Straits."

The memo hit the desk of Johnson's Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, who had long looked at the possible acquisition of Alaska from the Russians. America was in a much better position than Russia to take advantage of Alaska’s resources. And Seward now had in hand a document that offered proof of its value: Businessmen and politicians in the Washington Territory were urgently requesting action. In the era of Manifest Destiny, such things often did the trick. Seward, a sharp lawyer, knew how to make the most of the request.

Shortly after receiving the memorial in February 1866, Seward reopened communications with the Russians saying that it was now time to make some "comprehensive arrangement" regarding Alaska and negotiations began. The memorial from the Washington Territory was used to make the case for Alaska's commercial potential to skeptical members of Congress. As historian Farrar pointed out, this was all the more incredible since neither Washington nor Alaska had a commercial fishing industry at the time; it was based on McDonald's personal belief in what might be. He was a one-man lobbyist for an industry that didn't yet exist.

On April 1, 1867, the New York Times announced that a treaty with Russia had been signed to annex Alaska for $7.2 million, noting that it doubled the size of the U.S. West Coast. It also reprinted in full the Memorial from the Washington Territory. Seward credited the document with being the "foundation" of the Alaska treaty, and Washington's territorial newspapers were happy to note its signal importance.

McDonald & Co. had not asked for the purchase of Alaska, merely a means to fish its waters, which could have been accomplished with a lesser treaty arrangement. But the timely request helped instigate the push for a larger solution, one that also established the financial future of the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Seattle's rise as the dominant city in the region was — and is — tied to the slogan that ensued, "Gateway to Alaska." It turns out the modest memorial is in fact a foundational document in our state's history.

Black cod from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Credit: UW Image Bank

Add to that treasure tourism and oil, and the still flowing bounty of sustainable fish and seafood, an enormous resource that is helping to feed the planet more than a century on. A treasure land indeed.

Joseph Lane McDonald foresaw the advantages of a fleet based on Puget Sound: he anticipated that it would be accompanied by flourishing shipyards, outfitters and fish packing facilities. He touted the Native American and growing Chinese populations as an asset for labor and experienced crews. He anticipated the coming of the railroads as opening new markets for Pacific fish–cod, herring, halibut, salmon–and believed that the Pacific fishing industry could outstrip its Atlantic counterpart and provide "imperishable riches."

The perfect place to ponder the impact is Seattle's Fisherman's Terminal, not a piece of history but home to a living, breathing fishing industry and all that comes with it. Here work the folks who can claim the true legacy of that failed fisherman McDonald, the man who set it all in motion with a vision — and a petition — that helped bring about a "folly" that was anything but.

Coming soon: Daniel Jack Chasan looks at sustainability. To read the entire series, click here.

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