The tale of Seattle'ês founding in the 1850s has not had much in the way of new scholarship lately. Like a Colorforms playset, the mostly two-dimensional characters have acted out a Thanksgiving pageant of sorts for much of living memory — pioneers, Indians, trappers, missionaries (along with Henry Yesler and his mill) tussled for awhile, and then all magically colluded to create the city we know and love today. The oft-told story even includes the military coming to the rescue, in the form of the USS Decatur firing on the Indians during the first Battle of Seattle back in January 1856.
While previously little more than three-masted eye candy in paintings depicting that tumultuous time, the USS Decatur is the main character in the riveting new book Warship Under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific West (University of Washington Press, $34.95) by local historian and author Lorraine McConaghy. Warship Under Sail recounts the Decatur'ês exploits during several years of voyages in the Pacific, but is bound to join the most important works to examine Seattle'ês earliest history. McConaghy will read from the book and talk about her research at 7 p.m. tonight at MOHAI.
McConaghy, public historian (and a former colleague) at MOHAI had a brainstorm several years ago to find out what official records the USS Decatur generated during its visit to Puget Sound in 1855 and 1856. The materials she found in naval and other federal archives on the East Coast (logbooks, discipline records, detailed illustrations) supplied McConaghy with the goods to depict early Seattle in all its subtle complexity. In less skillful hands, this may have resulted in a 'êprocedural'ê of sorts, but McConaghy knows how to weave a fascinating — and factually correct — tale that transcends the more simplistic versions of the city'ês past.
In Warship Under Sail, a very human portrait of Seattle and its inhabitants emerges, with drunken sailors and officers (many afflicted with venereal disease) loosed on the town, scheming locals living on the dole of Decatur provisions while furnishing sailors with drink, and a Native American labor force with conflicting loyalties to employers and kin. That the city survived and thrived is even more fascinating in light of McConaghy'ês illuminating research.
Toward the end of the chapter of Warship Under Sail focused on the Decatur'ês time in Seattle (which, incidentally, would niftily adapt into a screenplay), McConaghy concludes:
'êThe Old Navy punishment records describe a place in Seattle ignored by officer memoir and settler reminiscence, where sailors and drifters shared forbidden space to shape an outlaw society that welcomed them, underscoring the economic opportunism of local residents, from respectable carpenters and pilots to disreputable purveyors of vice. ... Seattle took its place [in a] beach underworld that stretched from Chile to Alaska and included the lawless woods back of Seattle.'ê
If You Go: "Warship Under Sail: Special Presentation by Dr. Lorraine McConaghy," 7 p.m. tonight at MOHAI, 2700 24th Ave. E. Admission: $7 general public; free with advance registration for MOHAI members.