Secret: Site of state's first July 4 celebration is locked away

Some of the Declaration of Independence's signers had been dead less than 10 years when the first U.S. birthday party took place in what was to become Washington.
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A map drawn to show the site of the 1841 celebration.

Some of the Declaration of Independence's signers had been dead less than 10 years when the first U.S. birthday party took place in what was to become Washington.

Even in recent years when Seattle has amused the region with its off-again, on-again plans for fireworks, there has never been any doubt that there will be July 4 light shows up and down the Puget Sound region. But there was a time when the idea of an Independence Day commemoration was brand new to the area.  

The first time Independence Day was celebrated in what’s now Washington state — in fact, the first time it was celebrated in what’s now the western U.S. — is nearly forgotten. It happened on a patch of prairie in Pierce County near DuPont, less than a mile from what’s now Interstate 5.

It was 1841. The land that now comprises Oregon, Idaho, Washington and parts of Montana, Wyoming and even British Columbia was known as "the Oregon Country" and was home to thousands of Native Americans. Agreement had not yet been reached with the British to establish the northern US boundary at the 49th parallel, and the U.S. government’s formal establishment of Oregon Territory was still seven years away. In the interim, an 1818 agreement with the British and subsequent negotiations had created a somewhat informal joint occupation of the region.

Non-native settlement in the Oregon Country was sparse, apart from fur-trading operations at places such as Vancouver, Colville and Nisqually and Presbyterian missions near Walla Walla and Spokane.

A few years earlier, the U.S. government had launched a wide-ranging expedition to explore much of the West Coast of South America and North America. The effort was formally called the “U.S. Exploring Expedition,” but is better known as the Wilkes Expedition, in honor of its commander, Captain Charles Wilkes.

In July 1841, it was members of the Wilkes Expedition who paused for a day of patriotic revelry in the heart of the Oregon Country.  The spot they chose was near Fort Nisqually on the shores of Sequalitchew Lake.

According to the account in Wilkes’ journal (published in 1856 in a five-volume “narrative”), the celebration at Sequalitchew Lake would have been recognizable to Fourth of July celebrants in 2013. Wilkes describes a parade, a barbecue (of an ox), the firing of cannons and a “full day’s frolic and pleasure” with games and horse racing. There was even the obligatory injury caused by one of the celebratory cannon blasts, when a man named Whitehorn had his arm badly mangled.

It’s amazing to think that the Declaration of Independence was only 65 years old when the Americans of the Wilkes Expedition held what’s considered to be the first Independence Day observance in the continental states west of the Missouri River — and that the last living signer of the Declaration had been dead less than nine years when this local day of patriotic “frolic and pleasure” took place.

It’s also quaint to realize that the Wilkes’ celebration took place not on July 4 but instead on July 5, 1841. That year, July 4 fell on the Sabbath, and in those days, even the nation’s birthday had to wait an extra day out of respect for the Lord.

More than a hundred years ago, the events of 1841 at Sequalitchew Lake were memorialized with a stately granite monument (though historian Edmond S. Meany wrote in 1923 that it may have been sited in the wrong spot)..  A special event to dedicate the monument in July 1906 brought dignitaries from all over, including a Native American named Chief Koquilton who witnessed the 1841 festivities, then 65 years in the past.

You’d think the site of this seminal Independence Day would be a popular place to visit, with its special status and handy location next to I-5. And it very well might be, were it not now located within the boundaries of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).

The base was organized in the World War I era, not long after the monument was dedicated, and security changes — especially since 9/11 — mean that only those with legitimate business on base can visit this hallowed patriotic ground. The monument sits just off a busy road on the base, and is now surrounded with a white picket fence. Sequalitchew Lake is just down a short hillside, and serves as a source of drinking water for JBLM.

JBLM officials say that there are no plans in the works to ease access to the monument anytime in the near future.


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