Seattle 1841 – aka Piner Point

Like many people interested in geology, I have had a long fascination with maps, particularly of the places I live. I find it appealing to see how people have portrayed the landscape and how that landscape has changed over time. Beginning today, I plan periodically to post a variety of maps of Seattle. I will start with a pair of maps, including the one that was the earliest to apply a formal name to the area we now call Seattle.

They maps are startling for how completely different they look from the modern city. Obviously, there is no urban infrastructure, or even any sign of humans, though we know that in the Seattle-to-be there was a well-developed Native community, with many longhouses housing several hundred people. But what stands out more to me is the look of the land and what it would take to travel across it. To get from what we call Beacon Hill to West Seattle would require a boat, unless the tide was out and then one could walk across mud flats. To leave the shoreline and go inland would require climbing steep bluffs, unless you slogged up a gully.

Those maps were produced as part of Charles Wilkes’ United States Exploring Expedition (Ex.Ex.). From 1838 to 1842, Wilkes explored the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas. The expedition reached Puget Sound in May 1841, when Wilkes had Lt. George Sinclair, sailing master of the brig Porpoise, map the area that the expedition would be the first to name as Elliott Bay. (Be patient, these are large maps that take a wee bit of time to show up.)

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Curiously, one of the unsolved aspects of the expedition is who was the eponomous Elliott of the bay: the Chaplain J.L., the Midshipman Samuel, or the First Class Boy George. Most modern sources believe it to be Samuel, as apparently J.L. had fallen into disfavor with Wilkes, a notoriously unpleasent leader.

The larger of the two Ex.Ex. maps, Chart of Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound, and Hoods Canal, Oregon Territory, depicts the land and water from Whidbey Island to Budd Inlet. Elliott Bay is shown, with Duwamish Head labled as “Pt. Rand or Moore.” At the mouth of the Duwamish River, the cartographer has written “Bare at low water.”

The second map is the more interesting one, as it is a close up of Elliott Bay. Pt. Moore is shown, as is Pt. Roberts (modern day Alki Point) and West Point, along with Quarter Master Cove and Tubor Pt., in the area we now call Smith Cove. (Henry Tubor was a seaman on the Ex.Ex.) The other long-abandoned name is Piners Point, for a small bit of land located at the modern day Pioneer Square, which makes it the first official, non-Native name for Seattle. Thomas Piner was a quartermaster for Wilkes, who described him as “a very faithful and tried seaman.” Although Piner’s name appears on no other map of Seattle, Wilkes was more successful in creating extant names with a Piner Bay in Antarctic and Point Piner on Vashon Island.

This more-detailed chart depicts Elliott Bay ringed by conifer-topped, steep-faced bluffs bisected by ravines. Piner Point looks less like a point and more like an island, or high mound, covered in shrubbery. North and northeast of the mound, and below the bluffs, the cartographer has drawn in what looks like a marsh with tufts of plants. The marsh gives way to tidal flats that run south below bluffs around to the mouth of the Duwamish, where two uvula-like bodies of land project north.

Wilkes was none too impressed with Elliott Bay noting “the great depth of water, as well as extensive mud-flats.” He concluded “I do not consider the bay a desirable anchorage.”

Apparently Wilkes’ opinion was not heeded as just a decade later, the first settlers began to arrive. In contrast to Wilkes, they were “thoroughly satisfied as to the fitness of the bay as a harbor.” I will consider a map from this era for my next Seattle map post.

These are some of the stories that work their way into my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

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