Archive | March, 2013

The View From My Window

4 Mar

About ten P.M., the night of August 30, 1890, after stopping at Hoodsport, the steamship from Seattle rounded Bald Point, on the Tahuya Peninsula, on its way to Union City (now Union), and, in the dark, stopped to lower the ship’s dinghy to allow the ship’s mate and several African American homesteaders to climb down into the smaller boat. Moments later, the small boat capsized, and two of the men drowned.

Did the crew and passengers hear the cries of the men in the small boat? Did they attempt to offer aid? Or did they, knowingly or unknowingly, continue on  to Union?

I don’t think anyone is alive, now, who knows, but many people have speculated about it.  One of those is my friend, Dianne Robinson, the primary African American historian in Kitsap County since the 1960’s, who told me her version of the drowning incident. She had read, as I had, that, the day after the drowning, there was a coroner’s inquest to determine if foul play were involved. The coroner, interestingly enough, was a passenger on that very steamshipwhen the crew lowered the men into the dinghy.  It would be very helpful to be able to see those records, but, alas, it seems that they have been lost. At least they are not in the Southwest Archives in Olympia, and I cannot find anyone in Shelton who has seen them, or who knows anything about their whereabouts. The coroner, also, kept a journal, however, and the Mason County Historical Society Museum has a typed copy of its contents. The entries for that time do, at least, make mention of the inquest. 

This matter has interested me, now, for about fifteen years–ever since Mrs. Robinson first mentioned it. In my five years at the Carriage House, in Union, I looked out at Bald Point every day, and, at night, in the darkness, I imagined that ship, coming around the point, in pouring rain, very likely, and wind. I have not been out there in any weather, in a vessel of any  size. I haven’t even gone swimming there, as my landlady informed me that the ground was too unstable to walk on. I do know, though, that it is a powerful tide that comes in around that point–comes in fast, considering how wide open that area is now,  but seems to go out more slowly, like a bathtub emptying. I have seen how, when the tide is full, and when it is as far out as it can go, it is almost perfectly still.

I have watched this tide every day, in every season, for about five years, thinking about these men–the two who drowned, the rest who did not, and have tried to learn what led to that incident, and what followed it. Who were these people, in this small boat, whose lives were changed in these few moments? Where did they come from? How did they happen to know each other? What did they hope to find, on the Tahuya Peninsula?  What were their lives like–before?  Had they been in the area long? Or was this their first trip? Did they have families somewhere nearby–or across the country somewhere? Farther than that? What brought them to Washington Territory–or Washington State–in the first place? 

I wished–and wish–that I had unlimited resources, so that I could go back and forth across the country whenever I found a clue, or a new possibility, that might shed light on their lives–and their deaths–not just on the way their lives unfolded, but on the meaning  their lives had for them.

I began researching this incident in about 1998, when Mrs. Robinson first told me about it. I lived on the Tahuya Peninsula, at the time, in a small cabin at Collins Lake. I learned that at Maggie Lake, the next lake down the road, there had been another African American pioneer, Rodney White. I spoke with the current owners of that property, and they walked me around their yard, pointing out some of the dark wood from Mr. White’s time there. I learned that Mr. White also had property down on the Tahuya River, and that he walked up and down that steep hill from one property to the other. I learned that he had built a road from that area to Dewatto–and that he had two mules, Babe and Baltimore, who helped him in his work. The author of the second Tahuya history volume showed me pictures of Mr. White–a tall man, standing alone, on his farmland. I learned that Mr. White died in Seattle. Eventually, I found where he was buried.

 Mrs. Robinson and I did an African American History display at the Timberland Library, in Belfair, for Black History Month, that first year–she posting photos and articles about some of the people she was researching in Kitsap County, I, posting what I was learning from census reports for Mason County,from local histories,  and from  a little booklet called Mining the North Fork Skokomish. 

I learned that there had been African American miners in this area, searching, as so many oithers had searched,  for gold, and silver and  manganese, and copper–who came from Seattle every May, got mules in Hoodsport, back along Finch Creek somewhere, loaded them up with supplies, and opened up the trail above Staircase. I learned that they stayed up there, at what I now refer to as their base camp, six miles above Staircase. I learned that this place is still listed as “Darky Mine” on maps of the area–not a name that those African American miners gave it when they registered their claim. To them, it was “The Smith Keller Mine.”   I have hiked up there several times, now, and know that the trail used to go right by the mine, far up the hill from the present trail, which follows the river from there up to Camp Pleasant. I interviewed  a woman who, as a child, rode her own horse in a group led by her uncle, and they stopped for a moment next to the cabin at the Smith Keller Mine to say a friendly hello. This little girl, with her horse, was at the end of the line of horses; her uncle at the beginning, so she could not hear the conversation, but she could see the two African American men speaking to her uncle from inside the cabin. I have sat on the  foundation of that cabin, now almost covered with weeds, and have examined and photographed the mining equipment left behind from those years before I was born, and have listened to the sound of the waterfall farther up the hill, have stood in the cavern those men dug out of solid rock, and have lain flat on the ground on the other side of the stream, peering into the dark hole with a flashlight, wondering how far down that hole might go. Unbelievably tall trees fill that hillside now, and there is no path down to the trail. The best way up is the dry  stream bed, on layers of unstable shale that clatters in the silence with every footstep.

I have been farther than that–twenty-six miles, round trip, up to First Divide, somewhere near the highest mining claim–perhaps up the way trail not far from the pond up there, where the wildlife come to drink in the morning, and the evening.

I know these miners  came year after year, and left in October, to go back to their families, and their jobs,  in  Seattle. I know where they lived in Seattle, and who their families were, and where they were born, and, in some cases, how they happened to come to this area.  I know when they died, and , in some cases, where they are buried. I know that two of the miners are buried with their friend, Rodney White, the farmer from Tahuya, at the top of Queen Anne Hill.

I have never met any living relatives of any of these people, though, several times, I have come close. 

A few years ago, I received an e-mail from a hiker, and a photo of a tree with three names carved on it. “Do you know any of these names?” the hiker asked. He had learned of my work from the National Park Service in Port Angeles. “Yes,” I said. “I know two of them. Where IS this tree?”  It is six miles above the trailhead near the East Fork Quinault. The date carved below the names is September, 1904. The carving faces east. This, we both think, means that Smith Keller and two of his friends, hiked across the Olympics from the Hoodsport side, and came out a little more than six miles east of Lake Quinault. It’s a trip I’d very much like to take myself. It looks like they would have been the first African Americans to cross the mountains. I would like to be able to say that I forded the East Fork Quinault and stood where they stood to write their names there, almost one hundred ten years ago.

After fourteen years of research, I have decided that it is time to write my version of the  story of these men’s lives. Doing the research for it has been a peaceful, quiet, solitary, meditative kind of quest–always searching, always learning, but never having an opportunity to meet their descendants, much less to see them in person or hear their voices, or share with them what I have learned, or ask questions that only the persons themselves, or their family members or close friends, could answer. In only a couple instances have I even seen photographs of them. I have simply made this quest part of my life, absorbing everything I can absorb–just for the purpose of taking their lives and their consciousness seriously–to honor their existence, and their effort to make a life for themselves that mattered, that felt like a life, and not just something to endure, not just an ordeal. Of course, I was not part of their lives, but they have become part of mine. I have come here year after year, as they did. I have hiked up the North Fork Skokomish, as they did. I know what it looks like up there, have worked where they worked, rested near where they rested, awakened to the same wind and rain and fog and mist. The same woodland birds have sung for me. The same sun has risen and set. The same peace and stillness have wrapped themselves around my spirit. When every May arrives, I, too, long to gather my gear, and head for the North Fork Skokomish once again. For me, just another fellow traveler, there is a kind of healing in it, a kind of affirmation, that silent communion and and consciousness make us one. Long after everyone knew that there would never be gold or silver in those hills, they made these trips their life’s work. Did they find what they wanted? Did they breathe freely up there?  Did it seem like home to them? It is my hope that it did.