Tatoosh Island, Cape Flattery

Tatoosh Island, Cape Flattery

by | Dec 19, 2021

Tatoosh Island is the largest of a small group of islands offshore from Cape Flattery and the site of a historical light station, situated on the Makah Reservation, about 34 miles (55 km) north of La Push and 6 miles (10 km) west-northwest of Neah Bay, Washington. Cape Flattery is the northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States and is the oldest feature named by Europeans in Washington state, being described and named by Captain James Cook on March 22, 1778, reputedly for being flattered that it led to a sheltered harbor. The Makah people are the southernmost of the Wakashan linguistic group which includes the Nuu-chah-nulth on Vancouver Island, and historically inhabited most of the cape, including Tatoosh Island for summer fish camps and where they also foraged amongst the rocky ledges for octopus, mussels, and other mollusks. The Pacific coast of the U.S. has many cliffed sections often with shore platforms exposed at low tides. The northwestern part of the Cape Flattery consists of massive sandstones and conglomerates exposed along the cliffs and on Tatoosh Island. These rocks are called Cape Flattery breccia and consist of sediments derived from a source near present-day Vancouver Island and deposited in an ancient submarine fan. This coast has been subjected to changes in land and sea level, most recently during the late Pleistocene and Holocene. There is evidence that the land was depressed during the Last Glacial Maximum, about 17,000 to 10,000 years ago, causing a relative increase in sea level, and that isostatic rebound followed deglaciation. In addition, there have been upward and downward movements of the coast due to tectonic uplift or depression along tectonic plate margins as the Juan de Fuca plate passed beneath the North America plate. Along with changes in land height relative to a constant sea level, there have also been changes in sea level relative to a constant land height, and presently a slow global sea-level rise is in progress. Tatoosh Island is about 20 acres (8 ha) situated 0.5 miles (0.8 km) off Cape Flattery and is actually a geological extension connected to the cape by rock platforms and ledges. The island rises to an elevation of about 100 feet (30 m) and is mostly treeless. It has only three areas suitable for landing boats, all hazardous and often impossible to use because of prevailing winds and tides. The island is part of the Makah Reservation and access is only with written permission.

A historical Makah summer village on Tatoosh Island had several hundred residents from March through August. They ventured out from its shores to hunt whales and other sea mammals, and to fish for salmon, halibut, and long cod. In 1774, the Spanish explorers called the island Isla de Punto de Martinez for Juan Jose Martinez, the navigator on the ship Santiago with Juan José Pérez Hernández which traversed this coast. In 1778, Captain John Meares, an Englishman engaged in the maritime fur trade, hove to off the island at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and were surrounded by canoes filled with people clothed in sea otter skins and had their faces painted with black and red ochre mixed in oil. Their canoes were large and held 20-30 men who were armed with bows and arrows barbed with bone, and with large spears pointed with mussel shells. The name of their chief was Tatooche, and Meares recorded the island as Tatooche or Tatoosh Island on his charts. These charts were later used by Captain George Vancouver and the name came into common usage. However, the name ‘Tatoosh’ may have come from To-tooch, or Tu-tutsh, the Makah name for ‘Thunderbird‘ which has a powerful mythological origin. James G. Swan, a 19th-century ethnographer who lived among the Makah for three years, recorded the Makah’s name for the island as ‘Chadi’. Swan speculated that they named the island for Tatoochatticus, a powerful northern Nuu-chah-nulth chief who, along with Maquilla and Callicum, two other powerful northern chiefs, held sway over the country in the region of the straits. In 1855, the Treaty of Neah Bay was signed by Isaac Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory, and by leaders and delegates of the Makah Tribe, and the Makah ceded all their lands to the United States except a small area on Cape Flattery that was set aside as a reservation.

In 1857, a lighthouse was built on Tatoosh Island, known as the Cape Flattery Light. It consisted of a Cape Cod-style sandstone dwelling with a kitchen, parlor, and dining room on the first floor, and the second floor had four sleeping rooms. A brick lighthouse tower rose 65 feet (20 m) from the center of the dwelling, and the structure had gutters to collect rainwater to fill a cistern since the island has no other water source. The lighthouse occupied the highest point on the island at 97 feet (30 m) above the sea. The iron lantern room at the top of the tower was at a height of 165 feet (50 m) above sea level and held the navigation beacon that consisted of a light source with a first-order Fresnel lens 10.5 feet (3.2 m) high built in Paris by Louis Sautter & Company. The beacon showed a fixed white light visible at a distance of 20 miles (32 km). Winter storms frequently threw spray high enough above the sea cliffs to coat the windows of the lighthouse with salt. In 1872, a fog signal building with a 12 inch (30 cm) steam whistle was added. In 2008, the lighthouse was decommissioned when a skeletal tower of 30 feet (9 m) was built with a solar-powered light-emitting diode. The U.S. Coast Guard removed old generators and fuel tanks in 2009 and returned the island to the Makah Tribe. The rocky ledges and platforms of Tatoosh Island are an ideal habitat for a diverse community of marine algae and invertebrates. Because of its isolation, climate, and location in the ecologically productive northeastern Pacific, it is also an ideal site for scientific research. Beginning in 1967, the University of Washington has conducted studies of marine ecology to examine how different species interact and are linked together. Robert T. Paine developed the concept of keystone species based partly on research at Tatoosh Island to explain the relationship between a species of seastar (Pisaster ochraceus), and a species of mussel (Mytilus californianus). This work has shown how environmental changes and species extinctions affect the entire food web. Read more here and here. Explore more of Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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