Swantown, Budd Inlet

Swantown, Budd Inlet

by | Jan 2, 2022

Swantown is a historical area of the Washington State capital, situated at the southernmost end of Budd Inlet in South Puget Sound, about 26 miles (42 km) southwest of Tacoma and now part of downtown Olympia, Washington. The area was named after John M. Swan, an early pioneer of Olympia who immigrated from Scotland in 1850. Budd Inlet is presently about 7 miles (11 km) long and 1 mile (1.6 km) wide at the entrance near Boston Harbor, and about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide near the middle. The head of the inlet splits into the East and West Bays and a peninsula in between is occupied mostly by the Port of Olympia. Inlet depths range from 100 feet (30 m) in the north to extensive mudflats in the south. The mean tide range is 14.6 feet (4.5 m) and spring tides can exceed 18 feet (5.5 m). West Bay is an estuary of the Deschutes River that drains a watershed of 119,040 acres (48,174 ha) over 50 miles (80 km), from an elevation of 3,870 feet (1180 m) to sea level, and historically extended south for another 2.4 miles (3.9 km) to Tumwater Falls before it was damned to create Capital Lake. The river was reputedly named by French fur traders who called it Rivière des Chutes, or ‘River of the Falls’. The present-day city of Tumwater was founded at the site of an ancient village of the Steh-chass people, and takes its name from the Chinook Jargon for ‘waterfall’. The Steh-chass people were a band of the Nisqually tribe that fished and gathered seafood along the shores of Budd Inlet for thousands of years. They lived in a permanent village of rectangular dwellings built with cedar posts and plank siding with up to 8 families living in each structure. Middens have revealed layers of seashells recording long-term habitation. The village was also where at least five tribes including the Nisqually, Squaxin, Chehalis, Suquamish, and Duwamish would gather for potlatches and to catch and preserve salmon, clams, mussels, whelks, moon snails, crabs, barnacles, oysters, and cockles. By 1776, English and Spanish explorers had sailed north along the Pacific Coast and by 1778 had ventured into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver explored the Salish Sea and sent Lieutenants Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey on extended small boat voyages in hopes of finding the mythical Strait of Anián or Northwest Passage. They mapped as far south as Eld Inlet and noted evidence of smallpox among the coastal tribes. In 1833, the British Hudson’s Bay Company established a fur trading post at Fort Nisqually about 14 miles (23 km) northeast of Steh-chass, and in 1841 the American Lieutenant Charles Wilkes arrived on the U.S. Exploring Expedition and named Budd Inlet after Lieutenant Thomas A. Budd who was acting master of the USS Peacock. Wilkes estimated the total population of South Puget Sound native villages to be about 3,000.

In 1846, the Oregon Treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States was signed and brought an end to competing American and British claims to the Oregon Country, an area that had been jointly occupied by both Britain and the U.S. since the Anglo-American Treaty of 1818. American settlers soon came to the area drawn by the potential of the waterfalls at Steh-chass to power a sawmill and established the first settlement on Puget Sound later called Tumwater. The site was the northern end of the Cowlitz Trail, the overland trail between the Cowlitz River and Puget Sound. Euro-American diseases quickly followed the early settlers and began to take a severe toll among the coastal tribes. By the time the first settlers were established, the population of South Puget Sound native villages was estimated to be around 800. In 1846, Edmund Sylvester and Levi L. Smith jointly claimed the land at the head of West Bay. Smith built a cabin and in 1848 was elected to the Oregon Territory Provisional Legislature, but had a seizure and died by drowning leaving Sylvester the sole owner of the land on which he eventually platted a townsite. In 1849, John M. Swan sailed as a passenger on the brig Recovery intending to settle on Vancouver Island, but upon arriving in Victoria he was disappointed by the local land laws, and consequently, continued to South Puget Sound. He immediately declared his intention to become an American citizen and like other early inhabitants, as an incentive to stay, he received two town lots from Edmund Sylvester. The population of Budd Inlet steadily expanded with Oregon Trail migrants and in 1850, the town was named Olympia for the view of the Olympic Mountains to the northwest. In 1851, John M. Swan filed a lands claim under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 for 317.5 acres (128.5 ha) on East Bay, which adjoined the townsite of Olympia but was separated by a tidal mudflat or slough. By 1852, a primitive wharf of 300 feet (91 m) extended over the mudflats to deep water to accommodate a fleet of small steamboats that began serving the area. In 1853, the Washington Territory was created from the portion of the Oregon Territory north of the lower Columbia River.

In 1853, U.S. President Franklin Pierce named Isaac Stevens the governor of the Washington Territory, a position that also included the title of Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Settlers who filed land claims were complaining that they could not get free title to the land because the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 had promised that no land would be taken without tribal consent. In 1854, Stevens had the Treaty of Medicine Creek signed and declared the Washington Territory open to settlers. The treaty granted 2.24 million acres (9,060,000 ha) of land to the U.S. from the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squawskin from Squaxin Island, S’Homamish, Steh-chass, T’Peeksin, Squi-aitl, and Sa-heh-wamish in exchange for the establishment of three reservations, cash payments over a period of twenty years, and recognition of traditional native fishing and hunting rights. The tribes were immediately removed to temporary camps, one of which was on Fox Island where the warden was John M. Swan. By 1859, he had cleared 30 acres (12 ha) of his land claim and was selling lots to newly arriving settlers. The development became known as Swantown and the mudflat separating it from Olympia was the Swantown Slough which was partially filled in the 1870s. By the 1880s, the wharf across the mudflats serving the Puget Sound steamers was called the ‘Long Wharf’ or ‘Gidding’s Wharf’ and was extended from 300 feet (91 m) to over 4,000 feet (1,219 m) to deepwater. In 1889, Washington achieved statehood and Olympia continued as the capital city. In 1910-1911, a major project called the Carlyon Fill after Philip H. Carlyon dredged over two million cubic yards of sediment from Budd Inlet, and then placed the fill behind bulkheads creating an artificial peninsula of almost 30 city blocks covering the historical Swantown Slough. This massive project was privately financed in part to replace the long wharf that provided the only access to deep water across the extensive tidal flat. In 1997, the name of East Bay Marina was changed to Swantown Marina and Boatworks to commemorate the old name. Read more here and here. Explore more of Swantown and Budd Inlet here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (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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