Gig Harbor is an embayment and community on the western shore of Puget Sound across from Point Defiance at the confluence of Tacoma Narrows, Dalco Passage, and Colvos Passage, about 21 miles (34 km) south-southwest of Seattle and 8.5 miles (14 km) northwest of Tacoma, Washington. Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin Tribes built their homes and villages along the harbors, bays, and shores of Puget Sound for thousands of years, sustained by the area’s rich natural resources. Prior to Euro-American settlement, Gig Harbor was called Tua’wILkel or Twa-wal-kut by the S’Homamish Tribe of Puget Salish people who spoke a form of the Lushootseed language. They were closely related to both the Nisqually and Puyallup Tribes. An ancient village was located at the head of the bay near a salmon stream. The village was reputedly founded by a band from a Puyallup Tribe based in the area of Commencement Bay. Tribal members returned regularly to the bay during the annual migrations that followed the salmon fishing, hunting, and foraging seasons. Permanent longhouses were built with high gabled roofs covered by large cedar shakes and sided with split cedar planks. The houses were often shared by several families, and with no internal partitions, families stayed within allocated sections, each maintaining their own cooking fires, storage space, and sleeping areas.
The British-Spanish Nootka Convention of 1790 ended Spanish claims of exclusivity and opened the Northwest Coast to explorers and traders from other nations, most notably Britain and Russia as well as the fledgling United States. In 1792, British explorer Captain George Vancouver anchored his ships the HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham near Seattle at Blake Island and sent small boats under the command of Lieutenant Peter Puget into the southern reaches of the sound but they did not record seeing the little embayment of Twa-wal-kut. In 1818, the Anglo-American Convention allowed for joint occupation and settlement of the Oregon Country, known to the British as the Columbia District of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1819, Spain ceded their rights north of the 42nd Parallel to the United States. With American settlers pouring into Oregon Country, Hudson’s Bay Company, which had previously discouraged settlement because it conflicted with the fur trade, reversed its position in an attempt to maintain British control of the Columbia District. In 1833, Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Nisqually, and the S’Homamish people began trading at this fortified trading post about 16 miles (26 km) south of Twa-wal-kut. In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, made the first charts of Puget Sound with the ships USS Vincennes and USS Porpoise. He sent the Porpoise to probe deep into the southern reaches of Puget Sound on a surveying expedition. Lieutenant George Sinclair, the ship’s sailing master, dispatched survey parties out in small boats called longboats or ‘gigs’ to maneuver in shallow water along the coast. One longboat was commanded by Midshipman Joseph Sandford to explore the western shoreline north of Tacoma Narrows. Sandford later noted that while looking for shelter during a storm he had come across a little bay partly concealed by a sand spit. He maneuvered around the spit and found a narrow passage about 10 or 15 yards (9-14 m) wide that opened to a circular basin. The publication of Wilkes’s map of the Oregon Territory labeled the sheltered bay ‘Gig Harbor’.
In 1846, the boundary dispute between Britain and the United State was resolved leaving Fort Nisqually in American territory. Euro-American immigrants flooded into the Oregon Country north of the Columbia River and in 1853, President Millard Fillmore signed into law a bill that established the new Washington Territory. European diseases soon followed and swept through all the tribes on the sound and ultimately decimated their populations. In 1854, the Puyallups and other tribes signed a treaty requiring them to move to reservations. Some of Twa-Wal-Kut moved to the Puyallup Reservation but others remained on their little bay, still untouched by the turmoil created by Euro-American settlers. In 1867, Samuel Jerisich, Peter Goldsmith, and John Farrague reputedly rowed a boat south from Vancouver Island and were the first settlers to enter Gig Harbor. They filed land claims near the salmon stream at the head of the bay close to the village of Twa-Wal-Kut. Jerisich and Goldsmith were Croatian, and Farrague was Spanish, and both tribal members and white settlers made their living by fishing for salmon, smelt, herring, and dogfish. The Washington Territory became the 42nd state of the United States on November 11, 1889. Scandinavian immigrants, along with American settlers from Minnesota, began to arrive in the 1880s and 1890s. They were often farmers who cleared plots in the vast stands of old-growth forest and grew berries, fruits, and vegetables and rowed them across to markets in Steilacoom or Tacoma. Commercial fishing, farming, boat building, and logging dominated the economy until the construction of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. Until then, the primary method of transportation between Gig Harbor and the economic centers of Seattle and Tacoma was by ‘mosquito fleet’ steamships and ferries. However, the first Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed just months after it was completed, and the resource demands of World War II prevented another bridge from being built until 1950. Today, the harbor entrance is marked by the Gig Harbor Lighthouse that was built in 1988 with a tower that stands 15 feet (4.6 m) tall and displays a red flashing light, and the community is a thriving suburb of Tacoma and the gateway to the Olympic Peninsula. Read more here and here. Explore more of Gig Harbor here: