Saturday, June 9, 2018

Little Girl Lost: The Japanese Immigrant Case

In 2017 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Seattle, blocked an attempt by President Donald Trump to ban immigration from certain Moslem-majority countries. Among case law cited in the Court's motion was Yamataya v. Fisher (189 U.S. 86 1903), a case argued before the Supreme Court in 1903. Also known as the Japanese Immigrant Case, Yamataya v. Fisher was an appeal by a Japanese immigrant to be allowed to remain in this country following a deportation ruling by the immigration service in Seattle.

The Supreme Court ruled against Yamataya, allowing deportation to proceed. However, in the fine print, Yamataya v. Fisher ruled that deportation of immigrants ought not to proceed summarily but must allow for due process -- in other words, a hearing of some kind must take place. It was this provision that was referenced in blocking the federal government from immediately deporting Moslems who had already arrived at U.S. ports.

The origin of this photo, which appeared in an article in the Seattle Daily Times, is unknown. It appears to be a studio portrait from Japan.

Lost in Translation

But who was Yamataya? The identity of the appellant in this landmark case is often overlooked.

It seems that Kaoru Yamataya was a young girl brought to Seattle on a Japanese passenger ship in July 1901. Between that date and her eventual deportation in 1906, Kaoru's sad story encompasses pregnancy, separation from her family, the death of her child, a manhunt, incarceration, and, possibly, sexual exploitation. Through it all, she was subjected to public scrutiny and hounded by immigration officials.

What we do know about her is pieced together from newspaper fragments, public records, and a whole lot of supposition. A century gone by, along with the sentimentality and racial profiling of the day, as well as linguistic and cultural divides, make it difficult to get at the truth. Newspapers of the day were happy to report hearsay evidence and to embellish the facts with both romantic filters and inflammatory rhetoric. Government records, including census forms, birth and death records, and immigration forms, were filled out by third parties themselves trying to overcome language barriers and who may have had motives of their own. Statements made by and through attorneys in legal proceedings are also suspect

Even the transliteration of the names Kaoru, Yamataya, and Masataro are subject to wide fluctuations in the records. In the Writ of Habeas Corpus issued on behalf of Kaoru, she is referred to with a male pronoun.

What we know

On July 11, 1901, Kaoru disembarked from the ship SS Kaga Maru at Smith's Cove in Seattle. She was accompanied by a Japanese man, or perhaps by two. The immigration inspector listed her age as 15, her race and nationality as "Jap." In the space on the landing card designated for "Destination and Name and Address of Relative or Friend to Join There," was noted "None" and "Settler." Few other fields on the form were filled out.

The original passenger manifest for the SS Kaga Maru, including the names of Kaoru and Masataro Yamataya. (NARA)

Kaoru was allowed to land and leave the customs shed. However, some four days later she was arrested along with her fellow traveler, Masataro Yamataya. The immigration authorities held a brief hearing (Board of Special Inquiry) and then asked for an order of deportation from the office of the Secrtary of the Treasury for Kaoru. By July 23 the order was in hand.

The immigration service had decided that the girl met the criteria for deportation outlined in both the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1891: she was a pauper and likely to become a public charge.

Ad for the Tokiwa Boarding House from a Japanese newspaper, preserved in the files of the National Archives and Records Administration, Seattle, as part of Masataro Yamataya's federal court case.

Kaoru and Masataro had been tracked down to a boarding house on Jackson Street in Nihonmachi (Japantown) called Tokiwa House by Immigrant and Chinese Inspector Thomas M. Fisher. Masataro was thrown in jail on suspicion of promoting prostitution; Kaoru was sent to a charity due to her "delicate condition." Apparently, Kaoru was in an advanced state of pregnancy. She was initially sent to the Good Shepherd Home in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, but by the time she gave birth she was at the Crittenton Home in the Dunlap neighborhood of the Rainier Valley.

Masataro Yamataya had been in the United States for some years before returning to Japan about 1900. He offered a number of stories for bringing Kaoru to this country -- or perhaps stories were made up for him:
  • Kaoru was his adopted daughter and was coming to live with him.
  • Kaoru was being sent to the States for education and he was her uncle. 
  • Kaoru was brought to the States to work in a brothel run by his wife on "Japanese Alley" in Spokane.   
  • Kaoru was sent to the States by her aristocratic parents in Japan due to her indiscretion and to spare them the dishonor of a pregnant single daughter.
  • Kaoru was sent to the States to separate her from her secret lover.
For reasons that are not clear, the Yamatayas decided to fight deportation.

With help from the Japanese community, a firm of American attorneys was retained and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed with the U.S. District Court in Seattle. The petition protested the girl's confinement, echoing the words of standing immigration law:

"Your petitioner further alleges that the said imprisonment of the said Kaoru Yamataya by the said Fisher is unlawful; that the said Kaoru Yamataya is not an idiot or an insane person; that she is not a pauper, and is not likely to become a public charge; that she is not suffering from any loathsome disease or any disease, or any dangerous or contageous [sic]disease ; that she has not been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; that she did not come to the United States in violation of the contract labor laws passed by Congress, or in violation of any law of the United States relative to the exclusion of aliens, and that the said Kaoru Yamataya is lawfully within the United States and is entitled to remain therein." 

The Writ of Habeas Corpus issued on behalf of Kaoru. (NARA)

Upon their initial arrest by Inspector Fisher, Koaru and Masataro had provided statements. The signed accounts were highly personal and incriminating and, of course, were used against them in a court of law.

Masataro confessed to having a wife in Spokane who "did immoral business," to having no home of his own in the United States, and that neither he nor Kaoru had much in the way of money. Perhaps most damning, he admitted that he and Kaoru had shared a bunk on the ship coming over and had continued to share a bed in the boarding house where they were found:

"We had one room, one bed in the room. I and the girl occupied the same bed four nights, in the same room where Inspector Fisher found me this morning. When found I was in my Japanese dressing clothes, the girl was in the same [room? condition?], undressed and in her night clothes. I know that she is in the family way...I put my hands under her clothes this morning and assisted her to dress." (Statement of Masataro Yamataya to Custom House, Port of Seattle, July 15, 1901)
Masataro goes on to state that he had planned to place Kaoru with the Japanese YMCA in Seattle.

Kaoru's statement echoes that of the man she calls her uncle, adding that she shared the ship's bunk with both him and another "relation." She goes on to state:
"I have no money. I had none when I came here. A Japanese man got me in the family way in Nagasaki, Japan." (Statement of Kaoru Yamataya to Custom House, Port of Seattle, July 15, 1901)
The statements agree that Masataro paid Kaoru's passage to the United States, a key element for a charge of human trafficking.

Kaoru's statement is signed with Japanese characters. What appears to be the signature of another Japanese individual (Chary Nasake?) may be that of the translator. Masataro appears to have signed his own statement in English transliteration. Both statements are clearly written in the hand of Inspector Fisher, as deduced by his own signatures on the documents.

Kaoru's signature on her statement to Immigration Inspector Fisher. (NARA) 

Little Boy Lost

Two and a half months after arriving on these shores, Kaoru gave birth to a son at the Crittenton Home for unwed mothers on September 24, 1901; the infant died two months later of pneumonia. His death notice was submitted by Dr. Harriet J. Clark, the physician who provided services to the Crittenton Home. Coincidentally, or not, the child was named Thomas. Wild speculation might lead one to suppose that Kaoru chose the only English name she knew, that of Immigration Inspector Thomas M. Fisher.

The Case against Masataro Yamataya. 

Efforts to deport Kaoru unfolded parallel to the criminal case against her male companion, Masataro, who stood accused of what would today be called human trafficking. While the case against Kaoru was based on the argument that she was a pauper and likely to become a public charge, the authorities were quite clear that, in charging Masataro, they were looking for prostitution. In this they may have had some justification: according to historian David A. Takami, at the turn of the century Japanese women were frequently smuggled into the country to work in houses of prostitution in the international district of Seattle. Not all of them came willingly.

On June 13, 1902, Masataro Yamataya was put on trial in Federal Court in Seattle for bringing a woman into the country for immoral purposes. His attorneys presented depositions from Kaoru's family in Nagasaki. These interrogatories had been carried out in the presence of the United States consul for Japan, Charles B. Harris. The sworn, and somewhat rehearsed, statements testified that Kaoru had traveled to America with her uncle at the request of her family, that her father had given her money for the trip, and that he had sent additional funds to her in the States. The stated purpose of the trip: to learn English and sewing.

The answers of Kikotaro Tanaka, Kaoru's brother, are typical:
"He was asked to take her to America by my parents and to arrange for her to learn English and sewing. My family talked the matter over. I also asked Masataro Yamataya to take her to America for these purposes. I know that she was secretly meeting a lover before she left Nagasaki, and I believe she was with child when she left Nagasaki."
The statements of the family members agreed that Masataro had adopted Kaoru, with their permission, to make it easier for them to travel together. For this reason, she bore his name, although her father's name was Hirye Hamada.

A family friend who had accompanied the pair testified that he had occupied the bunk next to Masataro, while Kaoru slept alone. Further contradicting the original statements obtained by Inspector Fisher, T. Hayashi stated that Kaoru had occupied her own room at the Tokiwa House upon arriving in Seattle. 
"I was with them the whole time on the steamer, and I absolutely know they did not occupy the same bunk...After we arrived at Seattle we all three stopped at the Hotel Tokiwa, Masataro Yamataya occupying one room and Kaoru occupying another."  

About her secret lover, Hayashi goes farther than the others and names the fellow: "She had been living with a man named Otokichi Yamagachi, at Nishiyama, Nagasaki, before she left for America, and I believe she was with child when she left Nagasaki."

The covering letter for the six interrogatories obtained in Nagasaki, Japan. The letter is signed by the Consul of the United States, Charles B. Harris, dated February 7, 1902, and sealed with wax and silk ribbons. (NARA)

Four days after trial began, Masataro was pronounced not guilty. The depositions may have done the trick in turning the jury in his favor. Kaoru was initially included among a list of witnesses, but her name is struck off in the court files. It appears that she may have been in attendance at court; the Seattle Daily Times felt the need to comment on the "Beauty of the girl in question" in announcing the verdict in Masataro's case.

This grainy photo from the Seattle Star newspaper purports to show Kaoru in western dress. This historian is skeptical that it is actually she. Seattle Star, April 11, 1903.

The Case against Kaoru Yamataya

In 1903 the case, Yamataya v. Fisher went before the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision by the justices was bad news for Kaoru -- she was to be deported -- but also contained a grain of hope for future immigrant cases.

Beginning with the writ of habeas corpus, requested by Masataro and initially approved by the presiding federal judge, the Japanese Immigrant Case took off. A slew of legal actions flew back and forth between the opposing sides.

Early in 1903 the case came up for review by the United States Supreme Court. The appeal rested on three arguments:
  1. The Immigration Act of 1891 applied only to aliens who had not yet "effected entry" into the country.
  2. The Immigration Act of 1891 was unconstitutional since it did not provide for due process of law.
  3. Kaoru was deprived of her liberty without due process of law, in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
The attorneys who prepared the brief minced no words in accusing Inspector Fisher of abuse of power in his questioning of Kaoru and Masataro, proclaiming him "prosecutor, judge and jury" in the case. The brief stated that such arbitrary power harkened back to times before "Magna Charta" -- i.e. to the medieval era. They also referenced the 1894 treaty with the Empire of Japan, one that bestowed "most favored nation" status on that country. This may have been done to differentiate the case from the many challenges to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

As in the petition for the writ of habeas corpus, Kaoru's attorneys pointed to the fact that she did not speak or understand English and had been isolated from those who could advise her:

"Appellant does not understand the English language. She had no notice whatever of the investigation made by appellee, and was not represented and had no opportunity to be heard thereat. After her arrest and imprisonment by appellee appellant was not permitted to see her attorneys or her relatives and she was ignorant of the fact that any investigation had been made or would be made, or that any decision of the inspection officers had been made until a few hours prior to the sailing of the vessel upon which appellee intended to deport her. The evidence upon which appellee and the other inspection officers made their findings, and upon which the warrant of deportation was issued, was garbled, incomplete, misleading and in many respects untrue, in that appellant was made to answer Yes and No to questions which she did not comprehend, and answers conveying a meaning not intended were in consequence given, and only such evidence as when unexplained tended to support the finding of appellee was considered by him."

In response, the government argued that Inspector Fisher had done nothing wrong; that he had the right to order expulsion of an alien deemed to be a pauper up to one year following arrival; and that the "roving, experimental, and general allegations" against him were an assault on the authority of executive officers of the government. Many examples of case law were presented to back these claims, most of them involving Chinese nationals. Further, neither Kaoru nor Masataro had used the only protest method open to them -- that of appealing directly to the Secretary of the Treasury at the time of their arrest.

On April 6, 1903, the decision of the court was handed down upholding the arguments of Inspector Fisher and the government's legal team. Deportation decisions were the province of the executive officers (e.g. immigration officers). The jurists stated that the law against paupers, such as Kaoru was deemed to be, was "designed to protect the general public against contact with dangerous or improper persons." As for the language barrier: "If the appellant's want of knowledge of the English language put her at some disadvantage...that was her misfortune."

The vote of the court was seven to two in favor of the government's case, with famed jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. siding with the majority.

As mentioned above, Yamataya v. Fisher did provide a consolation prize for immigrant advocates. The court affirmed the right to due process -- in a way:

"This court has never held, nor must we now be understood as holding, that administrative officers, when executing the provisions of a statute involving the liberty of persons, may disregard the fundamental principles that inhere in 'due process of law' as understood at the time of the adoption of the Constitution."

This is the sentence cited in State of Washington; State of Minnesota v. Donald J. Trump (et al), filed February 9, 2017 in response to Trump's first Muslim ban.

For Kaoru it was too late; the court adjudged that she had been granted due process in her initial hearing before the immigration tribunal in Seattle.

Little Girl Lost

Shortly after the announcement of the court's decision, and before she could be picked up by authorities, Kaoru disappeared from the Crittenton Home. The Seattle Daily News wrote of her having been "spirited away." This may not have been the first time she disappeared. According to another newspaper account, upon being released from the Home of the Good Shepherd in August 1901, she left town and was tracked down in Salt Lake City.

Her second attempt to leave town was more successful; she was gone more than three years before being located at a boarding house in Portland, Oregon. Her whereabouts and activities during that time are a mystery. One local paper offered a highly colorized version of the story which included a lover from the lower classes who had followed her over from Japan, a planned elopement, cruel parents, and a hard-hearted uncle. The newspaper gushed over Kaoru in language that is painful to read:

"She is an aristocrat from the top of her little black head to the tips of her tiny toes, and is more than passing fair. She is possessed of the kind of a complexion that one reads about in Japanese romances." (Seattle Star, 4/11/1903)

On October 16, 1906, the Seattle Daily Times reported that she was back in county jail in Seattle. Two weeks later she was deported back to Japan on the Shimano Maru.

We do not know what became of Masataro Yamataya during those years. He had been allowed to reclaim his passport shortly after his acquittal at trial in 1902. He might, therefore, have returned to Japan. However, the 1920 U.S. Census shows him, at age 50, residing on 9th Avenue in Seattle, the manager of a boarding house.

Reasons Lost

The biggest question this researcher has is Why? Why did the immigration authorities pursue Kaoru for five years? In hindsight it seems like the effort to bring one teenage girl to heel amounted to a personal obsession on the part of the arresting officer. And why did the Japanese community commit the considerable resources necessary to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court? Perhaps there were precedents in play on both sides. Perhaps there were matters of personal honor at stake. Perhaps Kaoru was a victim of this country's ever-changing immigration policies and practices

A more diligent historian might make an effort to research the Japanese language newspapers of the day to gain insights into the community's response to the case. And a thorough review of immigration law as it applied to Asians at the turn of the century might help us understand the case and how it relates to this country's immigration practices today.

Sources for this essay include the immigration and federal court records on Kaoro Yamataya and Masataro Yamataya at the National Archives and Records Administration, Seattle; the court proceedings in the case Yamataya v. Fisher retrieved via Google Books; the Seattle Daily News; the Seattle Star,, and David A. Takami, Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle (1998). Special thanks to Nancy Dulaney of the Rainier Valley Historical Society for calling this case to my attention.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Boy King meets the Float King

Parts of this post are taken from my essay on about the 1978 King Tut Exhibit in Seattle.

Tut fever swept Seattle in 1978 when the exhibit Treasures of Tutankhamun landed in the city. Sponsored by the Seattle  Art Museum (SAM) and held on the grounds of the Seattle Center, at the Flag Pavilion, it ran from July 15 until November, displaying 55 artifacts from the tomb of the boy king. The immediate effect of the show was a craze for all things Egyptian.

As Egyptomania goes, perhaps the exhibit can only be compared to the excitement that greeted the discovery and unveiling of the young pharaoh’s tomb in 1922. A fervor for Ancient Egypt swept through the arts, fashion, interior design, and all things retail. The first week of the exhibit was hailed as “Welcome to Tut Week” by the Downtown Seattle Development Association, which organized special festivities at Westlake Mall.

Seattle’s perennial summer festival, Seafair, did not escape the hoopla. The theme of the 1978 Torchlight Parade, August 4, was “A Salute to King Tut.” The Rainier District’s float, the “Glory of Egypt,” took both the King Neptune Trophy for best float and the special Golden Tutankhamun Award.


“Glory of Egypt” owed its design to Roger Ford, a graphic designer and long-time resident of Rainier Beach. In fact, it was Ford who, as a member of the Seafair planning committee, suggested the Tut theme for the Seafair parade.

“Glory of Egypt” featured an ornate double-stairstep design inspired by the pyramids of Egypt, numerous lotus blossoms, and both royalty and guards in Egyptian garb. Performers “step-danced” on the float at parade stops. Photo by Denis Law, the Denis Law Collection, Rainier Valley Historical Society.

Standard bearers carry symbols of Anubis, the jackel god. Photo by Denis Law, the Denis Law Collection, Rainier Valley Historical Society.

The “Glory of Egypt” was the last Seafair float Ford designed in a history of float-making dating back to 1953. In that year, the float Ford designed on behalf of the Catholic Chancellor Club took the parade’s highest honor, the King Neptune Award. That was just the beginning. Over the decades, Ford’s whimsical and intricate floats were seen at Rainier Valley’s Pow Wow festivals, as well as community celebrations from Shoreline to Tacoma. In 1961, Ford found time to design two floats, both of which took Seafair honors: “Japanese Festival” was the float of the Japanese-American Citizens League; “An Old Fashioned Valentine” represented the Rainier District Businessmen’s Association.

Ford’s floats during the early 1960s were something to behold. Themes included “An Orchid Anniversary,” “Coronation Ball, and “The Golden Years of P.T. Barnum,” a display that is said to have featured live lion cubs in a cage. In 1963 Ford had the honor of designing a float for King Neptune and the Seafair Queen themselves.

The float “An Old Fashioned Valentine” at the Festival of Floats, Memorial Stadium, 1961. Photographer unknown, Roger Ford Scrapbook, Rainier Valley Historical Society. Ford’s twin sons occupy the small boats.

Seafair was not the only venue for Ford’s talents. As a commercial artist for Boeing, he was tasked with orchestrating many corporate events and loaned out to stage several Armed Forces Spectaculars. The 1965 Spectacular at the Seattle Center Coliseum featured a gold float with a living tableau of the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima. In fact, Roger owed his initial training to the army; just after WWII he served with Army Special Services in Salzburg, Austria. “I was in charge of the Army’s theaters in the cultural melting pot of the world. Talk about a wonderful experience!”[i] Ford also provided his services pro bono to stage Catholic Youth Organization’s Passion Plays.

Ford believes his floats combined earned at least 100 trophies for their appearances in various parades and community events.

Each float build involved hundreds of volunteer hours, masses of materials, and the friendly cooperation of a local car lot or repair shop. Here, the volunteers who worked on the “Glory of Egypt” pose on their award-winning float. Photo by Denis Law, the Denis Law Collection, Rainier Valley Historical Society.

For a number of years, the Rainier District did not have an entry for the Seafair parades. Some heralded the 1978 entry as a chance to redeem the reputation of a community which had suffered from years of economic depression and civic neglect. The local Rainier Valley paper suggested that “A beautiful float might not turn the City’s attitude around, but at least it makes people realize there must be some people ‘down there’ with a sense of neighborhood pride.”[ii]

n  Eleanor Boba

[i] John J. Reddin, “Faces of the City: Talented Roger Ford Does Beautiful Work,” Seattle Daily Times, May 7, 1965, p.2.

[ii] Wenda Reed, “Rainier Float Takes Highest Honors,” undated article in Roger Ford Scrapbook.

Other sources include the Roger Ford Scrapbook, Rainier Valley Historical Society; the archives of the Seattle Times; Karen O’Brien; and “Treasures of Tutankhamun opens at The Seattle Center July 15, 1978” by Eleanor Boba.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Long Sea: Robert Bennet Forbes sails from Canton to New York on the Niantic

Robert Bennet Forbes (1804-1889), the man who built the Forbes House (Museum) in Milton, Massachusetts, spent a number of years as a China trader in the service of Perkins and Sons and Russell and Company. He undertook four voyages to and from the imperial kingdom, the first as a cabin boy at the age of 13 and the last in the years 1849-51 when he was in his late forties. In this essay, we'll look at one notable voyage home through his eyes and words.

Painting of the Niantic at Whampoa Anchorage, China, circa 1840. The painting is on display at the San Francisco Maritime Museum; Whampoa, now called Pazhou, is recognizable by the Whampoa Pagoda in the background, left. The ship was likely painted into a pre-made harbor scene by an itinerant Chinese artist. Photo by Robert Harris-Stoertz.


In 1840 Forbes sailed onboard the Niantic, an American trader, from Canton to New York. This was an arduous five-month voyage. While the Niantic took a well-traveled route around the southern tip of Africa, the trip offered many hazards for a wind-powered sailing vessel, from storms to disease to boredom. Luckily for the crew and passengers, the Niantic departed from Canton just in time to avoid the first Opium War – essentially a violent trade war between the Chinese authorities and British trading concerns.

Although sailing as a passenger, Forbes found himself standing in for the ill captain during the first leg of the voyage. Forbes kept a journal for the duration of the trip in the form of letters to his wife, Rose. With no post office at hand, he saved the letters until he could pass them on to a faster ship, just in case  -- “the idea crossing my mind that an accident (say lightning) might prevent you from ever hearing from me again.” The letters must have been delivered, since they are now available to us as primary source documents. (Note, we will make no attempt to correct the Captain’s spelling, syntax, or punctuation.)

July 5 – “At Sea”: “I got the ship under way & was on deck nearly all last night beating out of the Landrone passage, however the weather is fine & the mates are good men so that there is no necessity in reality for my interference, but as the Capt has given me authority I act for amusement – Poor man he has been very sick all day.”

Acting Captain Forbes took note throughout the voyage of other ships sighted and, in the spirit of competition, where they stood vis-à-vis the Niantic. We may take his bragging as a bit of wit between husband and wife.

July 10 – This morning passed to windward of the ship Globe about 6 miles she having left Macao 27 hours before us – this speaks well of the Niantic & the valour & discretion of her pro-tem Captain.

Forbes’ initial thrill at captaining the Niantic began to wear thin when the ship met heavy weather:

July 17 – It has been blowing a gale at SW to WSW all last night * to day – we have been without observations [celestial navigation] for two days & and are consequently quite uncertain as to our situation…I have had little or not sleep the last two nights & and am a little headachy in consequence – This acting Captain involves a deal of anxiety & responsibility – yet without the command I should feel more anxious.

The rough weather took a toll on the ship’s crew and we soon find Forbes complaining:

July 18 – Our crew so short that I cannot venture to carry sail as I would if they were all well – however I shall make the best of it …my seafaring life stands me in good service  -- I ought to charge the owners for my work rather than pay a dollar for my passage. Our barometer got a nock to day & is useless – What a chapter of unpleasant things say you – It is true but I do not quail – everything now depends on my exertions & here comes a squall, so good night.


After three weeks as acting captain, Forbes was able to return command to a recovered Captain Doty. While still willing to lend a hand on deck when needed, Forbes was able to devote more time to personal pursuits, including reading and “turning” objects out of wood on a lathe:

July 23 – “I have been turning today and shall make some nine pins for Bob [his son] before I get home – as well as some other pretty things.”

For company, he had his dog Flora, as well as a pet chicken! While suffering from frequent headaches, as well as stomach and other ailments, Forbes manages to inject humor into his writing:

August 20 – “I had another bad day the day before yesterday and am now undergoing a system of diet – the Dr sticks to it that my pains are Rheumatic – I say gout – gout – gout –."


Forbes makes clear throughout the trip that his thoughts are of home:

October 18 – “…we are not to stop at St. Helena – I regret this but little & my curiosity would hardly have tempted me to land & visit the Tomb of Napoleon provided my remaining on board would expedite our departure an hour – My cry is home, home, home.” [1]

The Niantic finally arrived in New York Harbor on December 9, 1840. Robert Bennet Forbes was awakened early that morning by the sound of the pilot coming aboard bearing letters (and haddock):

“Oh that moment of suspense – the blood rushed back to its source – Capt Doty read aloud RB Forbes Esq – I seized the letter – turned the seal side out & saw it was red, looked at the direction – the first words were “all’s well.”[2]

Approximate route of the Niantic from Canton to New York, 1840. Map created by Gary Boba.


The Niantic was a three-masted sailing ship with a storied career and a somewhat ignominious end. Built about 1832, she was a China trader, a whaler and, finally, a Gold Rush ship carrying Argonauts to San Francisco in 1849. The lure of gold allowed many ships to make a killing charging high prices to transport eager gold seekers. In the case of the Niantic, the captain put aside his whaling business off the coast of Peru to transport 249 “forty-niners” from Panama to San Francisco – mostly East Coast men looking for the fastest way to cross a continent. Whale pots on deck were re-purposed to boil up food for the passengers.

Upon reaching the promised land, most of the ship’s crew and officers deserted to head to the gold fields. With no hope of raising a new crew in the chaotic conditions on the waterfront, the captain opted to run Niantic aground, drive her masts like nails into the ground, and sell her. Between 1849 and 1851, the ship served as a warehouse and hostel while the town of San Francisco grew up around her on landfill. Nor was she the only ship to be swallowed up by the burgeoning city. Other ships were re-purposed as stores, restaurants, and taverns; at least two , the Euphemia and the Waban, were turned to use as combined prisons and insane asylums.

In 1851 Niantic burned to the waterline. But that was not all she wrote. A year later Niantic, or some parts of her, were back in business as the Niantic Hotel, reportedly the finest hotel in San Francisco, which probably wasn’t saying much.

A sketch artist’s view of the Niantic and other beached ships. Date and artist unknown.


By the 1870s the Hotel Niantic was gone and the landscape of the city completely changed. Remnants of the ship itself were uncovered at least three times, in 1872, 1907 after the Great Fire, and 1978, only to be quickly reburied. During these all too brief excavations, intriguing artifacts were recovered, including French champagne, Belgian pâté , and English pencils -- all luxury items. A number of these objects are now in the collection of the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

A clever diorama of the converted Niantic is on display at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, along with a piece of the ship’s hull recovered during excavation in 1978 (below).

Difficult to imagine, but this intersection marks the final resting place of the Niantic amid what was once a frenetic waterfront on San Francisco Bay. The plaque below, originally installed nearby in 1919, is now affixed to the wall of an office tower at 505 Sansome Street, underneath which the bones of the ship still rest.

The ship’s name also lives on as the name of a San Francisco software company responsible for, among other things, developing the game Pokémon Go!,  a game that encourages outdoor exploration. Captain Forbes would have approved.

[1] Had Forbes visited Napoleon’s Tomb, he might have witnessed the exhumation of the emperor's body, which was removed from St. Helena on the ship La Belle Poule on the very day of Forbes' journal entry. In December of the same year, the emperor’s body was re-interred in Paris at Les Invalides.

[2] It seems a red seal may have indicated good news; perhaps more to the point, the seal was not black, which would mean a death. After nearly half a year at sea, Forbes was justifiably  anxious for news of his family.


Sources of information for this essay include: Letters from China: The Canton-Boston Correspondence of Robert Bennet Forbes, 1838-1840, compiled and edited by Phyllis Forbes Kerr, 1996, and the San Francisco Maritime Museum (various displays).

Saturday, December 23, 2017

I Saw Three Ships

The sea connects us all.

A few weeks ago I headed out to Hawaii to explore the connections between Puget Sound and those islands. It is quite easy to find ships that have touched the shores of both. Today I am writing about three vessels from three very different eras and with three different propulsion systems. Each is currently home-berthed at Oahu and each has associations with our own neck of the water.

Falls of Clyde: Relic of the Age of Sail

The Falls of Clyde is a venerable sailing ship, one of the last of the iron-hulled tall ships that carried cargo around the world from the 19th through the 20th centuries. Like the three-masted ship Balclutha, the pride of San Francico's Hyde Street Pier, she was launched from Glasgow, Scotland. A four-masted, full rigged ship, the Falls of Clyde was an impressive sight in her day. Today she languishes in Honolulu Harbor, awaiting a nebulous fate.

Painting by Robert Carter, Image courtesy of Save Falls of Clyde - International.

Falls of Clyde was launched in Scotland in 1878, a decade before Balclutha. Following decades of service in the cargo trades, and another career as a petroleum depot in Ketchikan, Alaska, Falls of Clyde wound up as a mastless hulk in Lake Washington waiting for a new owner. There was talk of using the ship as a breakwater in British Columbia, the fate of a number of sailing ships, including the St. Paul and Forest Friend. At last a home was found for her in Honolulu, one of her many ports of call in her heyday. Late in 1963 the old ship was towed out through the Lake Washington Ship Canal and out to sea. The Navy tug Moctoba took her all the way to Oahu. She arrived in Honolulu on November 17 to a shower of flowers from a helicopter.

The Falls of Clyde is towed through the large locks at Ballard in 1963 on her way to a new berth as a museum ship in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle Division.

The old windjammer enjoyed a number of years as a tourist attraction in Honolulu (and was even featured in a couple of episodes of Magnum P.I!) Unfortunately she fell victim to the all-too-common hazards of financing and deferred maintenance. By 2008 she was closed to visitors.

No longer a welcome presence where she sits surrounded by colorful fish, the Falls of Clyde awaits her fate. For years her advocates have strategized a way to keep her from the ocean floor. At this writing, the organizations Friends of the Falls of Clyde and Save Falls of Clyde - International have a plan to transport the ship back to her home country of Scotland next summer to be restored. If all goes well, she will enter drydock at Troon on the Firth of Clyde.

The Falls of Clyde in Honolulu, at the old "royal pier" adjacent to Aloha Tower, 2017. A maritime museum on the pier, seen behind the ship, closed in 2009. At this writing, nautical artifacts from the museum are being removed to storage in the care of the Bishop Museum. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

Detail of the bow and part of the bowsprit of the ship.  A thistle, the national flower of Scotland, is shown prominently. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

The USS Missouri: The Last Battleship...?

The battleship Missouri has no critical tie to the Hawaiian Islands. She was towed to Pearl Harbor in 1998 to join an eclectic group of marine museums run by the National Park Service, including the sunken USS Arizona and its iconic memorial and the submarine Bowfin. Since early 1999 Mighty Mo has been open to visitors; to date over seven million folks have toured the ship in her new home.

Although the Missouri did not launch until 1944, well after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she did play a  combat role in the war. Her most notable claim to fame is having served as the site of the formal Japanese surrender to Allied Forces. That event took place in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. It is considered the official end of World War II.

The USS Missouri, BB-63, dated after its 1986 reconstruction and recommissioning. 
From the collection of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

The Missouri also had a long-association with Puget Sound. More than half her life was spent at Bremerton's Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as part of the Navy's "mothball fleet." Washingtonians became so accustomed to seeing the Missouri at various events and ceremonies around the sound, that when the Navy opened a bidding process to acquire the decommissioned battleship, citizens and elected officials of this state were quick to organize a drive to keep the ship here. The frustrating, contentious, and ultimately doomed effort, including claims of double-dealing by the Navy, are detailed in a HistoryLink essay by Daryl C. McClary.

Hokule'a and her sisters 

Hokule'a with her sails in the crab claw formation. Photo courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society

The Hokule'a occupies a strange place in maritime history: both modern and very ancient. The double-hulled voyager canoe, powered only by sail and oar, and using ancient wayfinding navigation, is a recreations of the ancient vessels that brought Polynesians to Hawaii and elsewhere sometime in the first millennium A.D. First launched with a big splash in 1976, Hokule'a gained new fame and relevance in the age of social media. Her three-year good will tour circumnavigated the globe, 2014-2017, and included a meet-up with the Draken Harald Harfagre, a recreation of a Viking ship, on the Erie Canal!


The just-concluded World Tour did not include a stop on our West Coast. However, two decades ago, a goodwill tour brought Hokule'a and her sister ship, Hawai'iloa to our shores. The vessels were transported to Seattle by Matson Lines and first welcomed at Golden Gardens at the end of May, 1995. For the next few months, the canoes, together and separately, visited a number of ports of call from Alaska to San Diego. In the Northwest the vessels were seen at the Center for Wooden Boats, the Suquamish Reservation on Bainbridge Island, Neah Bay, Bellingham, Tacoma and Vancouver. Hokule'a participated in National Maritime Week festivities on the Seattle Waterfront during the third week of May.

An important part of the mission of Hokule'a is to make contact with indigenous populations around the globe. Hawai'iloa had a special mission in the Northwest -- to thank the Native Alaskan tribes that had provided two massive Sitka spruce logs to form the hulls of the vessel. Unlike Hokule'a, which used some modern materials in construction such as fiberglass and plywood, Hawai'ilo was  to be built with only indigenous materials. Unfortunately, by the 1990s logging had taken a toll on the stands of koa, the famous hardwood, in Hawaii. In desperation, the builders turned to friends in Alaska and found sympathetic ears among the Tlinget, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples who managed a large wilderness area. With the gift of the trees, freshly-cut for the purpose, Hawai'ilo was launched in 1993.

We caught up with Hokule'a on a gloomy day at her home berth in Oahu: the Marine Training Education Center on Sand Island. The Hikianalia, another sister ship, sits to the fore. Though not the best location for photographs, this one does show the size of the canoe relative to small sailboats. 

Aloha 'oe!

Sources include Karl House and Joe Baar, PSMHS; Saltwater People Historical Society; Polynesian Voyaging Society; Friends of the Falls of Clyde;

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Deep Focus, Part I: The Joe Williamson Photographic Collection

Joe Williamson: sailor, photographer and collector. 
Photo, circa 1940; photographer unknown.

This essay first appeared on Inside Passage, the blog of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Part II is here.

Joe Williamson is a name often associated with the photographs of the Puget Sound Maritime Collection, but who was Joe, what is his collection, and how did it transform the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society?

Wikipedia labels Joe “Sailor and Photographer.” In his lifetime, much of it spent on the water, Williamson documented a wide swath of Northwest history with his camera, yet he does not garner the name recognition of Darius Kinsey, Joseph Scaylea, or the Curtis brothers. Perhaps this is because he himself did not consider photography his primary vocation. Photography was the means to an end and that end was spending as much time as possible on and around boats.

In his lifetime Williamson did everything from delivering photo orders by motorcycle for Bartell Drugs to running a darkroom to patrolling for fish pirates off the coast of Alaska. He traveled throughout the Northwest, wherever water could take him. And he took a lot of photos. In later days, he held court at a small photography shop close to the Seattle waterfront.

We’ll have more on Williamson’s storied and multifaceted career in future posts. Today we will focus on his photo collection and what became of it.


Joe collected maritime images and by the time of his retirement had amassed a collection of more than 60,000 prints and negatives. Exact numbers are hard to obtain, but it appears that about half the collection consists of photos Williamson took himself and the other half is made up of images purchased from other photographers or outlets. The sum includes 3,000 glass plate negatives acquired from the Webster & Stevens commercial photography company. A number of the images in the collection date to the late 19th century.

Williamson was aware of the value of his collection. In fact, he had set himself a very specific dual life-goal: to document maritime life and to build an asset that would serve to help fund his retirement. In 1979, at the age of 70, he offered the entire collection up for sale. The asking price: $50,000 ($163,000 in today’s dollars.) The San Francisco Maritime Museum was quick to make an offer, but Williamson hoped to conclude a sale with Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, the organization he had helped found in 1948.

Board vice president (soon to be president) Jim Cole remembers vowing aloud that the collection would not leave Puget Sound. The board had had enough of the better funded and more pro-active San Francisco Maritime Museum cherry-picking maritime artifacts from their backyard. Cole soon realized that his statement meant he was volunteering to lead the effort to raise the funds needed.

For the first time in the life of the Society the board jumped into the deep waters of fundraising to raise the $50,000 purchase price. Because of his close personal association with the group, Williamson allowed the group a year to reach this goal. Led by Cole, the board reached out to their membership and beyond, contacting old friends in the maritime trades and sending letters to businesses and foundations in the area.

Jim Cole remembers the challenge:

We talked about how we were going to do this. I had never done this kind of thing. We did send letters out. There was a lot of word of mouth activity. My late wife, Myrna, typed 180 letters to companies here.

A promise of $5,000 from H.W. McCurdy lent impetus to a campaign that was slow gaining momentum. Several companies made sizable donations, but the vast majority of the 476 gifts received came from individuals. It took nearly the entire year, but the group made their goal with enough to spare to purchase filing cabinets to house the collection.

Williamson's photo of a "Tugboat Annie" race, probably the 1940 event in Tacoma Harbor held in conjunction with the premier of the second Tugboat Annie movie, Tugboat Annie Sails Again.


As PSMHS zeroed in on its goal in the spring of 1980, the Museum of History and Industry, the Society’s partner and home base, showcased the collection in its Maritime Gallery (aka the Joshua Green-Dwight Merrill wing). The exhibit included 60 images along with ships models and other maritime artifacts. Jim Cole recalls that the exhibit opened with ceremony:
‘Mac’ McCurdy was going to cut the ribbon and he wanted Myrna to assist him. I said I’ll talk to her. She said “No, I’m not doing that.” I reported to him, and he said “She’ll do it!” I asked her a couple more times. She still said no. Well the night of the opening Mac makes this nice speech. There was a crowd there. And then he says “I would like to ask Mrs. Cole to help me cut the ribbon,” and that woman said “I would love to!” 


The huge Williamson Collection became the centerpiece of the PMSHS archives, which to that date had owned only a few small photographic collections to supplement its ships plans, models, and books. Acquisition of the wide-reaching collection transformed the PSMHS archives from a little known resource to an important and recognized repository of maritime history.

It transformed the Society in other ways, as well. Collection management became more than an abstract concept. Once PSMHS had taken possession of the thousands of prints and negatives, the real work began. 

-- Eleanor Boba


The corporate records of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society; interview with Jim Cole, 2/23/15; McDonald, Lucile. “The Famous Williamson Photo Collection.” The Sea Chest Dec. 1979; Hemion, Austen. “Joe D. Williamson.” The Sea Chest June 1994; The Seattle Times Historic Archive. Special thanks to Karl House and Judy Kebbekus, PSMHS volunteers.

Treasure Trove

The community of St. Michael, c. 1906. What appears to be water is frozen harbor ice.
Photographer unknown.

The Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society recently completed digitization of a unique group of primary historical records. The "Fragmentary Records of The Custom House of St. Michael, Alaska, 1894-1917" is now available to read via computer without risk of damage to the original documents.

Why is this important? The small island Alaskan community of Fort St. Michael, once a Russian trading post, then an American military site, sat close to the mouth of the Yukon River. As such it became the port of embarkation for miners headed up the Yukon River to the gold fields during the Gold Rush of 1897, as well as smaller strikes prior. In this chaotic period of marine traffic, the Customs House was a vital player in maintaining US law and order in a remote enclave.

A number of documents salvaged from the shuttered customs house found a home at PSMHS. In the early 1960s PSMHS member William Taylor, himself a traveler on the Dawson Trail as a boy, organized the material in a bound volume and provided a detailed historic overview in order to place them in context.

The document shown is a request for information to be used in a dispute over a "seaman's wages." 


The correspondence and records, both typed and hand-written, offer a window into life during this frenetic period of boom and bust. In amongst the routine matters of import, export, accidents, and taxation are glimpses of human drama:

There is a plea for special assistance from a miner “since I have already been so unfortunate as to have been blown into the Yukon.”

A request to the Treasury Department for clarification of some points of maritime law relating to stranded sailors reveals the precariousness of sea life: “I have the honor to inform you that on November 30th last [1901], the Chilean steam whaler “Fearless” was blown on the rocks and wrecked at Dutch Harbor...The wreck of the vessel left the crew destitute.”

A “poor lone mother” in Ohio begs for information about her lost son: “His last letter was June 1902 and promised to be home and we received no more of since. He should have been on the General Siglin.” A hand notation on the page indicates there was no news of the boy and newspapers of the day gave the sealing schooner up for lost.

An unusual item, which may have been sent to all U.S. ports of call, is a request from the French ambassador to be on the look-out for a stolen work of art from the French town of Laguenne…”a so-called Eucharistic dove of the thirteenth century, of gilt and enameled copper, standing on an engraved copper tray hanging by four chains from a jeweled crown. The eyes of the dove are represented by gems, and the wings and tail are also set with rare stones. In the back there is a hinged opening for the introduction of the [sacramental] hosts.” An internet search easily picks up images of these religious artifacts.

It comes as little surprise that the regulation of the liquor trade commands a large share of the correspondence. Several documents relate to the request of a James Wilson to receive a permit to sell “intoxicating liquors for medicinal, mechanical and scientific purposes” at his place of business in Circle City, Alaska. The exact type of business is not specified, but it should be noted that Circle City was a distant outpost on the Yukon River populated almost exclusively by miners.

What type of medicinal liquor did Mr. Wilson propose to sell? The import permit issued at Sitka in 1896 lists the following:

200 gals whiskey

20 gals Rum

50 gals Brandy

50 gals Port wine

50 gals sherry

200 gals Claret

1 case Absinthe

1 case Chartreuse

1 case Benedictine

50 bbls Beer

5 bbls Porter

One hopes that these quantities were sufficient to last until the Klondike Stampede of 1897 turned Circle City back into a ghost town.

Others attempted less legal methods of bringing liquor to the cold country. In 1898 the Collector of Customs at St. Michael was warned by his counterpart in Sitka that “the steamship ‘Laurada’ has aboard a valuable cargo of whiskey, which it will be attempted to land unlawfully within the District of Alaska; that the bulk of the liquor is stored underneath the ship’s coal, so that great care must be taken that none of the liquor is landed over and above what appears on her manifest as ship’s stores, and in bond.”


Digitization of a large volume is not inexpensive. We are grateful to a group of historians researching shipwrecks on the Yukon River, the S.S. Politkovsky research team, for a special donation to make this happen. PSMHS Executive Director Karen Marshall worked with the University of Washington Digital Initiatives Program to create high-quality scans of each page of the collection, including a map hand-drawn and colored by Mr. Taylor. Thanks to their efforts, Mr. Taylor’s compilation can be stored permanently within archival-quality housing while digital copies are available to view on CD-ROM.

PSMHS has over 800 cubic feet of archival materials available for scholarly and personal research, including over 60,000 maritime related photographs and negatives, including the Joe Williamson Collection, 7,000 ships’ plans, press clippings, legal and financial records of a number of maritime companies and shipbuilding firms, and detailed records of ships’ movement in and out of Puget Sound ports during the first half of the 20th century. Our holdings relate to maritime life and commerce both in Puget Sound and up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California.
If you are interested in working with our collections, please contact the PSMHS office to schedule an appointment in our research center, located in Georgetown at the MOHAI Resource Center.

-- Eleanor Boba