It was great see, via Twitter, local resource @HistoryLink post “100 years ago today, Thomas Phelps’s 1856 map of Seattle was published in the Town Crier”.  I saw the post today, so I’m a day late, but the Phelps map is one of those fascinating documents that highlights the historical origins of Seattle and intrigues because it so far removed from want exists today.  The article about the map, website, penned by David B. Williams, mentions the map’s original publication on December 15, 1917 as part of the article in the Town Crier  (map shown to the left). The article was about  “Seattle’s First Taste of Warfare”, found via the Seattle Public Library which outlines an early battle between new settlers and the original residents of Seattle.  The full page shows the map in the center (quality of the online version is a bit fuzzy as well – click to enlarge)

The history is summed as such by Williams via HistoryLink.org:

“Phelps’s map depicts what has become known as the Battle of Seattle, when Native Americans battled settlers and the Decatur’s crew on January 26, 1856. The death toll for the skirmish, which ended at 10 p.m., was two settlers and an unknown number of Indians. The map provides what appears to be an accurate depiction of the city on that day, although there is one notable mistake. The settlement’s northern blockhouse, or fort, is in the wrong location; it should be two blocks south, at what is now Cherry Street. (Phelps also shows a southern blockhouse, which was not built until two weeks or so after the battle.) The only other map to depict Seattle around the time of the battle is a U.S. Coast Survey map of “Duwamish Bay, W.T.” Published in 1854, it shows a roughly similar landscape and distribution of buildings.”

A known reprint appeared inr Arthur Denny’s book “Pioneer Days on the Puget Sound”, originally published in a 1888, this map appearing in a reprint from 1908 (but also great is to see the book available as a Third Place Books Rediscovery Edition here).  A small version of the map of it from HistoryLink.org (see below for a larger, adapted similar version), with caption from Williams: “1856 map of Seattle by Thomas Phelps of USS Decatur, as published in Arthur Denny’s Pioneer Days on Puget Sound with later street grid superimposed, 1908”

Many historical maps just exist as a singular object to depict a place in a point in time.  Phelps’ map seems to exist along a continuum from it’s original sketch of which there is no record, to various prints, updates, hybrids, and transformations over the span of decades, all of which are adaptations of events that had happened some half-century or more in the past. As Williams mentioned separately in a blog post, on his GeologyWriter site about the map:  “Many, many editions of the map have been produced.”  

The other version that has a fixed date, and mostly commonly used as I’ve seen it, is that redrawn version by Clarence Bagley from 1930, recreating the “1856 map of Seattle by Thomas Phelps of USS Decatur, enlarged and revised.”  The 1930 version shows the “Officers of the Sloop of War Decatur”, and a more extensive street grid, and is signed by Bagley.  (This image is from Pinterest here as finding a good digital original with source is tough)  There’s also a sepia version around cropped with tape marks and a big seattlepi.com watermark, but the same map.

As Williams outlines the unknowns and uncertain history of the map deftly in his article, he mentions “We do not know why Bagley produced this map, who he produced it for, or how he distributed it. Nor is an original of it known to exist. Copies are found in the holdings of Seattle Public Library and University of Washington Special Collections. Nor is it known how Bagley acquired a copy of the Phelps map. Perhaps he could have acquired it from whoever supplied the map to Alice Harriman, who published it in her 1908 reprint of Arthur Denny’s Pioneer Days. Bagley had originally published Pioneer Days, in 1888, but that edition did not include the Phelps map. Harriman did consult with Bagley so he may have had access to an original, though it is unclear why Bagley would wait until 1930 to produce his edition of the map.”

The provenance of others is a question, below is one of those alternative versions that just includes some format changes but unknown date, and stripped of the additional information added in 1930.  This larger version via DorpatSherrardLomont that also points out one flaw in the original, as included the annotation: “Phelps map of Seattle. He by now famously misplaced the blockhouse one block too far north of its real location on a knoll at the waterfront foot of Cherry Street.”

The map shown below is titled ‘Map of the Attack on Seattle’, which alludes the the original story.  In this case it is from Access Genelology site for the Washington Indian Wars, 1855-1856.  It looks like a version of the original that uses the same graphic style, in a sepia tone that cleans up the original map with updated fonts, and the titleblock shifting to the upper right (not sure about date of this one)

An alternate version that David Williams has on his blog, and as he mentions, “This is one of the more unusual. It is owned by the University of Washington Special Collections. I have no idea where it was printed or who the engravers were.” adding, that there were “…several unusual aspects.  1. Addition of “hostile” to Hills & Woods thronged with 2. Addition of “skidroad” to Lake Trail & Skidroad 3. Labels Thomas Phelps as a Lieutenant instead of Commander” ( date unknown)

This expanded version from DorpatSherrodLomond locates the original map within the larger grid of streets and pioneer claims, using the original graphic style as published in Denny’s book.

I’m sure it’s not uncommon, but it’s one of the interesting aspects of the map, as summarized, that it is not just a snapshot  of an event in a place, but that it has yielded lots questions about copyright in later years between those wishing to use the map for publication.  Williams concludes: “For such a famous map, there are many unanswered questions: When exactly did Phelps draw the original? Does an original exist?”

And for me, when looking at a map that provides a foundation for a place, the questions are both fascinating and make one questions the fidelity of memory, production, reproduction and tracings. Whole explicit or accidental it shows the agendas (and talents or lack thereof) of the mapmakers.  The story of the Phelps map is a crucial one for Seattle history and hidden hydrology, and it does offer some context for early shoreline and land fill to office later. While we’d like highly accurate and globally positioned map or story, often reality is that we get a different, more subjective and fluid tale. And as it is a touchstone to what ends up being a crazy development of the City of Seattle, perhaps a little mystery isn’t such a bad thing.

Original text quotes from “Thomas Phelps’s 1856 map of Seattle is published in the Town Crier on December 15, 1917″ via HistoryLink.org, by David B. Williams, originally published 3/24/2015.  Maps are credited to other sources because they are so incredibly small on the HistoryLink.org site to even be legible (one of my few pet peeves with an otherwise amazing resource).

David’s site Geology Writer also has more history, and tons of great info on Seattle History, by Paul Dorpat, Jean Sherrard, and Bérangère Lomont on the DorpatSherrardLomont site.



2 thoughts on “Glimpse of Early Seattle

  1. Jason, thanks for your thorough post on the map. Curiously, in 2015, I was contacted by someone who said he represented some descendants of Phelps and that he might have some interesting maps and journals but unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. He did send me a photo of powder bucket that could have come from the Decatur but we’ll never know. Oh well. History is fun.

  2. Thanks David. Such an interesting story, and I’ve yet to find another map in any city with so many versions and iterations over the span of time. Enjoyed your history on this one.

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