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Unusual ‘5th of July’ celebration took place near Puget Sound 180 years ago

This story was originally published in July of 2013

In the will-they/won’t-they turmoil of Fourth of July fireworks in Seattle the past few years, it’s easy to lose sight of the story of the first time Independence Day was celebrated in what’s now Washington state — in fact, the first time it was celebrated in what’s now the western United States.

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This nearly forgotten celebration happened on a patch of prairie in Pierce County near DuPont, less than a mile from what’s now Interstate Five.

It was 1841. The land that now comprises Oregon, Idaho, Washington and parts of Montana, Wyoming and British Columbia was known as “the Oregon Country.” An agreement had not yet been reached with the British to establish the northern US boundary at the 49th parallel, and the US government’s formal establishment of Oregon Territory was still seven years away. In the interim, an 1818 agreement with the British and subsequent negotiations had created a somewhat informal joint occupation of the region.

Apart from fur trading operations at places such as Vancouver, Colville, and Nisqually; Presbyterian missions near Walla Walla and Spokane; and a Catholic mission near Spokane, non-native settlement in the Oregon Country was sparse.

A few years earlier, the US government launched a wide-ranging expedition to explore much of the west coast of South America and North America. The effort was formally called the “US Exploring Expedition,” but is better known as the Wilkes Expedition, in honor of its commander, Captain Charles Wilkes.

In July 1841, it was members of the Wilkes Expedition who paused for a day of patriotic revelry in the heart of the Oregon Country. The spot they chose was near Fort Nisqually on the shores of Lake Sequalitchew.

According to Wilkes’ journal (published in 1856 in a five-volume “narrative”), the celebration at Lake Sequalitchew would have been recognizable to Fourth of July celebrants in 2021. Wilkes describes a parade, a barbecue (of an ox), the firing of cannons and a “full day’s frolic and pleasure” with games and horse racing. There was even the obligatory injury caused by one of the celebratory cannon blasts when a man named Whitehorn had his arm badly mangled.

It’s amazing to think that the Declaration of Independence was only 65 years old when the Americans of the Wilkes Expedition held what’s considered to be the first Independence Day observance west of the Missouri River — and that the last living signer of the Declaration had been dead less than nine years when this local day of patriotic “frolic and pleasure” took place.

It’s also quaint to realize that the Wilkes’ celebration took place not on July 4 but instead on July 5, 1841. That year, July 4 fell on the Sabbath, and in those days, even the nation’s birthday had to wait an extra day out of respect for the Lord.

More than a hundred years ago, the events of 1841 at Lake Sequalitchew were memorialized with a stately granite monument. A special event to dedicate the monument in July 1906 brought dignitaries from all over, and even a few surviving witnesses to the 1841 festivities, then 65 years in the past.

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You’d think the site of this seminal Independence Day would be a popular place to visit, with its special status and handy location next to I-5. And it very well might be, were it not now located within the boundaries of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).

The base was organized in the World War I era, not long after the monument was dedicated, and security changes—especially since 9/11—mean that only those with legitimate business on base can visit this hallowed patriotic ground. The monument sits just off a busy road on the base and is now surrounded with a white picket fence. Lake Sequalitchew is just down a short hillside and serves as a source of drinking water for JBLM.

JBLM officials say that there are no plans in the works to ease access to the monument anytime in the near future.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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