Seattle’s battle scars revealed by hidden cannon balls
The recent discovery of an old naval mine floating in Puget Sound near Port Orchard turned into a fascinating social experiment.
The reaction of the media and the public was rapid, intense and highly speculative. In some respects, the whole spectacle was reminiscent of the Ivar’s underwater billboard hoax of several years ago.
And the incident generated interesting questions, particularly about how much defensive “harbor mining” took place in Puget Sound during World War II, and if, indeed, live explosive mines were actually used in local domestic waters. That will be an interesting follow-up story sometime in the months ahead if, and when, more information turns up.
In the meantime, the notion of civilians discovering ordnance leftover from military conflict called to mind the aftermath of the Indian War of 1855-1856 and the unearthing, decades later, of cannon balls likely fired at the city during the
“Battle of Seattle” by the sloop-of-war USS Decatur.
The conflicts between natives and settlers that began in that era are part of a violent, complex and as-yet unresolved story about the occupation of what had been native land for millennia. However, January 26, 1856 marked a turning point in the history of Seattle, and the history of what became Washington state.
So it’s no surprise that artifacts from that day still resonate with history, and still capture the imagination of anyone who’s ever dreamed about discovering lost artifacts – even from one of the most violent days in Seattle’s history.
The “battle” took place on January 26, 1856 and was the culmination of months, if not years, of tension and animosity between American settlers who were claiming land and Native Americans who were being displaced, alongside a flawed treaty process that had been led by Washington’s Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens.
By late January, many settlers were holed up for protection in one of two blockhouses in town, including Seattle residents and others who’d come in from the countryside in the wake of a number of killings of settlers. In the days immediately preceding the attack, women and children from the settlement had even taken to sleeping aboard the Decatur each night.
Around dawn on January 26, it became clear that a large number of natives had assembled in the woods on the edge of the settlement and that they were planning to enter the town.
The Decatur, which had come to aid settlers in Puget Sound in the autumn of 1855, was moored in Elliott Bay. The ship had been launched in 1839 and was named for naval hero Stephen Decatur. She was 117 feet long and 32 feet wide and carried 150 men.
Her crew was prepared to repel the attack. The ship began firing just after dawn, and then kept firing all day and into the night.
On board the ship were sixteen “carronades,” with eight along each side of the hull. Carronades are shortened versions of long cannons used on land; their reduced length makes them easier to load and clean amidst the tight quarters of a ship.
For a Seattle Times article in 1905 about plans to commemorate the event with monument at City Hall Park – a monument that wasn’t ultimately dedicated until 1916 – local historian Clarence Bagley was emphatic about the role of the ship.
“It was the Decatur’s guns and howitzers that really saved the day,” Bagley said. “They kept shelling the woods and while but little if any real damage was done, the Indians were afraid to venture too close and as their guns would only carry about 125 yards they were not in a position to do much damage [to the ship].”
“One Indian sharpshooter was concealed behind a stump about where the Grand Opera House now is, and he did the only damage inflicted upon the whites,” Bagley continued. “He killed two. A 17-year-old lad by the name of Milton Holgate, and a stranger by the name of Robert Wilson.”
A decade ago, historian Lorraine McConaghy wrote the definitive history of the USS Decatur and the Battle of Seattle, a deeply researched and riveting account called “Warship Under Sail”. Dr. McConaghy said last week that it’s unclear how much ordnance was fired on Seattle that day more than 162 years ago, but it was probably a significant amount.
And based on memoirs of settlers and Navy personnel who took part, the Decatur apparently fired a lethal assortment, including 32-pound cannon balls; “chain shot” (consisting of two smaller cannon balls connected by a length of chain and designed to mow down masts of sailing ships or whatever else happens to be standing in the way); “grape shot” (small pieces of shrapnel); and perhaps even exploding shells.
A detachment of Marines from the Decatur was also on shore and was firing explosive shells from a howitzer (or large, portable gun). One witness later described how he saw a group of natives catch one of these with a blanket as the shell neared the end of its range. They joined hands and began dancing around the blanket-wrapped shell, the witness said, and then, a few seconds later, it exploded and killed as many as 10 people.
When it was all over, as Bagley described, two Americans were dead from sniper fire. An unknown number of natives had been killed, with estimates in various accounts ranging from zero to more than 100.
There would be more deaths of Native Americans and settlers, but after January 26, 1856, the most violent single-day episode of those years had passed.
Either way, the event also marked the arrival of brutal, mechanized combat in Seattle more than five years before the Civil War.
With the quantity of material fired by the Decatur now strewn around the settlement and adjoining woods, it perhaps didn’t count as “news” when cannon balls and other relics were found in and around downtown immediately after the Battle of Seattle and for the next few decades.
In fact, Clarence Bagley said in 1920 that in “the old days it was not uncommon to find a cannon ball or a shell in the woods in what is now Seattle’s business district.”
Thus, it’s not until 1890, or more than 30 years after the battle, that we find the first newspaper account of such a discovery.
Second & Cherry, August 1890
On August 20, 1890, laborers digging at the corner of Second and Cherry for Dexter Horton’s new bank building found what was described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a “12-pound cannon ball.” It was picked up by Darius Horton, bank founder Dexter Horton’s nephew.
Where did it end up?
It’s not absolutely confirmed, but a cannon ball that mostly fits this description was donated by Seafirst Bank executive Walter B. Latimer to MOHAI in 1961 and remains in the museum’s collection.
Seventh & Seneca, October 1891
On October 21, 1891, a Seattle resident named Gilbert W. Hapgood was digging a posthole in his yard at the corner of Seventh and Seneca, which is now under Interstate Five. Two feet below the surface he found “a ball such as is attached to a chain shot.” Hapgood was able to have Henry Yesler, who built the mill on the waterfront in 1853, verify that this was indeed a relic of the Battle of Seattle.
Where did it end up?
The paper said, “Mr. Hapgood intends to preserve the cannon ball, put it in an antique oak case and send it to the World’s Fair, as a relic of Seattle’s pioneer dangers.” It’s unclear if Mr. Hapgood followed through on his plans, and the location of this particular cannon ball is unknown.
Main Street between Third & Fourth Avenues, September 1905
A six-inch diameter, 32-pound cannon ball was found in September 1905 at Main Street between Third and Fourth Avenue by workers digging the Great Northern Tunnel. This was location was “500 feet west of the stockade,” said The Seattle Times, where many Seattle residents were taking shelter. This artifact was authenticated by local historian and author Edmond S. Meany, who took possession of it for what was described as the “museum at the State University.”
Where did it end up?
That museum at the University of Washington is now known as the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture. They reported this past Friday that they transferred their one and only cannon ball to MOHAI back in 1980; MOHAI confirmed later the same day that it is indeed still in the MOHAI collection.
Beacon Hill, September 1920
Seattle City Engineering Department workers found a three-inch diameter cannon ball weighing about four pounds that may have been chain shot. It was discovered on Beacon Hill between Judkins and Addition Streets near 12th Avenue South.
For this particular discovery, the Engineer Department reached out to historian and author Clarence Bagley. He said there was no doubt this was a relic from the Decatur. Bagley also recalled that Dexter Horton had found a similar artifact near Third Avenue and Columbia Street sometime in the 1850s or 1860s. Horton, Bagley said, had placed the object on the ground near a fire and it exploded. Horton was “showered with limbs and dirt but not injured,” Bagley said.
Bagley also told the newspaper about his own earlier finds of cannon balls in downtown Seattle.
“In 1865 I was chopping wood near Second Avenue and Madison Street when the bit of my axe struck a cannon ball similar to the one found the other day, which had been buried in a log,” Bagley said.
“I found a number after that and used them for dumbbells,” he said.
Where did it end up?
The whereabouts of this cannon ball are unknown. Same goes for Clarence Bagley’s dumbbells.
Does MOHAI have Seattle founder Arthur Denny’s “personal” cannonball?
One of the five cannon balls in MOHAI’s collection was donated to the museum in 1952 by the late Sophie Frye Bass. Bass is known as the author of the classic “Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle” and is the granddaughter of Seattle founder Arthur Denny. The research library at MOHAI’s Georgetown facility is named for her.
In a profile of Arthur Denny published on January 2, 1891 by a newspaper in Olympia called The Washington Standard, the author describes the interior of Denny’s home on Seattle on Front Street (now First Avenue). Sitting down in the home’s library, the author reports that Arthur Denny had a “big grape-shot and a cannon-ball, reminiscent of the early Indian wars” on display.
Perhaps Arthur Denny gave (or bequeathed) this rusty yet priceless relic to his history-loving granddaughter, and then she, in turn, passed it on to MOHAI.
Unless, of course, Clarence Bagley got a hold of it first and turned it into a dumbbell.