James Swan

James Gilchrist Swan (1818-1900) lived among the Lower Chinooks from 1852 to 1855, meticulously documenting their fast-disappearing way of life. Curiously, however, his assessment of Washington Hall seems at odds with other accounts of that rascally founder of Chenookville.

A rare first-hand account of a frontier court session is provided us by James G. Swan, the earliest historian/anthropologist to live for any length of time on the shores of Shoalwater Bay in the area that would soon become Pacific County.

From 1852 to 1855 he conscientiously took note of the lifestyle of the Chinook peoples and the activities of the early settlers. In his book, “The Northwest Coast or Three Years Residence in Washington Territory,” Swan gave this delightful description of the U.S. District Court at Chenookville in Pacific County in the new Territory of Washington. This portrayal is often used by historians to illustrate the tribulations encountered in the halls of frontier justice.

…The building selected as a courthouse was a small one-story affair, measuring about 12 feet by 15, or somewhere near that; At all events, it was so circumscribed in its limits that, when the jury were seated, there was barely room left for the judge, clerk of the court, and counsel, while the sheriff had to keep himself standing in the doorway. The outsiders could neither see nor hear till some one suggested that a few boards be knocked off the other end of the house, which was soon done, and served the purpose admirably. The grand jury were then called in and sworn and the usual forms gone through. There was nothing of importance on hand except a case of homicide, and the judge charged particularly on that point… The grand jury, having been duly instructed, were marched into old M’Carty’s zinc house near by, as that was the only unoccupied place in town. There were but two rooms in this house, one of which contained several hogsheads of salt salmon, and all of M’Carty’s nets and fishing gear, and had certainly an ‘ancient and fish-like’ perfume. Now a grand jury are presumed to do their business in a very quiet manner, and, to further the ends of justice, a culprit must not know that there is any bill against him till it is popped in his face by the sheriff; but old Mac’s zinc house was just as sonorous as a drum, and, for all purposes of secrecy, we had better have held our deliberations on the logs of Chinook beach than where we were. The outsiders either crawled under the house or stood outside, where they could hear perfectly well what was going on… When the jury was called and the challenges exhausted, it was found that there were no more persons to draw from. So, the two counsels agreed on a compromise, which was, that nine jurors should be selected from among the grand jury who had just solemnly rendered a true bill against the prisoner…

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