Constructed on the site of an old Indian village known as Wahoot-sin, Bruceport was the first Euro-American settlement on Shoalwater Bay. There was no natural boat harbor, but the tidal shoreline was rich with native oysters.
Beginning in February 1852, Bruceport went through a series of political changes, first as a part of Lewis County, Oregon Territory. (The village was first called Bruceville, but then became known as Bruceport.) After the establishment of the Washington Territory in 1853, county lines were realigned, and from 1854 to 1860 the village was the county seat of Chehalis County. Once the 1860 boundary of Pacific County was established, Bruceport lost its county seat status. (Following several boundary changes, Chehalis County was renamed Grays Harbor County in 1915. See the Summer 2001 issue of the Pacific County Historical Society's The Sou'wester for the excellent piece on early Pacific County and county boundaries that was written by former state senator Bob Bailey.)
Today, all that remains of the pioneer community are a few scattered homes and a Washington State Parks roadside interpretive sign, which is a mile from the actual site of old Bruceport. The old cemetery, hidden in the nearby forest, has been disturbed by past logging activity.
A road, initially built for horse and wagon travel, was built between South Bend and Bay Center in 1890, which cut through the hills and nearby forest, bypassing Bruceport. Until the early 1930s, when the bayshore automobile highway between South Bend and the Palix River was constructed, the Bruceport area had been served almost exclusively by water transportation. Consequently, the automobile age initally bypassed Bruceport, leaving it in comparative isolation, away from the main roadway.
In November 1851, in pioneer San Francisco, after witnessing the earliest cargoes of oysters brought from Shoalwater Bay, Staten Island natives John Morgan and Mark Winant, along with five partners, purchased the three-year-old, 82-foot schooner Robert Bruce, which had, in the previous year, carried trade between San Francisco and the Sandwich (Hawaiian Islands). The vessel had been constructed in 1848 at Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York.
Morgan and Winant's new partners included Alexander Hanson, Garrett Tyson, Frank Garretson, Dick Milward, and Joseph K. Terry, who was elected to captain the vessel. The men had one strong tie: They all hailed from the New York and New Jersey oyster lands of Staten Island and Long Island. An eighth man, George (Tom) Bartlett, had been a mate aboard the Sea Serpent, the vessel that had earlier brought oysters to San Francisco from Shoalwater Bay. Barlett was the informant who had helped get the Staten Island men and Captain Fieldsted of the Sea Serpent together.
On Dec. 3, no more than a week after the return of the Sea Serpent, the new partners hired a cook and the Robert Bruce promptly set sail from San Francisco. A week and a day later, the vessel arrived at Shoalwater Bay on the overcast day of Dec. 11. For the following four days the men labored to select and prepare their cargo. They culled their catch, selecting only fat and mature oysters.
On Dec. 15, the cook, known as Jefferson, prepared coffee for the tired men. What the crew did not know was that the cook had mixed in laudanum, a treat of opium laced with alcohol. When the crew fell asleep, the cook set fire to the vessel and fled the scene. Fortunately for the drugged crew on board the burning vessel, Bill McCarty (who lived on the Wappaloochie (Chinook) River at the time), and a group of Salish workers were on the north shore of the bay cutting trees for the San Francisco piling market. They hurriedly paddled across the bay to pull the crew to safety before the ship burned to the water line. If not for the miraculous rescue, the story of Bruceport would have ended before it had begun.
Almost 40 years after the event had occurred, John Morgan recalled how he and his fellow crew mates settled Bruceport and founded the oyster company after losing most of their possessions.
"...Garrett Tyson, Frank Garretson, Mark Winant, Alex Hanson, and myself stayed together there for about a year and worked until we got some money ahead and then Garretson and Tyson left. (Garretson went across the bay to Oysterville.) Then myself, Mark Winant and Alex Hanson took in Winant's brother Sam, and formed a new company. Our work was catching the oysters and bedding them and then selling them out to other parties. We all lived together there and each one would sell his oysters out to the best advantage. In the fall of 1854 we bought a schooner, the Mary Taylor, and Hanson and myself ran her, leaving Mark Winant there and brought down Sam Winant, and put him in the (San Francisco) market and started a business here. Then we made regular trips between there and here. We called ourselves Winant and Company." (From the John Stillwell Morgan Manuscripts, 1890, Bancroft Library, University of California. The Mary Taylor was designed and built at New London, Conn., in 1848. It had first been brought to the Northwest as a Columbia River pilot boat.)
Oyster harvesting was done by all available hands. The Indians and their white bosses all gathered or tonged the oysters at high tide. From there they transplanted the catch to culling beds on higher intertidal flats. After being shipped to San Francisco Bay, the oysters were either immediately sold to wholesale and retail merchants, or transplanted again in culling beds in the northern part of San Francisco Bay, where they were kept until ready for market.
With their new found success Winant and Company was the first local company to use its own vessel to transport oysters to San Francisco. In 1853 the cost to the oystermen for a bushel basket of Shoalwater Bay oysters was about one dollar. Morgan recounted that the earliest (1851) shipments to San Francisco had brought as much as $32 a bushel basket. Over the next decade and a half the price settled to $20, then $16, $12, and lower. After the introduction of eastern oysters in 1869, the price dropped to nearly $2 a basket. (By the 1880s San Francisco Bay's business had mainly shifted to eastern oysters. At that time Morgan and Company had taken in the Crellins and several other smaller Shoalwater Bay companies.) Several of these men grew wealthy from the business in native and eastern oysters.
By 1854 the company had purchased another schooner. Morgan recalled, "The four of us bought the Equity and I ran her and Hanson ran the Mary Taylor. We would take freight up and bring back oysters and we continued that until we closed up the business and sold the schooners. I then got married in April, 1860." (Morgan married Sophia Crellin, the sister of John and Thomas Crellin. The marriage brought the two families together to form the long standing Crellin-Morgan Oyster Company.)
Early Bruceport began to take on the appearance of a small village. James Swan, in his "The Northwest Coast" (pp. 319-320), wrote,
"...we had received during the year several additions to the settlement, among whom were Dr. James R. Johnson, with his lady and child...A large grocery had also been opened by Messieurs Coon and Woodward, who also kept a public house. This was another good thing, as it relieved the old settlers from the necessity of entertaining all the strangers and newcomers into the Bay. It, however, was a means of relieving the pockets of the travelers, for Mr. Coon did not arrive in the Bay in that primitive period when hospitalities were gratuitously tendered, but on the contrary, having, as he said, come to make his pile, he appeared anxious to do so in the shortest possible time..."
Bruceport's residents were made up mostly of white oystermen, some with Chinook wives. During its peak of habitation the village included a hotel, a saloon, and was, as previously mentioned, the early county seat of Chehalis County, from 1854 to 1860. The main labor force was made up of Chinook men, who did the heavy work of collecting oysters and handling cargo.
The village was expected to conform to the laws of the territory. Swan commented on the coming of the law to Bruceport: "We had reached that point in the history of the Territory when we were called upon to elect our officers for the Legislature and the country. Now, this was looked upon by the oystermen as a farce, 'For what we did want of laws, we were a law unto ourselves.' " (Swan, pp. 277-278.)
The oystermen conformed, however, and elected a justice of the peace, John Champ, and a constable, Big Charley Denter. Champ was a 65-year-old gentleman who loved his rye whiskey. Denter was a lazy, good-natured logger from the Penobscot River, in Maine. Like his partner, he too loved his whiskey. If the oystermen considered a crime to be particularly heinous they sometimes ignored their lawmen and tried the case themselves. Such was the case in the theft of a pair of rubber boots stolen from one of Bruceport's two stores. The thief, known only as Joe, was apprehended, charged, found guilty, and then flogged and temporarily stowed in a chicken coop. When Dick Milward went to release Joe, he discovered the poor man sucking eggs. A lively debate ensued on whether Joe should be flogged again, but the oystermen relented; they put Joe on a schooner and shipped him out.
The territorial legislatures (first Oregon, then Washington when it became a territory in 1853) passed a series of laws restricting oyster harvesting. First was the prohibition of oyster gathering between May 1 and September 1. Another law prohibited newcomers from participating in the harvest for six months. Although territorial law reached into the local area, the Bruce Boys, both the ship's survivors and their friends, continued to rule their own roost. Often hospitable hosts, the oystermen attempted to wage a war of retribution against anyone who they tried to intrude on their own business. (Robert Espy and Issac Clark could attest to that.)
Several factors point to the eventual decline of Bruceport: the lack of a proper anchorage, poor transportation connections, simply the fact that the village never established any infrastructure or industry (except for some boatbuilding and its dependence on the native oyster), and the big freeze of 1861.
With its loss of the county seat in 1860 and the union of Morgan's oyster company with that of the Crellins, Bruceport's co-control of the bay's oyster industry was handed a harsh blow. Then came the exceptionally cold winter of 1861. If the knowledge of the native oysters' susceptibility to low temperatures had not been understood before it was surely appreciated after that winter.
After the freeze killed most of the bay's oysters, Mark Winant and brothers Sam and James (aka J. J.) left the bay to take up full time residence on the Oregon coast, at Yaquina Bay. Bruceport languished on as an oyster village for another forty years, made up of a dwindling number of small property owners. Following Morgan's departure, and during the period from 1861 to 1865, the native oyster shipments from Yaquina Bay were clearly the major source of San Francisco's oyster business from the Northwest. It was not until the maturation of the oyster sets in 1862, and the following years, that Shoalwater Bay recaptured the leadership role in shipping native oysters to San Francisco. Once the bay's oyster industry had been revived it was clear that Oysterville (for the next decade and a half) stood alone as the center of Shoalwater Bay commerce.
Oysterville to Bruceport
From Oysterville, Captain Whitcomb and son George hoisted the anchors of the sloops Minerva and Pet, set the sails, and crossed the channel, past the northern point of Long Island (Diamond Point). With the help of an ebb tide they easily reached Bruceport. Just like Oysterville, there was no wharf at Bruceport, but several oyster boats of different sizes anchored offshore. Bruceport was no longer the match of Oysterville, but it still was a stop for the California oyster schooners. There were lots of watercraft - all the local oystermen had plungers, a skiff or two, and one or two bateaux.
Next to the Minerva, a San Francisco schooner sat with its prow burrowed into the mud. The crew had unloaded its cargo and were busy loading oysters for their return trip. After loading and waiting for the incoming tide to float free, they would hoist the sails, and another shipment of Shoalwater oysters would be headed for California.
After helping his passengers into the the dinghy (towed by the sloop), Captain Whitcomb managed to pull them a little closer to the water line. Then, sloshing through the shallow water, he carried Susan Miller and son Tom piggy-back to where they could walk from the mudflat to the shore. After a short but muddy walk the Millers found their way to the little hotel run by the Brown family. For four years the Brown's operated their hotel, more like a bed and breakfast, with Mrs. (Elizabeth) Brown, and the four children doing the cooking and much of the work around the place. (The three Brown girls later became Mrs. J. A. Morehead, Mrs. Torvald Throndsen, and Mrs. Charley Peterson. After the Browns left for North Cove, the Heinrich Wiegardt family lived in the house for several years until they moved to Nahcotta in 1897.)
Business had been conducted and the two the two oystermen had reached their destination. A young girl was picked up to visit a family at North Cove. Captain Whitcomb dropped off mail and picked up more, some to be delivered around the bay. After spending a comfortable night at the little hotel along the bayshore, the family enjoyed a breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Afterwards they were loaded into the dinghy and rowed out to the Minerva and Pet. The anchors were pulled and the two sloops set out across the bay to the next stop, North Cove.
The grass is green, the flowers sweet
The loggers' tread with careless feet,
The cables swing, the donkeys blow,
A flunky hastens to and fro.
Old Father Time the people say
Reaped the change and went his way.
On this lone spot a village stood
Close besides a sheltering wood,
There was a store, in itself a story.
Plunger, dinghy, yaw, and dory
Anchored to spend the day,
At "Wahoot-sin" on the bay.
White and Redmen gathered here,
The native oyster every year.
Mallard and curlew, some to spare,
A lonely stranger's tempting fare.
Schooners from Frisco anchored here,
Sturdy captain and stalwart crew,
Thus the own received its name
From a craft which went a-flame.
Trouble brewing without a truce
On the schooner Robert Bruce.
The cook he boiled, he flamed, he stewed,
At the captain, crew, and food.
What did he do with curling lip?
But mutiny and cook the ship.
To save the crew, the Indians came,
And then, forsooth, they got the blame.
The guilty cook had quickly fled
They gave him up as "memaloose," dead.
The old hull was for years, they say,
A touch of color to the bay.
For those who cherish golden dreams,
There's golden bullion so it seems
From California's golden soil.
An ancient trader has his spoil,
Far beneath the sand and clay,
At Wahoot-sin on the bay.
The big waves wash away the shore
Where old "Gee 'Wheet" sings no more,
Where strangers found a welcome glow,
Only the waters ebb and flow;
Only the gulls are left to dwell;
Only "Ta mahn was" sighs farewell.
- Myrtle Johnson Woodcock, 1921
Wahoot-sin - Indian name for Bruceport
Gee "Wheet - Indian doctor of Bruceport
Memaloose - dead
Ta Mahn was - An Indian superstition