Bookmonger: New book sheds light on adventurous Puget Sound pioneer

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 14, 2013 

Chehalis author Karen L. Johnson and Olympia writer Dennis M. Larsen each have a particular interest in the early settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Happily for those of us who are interested in regional history, the two have paired up to research and write "Yankee on Puget Sound."

This new book from Washington State University Press sheds light on a young Puget Sound pioneer who acquired a degree of fame 160 years ago when he sent regular dispatches back to the newspaper in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

Edward Jay Allen had been a sickly young man, but when he was 22 he decided to head west in a "kill or cure" effort to improve his health. The trek along the Oregon Trail was arduous, but the misadventures toughened him up. By the time he reached the West Coast, Allen exulted in being healthy, hale and in the company of "industrious, thinking, God-fearing men - removed leagues from the contaminating influence of an effete civilization...."

It was clear that the young man, in return, made a favorable impression on the settlers who preceded him - very shortly after his arrival he was invited to participate in the Monticello Convention, which devised a partitioning of the vast Oregon Territory into northern and southern sections.

Once that business was accomplished, Allen acquired some cattle and headed north to establish a claim on Budd Inlet, north of Olympia.

Soon thereafter he led a team that endured rugged terrain, food shortages and wild animals (particularly hornet attacks) as it surveyed and laid out the Naches Pass wagon road that would connect Fort Walla Walla to Fort Steilacoom.

In his spare time, Allen toured Puget Sound on a whaling expedition, led the first climbing party to summit Mount Adams, rebuilt his cabin after it had burned down and - despite declaring himself to be no "politicianer" - ran as a Free-Soiler for the Territorial Council of Washington and lost.

Allen's adventures in those three quick years captivated newspaper readers back in Pittsburgh, and the passages he wrote remain fresh today. Whether spouting poetry, describing the magnificent wilderness, poking light fun at some of the characters he encountered (and at himself) or reflecting on the social and political circumstances of the time, Allen was opinionated, eloquent and witty.

These adroit sketches of 19th century life are a real boon to our understanding of what life was like for the early pioneers, and furthermore they're fun to read.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Johnson and Larsen, who engaged in some top-notch sleuthing, transcribed some 150,000 words and piled on thousands of miles as they retraced Allen's travels while researching this project.

As for Allen, he returned to Pennsylvania, married, fought for the Union during the Civil War and raised a family.

Returning to the Northwest twice in the late 1800s, he wrote, "Time has since swept away all that was typical of this area" - giving us all the more reason to read "Yankee on Puget Sound."

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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