Peter Callaghan: Fur trader responsible for historic totem pole

Staff WriterMay 13, 2014 

The totem pole in Fireman’s Park in downtown Tacoma has been braced and fenced off. It is believed to have become structurally weak.

PETER HALEY/STAFF FILE, 2013

This year and last weren’t the first times Tacoma held a civic debate over the origins of its totem pole.

Carved in 1903 and erected in time to greet President Teddy Roosevelt, the endangered pole will soon get some help standing under a contract awarded by the city. By summer’s end, a steel pole will be placed behind the historic totem and support arms will grip the totem in two places.

The stabilization ends for now a discussion over whether the pole should be preserved or taken down and allowed to decompose. Among the arguments for the latter was that the pole wasn’t authentic, wasn’t carved by Native American carvers and was insulting to regional tribes.

Without finding conclusive answers to questions about the pole, a special city committee decided it was still worth keeping as a historic artifact — if not of tribal culture then as an example of early Tacoma boosterism.

Tacoman Mardi Clark has taken an interest in the story of the pole — especially in the man who brought it to the city. While the original cost of the pole was shared by Chester Thorne and William F. Sheard, it was Sheard who seems to have been the impetus behind it.

Clark researched Sheard and found that he bought and sold animal furs and skins, antlers and tribal artifacts. His customers included the ultra-rich: the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Russian royal family. Sheard made frequent trips to Alaska and would have been familiar with, and familiar to, Alaska natives.

Clark has little doubt that Sheard would have used native carvers and found what might be a key piece of the puzzle. In 1924, in response to questions from the Metropolitan Park Board which had jurisdiction of the pole, Sheard wrote a letter from his home in Long Beach, California.

According to the Tacoma Ledger of Dec. 14, 1924, Sheard said he commissioned the pole to compete with Seattle, which displayed a totem pole downtown. He wrote that he “tired of reading about it in every magazine and paper published” and decided to “get a larger and better totem pole for Tacoma and stop all the noise about Seattle’s totem pole.”

Sheard wrote that he knew that Alaska tribes did not sell their poles “any more than you would sell your family Bible with its record of family births or the family tombstone.”

Because he did not want to steal a pole from Alaska as Seattle did, he “brought down from Alaska their best carvers, got the stick of cedar from the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company and had it carved in the St. Paul yards, keeping the carvers and their families in Tacoma most of the summer.”

Sheard asserted that the pole is the story of the “Eagle Tribe of Alaska.”

Thorne was a prominent banker and industrialist. His name is still familiar because of his Thornewood Castle in Lakewood. Much less is known of Sheard. His store, near the Tacoma Hotel and the pole, was destroyed by fire in 1913. He didn’t rebuild and retired from the business, later moving to California.

But for 18 years, after arriving from Livingston, Montana, he was prominent in the city and the region. An excellent marksman, Sheard won shooting competitions around the Northwest, as did his first wife, Lizzy. He either invented or purchased the rights to an innovative gun sight that was popular among owners of Winchester rifles.

And he was acquainted with Buffalo Bill Cody. Brian Kamens, researcher at Northwest Room of the Tacoma library, found a 1953 letter to the Tacoma Ledger from a Spokane man who said he witnessed Sheard get tossed out of a Cody performance for heckling. Sheard, it seems, was angry that Cody refused to endorse his gun sight.

Sheard is buried at the Tacoma Cemetery, but other than the pole itself, the only other evidence of his time here stands just off the corner of North Fifth Street and Yakima Avenue. An apartment building now stands where Sheard had built a mission-style mansion. But in the courtyard of the Vista Palms Apartments is a tall palm tree placed there by William and Lizzy Sheard.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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