With all the concern about the upcoming fishing season and the greatly depleted salmon runs, it is interesting to reflect on what was commonplace in the 1850s and 60s.
The very foundation of what became the community of Puyallup can be credited to the crossing of the Puyallup River by the Longmire-Biles party in early October 1853, during the fish run. James Longmire’s recollection of it, as reported in the Washington Historical Quarterly in April 1932 (Narrative of James Longmire, Pioneer of 1853, WHQ Vol. 23, no 2, p.139) is the most compelling.
As the group was coming down Elhi Hill toward what would later be called Van Ogle’s Crossing, the party was close to starving.
“We found the river low and filled with hump-backed salmon so we armed ourselves with various weapons, clubs, axes and whatever we could get and all went fishing ... some of the party stayed up all night cooking and eating fish.”
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Small wonder that many of these emigrants returned and settled along the banks of the river after the party disbanded.
Ezra Meeker was not only a doer, but also an observer, and he recorded his observations for posterity. Several times he wrote about local salmon runs in “a short creek emptying into the Puyallup River…”, which I believe to be Clark’s Creek.
In a story titled “A Fish Story,” published about 1915 in Uncle Ezra’s Short Stories for Children (republished by the Puyallup Historical Society a few years ago and available at the Meeker Mansion), he tells of following a man driving a yoke of oxen pulling a sled with a large box on it, and harvesting fish with a pitchfork for use as fertilizer in his fields.
“The creek was literally filled with fish — so close together that you couldn’t put your foot down without stepping on a fish nearly as long as your arm and slippery as an eel. He straightaway began to throw them out with his pitchfork and sometimes would actually throw out two at a time.” (p. 21).
Later, in his book “Seventy Years of Progress in Washington Territory,” Meeker writes of his own adventures in this regard.
“In certain seasons I have sent my team, accompanied by two men armed with pitchforks, to load up from the riffle for fertilizing the hop fields…”
He ends this report with the observation: “We all thought, like many farmers thought of their lands, that the soil was inexhaustible, so the belief was that that the supply of fish would continue forever. The history of the salmon fishery has proven the fallacy of this belief.” (p. 280).
Andy Anderson is the historian of the Puyallup Historical Society at Meeker Mansion. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the Meeker Mansion at 253-820-6805.