Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gig Harbor’s Heritage

I happened upon an old essay entitled “History of Gig Harbor” in the Research Room at the Harbor History Museum, but it bears no date nor author’s name.  However I found it rather interesting and thought perhaps you might as well.  You can tell it is older as it is on mimeograph paper - you know the kind with one side slick, the other not.  And, of course the print has a habit of rubbing off it handled roughly.  But here is what the paper reveals about the history of Gig Harbor.

Nearly everyone is curious to know how a place derives its names, so the following explanation will make it clear the reason Gig Harbor was named as it is. 

When the United States Government sent Captain Charles Wilkes to explore Puget Sound in 1841, some of his men were cruising around in rowboats belonging to the flagship of the expedition which was anchored in the narrows, when suddenly a storm arose and they had to rush to a place of safety.  It so happened that the smallest boat, called the captain’s gig, sighted the entrance to a harbor and rowed through to see what he could find.  It proved to be the smallest bay or harbor they had ever seen, so they named it after the captain’s gig.

“Gig Harbor is a natural landlocked bay, with a sandpit reaching out from the east side that leaves for entrance to the narrows a channel only wide enough for an ordinary steamer at low tide.  It is one and a fourth miles long and a mile wide at the north end, called the “head of the bay”.

“It is no easy matter for us to picture the spot in 1867 when the first settlers, Samuel Jerisich, a Dalmatian, John Farragut, a Spaniard, and Peter Goldsmith, a Dalmatian who had changed his name, partners in the fishing industry, came to make their homes on the east side, just inside the entrance.  Imagine, if you can, thick forests surrounding the harbor —no paths, no roads, no clearings, not even a skid road.  Tacoma was unknown and trips to Steilacoom or Olympia, the nearest markets, for mail and supplies, were made in rowboats.

“Their first homes were log houses, intended to be permanent, with fireplaces for heating and cooking, and with a few small windows, bought with money from the sale of fish.  But soon the government gave orders to evacuate the reservation which the settlers knew nothing about, and they moved to the west side which was open to settlement.  Here they bought small tracts of waterfront land just inside the entrance and built small houses of lumber, brought from Olympia in their big fishing boat.

“Fish were very plentiful, but the market was limited, as the Indians controlled the market at Steilacoom, Olympia and Nisqually.

“Jerisich was the only one of the three men who was married.  He brought with him a full-blooded Indian wife and child from Vancouver, B. C. (British Columbia - his wife was a member of the First Nation Tribe) and they reared a family of five girls and three boys, six of whom lived to take important places in the business and community life of their home town as it grew.

Samuel and Annie Willets Jerisich

“Mrs. Jerisich was a wonderful woman; capable, resourceful, industrious, brave and independent; sawing and splitting wood, drawing and carrying water from the sprains; making and tending the garden; making and mending the fishing nets by hands.  She picked wild berries for table use, drying the surplus, as canning processes were unknown; stood on the beach and dipped a pail down to get herring, smelt or trout for supper; frightened wildcats and bears away by beating on a tin pan; made candles of bear’s grease or beef or mutton tallow from the flocks and herds of the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Nisqually.  Bear and deer were easy to procure and she dressed them, cooking over an open fire and a Dutch oven, to break the monotony of a too frequent fish diet.
Annie Willets Jerisich and daughter Julia and granddaughter

“She had all the arts of the Indian women and readily learned all those of the white women whom she contacted; learning to spin, weave, knit and crochet after seeing other women do these things; sewing by hand and cutting out children’s clothing, women’s dresses and men’s suits without a pattern.  She acted as mid-wife and nurse for the neighbors as they multiplied and she took her place in society and community affairs and expanded with the community.

“After a few years came Joe Dorotich, John Novakovich and John Jurich, to swell the colony of Dalmatian fishermen.  Dorotich married the oldest Jerisich girl and John Novakovich changed his name to Novak and married a Puyallup Indian woman.

“The first white settlers in Gig Harbor were Samuel Jerisich, a native of Yugoslavia, Peter Goldsmith, and John Farragut, a Spaniard, who found the harbor in 1867 while seeking refuge from a gale.  Making an adventurous journey from British Colombia, the three fishing partners rowing their flat-bottom skiff, followed the course through the Straits of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound charted 26 years earlier by the Willkes’ Expedition.

“They were quick to see the advantages of the harbor and each took up a homestead.  The first cabin was built by Jerisich on the east side of the harbor near the sandpit.  Disliking the location, he moved across the bay to the west side where he built a 7-room house and later erected several cottages on the beach.  (Actually his first location was part of the US Government Military Reservation)

“Jerisich was a fisherman.  In those early days Tacoma was unknown and he had to row to Steilacoom or Olympia to sell the fish.  On the first dock built in Gig Harbor he erected a rendering plant for the extraction of dogfish oil, which at that time brought $1 a gallon.  He also had a smokehouse and warehouse for the storage of smoked and salted fish.

Born in Yugoslavia:  Born in Kotor, Yugoslavia in 1833, Jerisich, at an early age, shipped before the mast in a sailing vessel and rounded the Horn three times before he left the sea and located in San Francisco.  Later, he came to British Columbia where he married Annie Willet.  They had 8 children, 3 boys and 5 girls.  Jerisich died Dec, 23, 1905, and his wife died in 1926.

“No other settlers came to the harbor for a period of 16 years when in July, 1883, Joseph Goodman brought his family from Tacoma by steamboat—-the “Zephyr” which with another steamboat, the “Messinger” then plied between Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia.  AT Goodman’s request, the captain of the “Zephyr” stopped the boat at the entrance to the harbor and the family and household goods were put ashore on the sandpit.  For a time the Goodmans lived in the cabin built by Jerisich, later moving over the skid road to what is now Crescent Valley.
Joseph and Rose Richt Goodman, July 29, 1897

“In January, 1886, Anna Goodman, at 17, began teaching in the first school in Gig Harbor.  She received $30 a month for the 4-month term.  The schoolhouse was a shanty donated by the Indians for the use of the white man and stood on the site now owned by Harold Roby across from the Peninsula Light Company’s office (Harbor History Museum)  There were no desks—only a bench built against the wall.
Lucy Goodman replaced her sister as teacher, and this is her 1924 class

“The first pupils who attended the school were John, Mike, Sam, Melissa and Katherine Jerisich, also Pete St. Louis, Lee and Cora Goodman and William Peterson whose parents lived on Vashon Island.

“Splendid Moorage:  Since Jerisich pioneered the industry, the fish business has always been mainly in the hands of the Yugoslavian people.  Other early fishermen of this nationality who found Gig Harbor a hospitable moorage for their boats were Skansie brothers; Peter, who came to the harbor in 1889, and Andrew, Mitchell and Joe, who came a little later, John Ross, Lucca Ross, John Novak, Lee Makovich, Pasco Dorotich, Nicholas Castelan, John Cosuich and many others.”    

There are many other recollections and histories of Gig Harbor through the ages, which can be found in Little Histories Gig Harbor, Washington by Jack R. Evans, 1988; Along the Waterfront, a History of the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula Area, Complied and written by Students of 1974-75 Goodman Middle School, Gig Harbor, Washington; and An Excellent Little Bay, A history of the Gig Harbor Peninsula, by J. A. Eckrom to name just a few.  But it is always interesting to look back through the eyes of those who made and wrote about the history at their time.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

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