Book Review:
Yankee on Puget Sound: Pioneer Dispatches of Edward Jay Allen, 1852-1855

  • Posted 4/25/2014
  • Essay 10764
By Karen L. Johnson & Dennis M. Larsen
Paperback, 208 pages
Photographs, maps, notes, bibliography, index
Washington State University Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0-87422-315-6

A Yankee on Puget Sound: Pioneer Dispatches of Edward Jay Allen, 1852-1855 rescues from the historical dustbin the letters and life story of Edward Jay Allen, a witness to Puget Sound's earliest years of non-Native settlement. Allen, an adventurous 22-year-old from Pennsylvania, wrote letters home that were then published in the Pittsburg Dispatch between 1852 and 1855. Co-authors Karen L. Johnson and Dennis M. Larsen weave Allen's letters together with letters written to him by family members. These letters were rather remarkably saved from a trash heap outside a family estate sale by a curious passer-by. 

Allen's timing placed him repeatedly in the middle of Washington Territory's formative moments.  En route from Portland to the Puget Sound, for example, he paused at Cowlitz Landing and was present at the convention convened to separate Washington Territory from Oregon Territory. 

The co-authors quote Allen's letters copiously, to the book's credit. Allen's easy style of writing in these letters that (despite their eventual publication in the newspaper) were meant for family members is warmly engaging. During his weeks in Portland after his successful but arduous transcontinental migration, for example, Allen confesses to "trying to restrain within decent limit my appetite, which in voraciousness had become absolutely unnatural." Explaining the dangers ships faced when navigating the Columbia bar, Allen concludes, "No city up the Columbia, therefore, can be the New York of Oregon." Within the complexly twisted strands of Indian/non-Indian male-female relations in 1853, Allen gives us: "If I wanted to hire an Indian to bring oysters, carry shingles to the beach, or pile brush when clearing, do you think he would come? No sir, he would send his squaws." 

Allen sailed home in 1855. His pen had painted Oregon Territory for Eastern readers for three years. When he died in Pittsburg in 1915, this book tells us, Olympia newspapers published his obituary. 

This is a fascinating volume documenting near-forgotten vignettes of life in Washington Territory during its earliest incarnation. Of interest to anyone seeking a window into life in 1850s Oregon and Washington Territories from a very personal perspective. 

By Paula Becker, April 25, 2014

Submitted: 4/25/2014

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