Back to Online Newspapers

The Wilkes expedition and JBLM on the 4th

First area celebration was here

A marker commemorates the first 4th of July celebration west of the Missouri River. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

The first 4th of July celebration in the Pacific Northwest occurred Monday, July 5, 1841, at Sequalitchew Lake.

As per the custom of the time, holidays were not celebrated on Sundays.

The land that now comprises Washington, Idaho, Oregon and parts of Montana was known as the "Oregon Country." In accordance with an 1818 agreement with Great Britain, the United States had created an informal joint occupation of the region.

An agreement had yet to be reached with the British to establish the northern border of the United States at the 49th parallel.

Located in what is today DuPont, the British had built Fort Nisqually near Sequalitchew Creek in 1833 as part of their Hudson Bay Company's operations on Puget Sound. Named after the Sequalitchew Nisqually Indians, the indigenous people, the creek flows from Sequalitchew Lake down a canyon to the Puget Sound.

Accompanying the establishment of the fort was a Christian mission.

In 1839, Methodist minister and doctor John Richmond and a small number of settlers began a journey that eventually led them to Fort Vancouver, located on the north bank of the Columbia river in present day Vancouver, Washington. On June 13, 1840, Richmond received an appointment to be the superintendent of the mission at Fort Nisqually.

Unrelated to Richmond's activities, Capt. Charles Wilkes was working his way toward Fort Nisqually. Ambitious and somewhat autocratic, Wilkes' seamanship and intelligence concerning nautical investigations won him scientific recognition and led to his appointment as head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments (later the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office).

In 1836, he led a commission to Europe to purchase scientific equipment for naval explorations. Two years later, President Martin Van Buren authorized the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842).  Its mission was to circumnavigate the globe and chart the Antarctic and the Pacific Coast of North America.

Wilkes was given command of the expedition, which soon became known as the Wilkes Exploring Expedition. On May 2, 1841, the Wilkes Expedition dropped anchor at Discovery Bay, halfway between modern-day Port Townsend and Sequim.

Sailing south into Admiralty Inlet and the Puget Sound, Wilkes' expedition arrived at the mouth of the Sequalitchew Creek, May 11, and approached Fort Nisqually.

The British welcomed him and his crew; soon, Wilkes established a scientific observatory near the fort. Wilkes and Richmond met, and a working relationship developed.

Since the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was approaching, the two men decided to throw a celebration of the 4th of July.

But since the 4th fell on a Sunday, the celebration was held the following day.

Those festivities made history.

On a patch of prairie on the northern end of Sequalitchew Lake, the celebration marked the first Independence Day observance in the continental states west of the Missouri River.

In his address to a group of 600 individuals comprised of sailors, missionaries, members of the Hudson Bay Company trading post, Marines and Native Americans, Richmond said, "They will assemble on the Fourth of July ... and renew their fidelity to the principles of liberty embodied in the Declaration of Independence."

Wilkes described a day filled with a parade, the barbecuing of an ox, the firing of cannons, and horse racing as a "full day's frolic and pleasure."

In 1906, the site of that first celebration west of the Missouri was memorialized with a granite monument attended by area dignitaries, including one Chief Koquilton, who had witnessed the 1841 festivities.

In 1917, Camp Lewis was built and over the years has become part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's history.

Read next close


Spank this burger

comments powered by Disqus