Unsolved mysteries—Maxwelton Mystery Ship—revisited

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A sunken ship. A box of bones that goes missing. Oral history shared by island Native Americans about a ship with a broken mast. Murder of a crew. Tall tales?

Professor Herbert Fish and Chief Snakelum of the Penn Cove Long Houses. The crack in the photo is from a glass negative. Photo shared by Bill Haroldson

John Williamson lives in the Maxwelton Valley and believes there is truth about a sunken ship in the marshes, dating back to the 1850’s. His wife Rebecca’s grandfather, Herbert Fish, was a history professor at Central Washington University in Ellensburg (aka CWU), who learned of the myth of the sunken ship through conversation with a South Island Indian chief named William Shelton.

I talked with John last week and he kindled interest in a mystery that has yet to be solved.

Early Langley Native American William Shelton

Chief William Shelton, was born on July 4, 1868 at Sandy Point, near Langley. His work is remembered in sacred totems and in his efforts to bridge the gap between Native Americans and white culture. Photo shared by John Williamson

“Rebecca’s grandfather was head of the history department at Ellensburg. He came here in around 1905 to gather information. He had knowledge of pre-European cultures. There is a brief that speaks to the first sailing ship that came into Useless Bay with a broken mast. Men came ashore with their animals. They went into Maxwelton Valley to gather a tree, removing its limbs preparing to take it out. A group of Indians attacked the shore party. They killed some of the crew. The main ship sailed away, leaving the smaller ship in the valley. It silted over and filled up with mud. The Burleys later moved to that location in the Maxwelton Valley.

“Leon Burley was ten when he crossed the West with his family. His family was part of a group of families which put in a tide gate to reclaim the the Maxwelton Valley for farmland. About thirty years ago, I went over and talked to him. He stopped and leaned on his pitchfork and pointed right over to the property along the valley floor, where he said it was located. Mentioned his family would hit something with their plows from time to time. Mr. Burley told me they removed chains and a cleat from a boat below that never rotted, due to its being in low-oxygen mud. People were killed there was what he had heard. He remembers his father talking about it.

“Across from the (Maxwelton) fire department is the old school house. There was a box in the attic full of human bones rumored to be possibly from that event. When Mr. Burley passed away, fifteen, twenty years now, the family had to clear the property out and sold it. One of the Burley family remembered the bones and told my wife. At some point the bones were moved out. We don’t know where they went when the school house was sold. Bottom line, there is written documentation by Professor Fish, who was writing a book with Chief William Shelton. They were writing it together. It was called The Totem Maker. Professor Fish died before the book was finished.”

The written documentation John Williamson refers to is in the form of letters Professor Fish wrote back and forth with Tulalip chief William Shelton, aka Wha-cah-dub, Whea-kadim, who was born on July 4, 1868, at Sandy Point, Whidbey Island. William Shelton, shared the story of the ship’s attack with Professor Fish, whose letters were donated to CWU’s history department, which donated them to the City of Ellensburg Library. A copy of these letters is also available at the South Whidbey Historical Society.

According to Historylink.org, Chief Shelton served as an ambassador between his people and the incoming white settlers following the Point Elliott Treaty:

“The Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 that placed natives on reservations, attempts at assimilating local tribes into the main culture led to cultural genocide. Natives were forbidden to speak their language and practice tribal customs at Indian boarding schools.  Greatly fearing this loss, William Shelton spent his entire life gathering, preserving and sharing the remaining traditions still in the memories of his own family and regional tribal elders.”

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Two weeks later — week of August 2 — John sent a photo of Chief William Shelton. We mistakenly ran one of Coupeville’s Chief Snakelum at first, which we have since corrected.  Here is what John writes in his latest email:

“You brought up a memory I had of Chief Snakelum in that in going through family papers years ago I found a school paper of Professor Fish’s oldest Daughter Virginia Fish. She was able to go with her father to talk with Chief Snakelum , a day and adventure she shared in a school essay and as I remember she got a C+.
“At the time the tribe had already been forced to the reservation and the Chief and his wife were there at the Penn Cove long house by themselves.
“She (Virginia Fish) spoke of them as mystical, and a magical sort of thing.  She said that the structure was lined full of clothing and stuff pilled about and that as the Chief spoke you could almost see him turn to smoke and blow away in the wind.
“We still have that school paper somewhere and it’s attached to the photo you had of them with her dad.
“We visited her in Ellensberg once and asked her of the paper and she remembered it very well and talked of it.  She would have been in her 80’s then. The year after we asked her of it, she got one of the cousins to drive her back to Whidbey Island and went back to the spot to see if there was anything left.
“The other item of your photo , we found that photo on a glass negative, and when we took to a photo shop to get it made to a photo they dropped it and broke it.  that is why you see it in that condition .
“If you wanted more information on Chief Snakelum there is more.
“Lastly, I am sure you are aware of the single grave out at Snakelum Point? right off the side of the road in the woods.  If not you need to find it and check it out. I have seen things there where the Chief’s grandfather and some others are buried that seems so reverent and yet mystical, just like Virginia had noticed so many years ago. A very special place. the Natives still honor them and its kind of like going to church.

Bill Haroldson, president of the South Whidbey Historical Society, holds a wood remnant that a Maxwelton Valley farmer believes belonged to a sunken ship on his property

John Williamson contacted the South Whidbey Historical Society a couple of years ago and spoke with its president, Bill Haroldson, perking Bill’s interest in the supposed sunken ship. This is Whidbey’s photographer David Welton and I visited with Bill at the museum on Second Street in Langley. The museum is currently closed to the public, in concurrence with social distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bill picked up a piece of wood, one that Farmer Burley found out in his field. It contains drilled holes and old barnacles. It has not been tested for its content. From what he has learned, Bill believes the boat sunk in an area the size of a football field near French and Maxwelton roads in Clinton.

Stay with his narrative as it eventually gets to the point of this story.

“Let me ramble,” Bill says, while we’re seated in the parlor of the museum on July 20. “Cora Cook, probably wrote more than anyone. Cora Cook used to write for the Spindrift, a promotional thing. Her lineage goes back to Paul Cunningham, her father, who used to ride as a substitute for Wild Bill Cody. He ended up here in 1905, where Sebo’s Do-It Center is now. He became acquainted with William Shelton, a Native American. Cora Cook’s allusion to Vancouver’s ship discovering the wreck is wrong. I’ve gone through Vancouver’s logs. Maybe it’s a Spanish galleon. Some early settlers say they discovered the boat in 1859. Cora muses that Indians or pirates might have sunk the ship. She liked to embellish her stories.”

In an undated copy of The Spindrift, Cora Cook writes: “Behind Maxwelton today we find a large marshland diked off from the sea. Indeed this cat-tails filled marsh is the core where Captain Vancouver’s sailors found the old hull. The remains of this old ship were rediscovered in 1859 by the first white settlers of Deer Lagoon, Thomas Johnson and Edward Oliver. They also found wild oxen roaming among the trees. Is it possible the oxen were aboard the ill-fated ship? Had the ship landed to find timber for a new mast?

Evidence or folly of a sunken ship in the 1850s? Bill Haroldson of the South Whidbey Historical Society holds a piece of wood found on a farm where a ship supposedly sank

“Perhaps the ship’s captain and crew were killed by local Indians. It is even remotely possible the ship contained a pirate crew which fell to quarreling over booty. In the sands of Sunlight Beach on the Double Bluff side my father found two skeletons. One had a broken arm, another a fractured jaw. Could they have been part of the crew, victims of some unknown tragedy?”

My question is whether Cora’s father’s reference of the two skeletons were the same ones that wound up in a box on Burley’s farm. Who knows?

Bill Haroldson’s theory is that following the 1855 treaty, “Native Americans gave up everything for nothing. Basically, they were shafted. They knew if they went to war for their land, there was no way they could win. In 1857 a group of Natives by Sandy Point (outside of Langley) were in opposition to the treaty —it’s in Tulalip by Harriet Shelton, written by William Shelton’s daughter. We know there was violence in 1857. The Blue Wing was sailing from Tacoma to Pt. Townsend. I heard they were captured and the ship was sunk.

“There were hard feelings after the treaty was signed. If someone took your land and said here’s government housing at Fort Lewis, you’d say, ‘go fly a kite.’ There were Native American settlements at Cultus Bay. About 1850 settlers started coming in. Some natives were here year-round and some seasonly. There were settlements at Sandy Point.”

Ann Linnea read Captain Vancouver’s logs and found no evidence his crew found a sunken ship. However, she does not deny the possibility that there could be something buried in the marsh. In Journey through Maxwelton Watershed, she writes about the marsh and farm field owned by Leon Burley, a 20-acre farm bounded by Maxwelton and Quade creeks. A Salish tribe once lived on the south end of Whidbey.

Vancouver’s logs from his 1792 exploration in the Discovery do not mention shipwrecks, she writes.

“The legend of the Maxwelton Shipwreck has several elements of historical truth. Yet because of the lack of recorded information, many ‘facts’ can never be checked—the age, size, name and exact location of the shipwreck—and so it must remain part of the unverified lore of Maxwelton.”

Thinking the site might be viewed by radar to determine if a shipwreck lies beneath the marsh, Bill Haroldson contacted Scott Williams, Cultural Resources Program Manager with the Washington State Dept. of Transportation Environmental Services office.

I spoke with Scott by phone last week.

“One thing with myths, there is some basis for truth,” he said. “If they hit the chain and cleat with a plow, plows went only 6 or 8 inches then. Seems if a ship were buried, it would be deeper. They could have hit a chain and cleat from something else. Maybe someone was exploring, or found a ship’s chain and cleat they were doing something else with. Having said that, there are examples where they get silted over, not usually something you’d hit with a a plow, I wouldn’t say it is impossible, it could be something. Pirates are a favorite theory. One thing we see over and over, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is farmers when they’re plowing, they’ll hit Indian burials. There’s a famous case in Oregon where a guy claimed he hit an 8-foot tall African. How someone knows that is anybody’s guess. Bones that were found could have been broken naturally, could have been taken. We’ve been researching an old shipwreck in Oregon from 1693. We learned from Native American oral history that Europeans were on the Northwest coast that are not written in the history books.  I’ve heard about slave raiders who were here before Vancouver. Indians’ oral history tells they were taking slaves and raiding.”

Scott adds that ground penetrating radar may not work if the marsh is in saltwater because salt acts as a sort of lead shield which prevents detection. He thought use of a magnetometer might work.

Sandspit that once existed from Useless Bay to Maxwelton Creek is now washed away.

Back at the museum, Bill pulled out an 1872 map showing a now-disappeared sand spit that once extended from Maxwelton Beach to Useless Bay. He says the entry through the sand spit then would have been too shallow for a large ship, but perhaps a smaller one did go through. Perhaps one named The Blue Wing.

“I have read an article on The Blue Wing,” he said. “It was 35-50 feet long. An 1852 story. There is an historical verbal record. Appears this Burley knew about it. Those are the tales that come up and go away. I took photos of the area. Next question is you need money. We don’t have it at our little museum. I did find that UW has equipment which could be attached to a drone. Scott said if the land was radared, they could take a core sample and analyze the wood.”

Estimated costs of a drone-mounted magnetometer could run up to $30,000 Bill guessed. PBS recently ran a NOVA episode depicting detection of a sunken Viking ship in North America, prior to Columbus’ ‘discovery.’ A space archeologist used satellite imagery to locate the ship. Technology exists to solve such mysteries, but at what cost?

John Williamson said, he would move forward if the artifacts were on his property, but permission would have to be granted from its current owners. So far he has not received that permission. John had the thought from reading Professor Fish’s letters, the ship may have had Spanish origins.

Professor Herbert Fish’s manuscript based on conversations with Chief William Shelton

“That isn’t my assumption, it comes from Professor Fish’s letters, that Spanish played with the animals on the beach,” John said. “Something he heard from William Shelton that the crew was Spanish, not English, predating Vancouver’s discoveries. I remember talking to Mr. Burley, who witnessed pulling up pieces of boat equipment while plowing.”

Rich Baker of Whidbey Watershed Stewards, which operates Maxwelton Salmon Adventure was contacted, but did not respond by press time.

Here is a narrative about our local tribes’ reaction to white land entitlement, which supports Bill Haroldson’s theory about some Native American resistance to the 1855 treaty, as excerpted from historylink.org:

“During the spring 1848, Thomas W. Glasgow, after exploring Puget Sound in a canoe, chose a farm site on Whidbey Island, erected a cabin, and planted potatoes, peas, and wheat. Glasgow took an Indian wife, whom he called Julia Pat-Ke-Nim, for companionship and to insure his safety from nearby Indians. After getting established, Glasgow traveled to Tumwater to convince others to join him on fertile Whidbey Island.

“Antonio B. Rabbeson and A. D. Carnefix agreed to settle on the island. They made the journey by canoe, the only mode of travel around Puget Sound except for an occasional Hudson’s Bay Company ship.

“On the journey, the three men took turns cooking and carrying out other camp duties. On the day it was Carnefix’s turn, an Indian stopped at the camp. The man assumed that Carnefix was a slave, since he was performing duties that an Indian slave would perform, and made an offer to Glasgow and Rabbeson to purchase him. The misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, but apparently Glasgow and Rabbeson ribbed Carnefix about it and he took offense, quit the group, and returned to Tumwater. The remaining two men continued on and reached Glasgow’s cabin on the west side of Whidbey Island near Penn’s Cove in July 1848. Penn’s Cove is about 48 miles north of Seattle.

“The Hunt

In August, Indians representing every Puget Sound tribe, including the Chehalis, Nisqually, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, and Snohomish, arrived and set up camp at Penn’s Cove on the east side of Whidbey Island near where Glasgow and Rabbeson where located. Within a three-mile radius of the two men’s cabin, there were, in Rabbeson’s words, “about eight thousand of these wild men.” Although Rabbeson probably exaggerated, the sight of the immense throng of Indians must have been an impressive one.

On the following day, the Indians held a hunt. They constructed a brush and kelp fence across the width of Whidbey Island between Penn’s Cove and the west side. Then they went some distance to the south and used Indian dogs and “whippers-in” to herd deer and other game towards the fence line. Before the day was over the Indians had captured 60 to 70 deer and “large quantities” of other game and “held the biggest barbecue” Rabbeson had ever seen. Then the men — in Rabbeson’s words about “two thousand bucks” — held a dance. Rabbeson stated, “We had a desire to witness the whole of the performance but were advised by Glasgow’s woman [Julia Pat-Ke-Nim] to hide until the excitement was over.”

“Debate on White Encroachment

The cause of Glasgow’s Indian wife’s concern was that many Natives had expressed a desire to force the white settlers to leave Whidbey Island and other Puget Sound settlements. On the third day of the Indian gathering, they held a “big talk” about this and allowed Glasgow and Rabbeson to attend. Julia Pat-Ke-Nim translated the proceedings from the Lushootseed (Puget Sound Salish) language used by the Indians to the Chinook trading language that both settlers probably knew. The first speaker was Chief Patkanim, who was influential with the Snoqualmie and Snohomish Indians. According to Rabbeson he “spoke very bitterly against the Hudson’s Bay Company, and urged that all the tribes combine to attack and destroy the station at Nisqually, divide the goods and stock, and kill or drive off the King George men [British].”

Another Indian, called by Euro-Americans John Taylor, whose tribal affiliation was not given, expressed a desire to also attack the Boston men (Americans) at Tumwater. John Taylor stated that he had visited Willamette valley (Oregon Territory south of the Columbia River) and “had heard that the Bostons, in their own country, were as numerous as the sands on the beach; and, if something was not done to check their coming, they would soon overrun the country, and the Indians would then be transported in fire ships [ships with cannons]to some distant country where the sun never shone, and there be left to die; and what few Indians escaped … would be made slaves. He urged that then [August 1848] was the time to strike terror to the white man’s heart and avoid future trouble.”

“Old Gray Head, who represented the sentiments of the Nisqually and Chehalis Indians, stated that the Boston men at Tumwater protected the southern Puget Sound Indians from slave raids and pillaging by the Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and other tribes. The Duwamish apparently sided with Chief Patkamin. Rabbeson said, “The chief of the Duwamish tribe now arose with a great flourish, and said that as his people occupied the country between the Nisquallies and the Snohomish, he would protect [the Nisqually]. Old Gray Head answered that he would rather have one rifle with a Boston behind it … than all of the Duwamishes …” The discussion between the Indians continued and “hard words” were spoken.

“Outnumbered, according to Rabbeson’s estimate, 4,000 to one, the two men took the Indians’ comments seriously.  The two men abandoned their Whidbey Island cabin, left their household goods and farm implements behind, and headed back to the settlements at the south end of Puget Sound. It would be two more years before settlers would successfully establish themselves along Puget Sound away from the Cowlitz Farms, the Tumwater/Olympia area, and Nisqually and environs.”

And since we had such a great response to the story, I’m including this link, rich in cultural history, from South Whidbey Parks and Recreation and its proposal to develop a campground off Maxwelton Road.

A ship that did sink–the Calista Steamer on July 27, 1922 — learn more by clicking: https://southwhidbeyhistory.org/special-topics/ferries-the-mosquito-fleet/mv-calista/. Photo shared by the SW Historical Society

Looking to hear from interested readers on helping to solve this mystery!

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