Piracy in the Pacific Northwest

In the thousands of inlets, islands, and channels of the Puget Sound area, the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands, and the coasts of Washington and Oregon in general, you’d think there would be a hundred stories of pirates and their conquests. But there are surprisingly few. Most of the action in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s was taking place along the coasts of the Caribbean and the West Indies, where tales of gold and treasure ran rampant, and the fierce coral defenses around the land forms took their tribute in sunken ships.

But there are one or two pirates of that period—Iron Jim Sallow, for instance, who was said to have hidden a treasure somewhere in the Puget Sound area. When one of his crew stole the map to it, he pursued the man relentlessly—so much so that neither was ever heard from again. Neither was the treasure.

Vancouver Island 1700s
An early map of the Vancouver Island and northern Washington area, sadly not the Northwest Passage the fur traders were looking for.

Years later, James Colnett was a member of the British Royal Navy, serving under Captain James Cook for a time. Colnett is remembered largely for his involvement in the Nootka Crisis of 1789—sparked by the fur trade and initially a dispute between British traders and the Spanish Navy over the use of Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The original Lady Washington was also involved. (A replica of this beautiful ship is now at home in the Seattle area and featured in movies and TV shows such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek: Generations, Once Upon A Time, and Revolution.)

Captain Colnett was a hot-tempered sort who seized Spanish ships when that nation declared the west coast belonged to Spain. Things escalated and became an international crisis that led Britain and Spain to the brink of war before being peacefully resolved through diplomacy and the signing of the Nootka Conventions.

A century and a half later, the Prohibition period was downright lively in this neighborhood, with rum-runners bringing whiskey in on small ships in the dead of night, landing on nameless beaches and supplying the speakeasies and saloons of the Pacific Northwest with demon liquor.

And then there was the Wolf of the West, most feared pirate of them all. But that’s for another blog post!

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