James Swan's Diary

James Swan's Diary Discussion

The story was recorded by James Swan (1818-1900), a prolific diarist and early resident of Washington (1852) who served as the first school teacher at the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay (1862-1866). This story has been cited by Heaton and Snavely (1985) and Hutchinson and McMillan (1997). The version given here comes directly from Swan's original journal (1864).

The story is a seemingly straightforward description of sea level changes, with water flowing from Neah Bay through Waatch Prarie, making Cape Flattery an island. This story is set at some time in the indefinite, but not-distant past. It describes relatively rapid sea level changes that might conceivably be associated with an tsunami, but without any report of shaking, It includes canoes in the trees, many dead, and population disruptions. Heaton and Snavely (1985) point out that some elements of the story; such as the water being warm, and the very slow rise and fall of the water; seem inconsistent with a tsunami.

From the Diary of James Swan JANUARY 1864, Tuesday 12th

Flood Story

Today took an inventory of Government property for Mr. Webster. Billy Balch came in this evening and gave me a very lucid explanation why the spirits of the dead did not molest me. He says that it is because we have a cellar in the house and a floor over it. But in Indian houses there is nothing but the bare ground or sand. That when any of the Indians are alone in a great house and make a fire and cook, that the mimilos or dead come up through the earth and eat the food and kill the Indian, but he thinks they can't came up through our floors although as he says he would be afraid to try to sleep alone here for there might be some knot hole or crack in the floor through which they could come.

Billy also related an interesting tradition. He says that "ankarty" but not "Irias ankarty" that is at not a very remote period the water flowed from Neah Bay through the Waatch prairie, and Cape Flattery was an Island. That the water receded and left Neah Bay dry for four days and became very warm. It then rose again without any swell or waves and submerged the whole of the cape and in fact the whole country except the mountains back of Clyoquot. As the water rose those who had canoes put their effects into them and floated off with the current which set strong to the north. Some drifted one way and some another and when the waters again resumed their accustomed level a portion of the tribe found themselves beyond Noothu where their descendants now reside and are known by the same name as the Makah or Quinaitchechat.

Many canoes came down in the trees and were destroyed and numerous lives were lost. The same thing happened at Quillehuyte and a portion of that tribe went off either in canoes or by land and found the Chimahcum tribe at Port Townsend.

There is no doubt in my mind of the truth of this tradition. The Waatch prairie shows conclusively that the waters of the ocean once flowed through it. And as this whole country shows marked evidence of volcanic influences there is every reason to believe that there was a gradual depressing and subsequent upheaval of the earth's crust which made the waters to rise and recede as the Indian stated.

The tradition respecting the Chimatcums and Quillehuyte I have often heard before from both these tribes.


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