Ed’s note: An overcast breeze blows across Browns Point today. 215 years ago today, British explorers and local Indians dined here on venison pie, xenophobia and a side of cannibal mythology. Here’s the tale, excerpted from an article that originally published in the News Tribune’s SoundLife section on May 16, 2005.
In the late 18th century, the beaches around Browns Point and Dash Point were warm-weather retreats. Puget Sound was pregnant with salmon and clams. Fertile bluffs bore berries and roots. Deer and quail were for the taking. Puyallups made the junket by canoe. Other tribes trekked over the Cascades to relax, hunt and feast here.
By all historical accounts, the cove between Browns Point and Dash Point also was a nice spot for British explorers to picnic on the pleasantly windy afternoon of May 26, 1792.
Venison pie was on Capt. George Vancouver’s menu that day. It was served with a helping of xenophobia and a side of cannibal mythology that stalked the Pacific Northwest. Dessert was a lesson of cultural assumption.
Vancouver sailed here to find the Northwest Passage in the name of King George III. Mount Tahoma, or Mount Rainier, as Vancouver named it after an old admiral friend, lay before the captain’s anxious eyes.
A compact, circular bay – what is today Commencement Bay – thwarted Vancouver’s progress to the mountain. Rather than wait aboard ship for his officers to return from an expedition to the southwest, Vancouver set off with a small crew in two boats, exploring east of Vashon Island. Around noon, they stopped to eat.
In his journals, Vancouver alternately regarded the Indians he encountered as friendly and annoying. In a May 25 entry, Vancouver wrote that “some of our Indian friends brought us a whole deer, which was the first entire animal that had been offered to us.”
The next day, Vancouver was distrustful of the dozen Indians who were clamming near his picnic spot.
“We here dined,” Vancouver wrote, “and although our repast was soon concluded, the delay was irksome.”
A line had been drawn in the sand: White men here, everyone else there.
Some curious Indians crossed the line.
“They sat down by us,” Vancouver wrote, “and ate of the bread and fish that we gave them without the least hesitation.”
The next course – venison – induced horror.
“They received it from us with great disgust,” Vancouver wrote. “Their conduct on this occasion left no doubt in our minds that they believed it to be human flesh.”
Tales of cannibalism in the Pacific Northwest are as old as Puget Sound itself. Some said it was ritual sacrifice; some saw it as devouring conquered enemies. Vancouver’s expedition, along with European and Chinese traders, introduced their own cultures’ cannibal tales.
“It is not possible to conceive a greater degree of abhorrence than was manifested by these good people,” Vancouver wrote.
In order to calm the horrified Indians, the haunches of the slaughtered deer were retrieved from Vancouver’s ship. Finally satisfied that the food they were offered wasn’t human flesh, they “ate of the remainder of the pie with a good appetite.”
Vancouver’s expedition had met many tribes on its way toward the South Sound region. Some were welcoming. Others drew arms. The cannibalism confusion helped broaden Vancouver’s view of people he savaged in other journal entries.
“This behavior,” Vancouver observed, “whilst in some measure tending to substantiate their knowledge or suspicions that such barbarities have existence, led us to conclude that the character given the natives of Northwest America does not attach to every tribe.”