Stories from the Salish Sea: Special Collections at the University of Washington

By Maureen Nolan & Lisa Oberg

The Coast Salish peoples have called the Pacific Northwest home from time immemorial, their history and culture integrally linked with the region’s waterways. European explorations of the northeastern Pacific Ocean made by Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century and many others, including the voyages of Captains James Cook and George Vancouver in the 18th century, led to the establishment of White settlements. The region’s rivers and streams were instrumental in the overland search for the Northwest Passage sought by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery and other explorers, who shaped this region. White settlements of the 19th century would come to be centered around those same waterways, including the establishment of Seattle in 1851, which were the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish. [See below for image citations]

The University of Washington (UW) and its marine biology field station, Friday Harbor Laboratories, on San Juan Island are located within the geographical boundaries of what is now known as the Salish Sea. Extending across the U.S.-Canada border, the Salish Sea includes the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, the Puget Sound Basin, the U.S. San Juan Islands, and the Canadian Gulf Islands. Proposed by Bert Webber in 1898, the name Salish Sea encompasses the entire cross-border ecosystem and honors the Coast Salish people, the region’s first inhabitants. (Encyclopedia of Puget Sound)

Special Collections, within the University of Washington Libraries, collects current and historical material relating to the Salish Sea including oceanology, oceanography, fisheries, and natural history across all its collecting areas including University Archives, the Pacific Northwest Collections, rare books, history of science, maps, and other material. The School of Oceanography was formed in 1930, however the UW has offered courses related to the region’s water ecosystems since the early 20th century. 

Professors Trevor Kincaid (1872-1970) and Theodore Frye (1869-1962) founded the University’s marine research lab on San Juan Island in 1904 and Special Collections houses Kincaid’s faculty papers as well as the records of the School of Oceanography and Friday Harbor Laboratories. Special Collections also houses the records of many other faculty including Lauren R. Donaldson, whose research into the effects of radiation on the environment, as part of the Manhattan Project, is frequently used by researchers around the world. The University of Washington is a member of the Orbis-Cascade Alliance and finding aids for all our collections, as well as related collections located at other regional repositories, can be searched for using ArchivesWest.

Beyond the institutional records of the University and its faculty, Special Collections also has material in a variety of formats relating to the people, exploration, and geography of the Pacific Northwest. Maps, such as the Lower Duwamish channel and locks from 1903, document how humans have altered the natural landscape. Many other items in our collection add to the layers of history of our region, including a vast array of periodicals both scholarly and popular such as Pacific Fisherman.

From the earliest arrival of explorers and settlers, a fascination with the region’s unique biota has been the topic of scholarly writing from A review of the fisheries in the contiguous waters of the state of Washington and British Columbia, published in 1900, continuing to the present day with the publication by the University of Washington Press in 2019 of Fishes of the Salish Sea: Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca. All the UW’s library holdings can be found in our library catalog.  

Special Collections houses numerous photograph collections such as the San Juan County, Washington Photograph Album, dating from 1910-1919, which captures some of the earliest research facilities at Friday Harbor.  Our collections also reflect the importance of salmon to the region including the photographic collection Salmon in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska Collection, 1890-1961. Salmon continue to be a significant food source for humans and other mammals native to the region such as the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SKRW), and they are prominent in the culture of the Coast Salish peoples. Our digital collections provide links to visual materials beyond photographs documenting over three centuries of history.

Material from the period of the Spanish Exploration of the Pacific Northwest, etchings from the voyages of James Cook, and diaries such as those of James Gilchrist Swan, all contribute to our understanding of how the region has been shaped by the earliest White settlers. Later, travel guides to the Pacific Northwest, such as the Sketch of the Oregon territory; or, Emigrant’s guide published in 1842, and Sailing directions for the west coast of North America…, from 1853, drew settlers, speculators and more to the rich estuary teeming with marine wildlife, fertile soil and incredible vistas, providing further insight into how early White Settlers and later tourists engaged with the landscape. Publications such as Life at Puget Sound : with sketches of travel in Washington Territory, British Columbia, Oregon, and California, 1865-1881 continued to bring more settlers by sea and overland until the discovery of gold in Alaska ushered an entirely new wave of immigrants in the late 1890s.

Just a few of the Special Collections holdings have been highlighted here. The UW Libraries continues to collect materials relating to our rich history, from preserving the languages spoken by the indigenous peoples who have called this area home for centuries to the influx of students from around the world who come to research fish, flora and fauna at Friday Harbor Laboratories. Having this deep historical record of the area provides opportunities to mark changes over time due to climate change and other challenges to the people, coastlines, and species of the Salish Sea. The Salish Sea continues to provide, challenge and inspire. 

Maureen Nolan, M.Libr., Marine & Environmental Sciences Librarian (Seattle), Head, Friday Harbor Library (FH Labs), University of Washington Libraries,

Lisa Oberg, M.Libr., Interim Director, Special Collections, History of Science and Medicine Curator, University of Washington Libraries,

Image Citations:

  1. Duwamish house and canoe, Shilshole Bay, Seattle, Washington, ca.1898, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, NA 1351
  2. Reference Map for the Salish Sea Bioregion. Aquila Flower, 2020, Salish Sea Atlas, Western Washington University.
  3. Oceanography students aboard a boat, Friday Harbor Laboratories, University of Washington, Friday Harbor, Washington, August 3, 1948, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, NIS(I)374b.
  4. Melville, Melville. Moby Dick, or, The Whale. Garden City, New York : Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1937.
  5. Butterworth, Hezekiah. Zigzag Journeys in the Great Northwest, or, A trip to the American Switzerland. Boston : Estes and Lauriat, Publishers, 1890.
  6. Aerial View of Puget Sound Area, C.P. Johnston Company, date unknown.

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