Pioneer Settler – George Edwards.

Introduction:  George Edwards worked for a shrt while before moving to the Yelm Prairie where he lived for more than three decades.  Below is an account of his voyage from England to the Pacific Northwest.

George Edwards:  Coming to the Northwest by Sea

Twenty-five year old George Edwards (1824-June 24, 1894) sat among the rowers, his eyes fixed on the barque Norman Morrison.  Made out of Indian teakwood and 119 feet long, the Norman Morrison was considered a bit of a speed demon on its traditional run to Vancouver Island on the Pacific coast of British North America.  The ship was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).  George Edwards was one of their newest employees.  He was joining the stream of men and women deciding to leave the British Isles.  Describing this breed of men, historian Peter Newman concluded:

The early Bay men came from no specific social stratum of England or Scotland.  Not satisfied to waste their careers serving time in stultifying occupations then available in a crowded and fluctuating domestic labour market yet not rash enough to volunteer for the military, they signed on with the intention of saving enough money to return, marry well and settle into small-scale but independent pursuits. . . . [and] they were never the same again.

He had signed on to work for the HBC at Ft. Nisqually, at the southern end of Puget Sound.  The Norman Morrison was to be Edwards’ home for the next five to six months. 

On reaching the Morrison, Edwards cautiously made the step from bobbing boat to ship’s ladder.  Once aboard he and the other passengers stored their possessions and came back on deck. The Norman Morrison was then tethered to a steamship which slowly pulled the ship from its anchorage and towards open sea.  Set free, the Morrison tacked to the south and entered the English Channel. 

But it was October, not a good time to go sailing though the English Channel.  The ship could make no headway against the “foul” winds raging.  The voyage turned into a case of hurry up and wait.  Along with several other ships, the Norman Morrison anchored at the Downs for several days while the captain waited for more helpful weather.  Moving back into the channel under more auspicious skies the trip was resumed, finally.  Not long afterward, while still in the channel, the ship lurched, turning suddenly.  There was a snap of wood and shouts of worry from the crew.  There right next to the Norman Morrison was a transport filled with English troops returning from India.  The ships passed by one another, like two frigates exchanging broadsides at close range.  The snapping wood was the spars that broke as captains attempted to avoid a more serious crash.  It was a blood pressure raising incident.  Some passengers were so frightened they prepared to jump overboard.  Not an auspicious beginning to a very long trip.

Edwards slowly became more familiar with his surroundings, learning the rituals of living at sea.  Rough seas slowed the ship as it passed through the Bay of Biscay, but calmer waters did not mean smoother sailing.  Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken announced the grim news, one of the passengers indeed had smallpox.  It was September and George Edwards was trapped on a plague ridden ship in the middle of the Atlantic.  A hammock was set up forward on the deck, the belief being that sea air was beneficial, and isolation a wise precaution.  There was no panic, quite a few had smallpox before, others had already had been vaccinated.  Still, fortunately, Capt. David Wishart, described as a calming presence, was well prepared and had some vaccine aboard ship.  He took the doctor below and showed him the two plates of glass with vaccine pressed between them.  The doctor vaccinated several passengers, directed that the holds be cleaned regularly and ventilated.  More hammocks were set up on deck.  During the course of the outbreak, twenty people got sick, one died.  William Burgess, a school teacher, was buried at sea.  Sliding beneath the seas, the body disappeared from sight, and soon from memory.  Just to disrupt the returning sense of calm among the passengers scarlet fever broke out, but it was not fatal.  Crossing the equator on November 29th, the Morrison reached Cape Horn by January 1850.  By then disease had disappeared.

That just left the hazards of the sailing around the tip of South America. 

Dr. Helmcken wrote, “Cape Horn in winter!”

[B]eastly weather, foul wind, fearful gales, hailstorms, a few hours of daylight, beastly choppy irregular ones, huge rollers off Horn.

At least there were “no ice berg[s]” though they sailed as “far south as they dared.” Like Magellan nearly 350 years earlier, the ship would make headway west then be blown back.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Edwards had to put up with “precious poor grub.”  The restless sea and wind driven rain made cooking, even their limited pantry, a challenge.   Hard boiled dumplings were typical fare.  Dr. Helmcken summarized, “Everything was miserable indeed.”

Finally breaking through, the Morrison sailed into the Pacific Ocean and shortly thereafter, warmer weather.  This improvement in climate did nothing to alleviate the food situation.  Immigrants grew weary of the bland and reduced rations.  Once in a fit of pique, tinned soup and bouillon were thrown overboard.  That incident was followed by a mass meeting with the Captain.  Not long after that Edwards and the rest of the passengers were witnesses to anger converting to violence.  At one point, an angry un-named passenger made certain allegations against Mr. Rowland, the butcher.  Unfortunately, Mr. Rowland was also the best boxer on the ship.  Capt. Wishart made no attempt to end their discussion.  The diary keeping Dr. Helmcken, thought that all-in –all, “people were orderly and well behaved.”

The Morrison was now on the northward leg of its journey.  Tempers eased, but there “was little jollity.” People read their books over and over. To pass his time the doctor made birdcages out of bamboo. Others spent the day estimating how long it was until the next dull meal. The migrants somehow “managed to spend their time somehow or other passing the time.”  Eventually they sailed past Cape Flattery and entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, less than two days out from Victoria.  So close to their destination, but as a special punishment the winds changed and there the Morrison stopped, bobbing on the tide.  Passengers studied the nearby landscape.  Dr. was impressed by the mountains, wooded to the top.  Compared to England, it all “appeared weird and gloomy.”  There was “no level land.” 

Eventually sails filled with wind and the Morrison surged eastward.  Once the Morrison rounded Race Rocks, the Captain set off two guns, signaling its arrival in Victoria.  Edwards and his fellow passengers then stood on land for the first time five months.  Many scrambled to find a newspaper.  Those who did were amazed to find out they had just sailed past the California Gold Rush.  Reporting to the Hudson’s Bay Office, Edwards began his education.  From this point on George Edwards was a student of his new home.  Indians, their language and customs, the snow covered peaks, the rain, the names of animals, all had to be duly noted and remembered.  Edwards was certain to note the lack of English women.  

In the spring George Edwards was again waterborne.  Sailing south through the Puget Sound, Edwards passed wooded islands, bays, and narrows.   Fires and smoke signaled human habitation, primarily Native.  Endless stands of trees filled the horizon.  Snowcapped mountains peaked out in the distance to the east and the west.  During the day there would have been certainly canoe traffic crossing bays and even greater distances.   Names of places filled Edwards’ ears with exotic sounds, Snohomish, Puyallup, Nisqually, but also with recognizable English names like Baker and Rainier.  The ship dropped anchor off shore, then cargo and travelers.  Edwards disembarked and took in the broad landscape of his new home, Ft. Nisqually. 

By Ed Bergh

The George Edwards House. (Courtesy of the City of Yelm)

 Afterword:  Edwards quit the HBC, obtained a donation clain, and settled on the west end of the prairie wuth his Indian wife.  Today the MacDonalds occupies the site of his house.



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