May 15, 1841.
The Charles Wilkes expedition identified Gig Harbor as the gateway to the Olympic Peninsula after establishing with their survey gig, the Porpoise, that the bay was too small for a ship but just right for a gig. The expedition later anchored overnight off Wyckoff Shoal, north of Pitt Island, and named Henderson Bay. On July 4, 1841, Wilkes and his expedition celebrated the first Independence Day west of the Mississippi on the shores of Dupont.
These events specific to the mapping of Puget Sound were sandwiched between the adventures and survey explorations of the Wilkes Expedition, which began in 1838. They discovered Antarctica in January 1840 and logged some 87,000 miles while completing the last all-sail naval mission to encircle the globe June 10, 1842.
Wilkes was court-martialed upon his return for the loss of one of his ships on the Columbia River bar and for excessive punishment of his sailors. Some historians claim Wilkes’ obsessive behavior and harsh shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville’s characterization of Captain Ahab in “Moby-Dick.”
Fast-forward to May 15, 2016.
On May 15, 2016, the Gig Harbor Boatyard, in cooperation with the authorities of the City of Gig Harbor and the owners of Tides Tavern, staged a re-enactment of the Charles Wilkes Expedition as they surveyed and mapped Gig Harbor. A wooden replica of the gig, Porpoise, under the power of eight sailors in period costume rowing 18-foot oars, entered the harbor exactly on the date of the first event 175 years earlier.
Two of the sailors aboard the gig were Key Peninsula residents and experienced rowers, Voski Sprague and Heather Rogers. The gig was escorted by a small dingy carrying the officer in charge. Standing in the bow was Robert Wiles, a Gig Harbor resident from pioneer Croatian fishermen stock, portraying a marine militia soldier. At the direction of the commanding officer, Wiles loaded, raised and fired the original 1841 Brown Bess black powder musket that fired shots over the harbor 175 years ago. Once again, the harbor was claimed as surveyed property belonging to the United States of America.
The First Independence Day West of the Mississippi
May 15, 1841.