top of page
  • Gig Harbor Living Local

History of the Harbor

Museum details town’s naming and early settlement

By Colin Anderson

The Harbor History Museum is filled with artifacts, photos and items covering Gig Harbor’s earliest settlers up through modern times. It celebrates the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes who originally inhabited the area as well as the many Croatians, Swedes, Norwegians and others who helped to shape the community early on.

A quick search of Gig Harbor’s history might land you on the town’s Wikipedia page. Here you find a story of famed explorer Captain Charles Wilkes, who, supposedly on his own in 1840 and during a heavy storm, rowed his Captain’s Gig (small vessel) into the harbor for protection. The site states that when Wilkes was completing the map of the Oregon Territory, he named the bay that he sheltered in Gig Harbor. While quite the unique tale, Harbor History Museum Director Stephanie Lile says it isn’t entirely accurate and has evidence of the real story around the naming of Gig Harbor. While Wilkes gets credit for the discovery, Lile states that it was actually a group of his sailors completing a survey who should be credited with discovering the area.

While we might wish for a more elaborate and romantic story, these men were surveyors with thousands of miles to chart. They set out in long boats from their ships because the smaller boats allowed more agility and accessibility (much like zodiacs off cruise boats these days). Having rowed the shoreline myself, it’s much easier to see how a gig would find the harbor opening than a large ship under sail,” said Lile.

Lile references author Murray Morgan’s Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound as one of the best records when it comes to the naming of Gig Harbor: “On pages 51-52, where it notes that the harbor was spotted by midshipman Sanford and named by Lieutenant Sinclair, who did the actual surveying of the area. These notes are based on accounts of the expedition held at the National Archives and referenced by Morgan in the back matter,” she said.

An amazing number of documents are stored within the National Archives, and a look further into Wilkes’ expedition produced further proof. The following is documentation found in theJournal of the United States Exploring Expedition, which was led by Wilkes.

In Chapter XII, Wilkes writes that he’d sent Lieutenant Case to survey Hood’s Canal and Lieutenant Ringgold to survey Admiralty Inlet. Case completed Hood’s Canal and was headed off to survey Puget Sound when an "eye piece" was reported missing. This object (probably a telescope) was of sufficient value to the expedition that Wilkes sent a replacement for Case while Case backtracked to find the eyepiece. Long story and voyage short, it was never recovered.

“So, despite the tongue-in-cheek cartoon by Don Snowden (in our collection) that shows Captain Wilkes in a gig headed into Gig Harbor (rowed by his crew—ship’s gigs were not at all a one-man rowing boat), Wilkes was actually anchored at Nisqually on the USSVincennes writing up orders and probably wining and dining with the Chief Factor at Fort Nisqually,” said Lile.

In Appendix XI of that same journal, Wilkes writes orders for Lieutenant Commander Ringgold and Lieutenant Case, stating:

Surveying Operations, 11 May 1841

Survey of Admiralty Inlet, below the Narrows, passing into the channel on the east side of Vashon’s Island; thence north, examining and surveying all inlets, and the shores of both sides of the straits, particularly all those bays etc. that afford shelter for vessels, not only as harbours, but for temporary anchorage.

From those orders, Ringgold sets off in the USS Porpoise from Nisqually Harbor on 15 May 1841. Wilkes makes note that the findings of Ringgold and Case are reported in the Hydrographical Atlas (Hydrography Volume XXIII). But the citation is short and sweet, and Gig Harbor is noted only in the short section on The Narrows: “Opposite Point Defiance is Gig Harbor, which has a sufficient depth of water for small vessels." They note its latitude and longitude in the back matter appendix, but that’s it. The chart (map #155) shows depth soundings and a strange double spit (redrawn on later maps). This chart is on display at the Harbor History Museum. Gig Harbor is named for the first time as such on the Wilkes Expedition’s Navigation Chart #155.

The replica long boat Porpoise, built for the Washington Centennial in 1989, is currently on view at the Harbor History Museum.

Also at the museum is a collection of information on some of the town’s earliest families.It was in 1867 a rowboat containing three fishermen—Samuel Jerisich, Peter Goldsmith and John Farrague—ended up in the area. Stories vary whether they found the harbor or were blown in by weather, but ultimately decided to set up residence.

Samuel and Anna Jerisich were joined by others who included: Peter Skansie (who married Melissa Jerisich), Burnham (who charted the town), Babich (Spiro married Julia Skansie, the daughter of Melissa and Peter), the Goodmans (Lucy was a longtime school teacher), Uddenbergs (grocers) and the Novaks.

The museum is home to nearly 30,000 artifacts that include everything from meeting minutes, letters and scrapbooks to maritime tools and photographs, which help tell the story of the people, places and events along the Peninsula. When the museum is open to the public, the permanent exhibit is a great intro to the region’s history. Those wanting to dig even deeper into the roots of their town or family can ask for research access to documents held at the museum as well.

Stories can find themselves lost or reshaped over time, just as the story of Captain Wilkes sheltering from a storm by himself in Gig Harbor when properly researched can be proven untrue. With the museum hoping to open in July, why not make time to discover a little bit more about the community you call home. While the European discovery and settling of the area can be traced back to just a few individuals, countless others have made an impact in growing Gig Harbor into what it is today. You’ll find their stories and many more at the Harbor History Museum.

670 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page