At a recent Pacific Northwest history conference in Vancouver, Washington, I was given a small display table in the sales room so that I might attract and talk with attendees about my book, Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay. The focal point of my modest exhibit was an eleven-by-seventeen-inch laminated poster of the book’s cover. I’d just finished standing the poster on its easel when I saw an old acquaintance across the room. Justine James Jr. had me in his sight and was making his way toward me. He had a coy grin on his face. Everything about that smile and his eyes signaled that there was something he knew that I didn’t. I was happy to see James, a cultural resource specialist with the Quinault Indian Nation and someone whose personal cultural roots within the coastal nations are deep. I wondered what he had on his mind. James pointed at the cover photograph on the poster, an image of a float house on a body of water with mist-banded highlands behind.
The photograph—made by Seattle photographer Kyo Koike—is stunning. Koike was a founder of the Seattle Camera Club, a group of Japanese American pictorialists in the 1920s. Their work was shown around the world and widely published, but their reputations diminished with anti-Japanese feelings during World War II. Koike was incarcerated at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, and while there his health apparently failed, but throughout those harsh years he was busy writing poetry and encouraging others to do the same. He died in 1947.
There are other regional photographers whose names more readily come to mind—such as Asahel Curtis and Imogen Cunningham—but Koike was right up there with them at the time and is still held in high esteem. His work is exquisite. From the notes in the University of Washington Special Collections Archives, I knew the year the cover photograph was made, but there was nothing to confirm location.
I sent the photograph to the University of Nebraska Press with others I thought important to my book because it was the best, most detailed photograph of a float house I had found. Though the image was made in the 1920s and the principal stories of my book are set before 1900, I knew enough about float houses to surmise that this one was built and occupied within the correct time frame. The designers at the press selected this beautiful photograph—originally spotted, serendipitously, in a University of Washington alumni magazine by my friend Connie Ruhl—as the cover for my book. The image, they thought, and I agreed, would draw a potential reader’s attention and evoke a certain mystery. There was no doubting that.
James pointed at the book cover and asked, “How’d you pick that photograph?” I knew he had a story to tell. He smiled again. Then he sat beside me, and I waited. I was almost as excited as when I first saw Katie Gale’s tombstone, a life
changing moment described in the first chapter of my book. “That’s my great-great-grandmother’s house,” he said. She was known as Sally Freeman though her full name was Sarah Shileba-Legg.
James’s story of Sally Freeman, while wonderful family history, is one that exemplifies the dynamic relationship between and among coastal people and the U.S. government. It is also a story of a burgeoning tourism industry that brought people to enjoy the Olympic wilderness, fish with Quinault guides, buy Indian baskets, and even enjoy the spectacle of story and performance provided by the Quinault people—including Justine James’s forebears—within the cavernous lobby of the splendid Lake Quinault Lodge. Indeed, James’s father and his siblings sang, danced, and drummed for the Lake Quinault Lodge guests and were paid with what money was tossed into a blanket at the end of their performance. James’s father said that Sally Freemanoften sat in the lodge while weaving baskets and talking with tourists. Sally was well known in the area during her lifetime; in fact, she and the lodge owner’s wife were good friends, and she helped to dedicate a new Lake Quinault Lodge in 1926 (built after a fire destroyed the first one), James recalls. A photograph of her, with the note that she “blessed” the lodge, appears in A History of Lake Quinault Lodge by R. H. Jones.1 Sally was also featured on a 1937 Lake Quinault Lodge Christmas card.
The float house, “constructed entirely of cedar shingles and boards,” James says, was built before or around 1890, most likely on the Gatton Creek Cove site, near the mouth of Gatton Creek, which drains into Lake Quinault on its south side. The James family has occupied and used this site for many generations. Lake Quinault covers an area of nearly 6 square miles and is 3.79 miles long. It is located in the Quinault Valley and is the property of the Quinault Indian Nation.
The Quinault River Treaty, signed in 1855, was one of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens’s treaties that sought to consolidate many tribes or bands on reservations. Quinault and others who were assigned to the Quinault Reservation on the coast continued to pole their canoes, as they always had, up the Quinault River to reach the lake to fish. They often used the lake as a stopping off place and seasonal base camp on their way farther into the mountains to pick berries, hunt, or gather basket-making materials. The majority of the seasonal camps were located at the outlets of streams on the south shore of the lake, according to James’s father, Justine James Sr. Other camps were found at the mouths of the upper and lower Quinault Rivers. The “north shore was very turbulent,” James Sr. says, “so the only occupied area was near what is now [called] July Creek.”
From these camps, groups ascended to the high country for elk and deer, berries, and spirit quests. Others would stay in the lower regions to gather bark, bear grass, and edible roots. “They returned to the Lake Quinault base camps around September to harvest the ‘Blueback’ (sockeye), the most prized of salmon,” James Sr. recalls. The lake lies within the Olympic Rainforest, and the surrounding forests can receive up to 130 inches of rain annually. The original forest was dense with Douglas fir, western red cedar, Pacific silver fir, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock. The lush undergrowth includes ferns, salmonberry, thimbleberry, and many other useful and beautiful native species. The glacier-fed Quinault River still hosts steelhead, cutthroat, Coho, and Chinook, as well as sockeye. These fisheries are managed and regulated by the tribe in an increasingly fragile environment that includes receding glaciers. The Quinault are investing heavily to save the runs and protect the habitat on the upper Quinault.
This attractive area didn’t stay isolated from white settlement and development for long after the treaty was signed and the reservation was established. By the 1890s the peninsula and the rain forest area were the site of many land claims. A lakefront store was opened in 1891, and Lake Quinault was soon a destination point for tourists. Amenities were offered in a well-publicized log hotel, and after a fire in 1924, a new and grander hotel was built and is still in business.
Sally’s husband, Jake Freeman, was of Chinook, Hawaiian, and African American descent and came to the Quinault coastal village of Taholah around 1905. James Jr. says that Jake’s mother was Chinook, and through her he was eligible for an allotment on the Quinault Reservation. Little is known about his Hawaiian and African American ancestors, but his surname suggests that his family were former slaves. Jake was apparently a fisherman and handyman who found good work around Taholah and Lake Quinault. He married Sally in about 1910.
“In the early days,” James Jr. says, “the occupants of the [float house] were Sally’s immediate family.”Later, Sally’s orphaned grandson, David, moved in. Eventually, David brought his spouse and four children to live in the home. Justine James Sr. was the youngest.
Jake Freeman was apparently Sally’s third husband. She was the daughter of John Shul—whul, according to James Jr. and based on Quinault allotment files. She was born around 1865.2 Her first husband was Charles James, and the second was Charles Mason, known as Chief Taholah II and Captain Mason.
Sally was known as a basket maker. The recent book, From the Hands of a Weaver, notes that her daughter, Maggie Kelly, born in 1886 and also a noted basket maker, learned by watching her mother, and her grandmother, Sally Chepalis. 3 Living on Lake Quinault, Sally Freeman would have had ready access to many of the materials she needed for her work and a place to process and dry them.
Of course, as James Sr. says, “Indians were travelers.” They made long journeys throughout the Pacific Northwest in order to acquire resources. For example, James Jr. says, the Quinault River did not have a spring salmon run, so groups went south to the Columbia River to fish.
Sally was trained in the old ways, James Jr. says, and would swim across the lake in the mornings, winter and summer. That was a one to one-and-a-half-mile swim from Gatton Cove to Bergman’s Resort, now The Rainforest Resort. And each year, she poled her way up the river from Taholah to reach the lake and her float house, which was likely a two-day trip. Sally Freeman was clearly a strong and capable woman with many talents. Perhaps much like Katie Gale herself.
The day we visit Gatton Cove to see the site from which the cover photograph was taken, the lake is calm, the water is low, and we can see the forests and snow-packed mountains that rise from the river valley across the lake to the east. Because mist often lies low on the hills, these mountains are not visible in Kyo Koike’s photograph.
Up on the bank behind us a house still stands on the property. David E. C. James, Justine James Jr.’s grandfather, built the first “new house on land” in the mid-1940s after Sally Freeman had passed away. He placed it “on pilings six feet in the air,” but even then, it “flooded during high flow events.” A warm day can create a massive melt and with heavy rain, water rushes down the river from the mountains, and the lake rises almost to the road above the house. James Jr. was told that his grandfather had a rope-and-pulley system to raise the furniture when the water came above the six-foot level, and others recall seeing his grandfather “loading furniture in his canoe” to save it.
Justine James Sr. built the cabin that stands on the land today. It is high above the ground on ten-foot pilings, and even so, the house occasionally floods. James Jr. says, “He placed his electrical outlets four feet off the floor.” James Sr. worked on this new cabin from about the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, and it is still used today. James Jr. calls it HOS—house on stilts.
Because the house is within the ordinary high water mark, it is considered to be the property of the Quinault Indian Nation, as is the lake itself. When the reservation was established, James Jr. notes, “tribal members were not allowed to inhabit the shorelines on a full-time basis,” which prompted the float house. But his family “constantly reminds the Olympic National Forest of their long-term occupation of the Gatton Creek area and of the Quinault Treaty.” The current cabin stands well below the ordinary high water mark and, in any case, the treaty establishes tribal rights to use traditional areas, and it clearly predates the formation of Washington State and the U.S. Forest Service.
There is still a Native American presence in the Lake Quinault Lodge during the summer months. Harvest Moon, a well-known Quinault storyteller, lives on and tends the Gatton Creek property and works at the lodge to celebrate local Native American presence, legacy, and history through lively performances and reenactments.
I made a visit to the little museum at Lake Quinault with a friend. James Jr. joined us there. I saw one of only a few photographs that exists of Sally. In the museum, I saw one of only a few photographs that exist of Sally Freeman. Dell Mulkey, a local Grays Harbor photographer, made these images in the 1930s. One is hung above a basketry display. Two of James Sr.’s racing canoes are in the museum too. James Jr. and I admire them and learn about how they were altered and reworked, sometimes not so successfully, for racing. There is a photograph of James Sr. on a shelf beside them. After a while, James Jr. shows me a topographic map of the Olympic Peninsula and uses his fingertip to trace the route his ancestors would have taken up through the river valley, through the Olympic Mountains, all the way to Klallam Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca to visit Klallam relatives and friends.
The next day out, my friend and I drive into the valley along the Quinault River, just a few miles into the journey to Klallam Bay. We marvel at the majesty of the river as it rushes over shelves of rock, large reefs of stony rubble, and fallen logs that nearly jam it but don’t. An immature eagle soars to a perch above us and turns its profile to us, one a Barrymore would be pleased to have. It is still and silent as it considers its domain. Massive old-growth trees, some breathtaking in their girth, rise above us on either side of the roadway. Cascades of water fall in sunstruck cataracts down moss-covered rock walls just behind a wall of bright green ferns. Daylight barely breaks through the thick canopy the trees weave overhead, and the lush underbrush of salal is dappled by it.
We think about the complicated thicket of history that has made this area what it is. It would be almost impossible to traverse without the proper knowledge, tools, and time to understand. The lake, the lodge, the Quinault people, the white settlers, and the tourists have traveled a tangled path over these years. Sally Freeman is a legendary part of that past, and she is present in the lives of her descendents and to others who take the time to listen.
-LLyn De Danaan
Thanks to Kathleen Praxel and the Lake Quinault Museum. Thanks to Phyllis Miller for the 1937 Lake Quinault Lodge Christmas Card. Thanks to Sandy Plagemann for her support and interest. Thanks also to Sally Cloninger for editorial suggestions.
- R. H. Jones. A History of Lake Quinault Lodge (Mukelteo wa: WinePress Publishing), 1997.
- Jacilee Wray, ed. From the Hands of a Weaver: Olympic Peninsula Basketry through Time (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), 204.
- Wray, From the Hands of a Weaver, 32.