Of the multitude of steamships that plied the waters from California to Point Barrow during the late 1800s, one has the dubious distinction of being what some may call a “pirate ship.” The City of Seattle, which sailed from Seattle to Skagway and points in between, played a major role in spiriting a totem pole out of Alaska.
As the story goes, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce had wanted a totem pole to erect in Pioneer Park in downtown Seattle. However, those who carved the magnificent monuments only came from the tribes of northern Vancouver Island, the Queen Charolette Islands, and the adjacent tribes in British Columbia and Alaska.
In the summer of 1899, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put a delegation onboard the City of Seattle to sail to Sitka to see if they could find a totem pole suitable for the park. Since most of the totems by this time were stationed in Indian burial grounds, the delegation’s mission was indeed delicate.
After a brief stay in Alaska’s ancient capitol, guests returning to the ship were advised by the purser not to believe anything they heard and only half of what they saw from that time forth.
After finishing her business in the port of Sitka, the City of Seattle sailed out a short distance and then anchored in a stream. Passengers watched as the crew lowered one of the ship’s boats into the water and rowed ashore. Later, third mate R.D. McGillvery described what happened:
“The Indians were all away fishing, except for one who stayed in his house and looked scared to death. We picked out the best looking totem pole. I took a couple of sailors ashore and we chopped it down – just like you’d chop down a tree. It was too big to roll down the beach, so we sawed it in two.”
Members of the “Committee of Fifteen” paid McGillvery $2.50 for his effort to cut down the totem, which belonged to the Raven Clan. It was carved in 1790 to honor a woman called Chief-of-all-Women who’d drowned in the Nass River.
On Oct. 18, 1899, the 60-foot totem was unveiled in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and “greeted by cheers of a multitude of people.”
The Tlingits demanded $20,000 for the return of the stolen totem, but settled for $500, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paid.
The original totem stood proudly in Pioneer Square until a careless smoker tossed a cigarette butt against its decaying base in 1938. The city removed the original totem and replaced it in 1940 with a replica carved by the descendants of the original totem’s carvers.