An Early View of Seattle
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Photography was slow to come to the northwest corner of the United States. Although the first photographic images made in this county were created in 1839, the same year that the Daguerreotype process was announced in France, the earliest known photographs taken in what is now Washington State did not appear until the early 1850s. First, as a territory, and later, as a state, Washington grew from the south to the north as settlers and businessmen came up from Oregon to follow the jobs and money of the timber and mining industries.
Before 1865, photographic scenes taken in or near Seattle are rare. The earliest was created by amateur photographer Edward A. Clark in 1859, but today they survive only through copies made by later photographers. While not among the earliest of these scenes, Frederick Dally's view of Seattle is exceptional because we know the exact day and approximate time it was taken. We owe this information to the talents and attention to detail of Edmund Augustus Porcher, a captain in the British navy who wrote a detailed diary of his life during his voyage to and stay at the naval base at Esquimalt, British Columbia (now part of the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island).
In late September 1866, Porcher received an invitation from Dr. William F. Tolmie of the Hudson Bay Company to go on an excursion to "the American Ports in Puget Sound." Fraser was well-known on both sides of the border for his role several years earlier in preventing what might have been a deadly war between American settlers and the Nisqually and other Native Peoples of the Puget Sound area. Porcher responded favorably to the invitation, and on October 4, he wrote in his diary that he and “a large picnic party of 70” left Esquimalt for a two-day tour of American ports. Porcher had at his command the H.M.S. Sparrowhawk, a three-masted sailing ship that also was powered by an auxiliary steam engine and an ideal vessel for traveling among the many islands of Puget Sound.
Among those whom Porcher invited to travel with him was Frederick Dally, a British-born merchant who had emigrated to Victoria at the peak of the Cariboo gold rush of 1862. Within a few years, Dally switched professions and opened a photography gallery in June 1866. Soon he received commissions for portraits of prominent citizens, public buildings, government officers, and scenes of the Royal Navy. Dally was also an amateur anthropologist, and he was eager to join Porcher's voyage so he could learn more about the Native Peoples of Puget Sound.
The weather was favorable on the day that the Sparrowhawk left Esquimalt, and by that night the ship and its crew safely reached Seattle. The following day, Porcher wrote this brief entry:
“October 5th. Weighed during the night, and about 8 AM, went alongside the Pier at Seattle where we landed to see the town, which is well situated on a rising ground, and has a University, Telegraph station, Saw Mill, and about 300 inhabitants.”
Despite this cordial description of the town, apparently there was not much to do in Seattle at that time. Porcher wrote that at 11 AM the same day they tied up at the wharf at Steilacoom (about 30 miles south of Seattle, near Tacoma). From there, they traveled to Port Townsend for a brief stop before journeying back to Esquimalt.
If Dally took any other photographs while on the voyage, none have come to light thus far. He did, however, go on to document the Cariboo goldfields and to create dozens of images of various Indigenous Peoples across lower British Columbia. Dally left Victoria in 1870 and went to Philadelphia to study dentistry. From there, he went back to England, where he practiced dental surgery until he retired at age 71. He died in 1914. Today, many of his photographs are in the collections of the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Library and Archives Canada.
Porcher's diary entry is found in Dwight L. Smith, ed. A Tour of Duty in the Pacific Northwest, E. A. Porcher and H.M.S. Sparrowhawk, 1865-1868 (Fairbanks, 2000), 67.