This is the legendary quake that looms over the Northwest as a warning of the disaster that could strike the entire region on some unsuspected day-the circa 9.0 shake that hit essentially all of the Northwest coast and spawned tsunamis that reshaped the coast and reached Japan. James Swan, who’s thought to be the first white man to know of the quake and tsunami, wrote in his diary on January 12, 1864:
Today took an inventory of Government property for Mr. Webster. Billy Balch came in this evening and gave me a very lucid explanation why the spirits of the dead did not molest me. He says that it is because we have a cellar in the house and a floor over it. But in Indian houses there is nothing but the bare ground or sand. That when any of the Indians are alone in a great house and make a fire and cook, that the mimilos or dead come up through the earth and eat the food and kill the Indian, but he thinks they can’t came up through our floors although as he says he would be afraid to try to sleep alone here for there might be some knot hole or crack in the floor through which they could come.
Billy also related an interesting tradition. He says that “ankarty” but not “Irias ankarty” that is at not a very remote period the water flowed from Neah Bay through the Waatch prairie, and Cape Flattery was an Island. That the water receded and left Neah Bay dry for four days and became very warm. It then rose again without any swell or waves and submerged the whole of the cape and in fact the whole country except the mountains back of Clyoquot. As the water rose those who had canoes put their effects into them and floated off with the current which set strong to the north. Some drifted one way and some another and when the waters again resumed their accustomed level a portion of the tribe found themselves beyond Noothu where their descendants now reside and are known by the same name as the Makah or Quinaitchechat.
Many canoes came down in the trees and were destroyed and numerous lives were lost. The same thing happened at Quillehuyte and a portion of that tribe went off either in canoes or by land and found the Chimahcum tribe at Port Townsend.
There is no doubt in my mind of the truth of this tradition. The Waatch prairie shows conclusively that the waters of the ocean once flowed through it. And as this whole country shows marked evidence of volcanic influences there is every reason to believe that there was a gradual depressing and subsequent upheaval of the earth’s crust which made the waters to rise and recede as the Indian stated.
A 2005 article by Ruth S. Ludwin and others called “Serpent Spirit-Power Stories along the Seattle Fault” quoted one account in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of Sunday, March 20, 1904:
When Seattle was first settled by the white people the Indians told of a great earthquake that had occurred some fifty years before. They related that the shocks were so severe that the earth opened up in great cracks and that their little mat and slab huts were shaken to the ground and there were great landslides.
The largest slide near Seattle was immediately south of West Point lighthouse. It is about a mile in extent and can be clearly seen at the present day. The lower bench of Kinnear Park slid at that time from the cliffshore, carrying giant fir trees that still stand on the slide. The Indians said that the mountains “momoked poh” (shot at each other), and roaring of the tidal waves was frightful.
In another 2005 article by Ludwin and nine others called “Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories,” an Indian named Annie Miner Petersen, speaking at age 73 in 1913, said:
“My grandfather saw one of the old women (survivors) who had been left alive. She had been hung up on a tree, and the limbs of that tree were too high up. So she took her pack line and tied it to a limb, and then when she wanted to go down by means of that, she fell, she was just a girl when she fell from it. Her back was broken from it (she had a humpback thereafter). That is what she told about the raised water.”
And Beverly Ward, recounting stories told to her around 1930 by Susan Ned, born in 1842, said:
“There was a big flood shortly before the white man’s time, … a huge tidal wave that struck the Oregon Coast not too far back in time … the ocean rose up and huge waves swept and surged across the land. Trees were uprooted and villages were swept away. Indians said they tied their canoes to the top of the trees, and some canoes were torn loose and swept away … After the tidal wave, the Indians told of tree tops filled with limbs and trash and of finding strange canues in the woods. The Indians said the big flood and tidal wave tore up the land and changed the rivers. Nobody knows how many Indians died.”