August 11, 2014

The “Real” Indian Shirt Story


I’d always intended to post an article someday about the connection between my Northwest novel and the original White-Pioneers-Meet-American-Indians story from the Bigelow House Museum in Olympia. I never dreamed I would post it as a video. But here it is—and it’s fun: Washington State Historical Society Program – The Indian Shirt Story.

If you’d prefer to watch me read and sign books in person, come on along to one of my author events scheduled for fall. I’d love to see you there.

Shoalwater Tribal Library (Tokeland, WA) September 18, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Cooper Point Village Book Club (Olympia, WA) October 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Orca Books (Olympia, WA) October 24, 2014 at 7:00 pm




January 13, 2014

Kam Wah Chung


From the outside it doesn’t look like much. Given its location, standing alone in a city park in the small eastern Oregon town of John Day, the stout little structure might be mistaken for some kind of shuttered concession stand—a place to buy hot dogs and soft drinks in summer, when the park swimming pool is open. Except for the hand-lettered sign overhead saying Kam Wah Chung & Co., and the fact that its address is on Canton Street, you’d never guess that this building— just blocks from the Grant County Fairgrounds—once stood at the center of one of the largest “Chinatowns” in the American West.

When gold was discovered not far from John Day in the early 1860s, Chinese immigrants flocked to eastern Oregon just as they’d rushed to the California gold fields a decade earlier. In 1887 two Chinese men, Ing Hay and Lung On, bought the existing Kam Wah Chung store in what was then a flourishing Chinese frontier community. They would own and operate their idiosyncratic business—part general store and part traditional herbal dispensary—in its original building for more than 50 years. (more…)

June 4, 2013

Old Glory


Smack between Memorial Day and the fireworks of the Fourth of July comes the patriotic American non-holiday of Flag Day. We are not, as a rule, flag wavers here in the coastal Pacific Northwest. As a national symbol the U.S. flag makes us a little uncomfortable—carrying, as it often does now, the whiff of stubborn, conservative, My-Country-Right-or-Wrong sentiment. Sometimes Blue Staters can’t help feeling the Red States have captured our flag.

But I’m a fool for Old Glory. The original Old Glory, I mean, the hand-sewn American standard that flew from a New England sailing ship, survived the U.S. Civil War, traipsed out west to Nevada, and ended up at the Smithsonian in 1922. The exact details of its history are a little difficult to pin down, as is so often the case with family stories and national folklore. But the main facts remain undisputed, and even the weak bits are good. (more…)

April 14, 2013

John Muir: Not Just for White Folks


The John Muir Home in Martinez, California, surprised me.


The first surprise was the house itself: a high-style Italianate villa built in 1882, all bracketed eaves and bay windows, perched on a hilltop above what is now a four-lane commercial highway. If you’re used to thinking of John Muir as a pioneer conservationist you tend to think of him out in the woods or sleeping under the stars somewhere. A Victorian house with a cupola isn’t what first springs to mind. (more…)

March 29, 2013

The Alligator Man and Other Delights



Okay, it isn’t a real museum—not in the modern sense of the word. No curators, no lecture halls, no yellow school buses unloading hordes of fourth-graders out on the sidewalk. Marsh’s Free Museum, located on the Washington coast, owes more to P.T. Barnum than it does to Charles Darwin, though the two-headed calf and the eight-legged lamb would surely have intrigued them both.

Marsh’s is a souvenir shop in the seaside resort of Long Beach. It’s a strip mall emporium gussied up with an old-fashioned false wooden storefront, halfway between the go-cart track and the kite shop with miniature golf. For the better part of a century Marsh’s has lured customers with an irresistible array of oddments and curiosities. There’s no charge for looking—a human tapeworm! A real shrunken head!—but gawkers find plenty of taffy and trinkets for sale once they get through the door. (more…)

March 13, 2013

The Finnish-American Hall


There’s a hole in the Finn Hall story.

Literally. A hole.

If you stop in southwest Washington to read the Finn Hall interpretive sign, tucked into trees off the road along the south flank of Mount St. Helens, you can’t help but see immediately that an adjective is missing. Not merely omitted—gone. Carved right out with a knife blade from the old-style wooden marker, leaving a neat rectangular hole where a modifier should be. (more…)

February 26, 2013

Remembering the Alamo



As a tourist destination, the Alamo is a funny thing. It’s one of those places that everyone knows, a monumental American site like the battlefield at Gettysburg or the Statue of Liberty. If you’re going to San Antonio, by golly you ought to see it—even if you can’t remember precisely why you should.

It began as a Catholic mission, one of a string of five Spanish missions built in the 1700s along the San Antonio River. Later it was converted into a military garrison, first for Spanish soldiers and then for Mexican troops. When the region known as Texas declared independence from Mexico, fighters for the rebel cause seized control of the Alamo. On March 6, 1836, after a siege lasting 13 days, 1,500 Mexican troops stormed the rebel fortress. Virtually all of the Texans, along with a surprising number of Mexicans, died in the attack.

These days what’s left of the Alamo faces a broad downtown square called Alamo Plaza, which it shares with some benches and shade trees, the grandly historic Menger Hotel, and some of the most egregious tourist-trap rubbish on earth.

On the one hand it’s kind of awful: the candy wrappers, the ice cream shops, the Guinness World Records Museum and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, with its promise of bone-chilling special effects. You can’t help but think, What is this? What’s this got to do with the Alamo? (more…)

November 3, 2012

Color Me Uneasy


Abraham Lincoln made the cover of Time magazine last week. Well, technically it was actor Daniel Day Lewis portraying Lincoln, on a cover that simultaneously honored the 16th President and promoted Steven Spielberg’s new film about the man. The cover shot, solemn and pensive, was artfully printed in black-and-white, conjuring the look and feel of a photo from Lincoln’s own time.

But authentic photographs of the real Abraham Lincoln apparently were too boring. When it came to using historic images on the inside pages, Time commissioned Swedish photo editor Sanna Dullaway—a whiz with Photoshop special effects—to turn black-and-white into color. No somber Civil War pictures here. In Time’s re-imagined Library of Congress photographs, grass glows dill-pickle green underfoot and Lincoln sports a blue tie.

I do not fault Ms. Dullaway. She is entitled to her own artistic vision every bit as much as Spielberg is to his. I don’t think I would have minded if Time had published her doctored shots as a separate photo essay, along with a clear bit of narrative explaining what they were.

There is, however, an important distinction between artistic vision and history. By running “enhanced” historic photographs alongside a factual essay, editors at the news magazine thoroughly muddied that line. (more…)

October 23, 2012

Signs of Old Times

No vintage photos, no colored fonts, no interactive sidebars. The historical signs along the back roads of Okanogan County are the simple, old fashioned, slab-of-wood kind, the sort that swing on eyehooks from a frame like the gate to a ranch. It’s classic mid-century roadside stuff, history for auto travelers—big markers at gravel pullouts, with hand-carved lettering large enough to read from inside your car.

Keep in mind this is a county roughly the size of Connecticut. Located in north-central Washington, tucked up beneath the U.S. border with Canada, it stretches from the Cascade Range all the way to Grand Coulee Dam. It’s a place of hot summers and freezing winters, of cattle ranches and Indian lands, where orchards and hayfields alternate with sagebrush and rattlesnakes.

By rights the signs in this neck of the woods should have weathered to pieces years ago or been chopped into kindling by vandals. Yet the 23 wooden markers that dot the vast, remote landscape of Okanogan County are just as spiffy and sharp today as they were in the 1960s. They sport no initials, no bullet holes, no spray-painted graffiti—even though most of them stand far from town, where no one is watching but mule deer.

Is it small town good manners that keep them that way? A rural sense of community? A deep respect for the frontier past?

No, it isn’t. It’s Bob. (more…)

September 11, 2012

Duckbill Platypus and White Guy Canoes


Somewhere in the collection of just about every history museum there’s a Truly Irrelevant Artifact—an item so inappropriate that curators actively hate it, and so popular with the public it can’t be culled from the herd.  Ask any museum employee or front desk volunteer and they’ll roll their eyes and tell you exactly what it is.

The zither collection.

The cuckoo clock.

The gargantuan blouse of a P.T. Barnum sideshow giantess.

“I don’t know why,” a panelist complained at a museum workshop a few years back, “but people go nuts if you talk about removing the dugout canoe.” (more…)