Tacoma Tales and True Tales of Puget Sound at Fort Nisqually ‘Bible’ of Tacoma history retains its must-read status after 40 years

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Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan wrote an extensive introduction of the latest edition of Murray Morgan’s ode to Tacoma, “Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound” and uses it in his classes at University of Washington Tacoma. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger
Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan wrote an extensive introduction of the latest edition of Murray Morgan’s ode to Tacoma, “Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound” and uses it in his classes at University of Washington Tacoma. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Anyone who has even a passing interest in local history must have “Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound,” by Murray Morgan. First published in 1979, the hefty-yet-approachable tome remains the bible of local history because of its humor, depth and conversational style through its various editions.

The most recent edition is no exception. University of Washington Press has redesigned the book and included a lengthy introduction by Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan in a new printing of the book that is well worth a look even if readers already have previous editions.

Morgan was a veteran journalist, radio host and educator but is best known for his work as a historian, tallying 20 books to our collective bookshelf before his death in 2000. His best-known titles are “Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle,” and “The Last Wilderness, a history of the Olympic Peninsula.” Both are also being reprinted by UW Press.

But it is Morgan’s “Puget’s Sound” that not only chronicles the founding of his hometown with facts and figures but also marries the eagle eyes of a journalist on the hunt of a great story with the pen of poet. Imagine if Mark Twain wrote a history book about Tacoma, and you will get a pretty good idea about the tone of Morgan’s ode to his City of Destiny.

His storytelling style weaves together the various local yarns into a tapestry of character conflicts, tales of everyday residents and world-changing events that altered Tacoma’s path through the passing decades between Captain George Vancouver’s “discovery” of Puget Sound in 1792 to the founding of Fort Lewis in 1916, the year Morgan was born. It’s a book that cries to be read and reread because each new reading brings more insightful introspections and “a-ha” moments.

“I feel like I know it intimately,” Sullivan said, noting that he not only studied under Morgan but still uses “Puget’s Sound” in his own history classes at University of Washington Tacoma.

Sullivan points out that three sections of the book provide readers with a thumbnail sketch of the city if people don’t have time to read the whole thing. Morgan’s chapters about Puget Sound’s “discovery” by Vancouver aboard the HMS Discovery and then again by American, Charles Wilkes aboard Vincennes and Porpoise outline the natural world and geography of Puget Sound. Sections of the book about Isaac Stevens and the Indian Treaties of the 1850 then tackle the background of the landmark Boldt decision about fishing rights that still make waves to this day. The last must-read sections address the Chinese Expulsion of 1885 that explains Tacoma’s troubled past with race relations.

“I think these are the essential backstory to understand Tacoma,” Sullivan said.

But “Puget’s Sound” isn’t the only recent book release worth checking out.

Local television personality and author Dorothy Wilhelm released “True Tales of Puget Sound at Fort Nisqually,” which actually dovetails into Morgan’s book quite nicely. Her book provides vignettes of some of the area’s most landmark events and a few of its more quirky ones. This new book, with a foreword by KIRO Radio host and commentator Dave Ross, features tales that are well told and often create at least chuckles as readers dive into the words. Some stories, however, even shock noted historians. Few know the story about the time a mule won an election for Mayor of Milton or the tales of octopus wrestlers.

“Tacoma Stories” by Richard Wiley looks at local matters with a fictional pen, with 14 stories all set in the City of Destiny. The book’s opening chapter “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” covers St. Patrick’s Day during the waining days of a formerly popular watering hole that has “started on its coast to oblivion.” The story introduces characters that appear in other stories, all which stand alone but also read well as a literary version of a concept album with a unified theme.

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