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South Sound Watermarks

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Place Names

Puget Sound south of Tacoma is an intricate salt water network of inlets and passageways flowing one into another.  These features were highways to Native Americans and pioneers of the past; they are playgrounds to boaters of all sorts today.  They still bear the names given to them long ago by explorers and settlers.  How many do you know?

For today’s WA-List, we decided to gather the names of hydrographic features of southern Puget Sound.  (That’s the original Puget Sound, by the way.  Capt. George Vancouver bestowed the name of Lt. Peter Puget to the salt water extent south of The Narrows.  It was only later usage that stretched the name to the waters near Seattle and even further north.)  We’ve also included the place name origins when we knew them.  Most were christened by Lt. Charles Wilkes (mentioned below simply as Wilkes) who led the first major mapping of the area in 1841.  British Capt. R. N. Inskip added a few more names when he sailed through five years later.

And by the way: Rather than list all these names randomly or alphabetically, we chose nine of the most significant features (i.e., the inlets plus a reach and a narrows) and ordered them in the manner you’d encounter them if you sailed in a more-or-less counter-clockwise route around the south Sound.  Then, under those nine headings, we listed all the named components we could find: the bays, harbors, coves, lagoons, and passages. We’ve even included a few bights!


THE NARROWS. A mile-wide channel between Tacoma and the Gig Harbor Peninsula.  Named “Narrows” by Wilkes in 1841, “The Narrows” by Capt Henry Kellett in 1847.  It’s a good physical description for the place the vast Puget Sound waters pinch and flow through a comparatively narrow channel. (H, P)
– Gig Harbor Named by Wilkes in 1841 for the small bay that he envisioned deep enough for small boats or gigs. (H, P, R)
CARR INLET. A wide arc of water stretching from Steilacoom to Purdy.  Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Lt. Overton Carr of the Expedition. (H, P, R)
– Burley Lagoon Named for an early settler in the area. (H, P, R) One source suggests it was named for Burley, Kentucky. (R)
– Glen Cove Descriptive name suggesting a cove near a glen. (R)
– Hale Passage Named by Wilkes for Horatio Emmons Hale, the Expedition’s philologist and ethnographer. (H, P)
– Henderson Bay Named by Wilkes in 1841 for quartermaster James Henderson of the Expedition. (R)
– Horsehead Bay Descriptive name for the land west of the bay, whose shape on the map vaguely resembles a horse’s head. (R)
– Mayo Cove
– Pitt Passage Named “Pit Passage” by Wilkes in 1841. (P, R)
– Still Harbor Named “Steele Harbor” for an early settler but apparently altered later. (H)  It may be a descriptive name for the calm waters. (R)
– Von Geldern Cove
– Wollochet Bay An Indian word for “squirting clams.” (H, P, R)
NISQUALLY REACH. A U-shaped passage surrounding Anderson Island on the west, south, and east sides. Named for the Indian tribe living on the land to the south.
– Amsterdam Bay Named for the city in the Netherlands because the Netherlands-American Manufacturing Company owned land along the shore. (R)
– Baird Cove
– Balch Passage Named for either of two men: Capt. Lafayette Balch, one of Steilacoom’s founders. (H, R) or William Balch, an early settler at Glencove. (R)
– Carson Bay
– Chambers Bay Named for Thomas M. Chambers, a prominent early settler and citizen of Pierce County. (H, R)
– Cormorant Passage Named by Inskip for a British steam-driven paddle sloop of that name stationed at Fort Nisqually in the late 1840s. (H, P, R)
– Dewolf Bight
– Dogfish Bight
– Drayton Passage Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Joseph Drayton, an artist on the Expedition. (H, R)
– Filucy Bay Probably derived from a misspelling of felucca, an Old World sailing vessel.  But it may also refer to the Spanish word filudo (sharp or sharp-edged) when referring to the shape of the bay, or Titusi, an Indian name for the place. (H, R)
– Hogum Bay Name derived from “hogs” referring to the land speculators who quickly purchased land when the Northern Pacific Railroad began to build in the area. (H)
– Oro Bay I found two conflicting references to this name.  One said it was named by Wilkes in 1841. (H)  The other suggested that Scandinavian settlers on Anderson Island altered the name of Nathaniel Orr (an early land-owner) to the Swedish word for ore. (R).  Since Wilkes preceded Orr, at least one of the theories is wrong.
– Taylor Bay Named for an early British settler in the area. (H, R)
– Thompson Cove Named by Inskip in 1846 for the Rev. Robert Thompson of the HMS Fisgard. (H, P, R)
CASE INLET. An 18-mile stretch of water on the west side of the Key Peninsula. (For our purposes here, we are also listing water features on both sides of Hartstene Island. Named by Wilkes in 1841, (presumably for Lt. Augustus L. Case of the Expedition). (H, P)
– Dana Passage Named by Wilkes in 1841 for James Dwight Dana, a mineralogist on the Expedition. (H)
– Dutcher Cove Possibly named for Eli Dutcher, and early Pierce County resident. (R)
– Fair Harbor
– McLane Cove
– North Bay Descriptive name due the bay’s location at the end of Case Inlet. (H)
– Peale Passage Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Titian Ramsey Peale, a naturalist on the Expedition. (H, P)
– Pickering Passage Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Charles Pickering, a naturalist on the Expedition. (H, P)
– Rocky Bay Probably descriptive of the large rocks visible during low tide. (R)
– Squaxin Passage
– Vaughn Bay Named for William D. Vaughn, an early settler. (H, P)
– Whiteman Cove Named by early settlers for a white man named Reed who lived here with an Indian wife. (H, P)
HAMMERSLEY INLET. A long, narrow inlet extending toward the city of Shelton. Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Midshipman George W. Hammersly.  Note the additional “e” in the modern name. (H, P)
– Chapman Cove
– Oakland Bay Descriptive name referring to a growth of oak trees on the shore. (H, P)
TOTTEN INLET. An inlet at Puget Sound’s southwestern corner. Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Midshipman George M. Totten. (H)
– Burns Cove
– Deer Harbor
– Gallagher Cove
– Little Skookum Inlet
– Oyster Bay Named for the Olympia oysters that were harvested here. (H)
– Skookum Inlet Chinook jargon for “strong.”
– Wildcat Cove
ELD INLET. An inlet in southwest Puget Sound just west of Olympia. Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Midshipman Henry Eld Jr. (H)
– Frye Cove
– Green Cove
– Mud Bay Descriptive name of the bay at low tide. (H)
– Sanderson Harbor
– Young Cove
BUDD INLET. A short, wide stretch of water extending south to Olympia. Named by Wilkes in 1841 for Thomas A. Budd, acting master of the Peacock, a ship in the Expedition. (H, P)
– Butler Cove Named for John L. Butler, an early claimant on the land along the shore. (H)
– Ellis Cove
– Gull Harbor
– Tykle Cove Named for George Tykel (or TyKel), an early claimant on the land along the shore. (H)
HENDERSON INLET. A small inlet between Olympia and Nisqually Reach. Named by Wilkes in 1841 for quartermaster James Henderson of the Expedition. (H, P)

PHOTO of Totten Inlet looking toward Windy Point © Steve Campion

SOURCES: This was a long compilation from several sources.  First, we collected geographic names from several atlases and maritime maps.  Second, the place name origins were checked using Robert Hitchman’s Place Names of Washington (H), James W. Phillips’ Washington State Place Names (P) and Gary Fuller Reese’s Origins of Pierce County Place Names (R).


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