Karen L. Johnson ’78 and Dennis M. Larsen ’68
WSU Press, 2013
Pioneer Edward Jay Allen lived near Olympia when the Oregon Territory was split in two and federal politicians elected to name the new territory Washington, rejecting the local suggestion of Columbia. Allen helped survey a wagon road over Naches Pass, a backcountry route still in use by those who favor mud and adversity over miles per gallon and speed. Future Union general George B. McClellan shared a cabin with Allen one summer, leading to a fast friendship a decade before the nation went to war with itself.
But Edward Jay Allen is not a name most people will recognize. As is the case in much of history, momentous occasions have many witnesses, but we don’t always know their names. Most times we don’t hear their telling, either, but thanks to Allen’s prodigious letter writing, and some historical sleuthing by Karen L. Johnson and Dennis M. Larsen, we know what transpired during Allen’s three years in the Pacific Northwest in A Yankee On Puget Sound.
The book is a good read, built on the lively first-person narrative from Allen’s letters home to Pittsburgh. Although it is hard to match Allen’s adventurous storytelling, the authors’ own story of searching high and low for Allen ephemera is no trifle. They easily located Allen’s letters collected in a scrapbook in Yale University’s rare book collection. But letters Allen received from friends and family weren’t known by scholars until a New Jersey man serendipitously searched for Allen’s name online, found Johnson and Larsen, and then showed them the letters he had discovered in two discarded trash bags outside an estate sale more than 30 years ago.
As Allen’s story illustrates, history is made by the adventurous. But sometimes it takes luck to hear the whole tale.