Who Was John Kalama?

Hello from the History Department –

For more than a century, speculation has run rampant regarding how the town of Kalama got its name. Was it based on the Chinook word “Kala amat,” which is how local natives referred to themselves? Or did the name come from the nearby river, which had been named for a Hawaiian native (John Kalama) who had lived alongside it for a time? Well, that ongoing debate is not for us to solve. But we can tell you John Kalama’s story – and it’s a good one….

Portrait below imagined by artist Marie Wise, since no historical photos of John Kalama exist

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John KalamaDuring the first half of the 1800s, large numbers of native Hawaiians (“Kanakas”) came to this region to work as ship deckhands and fur trade brigades for the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). They were often recruited (occasionally hijacked) for their skills on and in the water. One of the more renowned and colorful Hawaiian arrivals, John Kalama, went on to achieve much in the British, Native American and White American pioneer spheres.

Kalama signed on with the HBC in 1837 and spent the next decade at Hudson’s Bay forts around the region – including Nez Perce, Nisqually and Vancouver – building structures, preparing furs and wool for shipment, herding sheep, cutting hay and repairing wagons and saddles. Six feet tall, fit and very strong, he was dubbed “Big Burly” after nearly losing an eye and nose in a fight between the Hawaiians and Nisqually natives in 1853. He was a jack-of-all-trades, which made him an invaluable resource to European settlers, military personnel as well as Natives. In all, he remained on the Hudson’s Bay payroll until 1863, totaling nearly three decades of service.

In a 2017 interview with two of John Kalama’s great-grandchildren, they explained, “He was different. Along the river there, if any of the wood barrels that carried goods to be shipped needed to be repaired, they’d bring [them] to him. If they needed [sheep] to be sheared, he was good at all of those things. He was just very, very handy.”

It’s important to note that Kalama earned and commanded the respect of the British, American and Native American authorities despite his minority status as a native Hawaiian. For example, in 1852, he initiated a lawsuit against an employer who refused to pay him. Kalama ultimately lost the case, but the proceedings are significant for the very reason that the court allowed him to bring a suit in the first place.

In another instance in 1854, Kalama applied to and was granted naturalization and U.S. citizenship by the Pierce County Court. He signed the application with an “X” (apparently because he could not write), thereby declaring his “intention to become a bonified citizen of the United States of America, and renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to… the King of Honollulu [sic] of the Sandwich Islands, of whom he was formerly a subject.”

John Kalama married into the Nisqually tribe when he and the chief’s daughter, Mary Martin, were wed. Their eldest son, Peter, born in 1863, later became the Nisqually chief, as well as a native activist and organizer. Peter traveled cross-country to Washington, D.C., in 1915 as a Cowlitz Tribe delegate, presenting claims to their tribal lands. He also fought the state to establish the Nisqually’s unrecognized fishing rights.

Peter and his wife, Alice Jackson (a Puyallup native), raised 13 children. Peter died in 1947 at the age of 87. Alice, the matriarch of the Nisqually Reservation where she resided for over 50 years, was known as “the Iron Chief of the Nisquallys.”


Descendants of John Kalama, gathering together at McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge’s opening in 2019.

Many Kalama descendants remained on the Nisqually reservation near Yelm, WA, including Zelma, the youngest daughter of Peter and Alice. It was difficult – the family picked hops for a living, and didn’t have running water or electricity until the late 1960s. Yet when the tribe was beginning to organize around that same time, Zelma and other Nisqually natives traveled to Washington, D.C., to stop the U.S. government’s condemnation of the Nisqually’s remaining land. And they succeeded – like father, like daughter.

Today, the many Kalama descendants continue to participate as part of the Nisqually “canoe family” during the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys, a celebrated, joyous event for all indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Many Kalama family descendants also attend the Annual Kalama Heritage Festival that commemorates the town’s Hawaiian legacy.

As one of John Kalama’s great-granddaughters said, “[Our heritage] brings about a sense of pride as well, regardless of whether that was the Hawaiian side or the Native side, it was impressive … Just knowing that [the early Kalama family] made contributions to the community in so many ways. It is great.”

4 Comments

  1. Lyn Topinka on March 14, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    The Kalama River was not named for John Kalama. In 1806 Lewis and Clark mentioned the river was called “Cath-la-haws” (Clark), “Calams” (Ordway), and “Calamus” (Whitehouse). This was 30 years before John Kalama began working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1811-1814 Gabriel Franchere mentioned the Indian village called “Thlakalamah”, located on a “small stream”. Journals then reference the village located on the river’s banks.

    • J.K. Pouli on May 25, 2020 at 6:55 am

      Yet, it is called “Kalama” who is an actual person. Why did they not call it “Cath-la-haws” or “Calams” or “Calamus” or “Thlakalamah” instead? Regardless, John Kalama has a big influence and was influential for the town of Kalama.

  2. Joe on July 23, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    In 1871, General John Sprague, a railroad agent, christened the new town Kalama, after the Kalama River, which was earlier named for a Hawaiian man named John Kalama. Kalama was given the slogan “Where Rail and Water Meet,” as well as “Where Rail Meets Sail” (Urrutia 2, 12). The population of Kalama peaked at 5,000 people, but in early 1874, the railroad moved its headquarters to Tacoma, and by 1877, only 700 people remained in Kalama.

    Before Spraque, it was named after Kalama. History was white-washed again.

  3. Joe on July 23, 2020 at 10:15 pm

    In 1871, General John Sprague, a railroad agent, christened the new town Kalama, after the Kalama River, which was earlier named for a Hawaiian man named John Kalama. Kalama was given the slogan “Where Rail and Water Meet,” as well as “Where Rail Meets Sail” (Urrutia 2, 12). The population of Kalama peaked at 5,000 people, but in early 1874, the railroad moved its headquarters to Tacoma, and by 1877, only 700 people remained in Kalama.

    Before Spraque, it was named after John Kalama. History was white-washed again.

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