20 Essential Seattle Books, Part 1: History.

Here at the library, we’re often asked by old timers and newcomers alike, “What are must read books for people living in Seattle?” While others have offered intriguing suggestions, librarians aren’t really big on shoulds and musts, knowing how readers have such diverse tastes, moods and motivations. That said, we thought we’d venture a little list of titles that capture essential aspects of this place, its history and culture. In today’s post, we look backwards in time.

Skid Road First EditionThere’s ample reason that Murray Morgan’s Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle has been the most popular work of local history for sixty-five years running: it is as entertaining as it is informative. There are more detailed and objective histories available (check out Richard Berner’s multi-volume look at Seattle in the 20th Century), and folksier books too (see Sons of the Profits, by beloved local raconteur Bill Speidel). But Morgan hits the sweet spot, combining a good basic outline of how this city got here with a diverting and often wry look at opportunistic settlers who kicked of a cycle of boom and bust that continues to this day.

Native SeattleThe book you may find yourself longing for after reading Morgan’s is Coll Thrush’s Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place. This city is young, but this place and its people are ancient. Thrush refocuses the narrative of settlement in Seattle, restoring Indigenous people who are marginalized as bit players and even antagonists in other accounts to a complex central role in our area’s past, present and future, peeling back the veneer to get at the underlying stories of this area, stories of beginnings and endings, of struggle and perseverance.

1001 Curious ThingsThere are few locales that so epitomize the painful poignancies of this history that the Seattle landmark explored in Kate Duncan’s 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe and Native American Art. Founded in 1899 by J.E. Standley, the curio shop’s once lively trade in native art and kitsch made it a locus of cultural appropriation, assimilation and commodification, yet also preservation and promotion. Since its founding, many of the shop’s acquisitions and commissions were carved by the Williams family; woodcarver John Williams was shot and killed by a Seattle Police officer in 2010.

Katie GaleFor readers struggling to envision what life must have been like for First Peoples on Puget Sound during this time of profound dislocation and upheaval, Llyn De Danaan’s beautiful, evocative Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay provides a fascinating look at the life of a long forgotten woman who, displaced from her family’s traditional fishing grounds on the Sound resisted resettlement to a reservation, marrying a white settler and founding an oyster farm which she struggled to maintain. De Danaan’s deeply sympathetic and immersive approach to her subject restores a voice to one among countless people whose story has been silenced.

Of course you’ll find countless other resources on Seattle and Northwest history at your library, and online.

    – Posted by David W.

6 thoughts on “20 Essential Seattle Books, Part 1: History.”

  1. glaringly omitted: horace cayton’s long old road, and quintard taylor’s the forging of a black community. why the slight to these distinguished black historians and literary stylists? too classy, i guess.

  2. Thanks – those are great ideas. Quintard Taylor’s book actually does get a mention in a later post in this series. I’ll need to get a hold of Long Old Road, which looks like it has been out of print for a while: I just ordered myself a used copy, and the library has a reference copy in the Seattle Room. Thanks for sharing those!

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