Golden Potlatch: The First Seafair

1911 Potlatch Postcard, Seattle Historical Postcard CollectionYou’re probably familiar with the Seafair festival that Seattle holds every summer in July, but have you ever heard of its predecessor — the Golden Potlatch? Started in 1911, this annual celebration served as the inspiration for the Seafair festival that we know today.

Following the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909, an international fair which had brought 3.5 million visitors to the city, Golden Potlatch organizers hoped to create an annual celebration build on the Exposition’s success. Both festivals sought to dismiss Seattle’s reputation as a backwater frontier town and establish the city as a cultural and industrial center. Both festivals were also meant to commemorate the start of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 which was marked by the arrival of the S.S. Portland at the Seattle docks, the first steamer to bring gold back from Alaska. The gold rush caused Seattle’s commerce to boom and its population to nearly triple, making it a significant turning point in the city’s history.

Totem Pole Float in Potlatch Parade, 1912, Seattle Historical Photograph CollectionTo promote the idea of Seattle’s unique Northwest culture, Potlatch promoters drew heavily upon local Native American themes for the celebration, using native iconography, dressing in native garb and even deriving the name of the festival from the Chinook word “patlac.” (This referred to a North Coast Native American celebration including music, dancing and the exchange of gifts which was not actually practiced by any of the local Salish tribes.)

As with the Seafair celebration now, aerial displays, watersports, and parades also played a prominent role in the celebration. The first Potlatch in 1911 featured aerial feats from aviation pioneer Eugene Ely, a reenactment of the arrival of the S.S. Portland, ships from the U.S. Navy and Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet and canoe races across Lake Union. Thousands gathered along 1st and 2nd Avenues to see a parade of costumed marchers, decorated automobiles and elaborate floats wind through downtown.

Unfortunately the Potlatch celebration was short lived. During the third Potlatch festival in 1913, a fight broke out between civilians and visiting military personnel. Blame was directed towards the International Workers of the World and the socialist party, causing a riot throughout the city and the establishment of martial law. Organizers attempted to continue the Potlatch in 1914 but the tone was muted due the events of the earlier year and this combined with the advent of World War I brought an end to the celebration.

Lincoln Playfield Float in Potlatch Children's Parade, 1912, Seattle Historic Photograph CollectionThe Potlatch festival experienced a brief revival in the 1935 but was canceled shortly after in 1941 with the start of World War II. Following the conclusion of the war, city boosters once again gathered together to find a way to celebrate the city and so the first Seafair festival was born.

Want to learn more about the Potlatch? Check out more photos and ephemera in our digital collections.

~posted by Jade D. 

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