PAT NEAL: The spud and I

THERE ARE FEW things more enjoyable to a gardener that planting potatoes. They are easy to plant. In fact, you can often just replant the potatoes you missed digging last year’s crop. They should be sprouting out of the ground on their own about now.

A member of the nightshade family, potatoes were cultivated in South America 2,500 years before Christ. The Spanish conquistadores invaded South America looking for gold but they also found the potato. The value of the humble potato has probably exceeded the wealth of precious metals since then.

Potatoes were introduced to Europe in the 1700s. At the time they were a revolutionary fast food that was considered an aphrodisiac. Potatoes were easily grown in poor soils, which made them ideal fodder for the working masses in the coming industrial revolution.

The conquistadores invaded lands at their own expense in hopes the crown would grant them the franchise to plunder the lands they subjugated. The conquistadores’ act however did not play well on the Olympic Peninsula.

On May 29, 1791, the Spanish captain Salvador Fidalgo anchored his ship Princesa in Neah Bay, which was named Bahia de Nunez Gaona. The Princessa carried some 70 seamen and 13 soldiers. Capt. Fidalgo had instructions to mount a battery of cannons, construct a palisade and an oven to supply bread to the crews of visiting Spanish vessels. The Makah resented the Spanish presence. They understood the act of possession where Europeans claimed land by planting a cross and a bottle. They killed a Spaniard that Makah tradition accused of being a rapist. The Spaniards were growing potatoes, a known aphrodisiac, so no wonder there was trouble with women.

Nunez Gaona only lasted a few months. That’s all it took for the Spanish to realize Neah Bay was a tough place to anchor and there was no gold in these hills. The only other treasure was the sea otter which would soon be hunted to extinction, so there was no point in hanging around. The crew of the Princesa included some Peruvian Indians who would have been a likely source of the first potatoes on the Olympic Peninsula.

The Spanish abandoned the Olympic Peninsula. The potatoes remained, replacing camas as the most important source of carbohydrates to the Native Americans.

Within a few years potato cultivation spread east to the S’Klallam, where the Wilkes expedition reported them being grown at Port Discovery in 1841. The potato moved south to the Ozette and Quileute, where Swan observed potatoes being grown on James Island in 1861.

Potatoes were the most important crop to the pioneer settlers on the Olympic Peninsula. Potatoes could be sold or used to fatten hogs. In 1861, Abernathy and his neighbor Elliot Cline were able to trade potatoes for dairy cows from Victoria, B.C., which started the dairy industry in the Dungeness Valley.

Potatoes were the chief crop of the stump ranchers. They were the keepers of a treasury of long-lost knowledge and pioneer seed stocks that may have come here by sailing ship, canoe or wagon train. Pulling the stumps was a luxury not many could afford, so the stump ranchers planted between the stumps where they could.

That first potato harvest was said to be a bumper crop in Dungeness with 200 to 400 bushels per acre being dug without the benefit of irrigation or fertilizer. Subsequent crops tended to grow fewer, smaller spuds as the soil was played out and turned to pasture.

Planting a potato is more than just gardening. You are re-enacting an important part of the history of the Olympic Peninsula.

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Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected]