Eye On Olympia

MONDAY, FEB. 28, 2005, 1:35 P.M.

Cholera, crayfish, and the Lamentable Affair…

It was a very different kind of Sept. 11th back in 1852, when the Washington Territory's first newspaper, "The Columbian," published its first issue.

The Secretary of State's office has scanned 18 issues of the weekly paper and posted them on-line.

The papers can be a little tough to read on a computer screen, but they're worth the squinting. There's the "lamentable affair" of Gilbert v. Denver, in which a California editor named Edward Gilbert challenged a state senator, Gen. J.W. Denver, to a duel with rifles at 40 paces. In a man-bites-dog turn of events, the editor was disparaged in a leaflet printed by the politician.

Each man fired. And missed. Not the sort of men who give up easily, both reloaded and fired again. Gilbert, shot through the abdomen, died within minutes. He was 38.

There's also a brief report about cholera "raging fearfully" in Jackson, Missouri, and a space-filling musing that reads: "A billion. What a very great sum is a billion! It is a million of millions." (Actually, it's a thousand of millions, but hey, it was their first issue.)

Other gems: an ad for Olympia House, an eatery ready "to furnish man or beast with the best fare the market affords." That best fare included crayfish, bear, grouse, partridge, quail, mutton and whortleberries. There are ads for seaship passage to China, San Francisco and London, and tinware, cutlery and boots, "all of which will be sold cheaper than the cheapest."

There is the inevitable snake-oil ad, in which the blood-purifying Sand's Sarsaparilla is touted as good for what ails you, including liver complaints, bronchitis, consumption, fever sores and stubborn ulcers. It sold by the quart.

There is also a bizarre warning to readers that they'd better support the fledgling newspaper or it would head to greener pastures.

"...If we are adequately sustained, we will use every effort to advance the interests of the people..." the editors wrote. "...But should not a due encouragement be given to justify an expenditure of labor, time and capital, an alternative is presented in other and many inviting vocations (sic) on the Pacific coast, where industry will be suitably rewarded without the humiliation of an eternal solicitude for public patronage."

The paper went belly-up in 14 months.

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