Kanaka Joe Hanged--Port Townsend 1873

Tom Camfield
Posted 1/22/10

This little story has previously been in print--in my first volume of Port Townsend (and environs) history published in 2000. I am blogging it here for the benefit of those who have not seen my book …

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Kanaka Joe Hanged--Port Townsend 1873


This little story has previously been in print--in my first volume of Port Townsend (and environs) history published in 2000. I am blogging it here for the benefit of those who have not seen my book (which still is "in print," by the way)--and because I have no other subject about which to write at the moment.


He went down in history as Kanaka Joe, the main character of the only hanging in Port Townsend history, back in 1873. Even his true name was not allowed to live on in most versions of history that have been passed down.

To refer to him as Kanaka was to dismiss him as Hawaiian . . . much as one might have been called Indian Charlie or Old Black Joe. His true name is revealed in diaries of pioneer Port Townsend resident James G. Swan, who made reference to "Joseph Nuana, the half-breed Kanaka [Hawaiian] who murdered the Dwyers on San Juan" being "hanged today at the Point, near the brewery."

History is rife with misinformation about this character and about the site of his hanging. Indian historian Mary Ann Lambert wrote that an Indian was hanged from the large tree near the old ball park (southwest corner of the present golf course). This "hanging tree" was still standing near the golf course entrance during the author's youth and may be the innocent old weather-stunted fir still standing there.

Others have misidentified the hanged man as "half caste Chinese."

Swan, of course, undoubtedly was an eyewitness to the affair. Charles Eisenbeis's Washington Brewery was indeed near Hudson Point, not too far from Chetzemoka Park. James G. McCurdy's book (1937) refers to the gallows site as "on a hillside not far from the present site of Chetzemoka Park."

A lengthy feature article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Sunday magazine [an undated clipping of seeming 1940s or '50s vintage was provided us], written by Ruth Herberg, states that Joe's father was pure Hawaiian, his mother a Stikine Indian. The father was one of the early-day Hawiians brought to the Northwest by the Hudson's Bay Company, many of whom worked on the company's San Juan Island stock farm. Kanaka Bay on that island's southwest corner was the home of Kanaka Joe.

Not much is known about Joe's youth. He was among the few Hawaiians left to live in relative squalor at Kanaka Bay when the Hudson's Bay Co. withdrew from the island in 1872. No suspicion fell on them, wrote Herberg, when an elderly Englishman, William Fuller, was bludgeoned to death; Haida Indians were blamed. But when, in 1873, Harry and Selina Jane Dwyer were wantonly and brutally murdered, it was suspected that someone on the island was guilty.

Harry had been out doing spring plowing when he met his end. He was found by neighbors Jim and Minerva Hannah, a bullet in his heart and his skull battered almost beyond recognition. Mrs. Dwyer's body was found inside her home, which was in disarray from a hurried search. Her face, too, was horribly mutilated and in her hand was a dress, drenched with blood, that she had been making for her soon-expected child.

Two gold watches and a small amount of money were determined to be missing.

After the funeral in Victoria, in the church where the couple had been married, Minerva Hannah informed Sheriff Warbass that Kanaka Joe had borrowed her husband's gun and ammunition pouch the previous week. Joe was found to have gone to Victoria. With the aid of authorities there, he was soon located and arrested along with his friend Indian Charlie. Under later questioning, Joe jumped at the opportunity of passing the blame for the murders onto his friend Charlie--offering the information that the stolen watches were in Charlie's shack (in Kanaka Row along Humboldt Street, northwest of the present Empress Hotel).

The watches were found, but it was easily determined that Charlie had been nowhere near the island the day of the murders. He was released and fled. Joe was confronted with the Hannahs' borrowed ammunition pouch by Sheriff Warbass, who had found it in the bushes behind the Dwyer home. The next Day, Joe made a full confession of the murders, and also the murder of William Fuller (in which he said Indian Charlie actually had participated).

Sheriff Warbass chained Joe's leg to a stanchion on the steamer Eliza Anderson for transportation to Port Townsend, and Herberg wrote that "half the citizens of San Juan Island came over to Port Townsend for the trial." Joe was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Stephen Boyce, another San Juan pioneer, was supervised the affair and tied the boy's hands behind his back. Local carpenter Newel Gerrish built the gallows, Capt. H. L. Tibbals tied the hangman's knot and the sheriff of San Juan County sprang the trap.

Practically the whole town, including many children, assembled to witness the hanging.