Cape Flattery Lighthouse, located on Tatoosh Island in Washington State.

photo by: Photo by Marius Strom

Native American History

Cape Flattery Lighthouse

  • Constructed: 1857
  • Location: Tatoosh Island, Washington

You can catch a glimpse of the Cape Flattery Lighthouse from the end of an isolated trail at the most northwesterly point of the lower 48 states, where the Makah people have lived for millennia. The lighthouse, first constructed in 1857 by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, is situated just three-quarters of a mile from the edge of Cape Flattery on remote Tatoosh Island. Tatoosh is the Northwestern tip of both the Makah Indian Reservation and the contiguous United States.

Long protected and contested, Tatoosh Island has served as a seasonal village site for the Makah people since time immemorial. The island is close to productive fishing banks and whaling grounds. Makahs continue to use the island’s resources and host scientific investigations of the maritime environment.

The Cape Flattery Lighthouse is a reminder not only of the late 1700s historic voyages of European explorers and traders through Makah Territory, but also of the tribe’s complex relationship with the United States government. The Makah have supported the lighthouse’s operations, and they continue to tell the story of this culturally significant historic structure.

Forever Connected to the Sea

The Makah people have lived along the Pacific coast for thousands of years. While their land encompassed well over 300,000 acres in what is now Washington State, and included offshore islands, the vast majority of their territory extended into the marine waters off the Pacific coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including areas now within Canadian waters.

The Makahs’ proximity to and dependence on the sea influenced their traditions, technology, and beliefs, which live on today. Makahs continue to hunt marine mammals and fish, and navigate the rough Pacific waters with ease utilizing both modern vessels as well as traditional canoes carved from red cedar. Makah whaling is deeply rooted in spiritual and ceremonial practices that remain present in their customs today.

While the Makahs’ land was isolated, indirect contact with non-Indians arriving on the West Coast in the 1700s devastated their community and dwindled their population from between 2,000 and 4,000 to less than 1,000. A significant number of tribal members died from whooping cough, smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza, disrupting the passage of knowledge and cultural heritage from generation to generation. The Makah remained persistent in their practices, however, resulting in the continuation of a strong culture that thrives today.

In 1855 the United States government and Makah tribal leaders signed the Treaty of Neah Bay. They became the only tribe in the U.S. to explicitly reserve their rights to continue their whaling and sealing practices, and also reserved the right to fish in their usual areas and to hunt and gather in open, unclaimed territory. Though various Indian agents and others used government policies to attempt to assimilate the Makahs and eradicate traditional ceremonies, language, and customs, the Makahs have remained diligent in their efforts to preserve important cultural areas, resources, values, and traditions.

Icon of Pacific Northwest Maritime Heritage

When Captain James Cook first sailed to Tatoosh Island in 1778, he mapped and named it as Cape Flattery, since he incorrectly perceived the opening along the coast as having “flattering” conditions for ships to cross through. The Cape Flattery Lighthouse was constructed on Tatoosh Island in 1857 to help sailors navigate through the rough and rugged coast to and from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, which include larger port cities like Victoria and Seattle.

This sandstone and cement lighthouse structure was among the first group of U.S. navigational stations built on the West Coast. Both the island and the lighthouse served as a U.S. military defense position, wireless telegraph station, and weather station within the past 150 years.

As technology improved, the U.S. Coast Guard found that a lighthouse no longer suited their needs. The Cape Flattery Lighthouse was automated in 1976, and the light was eventually moved to a pole that was installed nearby—eliminating the need for a lighthouse entirely. The lighthouse and adjacent fog signal building now stand neglected after years of vacancy. Their structural condition is precarious, and they need almost $2 million in repairs to make them safe for use, including stabilization and new roofs.

The Cape Flattery Lighthouse was planned and constructed during the Treaty Period, a time of significant transition for Makah people and other tribes in Washington State in the mid-to-late 1800s. The era speaks to the capacity of the Makah to adapt to change while retaining their identity as a unique people with deeply rooted knowledge of their surroundings.

The Makah have maintained their connection to the area and resources throughout time, despite the occupation of their lands by the United States government. Today, the Makah have embraced the complexities of the lighthouse and its meaning for their people. They believe its historic significance should not be lost to the changing tides of time.

Lighthouse Takes on a New Use

In recent years, Tatoosh Island has become an important center for intertidal studies, including climate change and ocean acidification research. In addition, the lighthouse and Tatoosh Island are part of the proposed Washington State National Maritime Heritage Area, which follows most of the Washington coast and includes culturally and geographically diverse areas that represent the state’s long-standing relationship with water.

Indeed, many possibilities exist for the Cape Flattery Lighthouse—from use as a cultural and economic resource for the Makah Tribe to a research center for conducting biological, cultural, ecological, and climate studies. The first step is to ensure that the lighthouse is rehabilitated. The National Trust and the Makah will work with the United States Coast Guard, who have responsibility over the Lighthouse’s condition, to fully assess its repair needs, develop a preservation plan, and comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. Once the lighthouse is repaired and rehabilitated, it can become a true beacon of the maritime heritage shared by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

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