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The Mystery of the Name Shenandoah

by Stephanie Lile, Harbor History Museum Director & Curator

One of the most common questions we get about the 1925 purse seiner being restored at the Harbor History Museum is, "Why is she called Shenandoah?" That mystery has deep American roots. Do you have a mind like a shovel? A pair of binoculars? Or a map? You'll need them all to solve this mystery. So, let's work our way back through time, starting in the year 1925.

When the 65-foot "tender" (that means a boat built to carry loads of fish to canneries) slid down the ways at the Skansie Shipyard in Gig Harbor, Washington, her new owners christened her Shenandoah. A father and son had big dreams along with their newest family member, a young man who had come to America from what is now Croatia about 10 years before. All of them were intent on building their own American Dreams, and this new fishing boat was the key. The father and son were Pasco and John Dorotich, and the young man was Nick Bez (shortened from Nicoli Bezmalinovich), who had married Pasco's only daughter, Lena. All were Croatian, and all were seasoned fishermen.

Newspapers announced their latest venture, saying that the Shenandoah would head to Alaska to serve as a cannery tender. One of those canneries was located on Peril Strait and had been purchased the year before by Bez. It was the first of what would eventually become a cannery empire for Bez. He knew that canneries were only as good as the fish they processed, so he negotiated first with tenders to collect salmon from the fish traps built at the mouths of many Alaskan rivers. Later, when fish traps were outlawed, Bez built a fleet of dedicated Croatian fishermen. As far as can be determined by the historic record, Shenandoah fished for Bez canneries her entire 73-year career. Bez's last cannery venture was Peter Pan Seafoods, which still operates today.

But why the name "Shenandoah" when you can pick any name in the world? Current theories blame it on the U.S. Navy. You see, the 1920s was bustling with marvels and innovations. One of which was the idea of flight. The U.S. Navy was employing the latest technology and engineering to create rigid airships, the first of which was the U.S.S Shenandoah. She was a 680-foot sleek flying machine that navigated the air currents as boats navigated the sea. In a time before airplanes had gained much elevation, helium airships were the Navy's answer. The Shenandoah was such a marvel, she caused a commotion all across the country. The marvelous airship was launched in 1923 and made her way to Puget Sound in October of 1924. A tremendous tethering tower was built at Camp Lewis (now Joint Base Fort Lewis and McCord) and everyone eagerly awaited her arrival. But there was a catch.

Newspapers of the day reported that either high winds or shifting temperatures of the helium required that the airship postpone its tethering at Camp Lewis. Instead, she spent the day circling the skies above Puget Sound. The massive airship was such a novel sight that people gathered on the streets, outside businesses, on school grounds, sidewalks, and even on the water to get a glimpse of the mighty USS Shenandoah as she sailed overhead. When she finally did dock at Camp Lewis, some 10,000 people made the trek to see her tethered 60-feet above the ground. This marvel of engineering and technology no doubt made a big impression on Pasco, John, and Nick as they eagerly awaited the completion of their new boat. Innovations such as electric lighting above the engine bay (at a time when most houses didn't yet have electricity) suggest that they were eager to have the best craft with the latest technology available. Although we have no letters or statements from Pasco, John, or Nick, it's a good bet that the mighty airship had been an inspiration.

But, you may still be wondering, how did the airship get her name? That piece of history is far better documented than the FV Shenandoah's naming. The name USS Shenandoah was bestowed upon the airship by Mrs. Edwin Denby, the wife of the Secretary of the Navy. She chose the name in honor of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia where she had grown up. If you're a curious shovel-mind like me, you're already wondering how the valley got its name. That, I can tell you, is a place named, as many are, after a person. But this person is a remarkable man who died at the age of 110 in 1816. His name was Chief Skenandoa or more commonly, Shenandoah.

Shenandoah was born into the Iroquois-speaking Susquehannock Tribe whose traditional lands were what is now New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. He was adopted into the Oneida Tribe and later served as both a signer on the Treaty of Canandaigua and an ally of the American colonists at a time when other tribes sided with the British. He was a contemporary of George Washington and was celebrated for his leadership and diplomatic skills. A new statue, and one of the only known likenesses of him, is now on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The elaborate bronze, Allies in War, Partners in Peace, depicts Shenandoah with Polly Cooper (also Oneida) and George Washington.

Other sources state that the name Shenandoah, bestowed upon a long, winding river, is a derivative of the Algonquian word "schind-han-do-wi" that has been translated as "spruce stream,""great plains," and "beautiful daughter of the stars." Lovers of folk music no doubt know the song "Oh Shenandoah" that is said to have originated with the French fur trappers who populated the region long before American colonists. Early versions of the lyrics to that song claimed, "Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter" and was said to have been penned by a trapper who didn't want to leave the native woman he loved. The tune and rhythm made it a natural for adoption by sailors as a work song. Musicologists don't know for certain, but probably in the 20th century, these lyrics became related to "Shenandoah" the place. Almost every baby boomer grew up singing the song in music class, and it's likely that American music book publishers needed to adopt lyrics with more class and less crass. The river made a nice tie to American history and had been noted on maps of the region prior to 1861. In a patriotic post-war America, Shenandoah National Park was recognized in 1947, giving even more emphasis to the new place-based lyrics.

When you look back through the links that form the history of the Shenandoah name, it begins to make deep philosophical sense that a boat name could connect to an important series of people and ideas. While we'll never know what truly motivated Pasco Dorotich to name his boat, we do know that the name has great relevance. Like Chief Shenandoah, Pasco came from a different land as a boy (Croatia to Canada) but then later made a new life with his family in America. Like the airship, the boat was to be a modern marvel used to chase the American Dream of prosperity and security. And like the original song, the boat may well have been the men's "daughter of the stars."

Just before Chief Shenandoah passed, he was noted as saying, “I am an aged hemlock the winds of a hundred winters have whistled through my branches. I am dead at the top. The generation to which I belong has run away and left me. Why I live, the great good spirit only knows."

In many ways, our fishing boat Shenandoah could say much the same thing. Many people ask, "Why this boat? Why was this boat saved?" Like Chief Shenandoah, the boat has had a long life blessed by the great good spirit. And she will live on at the Harbor History Museum, an icon of the enduring will of the people who built and fished her. Unlike most other fish boats of her generation that have been sunk or demolished, Shenandoah lives on in perpetuity so that all generations who follow can discover her secrets, her symbols, and the indomitable spirit of her name.

An "imagined" view of the U.S.S. Shenandoah flying above Gig Harbor, Washington, in 1924. (Harbor History Museum)

Author's Note: The FV Shenandoah is the centerpiece of a new $2.5 million Maritime Gallery at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, WA. The goal is to complete the gallery by early 2025 just in time for her 100th birthday.



Photo: Allied in War, Partners in Peace by Patrick G. Ryan. Appeared in American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. 2017, Vol. 18, No. 3 by Dennis Zotigh.

Shenandoah Airship:

Photo: USS Shenandoah at Camp Lewis, courtesy of US Navy Archives

Photo: USS Shenandoah over Gig Harbor, a fiction created by Harbor History Museum to illustrate scale and view.

FV Shenandoah:

Photo: FV Shenandoah in 1925. Tacoma Public Library.

Photo: FV Shenandoah Docking, c. 1930. Harbor History Museum Collection.

Origin of the folk song "Shenandoah": Library of Congress, Song of America Project,

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