The Hanging of "Kanaka Joe"

A savage crime led to an equally savage punishment on the frontier.

The murders of William Fuller, James Dwyer, and Selina Jane Dwyer on San Juan Island led to the first execution in Port Townsend, Washington. This "gala event" turned into a horrifying sight for the citizens of the newly acquired United States territory.

In June of 1873 settlers James and Selina Jane Dwyer were murdered on their homestead at Kanaka Bay on San Juan Island. James was shot as he worked in his fields. His pregnant wife was sewing baby clothes in their little cabin when the killer found her. The discovery of their bodies sent shock waves through the sparse population of the island.

Suspicion quickly settled on young Joseph Nuana. The teenager had been born in Oregon City in 1859, son of William Newanna, a Native Hawaiian from Oahu, and an Indian mother. Newanna was an employee of the Hudson Bay Company, working as a laborer at Fort Vancouver before settling on San Juan Island. Joe grew up on San Juan Island and spent his school years there where he was referred to as not “particularly troublesome.”

It was quickly reported that Joe Nuana had borrowed a shotgun to go pigeon hunting just before the murders. When Nuana returned the gun, Lily Hannah Firth claimed, there was “no game that I could see,” and Nuana “acted strangely." She also reported that there were bloodstains on the gunstock.

Nuana attempted to place the blame for the murders on an “Indian friend” when he was arrested in Victoria a few days later. This “friend” of Nuana had a strong alibi, and Nuana eventually confessed to the murders. Reinforcing Nuana’s confession, investigators found boot prints matching Nuana’s "hobnailed boots" along with a missing shot pouch at a site Nuana had told the police about when he tried to place blame on his "Indian friend." Nuana was convicted and sentenced to hang at the then county seat of Port Townsend.

On the day of the hanging, the people of Port Townsend crowded around Point Hudson to celebrate the very first execution in their town. The hanging was “treated as a gala event.” Nuana was walked to the gallows accompanied by Sheriff Boyese, Mayor Van Bokkelen, the Reverend Father Mans. Nuana asked to "die quick," before turning his attention to the crowd and proclaiming "People, I am very sorry for what I have done. Now I have to go. All hands – goodbye."

Nuana did not get his wish to die quickly. The teenager and was very light, and the hangman botched the hanging. Nuana “thrashed” for more than twenty minutes, dying very slowly in front of the crowd of over 200 people.

During the nineteenth century public hangings like that of Joseph Nuana were commonplace in the United States. Yet for the citizens of Port Townsend, the grisly hanging of Nuana seems to have been enough, as it was the first and only public execution to take place in their city.