Carvers to the Core: The Legacy of Sam Williams

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Sam Williams and his youngest son, RayFrom the early days of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, founder J.E. Standley looked to Nuu-chah-nulth artisan Sam Williams for totem poles and other mostly monumental carvings. Born about 1880 on Vancouver Island in the Ditidaht area, Williams moved his family to the Duwamish River flats south of Seattle around the turn of the 20th century. There Standley found him, and there a working relationship was forged between the tireless curio shop proprietor and the talented and prolific carver.

Though he did make miniature totem poles of the kind that is favored by his descendants today, Sam preferred large ones. He based the size of his work on the salvage logs that washed up on the tidal flats from the many floating log booms created by the timber industry.

Sam carved in a style that was all his own. Though he was influenced by the traditional totem poles he saw around him in early life, once he landed in Seattle his carving took on a bold, personal cast that made his work like no other. His wife Nellie did most of the painting, brushing on bright-colored enamels that complemented the strong shapes of her husband’s sculptures and helped preserve them from the elements.

A Williams at the World’s Fair
The earliest of the large poles that Sam carved arrived at the shop in the 1920s, and one was snapped up by Robert L. Ripley (yes, that Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not fame) during a visit in 1936. The pole Ripley chose was a truly exceptional example over 3 ½ stories tall!

On the same visit, Ripley purchased an impressive 10-foot-high Potlatch Man carved by Williams. Both were destined for Ripley’s estate in New York, but the Potlatch Man made a side trip to the New York World’s Fair, where Ripley put it on display in 1939.

The Carver’s Way
Settee by Sam's eldest son, WilsonSam’s four sons helped him in his work, beginning what became a longstanding family tradition. (The photo at the top of this page shows Sam with his youngest son Ray.) In the generations to come, daughters joined sons and produced their own work. J.E. Standley’s family estimates that of all the totem poles sold since the shop opened in 1899, over 70% of them were carved by a Williams family member... a statistic that carries forward into the present day. Enter Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and you will find yourself surrounded by the Williams’ art, both for purchase and as part of our museum collection.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.


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