The political careers of the Bishop brothers, Thomas G. and William Jr., spanned a critical transition period for Coast Salish people in Western Washington between 1900 and 1935 that shaped subsequent discourse on Indian rights. Their mother was the daughter of a prominent Sdu'hubš (Snohomish) leader; their father a former British seaman. Like hundreds of other young Native Americans, the Bishops grew up among elders who remembered Hudson Bay trading posts, naval long guns firing over Puget Sound, and the humiliation of signing treaties under duress. Yet their generation attended public schools and worked in sawmills and canneries. Many could "pass" as white, and many did, while others chose to confront racial stereotypes openly. Some defied federal regulations by attending traditional religious events, mainly in secret. Citizenship for Native Americans was achievable but risked giving up treaty rights, while renewing treaty identities risked reinforcing the reservation system and the federal Indian bureaucracy. Each in his own way, and both as staunch Republicans, the Bishop brothers empowered the Native peoples of Washington: William as a prosperous businessman and state legislator advancing socio-economic integration and political participation, and Thomas as the standard bearer for treaty rights and political recognition of historical tribes.
On Chimacum Prairie
When American settler militiamen burned down Hibulb, the main village of the Sdo’hobc (Snohomish) people, located where the city of Everett was later built, many wealthy and prominent Snohomish families were displaced. Among the refugees from Hibulb who settled on Whidbey Island were "S'lootsloot" (probably meaning "tied up all together," connoting wealth) and his teenage daughter "Lag-wah" (which could mean "points it out repeatedly"). Around the same time, William Bishop Sr. (1833-1906), an ordinary seamen on the British Navy's HMS Monarch, surreptitiously left the ship for a life in Washington Territory, settling at Chimacum Prairie on the Quimper Peninsula, south of Port Townsend at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula.
It was likely there that William Bishop met Lag-wah, perhaps when S'lootsloot and his family visited Snohomish gardens at Chimacum Prairie. The couple married in 1858 according to their descendants' oral tradition. Their first-born, Thomas G., arrived in 1859, followed by William Jr. in 1861, and Elizabeth in 1866. Within a decade, Lag-wah, then known as Sally, and William had split up. William married Hannah Hutchinson, who came to live with him and his two sons on their Chimacum farm. At some point Sally married a neighboring farmer named Charles Williams, but Sally Bishop Williams largely disappeared from local records until her death in 1916. She likely continued to maintain contact with her sons, who both self-identified as "Snohomish" for the rest of their lives.
As teenagers both boys went to work in the family business: Thomas as a cheese maker in the profitable Glendale Dairy their father founded and William Jr. on the farm. Before he turned thirty, Thomas Bishop struck off on his own. The 1887 county census found him living in a boarding house in Port Townsend, married to Swedish-born Inger Lou Carlson, and working as a butcher. Whatever the reasons, William Jr. remained at home in Chimacum while his older brother began a new life in the city.
In 1889 the elder Bishop left the management of the Glendale Creamery to William Jr. and moved to Port Townsend, where he went into commercial real estate and then built a brick mansion for his retirement with Hannah. Much of the commercial property was inherited by William Jr. when his father died in 1906.
William Bishop Jr. in Olympia
In 1898 William Bishop Jr. bought 500 acres from his father's neighbor at Chimacum, Reuben S. Robinson, with a house that he substantially rebuilt, and a shed that became his office. Two years later, he married a young Swiss-German immigrant, Madeline Ammeter, and began a family. Throughout his 35-year-long political career, Bishop continued to support himself from his dairy farm, "one of the best in the Northwest" with more than 125 Holstein cows, and the Glendale Creamery, which employed about 20 local men ("Adding to His Herd ...").
Between the creamery, the farm, and the Port Townsend real estate, William Jr. had the means to pursue a career as a Republican state legislator. First elected to the state House of Representatives in 1898, he remained a fixture in Jefferson County and state politics until his death in 1935. As a legislator William Jr. rarely referred to his Snohomish ancestry but it was no secret, occasionally referenced in news coverage of his career in Olympia.
After one term in the House Bishop set his sights on the so-called joint state Senate seat shared by Jefferson, Clallam, and San Juan counties, which in practice rotated between Port Townsend and Port Angeles. Bishop lost the Republican nomination in 1902 to the incumbent, Senator Cyrus Clapp of Port Angeles. After election to a second term in the House in 1904, Bishop made another try for the senate in 1906. Spurned by Clallam and San Juan County Republicans, who had their own favorites, Bishop announced that he would run as an independent. This attracted a blistering public attack by the leaders of his party for desertion and splitting the ticket.
The deadlock led to local Republicans choosing John L. Blair of San Juan County. An editorialist for The Seattle Times hinted that the nomination fight had racial undertones, writing that Jefferson County had experienced a "narrow escape," saved by the "whites" of San Juan and Clallam Counties when they pushed forward "a white man from Friday Harbor" instead of Bishop (September 20, 1906, p. 6). Bishop, unfazed, was re-elected to the House in 1908. In 1912 he was a Republican elector in the Electoral College, voting for William Howard Taft (1857-1930). When the three counties again disputed the Republican nomination for state Senate in 1914, he was considered a kingmaker:
"Bishop, who lives at Chimacum, in Jefferson County, is one of the best known dairymen in the state and also a prominent timber owner and logger. He has a wide influence that, while not dominating Jefferson County politics, makes him a factor that must be considered" ("Two Republican Fights ...").
After one more term in the House (1917-1918) Bishop finally ran successfully for the state Senate in 1918, and was re-elected in 1922. During his tenure he chaired several legislative committees including the appropriations committee, a position of considerable power. He danced with Madeline at the first inaugural ball for Republican governor Roland Hartley (1864-1952) in 1925, which marked a sea-change in Washington politics at the time.
Bishop was outspoken on a wide range of issues affecting rural Washington counties, from state funding for the eradication of bovine tuberculosis to maintaining adequate inspectors under the state's pure-feed law. He advocated taxing growing urban electrical-power utilities, and stumped for expanding the state's ferry system, arguing that it helped farmers on the peninsula and islands sell their products to mainland Washington competitively. He won greater power for the state Fisheries Board to regulate hatcheries and canneries, and increased restrictions on hunting and sport-fishing licenses. An old-line Republican, he advocated the dismissal of teachers with "Bolshevist" ideas; however, he championed establishing a state-funded program of school nurses, and co-sponsored bills to redistribute tax revenue from wealthy to poor school districts.
His oratory was such that when a severe attack of influenza silenced him during the March 1920 special session of the legislature, The Seattle Times took note of the absence of the "spellbinder" from debates ("Spellbinder Very Silent ..."). In all of the press coverage of his legislative activities, only once was he ever identified as "son of an Indian mother," and that was when he opposed re-naming Mount Rainier in 1924, arguing simply that most of his fellow legislators were also opposed to a change ("Washingtonians Urged to Fight ...").
In 1925, Bishop drew statewide attention for opposing labor-union lobbying to raise the legal age for full-time employment to 18 years, demanding on the floor of the state senate to know why the unions were more concerned about the measure than "the fathers and mothers" of the state.
"I will tell you why. It is because between the ages of 16 and 18 hundreds of thousands of young men leave school and begin to learn trades or go out into the world seeking a living in commercial or other pursuits. Statistics show that 80 per cent of school children leave the institutions between 16 and 18 years of age. They go into the world because they want to earn money. Labor organizations want to keep this 80 per cent from working, from becoming competitors of the adults employed or seeking employment" ("House Kills Plan ...").
Bishop soon grew disenchanted with Governor Hartley. He publicly accused Hartley of neglecting rural counties. "Senator William Bishop, of Jefferson, a vigorous fighter, declared he had his coat off and war-paint on to do battle for the school and highway programs, as they now exist" ("Legislators Fight Hartley ..."). He single-handedly blocked Hartley's recess appointments to state boards in 1926 by diverting them to the Senate rules committee; and announced his intention to review the efficiency of all state code departments at the next legislative session. Pro-Hartley Republicans put up Walter Taylor to run against Bishop for the joint senate seat, and Taylor won. After Hartley failed in his bid for a third gubernatorial term, Bishop was re-elected to the Senate seat for one last term in 1932.
In January 1933 he suffered a stroke, and had to be accompanied by Madeline during his last month in the state Senate. He died the following year. The Seattle Times remembered him as an "old-line Republican statesman, a "farmer who produced some of the finest Holstein cattle in the United States," and the son of a pioneer who "married an Indian girl of the Chimaoum Tribe" [sic], and said:
"Short, heavy-set, and dark-complexioned, his black hair edged with white, the senator was a familiar figure in legislative halls for many years. He was fiery in debate and never hesitated to be absolutely frank in his opinions" ("Senator Bishop, Pioneer G.O.P. Leader ...")
Both Madeline and their son William sought appointment for the remainder of his term in the Senate but were opposed by Clallam and San Juan counties. William ran unsuccessfully for his father's old seat in the legislature in 1938, bringing the Bishop family story in state politics to an end. The family dairy business also suffered irreparably from the Depression.
Thomas Bishop and the Northwest Federation of American Indians
Sometime before 1892, Thomas and Inger Bishop moved from Port Townsend to Tacoma with their three young children. Thomas continued to work as a meat-cutter for several years, and then bought a business of his own. By 1910 he was the owner of a confectionary store in downtown Tacoma, living on Prospect Hill with Inger, her elderly mother, and five children. Thomas's oldest sons were white-collar workers, Earl as a salesman in town and Roy as a tallyman at the port. A few years later, Thomas would experience an epiphany and build a career as a Snohomish Indian advocate for citizenship and tribal treaty rights, a role he played until his death in 1923.
A downtown Tacoma Republican rally in 1904, presided over by the 45-year-old Thomas Bishop, was the first evidence of any political ambition on his part. Following a costly, unexplained fire at his store in 1909, he became more active in politics. In 1912 he was a member of the Pierce County Republican executive committee for John Lawrence's campaign for governor, only to see Lawrence defeated by Ernest Lister (1870-1919). Thomas was rewarded in 1916 with party endorsement for state representative and might have joined his brother in Olympia, had his sympathies and goals not begun to shift elsewhere.
In 1914, inspired by the establishment of the Society of American Indians (SAI) in 1911, Thomas organized an unprecedented three-day gathering in Tacoma of 50 Western Washington Native leaders. Local newspapers reacted with a mix of romanticism and condescension:
"Gathering from the seashore, prairies and mountains to ask comforts for the old and enfeebled of their race; to demand that the wrongs said to have been inflicted by 'unscrupulous' agents are righted; ... delegates from fifteen fish-eating Indian tribes of Western Washington convened in Tacoma this afternoon for a three-days' pow-wow. ...
"The pow-wow opened with the singing of "America." Young braves, eager for the products of civilized culture, and wrinkled old chieftains, whose chief delight is to fish without hindrance and hear the wind in the trees without automobile horns to jar the symphony, rose, bared their heads and sang the anthem ... " ("Fish-eaters of Sound ...").
The Times identified Thomas Bishop, a "retired merchant," as the organizer, although ironically described him as a Quinault rather than Snohomish ("Fish-eaters of Sound ..."). The confusion may have arisen from the fact that Bishop arranged for Taholah, an elderly Quinault treaty signer, to recall the promises made by Governor Stevens as he had originally understood them in his own language. Taholah was star of the spectacle, a genuine old Indian without the smart suit that Bishop undoubtedly wore.
The stimulus for the meeting was a circular sent to Indian Agencies by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane (1864-1921), a progressive Democrat appointed by President Wilson, in which he sought opinions as to whether American Indians were ready to be emancipated from government trusteeship. A highly publicized national campaign for Indian citizenship had been waged by author Joseph Dixon in 1913, with what the press perceived as overwhelming Native American support, and Lane was ready to prepare a recommendation to the president.
The Northwest Federation of American Indians (NFAI) was born as a result of the 1914 Tacoma convention. While it eventually unraveled during the Great Depression, it was reborn as the Inter-Tribal Council of Western Washington in 1953 to fight the Truman administration's "termination" policy and in 1967 became the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington (STOWW), which in 2017 still functions as a base for advocacy and shared services.
At NFAI's second annual meeting at Tacoma in 1915, Thomas Bishop was elected president, and delegates "decided to form locals of the organization west of the Cascades and to forward to the department of Indian affairs at the national capital various reports of the different Indian tribes" ("Indians Elect ..."). This took NFAI in a different direction than SAI. Modeled on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), SAI was composed of individual Native Americans, mainly professional men and women. NFAI was a coalition of communities, and linked upholding treaty promises with meaningful citizenship.
In his Appeal to the Government (1915), Bishop focused on the treaty rights to continue hunting and fishing, and to receive allotments of farm land. Land was an issue on reservations as much as for off-reservation communities. Henry Steve explained the situation on the Tulalip Reservation:
"The Indian signers of that treaty were promised land from Everett to the Stanwood country, but when our land was surveyed by the government all we got was the present Tulalip Reservation. There is not enough acreage to go around among those who live there. I know old Indians, who never had any land. I can show you hungry Indians on the Tulalip Reservation who are fed by their neighbors. They ought to have the land that was promised to them" ("To Procure Land ...").
Secretary Lane directed Charles E. Roblin to prepare a list of landless Northwest Indians. Roblin relied on census reports prepared by Indian Agents on reservations; most Native families were living off-reservation, however, and were more likely to appear on federal and state enumerations, which Roblin did not consult. Meanwhile, NFAI authorized Bishop to seek redress for treaty claims in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Bishop in Washington, D.C.
Roblin's report, completed in 1919, vindicated Bishop's assertion that thousands of Washington Indians had never been allotted land. When the president did not act, NFAI concluded that litigation was inevitable. The U.S. Court of Claims lacked statutory jurisdiction at that time to hear such a case, so Bishop secured the support of Representative Lindley Hadley (1861-1948), Republican of Bellingham, just beginning his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, to prepare and sponsor a bill giving the Court of Claims authority to hear the case of landless Washington Indians. Bishop and Thomas L. Sloan of the Omaha Tribe, the first American Indian lawyer admitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, testified at hearings on the Hadley bill. Dr. Charles M. Buchanan, Superintendent of the Western Washington Indian Agency, spoke bitterly against it, arguing that Bishop's arguments were bogus and his motives suspect. The bill cleared House and Senate committees in February 1920, but when Bishop returned to Tacoma in April 1920, its fate remained uncertain.
With the jurisdictional question still before Congress, Bishop turned his attention to the White House. Republican Warren G. Harding took office on March 4, 1921, and Bishop wielded his Republican Party connections to arrange an audience. On June 20, 1921, "in the course of an extended conference at the White House," President Harding discussed reforms in the Indian Service with "Thomas Bishop of Seattle [sic], a Snohomish Indian," and a delegation of Native leaders, who explained that they stood against:
"the autocratic powers entrusted to the superintendents of the several reservations, and against the petty dictatorships of civil service employees of the Indian Bureau. The Indians want a larger voice in the handling of their own business affairs, and also want more of the minor officials of the Indian Service appointed directly by the President without regard to Civil Service regulations. They maintain that the Civil Service produces a horde of autocrats not easily removable" ("Harding to Probe ...").
The following year, Bishop presided over an all-day NFAI meeting at Mount Vernon to discuss treaty claims, and in 1923 he organized an even grander meeting on the Tulalip Reservation attended by some 500 delegates. And then, within months of each other, Thomas G. Bishop and Warren G. Harding were dead.
At the time of his death, Bishop was on the threshold of national prominence as an Indian civil rights leader. While organizing in Washington state and lobbying in Washington, D.C., he also managed to attend the Society of American Indians meeting in St. Louis in 1920, where he was elected SAI Secretary-Treasurer, and to testify at congressional hearings on recruiting American Indians into the armed forces. "Many of you dwelt upon the idea that to give the Indian citizenship would be to have him robbed," he told Congress, "[b]ut his greatest fight now is protecting himself from those who are attempting to guard him" (Army Reorganization, 2231). The surest way to protect individual Indians, Bishop argued, was to make Indians responsible for other Indians.
"I believe that the Indians should be given self-determination on their reservations. There are many of them on the reservation to-day more able to handle their own property, determine the rights of their property, and guard their people than the agents the Indian Bureau places over them" (Army Reorganization, 2232).
He issued the call for all Indian-interest organizations to attend SAI's 1921 meeting in Detroit: "Let us all go to this big Indian pow wow and show that American Indians (natives) are very much alive" (Hertzberg, 194). The Detroit convention called for abolishing the federal Indian Office and granting unconditional citizenship to all American Indians. The second goal was attained in 1924, too late for Bishop to relish his share in the achievement. Bishop clearly separated his roles as a Northwest Indian leader seeking treaty rights and as a national Indian leader seeking individual freedom and citizenship. A schism between integrationists and tribal nationalists tore SAI apart after his death.
The Hadley bill became law and, two years after Bishop's death, retired Olympia judge Arthur Griffin (1862-1947) was retained to pursue the case. He collected more than a hundred affidavits from elderly Coast Salish people listing property they had lost as a result of federal misfeasance and inaction, ranging from village sites and potato fields to fishing grounds. The case crept through the federal Court of Claims at a snail's pace until 1934, when it was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The Hadley bill had opened the court to "all claims ... both legal and equitable" that Western Washington Indians might have. The federal judges ruled that the United States had never recognized explicitly that Western Washington Indians had legal or equitable rights to any property; therefore there were no claims to litigate. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review this result.
Congress could have sent Northwest treaties back to the Court of Claims but in the depths of the Depression, Native people had no money to renew the fight. It remained for the Truman Administration to create a special Indian Claims Commission in 1946 to address grievances throughout the country, albeit with only one possible remedy: cash compensation at the value of the lands when lost (a few dollars per acre). The commission would not complete its work for 30 years, just in time for the 1974 ruling known as the Boldt decision upholding fishing rights promised in the treaties.
Thomas Bishop's decade of organizing and advocacy had lasting effect on the Coast Salish of Western Washington, beyond setting the stage for land claims settlements and recognition of treaty rights long after his death. Because NFAI organized its membership by tribes and its chapters engaged the Indian bureau as if they were representing tribes, it helped form tribal councils in Washington State 20 years before the Congress adopted the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which authorized American Indian reservation communities to form local governments. Bishop's exhaustive interviews of elders also preserved the memories of Coast Salish whose lives spanned the entire century since Hudson's Bay traders arrived on Puget Sound. In the words of Lawrence Webster (1899-1991), founder and first curator of the Suquamish tribal museum, "History could have died if Tommy Bishop did [not] start asking questions" in the 1910s (Harmon, 182).
The Bishop Legacy
The Bishop brothers' political paths crossed only once, during the period when William Jr. was smoldering over his defeat by the Hartley Republicans. Thomas was already dead, but his crusade for land rights was entering a new phase, as Judge Arthur Griffin began submitting evidence and arguments to the Court of Claims. Encouraged by Griffin, the tribal chapters of NFAI organized more formally as legal entities. This included the "Snohomish," about equally divided at that time between the Tulalip Reservation and the Chimacum Valley. Senator Bishop briefly assumed his older brother's role as tribal leader, helping draft the constitution of the "Snohomish Tribe of Indians" in 1926, incorporating it in 1927, and serving as its first president while Samish leader S. J. Kavanagh took the reins at NFAI.
It did not work out the way either of the Bishop boys hoped. After fighting by the thousands in the First World War, American Indians were granted blanket citizenship by Congress in 1924, although the courts ruled that this was not inconsistent with continued federal administrative oversight of Indian reservations. In a superficial turnabout in 1934, Congress decided to delegate power gradually to tribal councils on reservations but perpetuated Indian Office oversight and left off-reservation Indians out of the bargain. Substantial Congressional recognition of tribes' inherent self-governing authority would not come until 1975, more than 40 years after Thomas Bishop's original treaty case failed in the courts.
The Bishops' own tribal community, the Snohomish Tribe of Indians, remains unrecognized by the federal government despite a century of activism. In 2003, the Department of the Interior ruled that the Chimacum community led by the Bishops existed only to pursue claims against the government and that the only genuine Snohomish were those living on the Tulalip Reservation.