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First criminal trial in future Washington Territory convenes on October 2, 1849.

HistoryLink.org Essay 5684 : Printer-Friendly Format

On October 2, 1849, Chief Justice William P. Bryant of Oregon Territory convenes the first criminal trial in the future Washington Territory at Fort Steilacoom to try six members of the Snoqualmie tribe for murder. Two defendants are convicted and they will be hanged the next day.

On August 14, 1848, Congress created Oregon Territory out of land relinquished by the British Government in 1846. President James K. Polk appointed General Joseph Lane of Indiana as governor and James P. Bryant as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The territorial legislature designated the area around Puget Sound as Lewis County, but did not organize any court system.

On May 1, 1849, a group of approximately 100 Native Americans of the Snoqualmie and Skewahamish tribes led by Patkanim appeared at the Hudson's Bay Company Fort Nisqually. They were upset with the young Nisqually Chief Lohalet who was reportedly abusing his Snoqualmie wife. Nisqually guards employed by the Hudson's Bay Company were drawn into the conflict and company officials ordered the gates closed. American Leander Wallace was trapped outside the fort and shot and killed. Company officials restored calm by negotiation with Patkanim and U.S. troops were deployed to Fort Steilacoom to keep the peace.

Army officers offered Patkanim 80 blankets to deliver up the guilty parties. The chief claimed his bounty by turning over to the Army six members of his tribe. The legislature passed an act creating a court at Fort Steilacoom and in the absence of a district court judge, Chief Justice Bryant gaveled the proceedings to order on October 1, 1849. A grand jury promptly returned an indictment charging the six Snoqualmies with murder. Bryant appointed a lawyer to represent the defendants. Trial convened the next day and two men, Kussus (Cussus) and Quallalwowt were convicted of murdering Wallace. The jury of American settlers found the other four not guilty. One of the acquitted defendants was a slave not present at the May 1 altercation whom Patkanim offered to appease the whites.

U.S. Marshal Joe Meek hanged the two prisoners the next day, the first legal executions in the history of Washington. Justice Bryant tallied the cost of the trial at $2,379.54 including travel expenses, jurors fees, and the value of the 80 blankets.

W. P. Bonney, History of Pierce County Washington (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1927), 54-58.

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Related Topics: Firsts | Law | Crime | Northwest Indians | Government & Politics |

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Fort Nisqually blockhouse, ca. 1885
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. WAS0362)

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