In the early-morning hours of November 19, 1856, Nisqually Chief Quiemuth (d. 1856), a half-brother of Chief Leschi (1808-1858), is murdered in Oympia. Both Leschi and Quiemuth had fought white settlers and soldiers in the Indian Wars of 1855 and 1856, but Quiemuth had tired of war, and shortly after Leschi's capture, had surrendered into the custody of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862). Later the same night, as he is resting in Stevens's home while awaiting transfer to Fort Steilacoom, he is shot and stabbed to death. The assailant will never be positively identified and no one will ever be convicted of the crime.
Before the Settlers
For thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived in the Northwest, the Nisqually Tribe had lived in the Nisqually River valley, including the area near present-day Dupont. Native legend places the tribe's origins east of the Cascade Mountains, to a group known as the Squalli-absch, or "people of the grass country." The name Nisqually is derived from this older form. The Squalli-absch first settled near Skate Creek, outside the southern boundary of the Nisqually River watershed, and spoke Lushootseed, a subgroup of the Salishan family of Native American languages.
The Nisquallies ranged from the shores of Puget Sound to the foothills of Mount Rainier, which they called "Tacobud." Their diet consisted primarily of salmon, supplemented by some hunting and the gathering of shellfish, berries, camas root, grasses, and bark. They were also known for raising horses, and a member's wealth was often measured by the number of horses he owned. The Nisquallies were a settled tribe, and although they would move seasonally from the lowlands to the foothills and back, they did not wander far from their ancestral grounds. Those grounds were also very attractive to white people. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, trappers and traders were making incursions, and many others with more permanent intentions were to follow.
The British Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Nisqually in 1833 as a trading station, and it was the first permanent European settlement on Puget Sound. The company's holdings were greatly expanded in 1838 with the creation of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, which raised livestock and food crops on a huge, 30-mile-by-60-mile swath of Nisqually land. The Nisqually plains were soon home to hundreds of cattle and sheep, and wheat was planted on lands in which the tribe had foraged for camas root. But the Hudson's Bay Company maintained good relationships with the tribes, employing some, permitting and recognizing marriages between whites and Indians, and strictly prohibiting the sale of alcohol to tribal members.
In 1846 the United States and Great Britain had signed the Oregon Treaty, which established the international boundary at the 49th parallel. All of the company's facilities south of that line were now on land that the treaty ceded to the United States. Although the agreement called for noninterference in the company's existing operations, white settlers paid this little mind, and encroachment on Hudson's Bay land was common. Although it would take years, the company eventually pulled up stakes and moved its operations across the border into Canada. Native tribes throughout the state had no such option, and they would fight a futile battle against the waves of immigration sweeping over the land.
As has been amply recorded, the white settlers' way was eased by diseases. Even before the Indian Wars of 1855 and 1856 the numbers of most tribes west of the Cascades had been decimated by illnesses previously unknown to the indigenous people. The first Europeans to encounter the Nisquallies had put their number at approximately 3,500. Later estimates were drastically smaller, and the first real attempt to count them accurately, part of a general survey of Northwest tribes undertaken in 1838-1839, found only 258 remaining.
Quiemuth and Leschi
Quiemuth was born in the late 1790s and his half-brother, Leschi, was born in 1808, both in the village of Me-schal on the Mashel River, a tributary of the Nisqually. Their father, Ya-nat-co, was of the Nisqually Tribe but came from from the Salish village at Minter Creek on the Kitsap Peninsula. Of Quiemuth's mother no record appears to have survived, but Leschi's mother was said to be of the Yakama Tribe.
Within Nisqually tribal culture, day-to-day leadership was largely village based, although a chief named Laghlet was recognized as leader of the Nisqually Nation until his death in 1849. His oldest son, Wyamock, would likely have been recognized as successor, but he was deemed unsuitable for the position, and no one was selected in his stead.
By all accounts, Quiemuth and Leschi enjoyed very good relations with Hudson's Bay and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. They farmed land near Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River. They often worked for Hudson's Bay, helping the company on occasion when it came into conflict with other tribal members. Captain William F. Tolmie (1812-1886), who was in charge at Fort Nisqually for many years and spoke Lushootseed, knew the brothers well, and spoke highly of them.
In March 1853 the federal government created Washington Territory from portions of the huge Oregon Territory and appointed Isaac Stevens as Territorial Governor. Stevens had as his first order of business the clarification of the messy state of land ownership, and he set about trying to obtain Indian lands for white settlement. Stevens was unsure about who could represent the Nisquallies, who had not had an official leader since the death of Laghlet in 1849, in treaty negotiations. Based at least in part on Tolmie's recommendation, Stevens asked that Quiemuth serve as the tribe's chief and that Leschi, the younger brother, act as sub-chief. Both men were well-respected within the tribe, and it was they who represented the Nisqually at the Treaty of Medicine Creek.
The Medicine Creek Treaty
The Medicine Creek Treaty would be the first of several agreements by which the ownership of Indian land was to be transferred to the federal government for dispersal to white settlers. What Stevens wanted was clear title to the land; what he was offering in return were modest financial incentives, some land for modest reservations, and a promise to preserve the Natives' rights to hunt, fish, and gather in their traditional grounds.
In December 1854, Stevens and the white delegation gathered at Medicine Creek (known by the Indians as She-nah-nam) at what is now the site of the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge in Thurston County. Quiemuth and Leschi were there for the Nisquallies, and there were chiefs (some of whom were selected by Stevens) representing the Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squawskin, S'Homamish, Stehchass, T'Peeksin, and Sa-heh-wamish tribes.
It would not be entirely accurate to characterize what led up to the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty as a "negotiation." Stevens and his cohorts knew what they wanted, and the tribes knew they had little choice but to accede. On the day after Christmas, a treaty was signed under which the tribes gave up virtually all of their land and in return were granted three small reservations, one each for the Nisquallies, the Puyallup, and the Sqawskins. The treaty also provided some minimal financial compensation to the tribes and a guarantee that they could continue to fish and hunt in their "usual and accustomed" places (Medicine Creek Treaty, Article III).
In addition to the unequal bargaining power of the parties, there is a widespread belief that many of the Native signers of the treaty did not clearly understand its terms. The only language common to all the tribes present was Chinook trading jargon. A member of Stevens's party, Benjamin Shaw, translated the treaty's language into that tongue, which may well have been inadequate to accurately detail the document's provisions. In any event, the finished document indicated that 62 tribal representatives had signed the treaty, including Qui-ee-metl (Quiemuth) and Lesh-high (Leschi).
Leschi, at least, was vocally opposed to the treaty's terms, expressing his belief that the reservations were inadequate and that the relocation of the Nisquallies away from the river delta to high forested land would devastate tribal culture. He later denied having signed the document, despite the mark placed by his name. Whether or not Leschi signed the treaty, Stevens clearly expected trouble, and in 1855 he obtained legislative approval to form a volunteer militia in anticipation of hostilities with the tribes.
Brothers in Peace, Brothers in War
After the treaty signing Quiemuth and Leschi returned to their land at Muck Creek and continued to farm, but Leschi, in particular, was not ready to quietly go along with what he viewed as the destruction of his people and their culture. He consulted with the Yakama and the Klickitat tribes and with tribes in Oregon, all of whom expressed dissatisfaction with the seemingly unending encroachments of white settlers and with the terms of their respective treaties. Although Stevens was away from the Territory, Leschi met with the acting governor, Charles Mason (1830-1859), in October 1855 to express his desire for peace, but his stronger desire stay on the delta where his people had lived for millennia. He received no satisfaction and returned to his farm and to Quiemuth to finish the fall plowing.
But skirmishes had already begun. In September 1855 members of the Yakama Tribe had killed eight white miners and a federal Indian subagent who had been sent to investigate. Scattered hostilities broke out in other areas as well. Seeking to deprive the Nisqually Tribe of its leadership, Mason ordered the volunteer militia to take Quiemuth and Leschi into custody. A company of 18 men led by Captain Charles H. Eaton (Leschi's son-in-law) was sent to patrol the west side of the Cascades and to seize the two Nisqually chiefs.
On October 25, 1855, Quiemuth and Leschi learned of Eaton's intentions and fled north into the land of the Muckleshoot. Eaton's troops, arriving later, took the chiefs' horses and pursued the brothers north, where several tribes had joined together at the White River under Leschi's leadership. A series of raids and skirmishes followed, with loss of life on both sides. In just a few short weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1855, what would be known as the "Indian War" began in earnest.
The war intensified into the spring of 1856, with the violence perhaps reaching its peak in March with the Mashel Massacre. Volunteers under the command of Captain H. J. G. Maxon (1813-1884) attacked a band of Nisquallies at Mashel River near the land of Quiemuth and Leschi. Estimates of the dead ranged from as few as eight to as many as 30, but most accounts agree on one thing -- those slain were women, children, and elderly men, non-aggressive and largely unarmed.
The Indians lost the war, but their uprising was not entirely without results. As the fighting tapered off, Governor Stevens reconvened the Medicine Creek assemblage at Fox Island. After discussions, the Medicine Creek Treaty was changed to relocate the Puyallup and Nisqually reservations, with the Nisquallies getting more land at a location straddling the Nisqually River that included Muck Creek, where Quiemuth and Leschi had farmed.
Leschi for his part was homesick and weary of life on the run. He returned to his ancestral land, but stayed largely out of sight, hiding with some followers in the surrounding forests. In the early winter of 1856 he was betrayed by a fellow Nisqually, Sluggia, and captured on November 13, 1856. Leschi was tried for the "murder" of an American soldier, Colonel A. Benton Moses. Chief Leschi's attorneys argued firstly that Leschi had not actually been the one to kill Colonel Moses, and secondly that Colonel Moses was killed during warfare (in which there were casualties on both sides), requiring that his accused killer not be tried in a civilian court. After multiple legal proceedings, including one in which several jurors voted for acquittal, Leschi was hanged on February 19, 1858. As an early historian put it:
"Leschi was for the third time sentenced to be hanged; and on the 19th of February the unhappy savage, ill and emaciated from long confinement, and weary of a life which for nearly three years had been one of strife and misery, was strangled according to law" (Bancroft)
In 2004 a special state historical court cleared Chief Leschi (1808-1858) of the murder charges that were used to justify his execution.
Leschi gained the greater reputation as a war leader, and paid the price, but Quiemuth too did his part, having returned south to his homeland to lead a band of fighters near the Nisqually River. After Leschi's capture, Quiemuth appeared at the Yelm farm of settler George Brail on November 18, 1856, and asked Brail to accompany him to Olympia to surrender. Brail, Quiemuth, and several other men left immediately, arriving at Governor Stevens's home in the early hours of the morning of November 19.
Quiemuth would not live to see the end of that day. An account of what occurred after his arrival was printed in the Olympia Pioneer Democrat on November 28, 1856. Although the newspaper was clearly biased against the Native cause, its report on this incident largely agrees with other contemporary sources:
"[Quiemuth] was not confined in any way, and stated several times on the road that he was willing to submit to a trial. On their arrival here, Gov. Stevens was awakened and informed as to the character of the mission. After seeing that they were provided with a fire, bedding, a cup of coffee, etc., the governor made arrangement to get up a party to send Quiemuth at once to Steilacoom -- to get him off before daylight. The company that accompanied Quiemuth were lodged in the governor's back office, where the Indian and Mr. Longmyer soon fell asleep; the others remained awake. At half-past four, after taking the precaution of locking the front door of his office and withdrawing the key, and believing that no one was aware that Quiemuth was in town except those who had brought him in, and those who had been selected to accompany him to Ft. Steilacoom ... the governor retired for an hour's repose -- the party simply awaiting the feeding of their horses to start with their charge to Steilacoom. At a quarter after five, the governor was awakened and informed that Quiemuth was killed ....
"It appears that the fact of his having come to town was inadvertently mentioned by one of those who accompanied him on his arrival. It soon became known to several others, and after the governor had retired, some three or four persons gained access to his back office through the side, or alley door. Among others, Joseph Bunton of this place, a son-in-law of the late Lt. James McAllister, to whom we have before referred, as having been murdered by Quiemuth, was known to have been in the room. No one present of those who were serving as a protective guard over him, five in all, dreamed for a moment of any danger to Quiemuth's life. All was quiet, the room was dimly lighted, when suddenly he was shot ... . Much confusion ensued; all rushed to the door, Quiemuth included, where he was mortally stabbed, and expired almost instantly" (Pioneer Democrat, p. 2)
Stevens, embarrassed and perhaps even saddened by his failure to protect his prisoner, sought to bring murder charges against Bunton (whom almost everyone believed was the culprit) and had him arrested. But despite the number of people present at the scene, none could, or would, identify him as the assailant. As Stevens would explain in a letter to his superiors, "Strange as it appears, evidence enough was not elicited to bind [Bunton] over for trial, and he was accordingly discharged" (Kluger, 212). It appears that no further effort was made to solve the crime.
Unlike Leschi, Quiemuth was never tried or even officially charged with a capital offense, yet he was the first to die for his alleged crimes. After his murder, Quiemuth's body was buried near Fort Nisqually, but in July 1895, together with Leschi, he was re-interred near the mouth of Muck Creek in a grove of prairie oak. More than a thousand Native Americans and many others came to pay tribute. In 1993, the highest point in Thurston County, 2,922-foot elevation near Alder Lake, was named Quiemuth Peak in his honor, and other sites in Washington now carry Leschi's name. The two brothers who led the Nisqually have at last achieved a measure of vindication, if not justice.