Seattle Board of Trustees passes ordinance, calling for removal of Indians from the town, on February 7, 1865.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/07/2014
  • Essay 10979
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On February 7, 1865, the Seattle Board of Trustees passes Ordinance No. 5, calling for the removal of Indians from the town. Ten years after local tribes signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, ceding most of their land to non-Native settlers, and six years after the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty, many members of those tribes continue to live in places other than the reservations established by the treaty. Deep-seated prejudices lead Seattle's non-Native settlers to seek exclusion of Native people from the town, even as they look to Native people for labor and trade. The tribal members in turn not only want to be connected to the new settlement through work and commerce, but also have strong cultural ties to the place that stretch back thousands of years. Although the ordinance will not be reinstated after Seattle's government is dissolved and then re-incorporated in the late 1860s, it serves as one in a series of actions by Seattle's city government and residents over many years that make it very difficult for Coast Salish people to live according to their traditional customs and to be part of the city.

Land Claims and Treaties 

When the board of trustees passed Ordinance No. 5, there were several layers of legal structure related to land ownership in Seattle. The federal Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 granted U.S. citizens the right to claim land in Oregon Territory (of which Seattle was a part until 1853), once Indigenous title to the claimed land had been extinguished by treaty. A treaty with the tribes who lived on Elliott Bay and the surrounding area was not signed until 1855, at Point Elliott, and was only ratified in 1859, but this did not prevent members of the Denny Party, the first non-Native settlers in what became Seattle, from claiming land along the shore of Elliott Bay in 1852.

In the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, the tribes living on the west side of the Cascade Mountains and around Puget Sound north of the Tacoma area ceded their territory -- except for small portions that were "reserved" for their use (the reservations) -- in exchange for payments and services the federal government promised to provide. They also reserved their right to "taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations" and "the privilege of hunting and gathering roots and berries on open and unclaimed lands" ("Treaty of Point Elliott, 1855"). 

Underlying Assumptions 

There were a number of assumptions underlying the United States' treaty-making process. First, it was widely believed that it was the "Manifest Destiny" of Americans to occupy and control as much land on the North American continent as they could in the face of competing claims by European countries. This belief was based in Americans' sense that their government, economy, and culture were superior to others' and that their use of that land was the best use for it. 

Second, the treaties were part of a long series of efforts by the federal government to keep Native communities separate from white communities. The forced removal of Native tribes from the American South to "Indian Territory" in what would become the State of Oklahoma opened up the South to white ownership and kept the Native people from mixing with the white community. In the West, there was not a "West" to send Native people to, so the government created reservations part from white communities.  

Third, many whites assumed the tribes would disappear in the near future. They thought disease and other forces would wipe out the Native populations and they would not have to accommodate the reservations or rights agreed to in the treaties for long. 

These attitudes toward Native communities underlay Seattle's removal ordinance. At every level -- the personal, the municipal, and the territorial -- many of Washington's white residents professed a desire to remove Indigenous people from their midst. However, the fact that there had to be laws to achieve this goal provides insight into the complicated nature of the relationships between the Native and non-Native communities in the 1860s. 


Historian Alexandra Harmon has written about the complexities of trying to separate Native communities from non-Native ones, describing how the treaties did not work as intended. Congress took several years to ratify the Treaty of Point Elliott, finally doing so in 1859. The lands set aside for reservations did not have towns, with their opportunities for work and commerce, on or often even near them. Moreover, some of the tribes aggregated together on single reservations -- the Muckleshoot and Tulalip reservations, among others, were established for several tribes each -- did not agree to the aggregation or want to move to lands they did not traditionally live on. It took several years to establish government agencies at the reservations and, even early on, government payments and distributions of goods did not happen as promised. Further, a proposed reservation not far from Seattle along the Duwamish River for the Duwamish Tribe, whose members lived on Elliott Bay and the Duwamish and Black rivers, was blocked by non-Native residents in 1866. 

At the same time, non-Native settlements needed Native laborers to conduct business, run households, and build towns. The new settlers also wanted to trade with local Native people for fish, shellfish, and goods they produced, such as baskets. These economic relations kept the two communities intermingling. 

Likewise, personal relationships created links between the two communities. Non-Native men involved in the fur trade and, later, in establishing towns and businesses on the sound, married Native women, sometimes for love or companionship, sometimes to establish economic relationships with tribes, and sometimes for a mix of reasons. The Washington territorial legislature outlawed these unions in 1854, then legalized them again in 1868. 

Be It Ordained 

The text of the 1865 Seattle ordinance encapsulated the complicated relationship between Native and non-Native people. The first section stated:

"Be it ordained by the Board of Trustees of the Town of Seattle, That no Indian or Indians shall be permitted to reside, or locate their residences on any street, highway, lane, or alley or any vacant lot in the town of Seattle, from a point known as the South side of Chas. Plummer's ten acre lot to a point known as the South side of Bell's land claim" (Seattle Weekly Gazette).  

This was followed by a second section stating, "All persons having in their employ any Indian or Indians within the corporate limits of said town shall provide lodgements or suitable residences for the said Indians during the time of said employment, on, or immediately attached to their own place of residence" (Seattle Weekly Gazette). In other words, Native people were not allowed to live in Seattle -- unless a non-Native needed to employ them.  

In 1867, the state legislature dissolved the government of Seattle, at the request of the town's residents. When the town was reincorporated in 1869, the ban on Native residents was not re-enacted. Attempts to exclude Native people continued, however, through extralegal means ranging from the 1893 burning of the Duwamish winter village Herring's House, at the mouth of the Duwamish River, to the discriminatory actions of individual people in everyday life.


"Ordinances of the Town of Seattle," Seattle Weekly Gazette, March 4, 1865, p. 1; Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities Around Puget Sound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 95-98; Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 84-85; Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 87-93; 1855 Wash Laws, p. 33; 1868 Wash Laws, p. 47; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle pioneers petition against a reservation on the Black River for the Duwamish tribe in 1866" (by David Wilma) and "Treaty of Point Elliott, 1855," (accessed November 28, 2014).

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