Turning Point 16: When Worlds Collide: From Contact to Conquest on Puget Sound

  • By Walt Crowley and Priscilla Long with Greg Lange
  • Posted 10/11/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9294
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The 16th essay in HistoryLink's Turning Point series for The Seattle Times focuses on the cultural interactions between Puget Sound's Native peoples and the first European explorers and early settlers. While generally friendly, Indians suffered greatly through exposure to smallpox and other diseases, and later, deliberate efforts to occupy their lands and erase their traditions. Greg Lange conducted the primary research for this article, with special review by scholars Kenneth "Greg" Watson and John Findlay, Ph.D. It was written by Walt Crowley and Priscilla Long and was published in two parts on October 11 and 12, 2001.

Part 1: An Invisible Invasion

In November 1853, Isaac Stevens arrived in the new Washington Territory to take charge as its first governor. On an early visit to the village of Seattle, he was greeted by a few score enthusiastic settlers and by a far larger, and more skeptical, contingent of Suquamish and Duwamish Indians. After due protocol, the tall leader of the latter, and the village's eponym, stepped forward and put his hand on the head of the region's diminutive magistrate.

According to a Victorian translation published a third of a century later by pioneer physician Dr. Henry Smith, Chief Noah Seattle struck a melancholy but prophetic tone. "The son of the white chief," he said referring to Stevens, "says his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will. This is kind, for we know he has little need of our friendship in return, because his people are many."

Seattle lamented that "The Indian's night promises to be dark. No bright star hovers about the horizon." But he also cautioned Stevens that "The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless."

Trade and Tragedy

Based on decades of contact with whites, Pacific Northwest Indians had ample cause to distrust the newcomers flooding into their former domain. First came the Spanish in the 1770s, then British explorers, Yankee fur traders, and the Hudson's Bay Company, and finally U.S. settlers. Local Natives were initially intrigued by these strangers and their wares, and many Natives soon adopted European trousers, hats, and blankets. They learned to plant potatoes and to ride horses which spread north from Spanish colonies and preceded two-legged settlers to the Northwest. Most importantly, they eagerly bartered salmon and animal pelts for metal tools, glass and fabrics.

But with this friendly commerce came another Old World import: disease. Between 1770 and 1853, epidemics of smallpox, measles, influenza, malaria, and tuberculosis reduced the Puget Sound Native population from an estimated 20,000 to 7,000.

Alien microbes had already struck down one-third of the Natives by May 1792, when Puget Sound's first European visitor, British Capt. George Vancouver, dropped anchor near Bainbridge Island. As Lt. Peter Puget and Vancouver's crew surveyed the Sound, they noted Indians "much pitted with the smallpox" and an abandoned village strewn with human bones. They estimated that 1,000 Indians inhabited the shores of Puget Sound. This census undercounted at least 12,000, but their numbers were already dwindling fast.

Coming of the "Boston Men"

Vancouver departed after two weeks, but his charts would lure others to the Northwest, as did the reports and maps filed by overland explorers Lewis and Clark. Boston-based ships regularly visited the Northwest each year seeking pelts, and in 1811, the Americans established Pacific Northwest's first commercial fur trading fort at Astoria on the mouth of the Columbia River.

After devastating the stocks of coastal sea otter by 1812, Yankee traders likely ventured into Puget Sound to barter for Indian-caught beaver, raccoon, bear and deer. They wanted fur fast, by whatever means, including deceit, kidnapping, flogging, stealing, and trading diluted whiskey and defective muskets. These whites acquired a new name in the native Lushootseed tongue: Boston men. It was not complimentary.

Britain and the United States agreed to share sovereignty over the Northwest, and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) took over Northwest fur trading. Unlike the Americans, the HBC usually traded fairly and sought good long-term relationships with local tribes. Its employees solidified local bonds by marrying high-ranking Native women and adjudicating tribal disputes. HBC policies allowed its Indian trading partners to adapt and extend their traditional economic and social systems, rather than obliterating them. Fur trading quickly spread far beyond the Columbia to Puget Sound, so much so that in 1824, the first HBC men at the Nisqually River noted that it was "much ruined" due to the Indian beaver harvest.

Old Gods and New

The HBC built its Fraser River post 1827 and hired a Snohomish named Waskelatchee (sporting cravat and top hat) to carry letters to the Columbia River. HBC Indian mail carriers added a south Puget Sound stop when Fort Nisqually was built in 1833. Its French Canadian trader Jean Ouvre had worked Puget Sound since 1830 and was probably the first white man to go up the Duwamish River. He called its Indians Tuamish, while HBC named the river after him.

Catholicism arrived in April 1839 as Father Modeste Demers celebrated the first Catholic mass on Puget Sound at Fort Nisqually, attended by Indians from 22 tribes. Chief Seattle was baptized Noah among the early Native converts, and his Catholicism annoyed Seattle's first Methodist minister no end.

Neither the old spirits nor a new God could protect Indians from the spread of disease and the seeming endless stream of newcomers as future events described in Part II of this extended essay will show.

Part 2: Dividing the Land

In 1847, a tenth of Puget Sound Indian population perished in a regional measles epidemic inadvertently introduced by Walla Walla Indian cattle herders returning from California. Believing that Marcus Whitman and his party of missionaries had caused the disease, a small group of Eastern Washington Natives killed 13 people in the worst outbreak of anti-settler violence yet in Oregon Territory.

Great Britain had ceded its claims below the 49th parallel in the previous, and the once powerful Hudson’s Bay Company was soon overrun by American settlers. Despite the "Whitman Massacre" the whites still came, and Puget Sound tribes greeted the Seattle area's first white permanent settlers in 1851 at Duwamish and Alki. The latter’s “Denny Party” survived the first winter on potatoes supplied by Duwamish women, who produced 3,000 bushels annually from 30 acres just south of Lake Washington. Duwamish Indians also camped near the homesteaders and assisted farmers in planting and harvesting crops, did washing, sold the newcomers berries, clams, and salmon, and ferried them in canoes. Indians later toiled in Henry Yesler’s Seattle sawmill while Indians in 60 canoes fished Elliott Bay to supply Doc Maynard’s salted salmon enterprise.

Enter Isaac Stevens with two primary missions: survey a route for the future Northern Pacific Railroad and talk the Indians into giving up most of their land. Chief Seattle was among 2,300 northern Puget Sound Indians who met with Stevens at Point Elliott (now Mukilteo) in January 1855. In exchange for title to their lands, Stevens offered the tribes reservations and paper guarantees of "the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds." Seattle deemed such a bargain "generous... for the red man no longer has rights that whites need respect," and placed his mark on the treaty with 81 other tribal leaders.

More treaties followed, but not peace. Settlers displaced Indians from their traditional homelands, and younger Indians grew resentful as fences blocked old trails, souvenir collectors and vandals invaded tribal cemeteries, and liquor merchants spread alcoholism. White violence against Natives also increased, culminating with U.S. soldiers killing 20 to 30 Nisqually women and children, an event known as Maxon’s massacre.

From Dusk to Dawn

Indians struck back, killing 13 settlers and soldiers in the White River valley during late 1855 (Auburn was first named for one of the victims, Lt. William A. Slaughter). Governor Stevens vowed to "wage war until the last hostile Indian is exterminated," although some Indians – most notably Chief Patkanim of the Snoqualmies – sided with the militia. On January 26, 1856, about 150 Indians attacked Seattle, killing two defenders before retreating across First Hill. King County farms were ransacked and many settlers departed. It took years for the white population to regain its prewar numbers.

Stevens took his revenge on Nisqually Chief Leschi, a suspected leader of the raid on Seattle and other outposts. After being betrayed by another Indian, he was captured and charged with murder for a soldier's battle death. Leschi protested his innocence, and many pioneers concurred. A white jury deadlocked in his first trial, but the second convicted him, and the Territorial Supreme Court rejected his appeal. Leschi was hanged on February 19, 1858, to the sound of distant Indian drums.

One of the City of Seattle's first ordinances banned residence by Native Americans, and most pioneers petitioned the federal government in 1866 to deny the Duwamish their own reservation. Chief Seattle died the same year at the Suquamish reservation on Point Madison. None of the whites from his namesake town crossed the Sound for his burial, although they later funded and erected a marble tombstone.

The day of the Indian lasted for 12 millennia on Puget Sound. Now their dark night had begun, but as Seattle warned, "the dead are not altogether powerless." Against further epidemics, exploitation, and an official program of cultural assimilation, the dwindling tribes clung to their traditions and went to the courts and the streets to defend what few rights Stevens' treaties had left them. Over the coming decades, Native leaders demanded the return of surplus federal land, disenfranchised tribes such as the Duwamish and Snoqualmie campaigned for recognition, and tribes sued for restoration of their fishing rights, which were finally reaffirmed by Judge George Boldt's historic 1974 decision.

This struggle continues. Nothing can erase nor fully forgive more than 200 years of such history, but perhaps a flickering star yet “hovers about the horizon” for Puget Sound's first people.

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