Fort Steilacoom (1849-1868)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 5/04/2012
  • Essay 10102
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Fort Steilacoom, located in south Puget Sound near Lake Steilacoom, was established by the United States Army in 1849. Protection of settlers in the area had become an issue. As well, the United States was anxious to plant the flag on land claimed by Britain. (Britain had ceded the territory south of the 49th parallel in 1846, but claimed this land as a commercial enterprise. Fort Steilacoom was established in what was then Oregon Territory. Congress would create Washington Territory in 1853.) In August 1849 the U.S. Army moved onto the Joseph Heath farm to establish the fort, leasing the land from the British Hudson’s Bay Company. The fort served as a headquarters in the 1855-1856 Indian Wars, but there were no hostile actions here. A major event was the incarceration of Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858) in the fort guardhouse. The post commander and other officers protested his trial and murder conviction, arguing that he was probably not guilty, as a state of war had existed. Fort Steilacoom was closed in 1868 and became the site of the Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. Today (2012) the Fort Steilacoom Museum is also located on the site. 

Establishing Fort Steilacoom

The U.S. Army established Fort Steilacoom on August 22, 1849, to claim the land and to protect settlers. There had been an Indian attack on the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, Fort Nisqually, in May 1849. A fort in the Puget Sound region would be a key defense in the emerging Pacific region. Available land was found at a Hudson’s Bay Company farm. Joseph T. Heath (d. 1849) had cleared 30 acres and constructed farm buildings, but then had died in March, so the land and buildings sat empty. The United States leased the 640-acre Heath land from Hudson’s Bay Company. 

Company M, First Artillery Regiment, under the command of Captain Bennett H. Hill (1815-1886), arrived on August 28, 1849. They found on site a house, a barn, a granary, and shop buildings. Captain Hill and his soldiers converted these structures into officer quarters and barracks. They constructed 18 additional log buildings for enlisted barracks, officer’s quarters, officer’s mess, adjutant office, hospital, guard house, bakery, and storehouse.

Indian Wars and After

In 1853 the artillery troops were replaced with two infantry companies of the 4th Infantry Regiment. The infantry soldiers conducted surveys and built roads. In 1855 the 9th Infantry Regiment arrived and replaced the 4th, making it the regional headquarters. The fort was never attacked, but it functioned as a base of operations during the Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1855-1856. The infantrymen fought in some of the battles and the 9th suffered losses. Fort Steilacoom casualties included Lieutenant William A. Slaughter (1827-1855) and two enlisted men who died in combat near the Green River.

There were efforts to improve living conditions and beautify the post. A Protestant chapel was established on post. However, Catholics did not have a place of worship. The anti-Catholic attitudes of American society reached into the army and meant very few Catholic chaplains and an absence of Catholic chapels. In 1855, soldiers at Fort Steilacoom overcame these prejudices and with volunteer labor and materials built a Catholic chapel. This chapel served until the post closed. The chapel moved into Steilacoom and survives today as the Immaculate Conception Church at 1810 Nisqually Street. The initial Protestant chapel was housed in a log building until 1857 when a frame chapel/chaplain’s house was completed. This structure survives today as the Fort Steilacoom Museum.

The Tragedy of Chief Leschi

On January 17, 1856 Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey (1807-1882) arrived to assume command of the fort. The Indian Wars were underway so almost immediately Colonel Casey was organizing attacks to quell the uprisings. He was experienced in Indian battles having fought in the Florida Seminole Wars and Oregon battles in 1851. One month after arriving he was leading battles in the White River area and achieved victories.

The war was over on May 19, 1856, but Casey would then find himself in serious conflict with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) over postwar relations with the Indians. Colonel Casey and other officers favored moderation and considering Indian battles as acts of war not punishable. Governor Stevens demanded a harsh response that included murder trials for Indian leaders. Among those to be tried was Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Indians who was charged with killing Washington Territorial Volunteer Colonel Abraham Benton Moses (d. 1855) during the October 31, 1855, battle on Connell’s Prairie. 

Governor Isaac Stevens prevailed and following Leschi’s capture on November 13, 1856, ordered a trial. The first Chief Leschi trial ended in an acquittal. A second trial found him guilty, based upon a questionable eye-witness account. Efforts to obtain a pardon failed. Lieutenant August  Kautz (1828-1895) led a battlefield investigation and determined that Leschi could not have killed Moses. Following the guilty verdict in the second trial Colonel Casey refused to carry out the death sentence on the fort.

The territorial legislature then passed a law granting authority to civilian authorities. On February 19, 1858, Leschi was hanged at a site near Lake Steilacoom a couple miles away. The site is now a subdivision and a stone monument in a nearby shopping mall recalls the events. It would take many years, but in 2004, a special state historical court exonerated Chief Leschi. He is buried in the Puyullap Tribal Cemetery.

Lieutenant Kautz's Fort Steilacoom

More permanent wood frame buildings were constructed in 1857-1858. Lieutenant August Kautz, post quartermaster, supervised the building program. The completed post would be a square configuration with 25 buildings including barracks, headquarters, officer housing, company kitchens, bakery, surgeons quarters and hospital, shops, guardhouse, stables, and two chapels. A white picket fence was erected around the fort.

While at Fort Steilacoom, Lieutenant Kautz married Chief Quiemuth’s (d. 1856) daughter Kitty Etta (d. 1891) and they had two sons. Like other officers with Indian wives, the women and children lived in an Indian camp near the fort since they were not welcomed in the government quarters. Lieutenant Kautz did not abandon his wife and children as did many officers. He continued to support his family, and both he and Kitty would remarry following the conclusion of Kautz’s Fort Steilacoom tour.

During In the Civil War, Kautz commanded cavalry units and fought in several battles and at the end of the war as a brevet brigadier general led a division of black troops into Richmond, Virginia. The highly respected Kautz was also selected as a member of the military commission trying the Lincoln murder conspirators. In April 1891 he assumed command of the Department of the Columbia. This would be his final assignment before retirement at the mandatory age of 64. In January 1893, he retired and took up residence in Seattle. 

George Suckley, Naturalist

Fort Steilacoom carried out duties to support the development of the Pacific Northwest. This included road construction, providing medical care beyond the fort, early meteorological data collecting, land surveys, and natural research. Dr. George Suckley (1830-1869), the post medical officer, became a well-known naturalist for his books on the Pacific Northwest. In 1853, before coming to Fort Steilacoom, Suckley documented mammals, waterfowl, fish, and geology for the Forty-seventh Parallel Survey, which was published as a book. 

He then assumed his medical duties at the post and continued his investigations. He published a second book on Pacific Northwest fauna in 1857. He carried out these investigations in addition to a demanding medical schedule, carrying for soldiers, their wives, and civilians seeking medical care.

Civil War Era

In 1859 troops from Fort Steilacoom went to the San Juan Islands to protect United States claims. With the beginning of the Civil War, the U.S. Army troops were needed in the East and were transferred east. Volunteer units formed in the West came to occupy Fort Steilacoom. The units included companies G and K of the 1st Washington Infantry Regiment rounded out with troops from the 1st Oregon Regiment and Company E, 4th California Infantry Regiment. 

They lacked the discipline that had characterized the regular army and many of the troops found themselves in trouble. Among their duties were maintaining the peace  and construction of roads and communications.  Even before the end of the Civil War, it became difficult to retain volunteers at the fort. With the Confederate surrender, the remaining volunteers were sent home. A regular army force, the 14th Infantry Regiment came to the post, but had a limited role. The army had started closing posts and Fort Steilacoom was unneeded.

Colonel Casey left Washington in 1861 and went East. He was promoted to brigadier general and led a division during the Civil War Peninsula Campaign. On May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Seven Pines he fought troops that were under the command of Confederate Brigadier General George Pickett (1825-1875). Soon after this battle Casey was promoted to major general.  Interestingly, Pickett, while a U.S. Army officer had in 1856, commanded D Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, in Washington.

One of Casey’s major achievements was publication of infantry training manuals that were used by both sides. One son, Thomas Lincoln Casey (1831-1896) became Chief of Engineers. The coastal defense post Fort Casey was named in his honor in 1900. This Whidbey Island fort closed in 1950 and became a State Park in 1956.      

From Fort to Psychiatric Hospital

On April 22, 1868, the fort was deemed surplus and closed. The last unit stationed here was the U.S. Second Artillery. In 1870 the 625-acre property with 25 buildings was sold to the Washington Territory for $850. It became a mental hospital, making use of the fort buildings for wards and staff housing.

Some of the property was made into a farm, as this was viewed as a soothing patient activity and would also provide fresh food for the hospital. The former Fort Steilacoom became the Western State Hospital. Over the years the fort buildings were demolished and new buildings erected. By 1978 only four very decrepit fort buildings remained.   

Fort Steilacoom Museum

In 1978 the four Fort Steilacoom buildings were in terrible condition. The plans for new construction included demolition of the fort structures. Through efforts of the Washington State Historic Preservation Office, Heritage Counsel of Pierce County, and local efforts, in the early 1980s the four surviving officer quarters were restored and became the Fort Steilacoom Museum. The former fort is today within the Western State Hospital grounds. The four surviving buildings have been returned to their original appearance and are open to the public. Museum exhibits are housed in the former chaplain’s house and chapel. In addition to the museum there are regular living history events.  

Located near the fort museum is the former Fort Steilacoom cemetery. This cemetery held more than 50 military burials. With the post closure, these burials were reinterred at the Presidio of San Francisco cemetery. This left behind a few civilian graves including William H. Wallace (1811-1879), governor of Washington and Idaho. Following his tenure as Idaho governor he served as Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Idaho Territory. In March 1865 he returned to Washington Territory and served as a Pierce County probate judge. In recent years Idaho unsuccessfully requested that his remains be relocated there, in a place of honor. Today the cemetery is located on the Western State hospital grounds.   

Sources: Gary Fuller Rease, A Documentary History Of Fort Steilacoom (Tacoma: Tacoma Public Library, 1978); Steve Dunkelberger and Walter Neary, Lakewood: Images of America (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2005); John McPherson, "The History of  Fort Steilacoom,”  Historic Fort Steilacoom website accessed April 9, 2012 (; “Our History,” Nisqually Indian Tribe website accessed April 17, 2012 (; "Colonel Silas Casey," Washington State Historical Society website accessed April 2, 2012 (; Michael L. Tate, The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).

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