Word was out that some of the Native American tribes in Washington Territory were rumbling for a fight against white settlers, so the U.S. Navy sent a sail-rigged sloop-of war called the USS Decatur bristling with guns to defend them.
In 1853, Isaac I. Stevens was appointed governor of Washington Territory to explore for a future transcontinental railroad route. He was also Superintendent of Indian Affairs, commissioned to move the Indians to reservations and eliminate their rights to their ancestral lands — clearing the way for expected waves of settlers.
He was further ordered to change their culture from hunter-gatherer to agriculture.
When he arrived, violence was already raging between Indians and the settlers.
One of the underlying causes was gold.
Many disappointed prospectors who didn’t strike it rich in the 1849 California Gold Rush, chased the next gold rumor in Oregon and Washington — one gold strike in 1855 being at Colville, north of today’s Spokane.
But the major cause was Governor Stevens forcing unwanted treaties on tribes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, promising he’d keep whites off Indian grounds.
Gold fever miners quickly trampled those promises.
Anger and violence followed:
Trespassing miners stole horses, abused Indian women, with the Indians retaliating by killing miners. Qualchan, the nephew of Kamiakin, leader of the Yakama, Palouse and Klickitat killed two prospectors after it was discovered they’d raped a Yakama woman.
In September 1855, while traveling to investigate the killings, Indian Affairs Bureau agent Andrew Bolon encountered a group of Yakama Indians and decided to ride along with them. One of the members named Mosheel planned to kill him — avenging an earlier conflict.
Other members of the party objected but he overruled them, invoking his status in the tribe. Bolon didn’t speak their language and was unaware of the conspiracy.
While eating lunch, Mosheel and several others attacked him with knives. “I did not come to fight you!” Bolon shouted in a Chinook dialect. Then they stabbed him to death in the throat, burned his body and personal effects, and killed his horse.
The Indians realized the bigwigs in Washington, D.C., were destroying their culture and their ancestral lands were being taken away in exchange for reservations on poor lands.
With uncommon zeal, Stevens forced the tribes to give up more than 6.4 million acres of ancestral lands in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington in exchange for the Umatilla Indian Reservation that today is only 172,000 acres and nearly half owned by non-Indians.
White and Green River Indians who were hunters from the inland were being forced to move to coastal reservations and become fishermen and live among tribes traditional hostile towards them.
One concession to the tribes was that they reserved the rights to fish, hunt and gather traditional foods and medicines in their former lands — which they continue to do today.
The treaty was translated from one Indian language to another and became so blurred in meaning that many of the tribes did not fully understand what they were signing.
“There is little doubt that the tribal leaders were confused by the proceedings,” a National Museum of the American Indian article said. “An interpreter read the terms of the treaty to them using the Chinook trade jargon, a 500-word pidgin language that had no words for Western concepts of land ownership, fishing rights, and other principles invoked in the treaty.”
But Nisqually Chief Leschi understood it, and rallied neighboring tribes to fight the white men, while the U.S. Army and volunteer militias in Oregon and Washington mustered their forces against them.
The Nisqually were given rocky lands unsuitable for agriculture and removed from sources of salmon.
Retaliating, Leschi’s warriors killed a ranger and farmer in Washington’s White River area, and then attacked other rangers holed up in a cabin for four days before escaping. Then they killed nine men and women settlers.
Stevens responded by coldly calling for the extermination of all “hostile” Indians.
With 100 Duwamish, Taitnapam, Puyallup, Nisqually and Suquamish warriors, Leschi attacked a community in Seattle, killing two Americans — with no Indian casualties.
Elsewhere, armed whites raided peaceful Indian villages and held them as prisoners in deplorable conditions in various camps where they were “crowded together, denied access to adequate food, and stripped of their personal property… (and) held captive for almost two years during the Puget Sound War.”
There were opposing voices on both sides. Some Indian tribes preferred to keep the peace with the whites, such as Suquamish/Duwamish Chief Seattle keeping some 4,000 warriors out of the battle.
There was even dissension within the army about the way the Indians were being treated.
Some white civilian leaders who opposed Stevens’ actions were arrested. When a judge ordered their release, the Governor simply declared martial law, suspending functions of civil officers.
The Battle of Seattle began on the morning of January 26, 1856, after months of fighting between the Indians, settlers and the army. It was a one-day shootout and only a small part of the Puget Sound War, which in turn was part of the greater Yakima War — also called the Yakima Native American War of 1855.
The U.S. Navy sent the USS Decatur and its unit of marines to Elliot Bay — now the Port of Seattle — in a rare navy and marine involvement in Indian affairs. Armed with fourteen 32-pounder guns, two 12-pounder rifles, and manned by 150 officers and men, the warship anchored in excellent firing position.
Decatur commander Guert Gansevoort sent marines ashore to help the settlers build a blockhouse, and when the Indian attack of an estimate 500 warriors began, the Decatur’s howitzers (cannons with barrel rifling) fired solid shot and shells that exploded after impact, as well as grape shot and canister into the trees sheltering the attackers — the ship out of range from Indian small arms.
One report said, “Seattle residents and refugees from previous attacks in southern King County took shelter in the two blockhouses. The village also teemed with dozens of friendly Indians, including the wives and children of settlers. These people crowded into the defile along the beach for protection.”
The shooting continued on and off throughout the day. Around lunchtime, the Indians apparently paused to eat, and the settlers quickly fled to safety aboard the Decatur and another ship — the “Brontes.”
But when settlers attempted to retrieve arms and valuables from their abandoned homes, the Indians resumed shooting.
By 10 p.m., shooting stopped. The Battle of Seattle was over.
Two settlers were killed, but Indian casualties are unknown because no bodies were found.
After a year of fighting, Chief Leschi was caught in November 1856. His brother Quiemuth then turned himself in, but was murdered weeks later in Governor Stevens’ office — killer unknown.
Chief Leschi was wrongly convicted of murder and hanged near Lake Steilacoom.
The hangman said, “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man, and I believe it yet.”
In 2004, the Washington state legislature passed resolutions stating that Leschi was wrongly convicted and executed and asked the state supreme court to vacate Leschi’s conviction. The court’s chief justice refused, but later that year, Chief Leschi was exonerated by a Historical Court of Inquiry following a definitive trial in absentia.
General Stevens was killed during the Civil War Battle of Chantilly in 1862.
FINAL NOTE: Modern communications make it easy for government to manage. That was not the case when Stevens governed Washington Territory — the telegraph didn’t arrive until 1864. Communications with Washington, D.C. in those days could take months, so military commanders and government officials at distant postings had wide discretion in implementing policy.
Stevens’ harsh actions were a prime example of how well-intentioned policies dictated from Washington, D.C., were often implemented in ways that did little to protect the Indians.
Biographer Kent D. Richards wrote, “To the extent that Stevens had a philosophy of Indian-white relations, he assumed the superiority of European civilization and the necessity of removing the Indian from its path.
“He hoped the removal could be accomplished peacefully and that, during a period of benevolent care, the Indians could be educated to cultivate the soil and become productive, valued members of white society.”
The Battle of Seattle was just one tiny road bump toward that goal in the turbulent history of the Old West.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Seattle Battle sidebars
Birth of a saying…
The 1849 California Gold Rush lured so many miners out of Georgia that an official at the U.S. Mint pleaded for them stay by saying there was “more gold than man ever dreamt of” right there in the hills of Georgia.
That exhortation gave birth to the saying “Thar’s gold in them thar hills” — referring to Georgia — and not California.
Chief Leschi’s trial…
“From the American viewpoint, the trial showed their superiority and authority over the Indians and their sense of fairness. Indians, however, were baffled by the American response to murder.
“Among the Indian nations of Western Washington, homicides were not viewed as crimes that imperiled the public order. Homicides were seen as injuries to and by individuals and their families.
“The adjudication of homicide, therefore, involved these families and making restitution for the deaths. This was often called “covering the dead” and involved payments from one family to another. Justice was about healing, not punishment.”
— Native American Netroots
About Gov. Isaac I. Stevens…
“The Indian treaties, although not of his design, opened the way for settlement and growth, for which he would have seen no reason to apologize. His passion, energy, and persistence in pushing toward his goals were his great strength and often energized those around him to accomplish more than they believed possible.
“These strengths were conversely also his greatest weakness, as he at times arbitrarily dismissed others’ points of view and perceived honest differences of opinion as personal attacks. Loved or hated, he as much as anyone, influenced the course of events in early Oregon and Washington history.”
— Kent Richards, Oregon Encyclopedia
Dissension about 1855 treaty…
The 1855 Walla Walla Treaty was forced on the Indians by Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens was accepted by some Indian tribes but opposed by others. Opposed were the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Yakama. The Nez Perce were divided, with Chief Lawyer essentially in favor of a treaty, and Chief Looking Glass opposed.
The reason for any of the tribes accepting the treaty was probably resignation to the inevitability of white man dominance, intimidation and threats by Governor Stevens, and hope.
Governor Stevens didn’t speak any Indian languages used in Washington Territory, and few Indians understood English. To communicate with the Indians, Stevens’ English words had to be translated into Chinook Jargon, and then into the various Indian languages.
Chinook Jargon is a blend of several Indian dialects, French and English that was developed to facilitate trade throughout the early Pacific Northwest, and had a vocabulary of only about 500 words.
All of this questions if many of the Indians truly understood what was in the treaties they were forced to sign.