Mashel (sometimes Maxon) Massacre, The (March 1856)

The incident known as the Mashel Massacre occurred in late March 1856 on the Mashel prairie just north of the confluence of the Mashel and Nisqually rivers (present-day Pierce County). It was the last episode of the Puget Sound Indian war that had begun in 1855. Governor Isaac Stevens ordered the Washington Mounted Rifles up from the Columbia River.  These volunteers were led by Captain Hamilton J. G. Maxon (1813-1884). During a series of patrols around the Nisqually River vicinity, Maxon’s men killed a number of Indians who were in hiding in the dense forest.  The exact count of deaths varied, ranging from as few as eight to as many as 30. Most accounts agree that the dead were women, children, and elderly men, largely unarmed and fleeing for their lives. These events have been a point of contention and controversy ever since. This essay reviews the event and the accounts surrounding it.

Puget Sound Indian War

In late 1855, conflict between the Indians east of the Cascade Mountains and American soldiers and settlers spilled over the mountain passes, igniting what has come to be known as the Puget Sound Indian War.  Hostilities commenced on October 27, 1855, in what is often called the White River Massacre, in which nine white settlers were killed and others driven from their homes.  The next six months would come to be known as the time of the blockhouses, as these log forts sprang up across the landscape of the southern Puget Sound.  The fighting was usually desultory and indecisive, but the Indians were slowly starved into submission, as they could no longer follow their traditional subsistence lifestyle.

The last major battle of the Puget Sound Indian War occurred on March 10, 1856, at a ferry on the White River, another indecisive skirmish.  A few days later, Leschi (1808-1862), the most influential Nisqually Indian leader, led his group of about 70 over the pass to the Yakama Country, and hoped for safety (Leschi was later brought back to the Puget Sound area and hanged).  The shooting war was nearly done, but one last drama played out that would leave a lasting mark on the region, an incident known to local history as the Mashel Massacre.

Stevens and Maxon

Even though the war was approaching its close, Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1858), the Governor of Washington Territory, turned his outrage against former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) men and their mostly Indian families.  These men had farmed with the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and staked their own claims after the HBC had largely disbanded following the 1846 boundary settlement.  These farmers had quietly gone about their lives while other settlers fearfully cowered in the blockhouses through the winter.  Said Stevens, “Whoever can remain on his claim unmolested is an ally of the enemy and must be dealt with as such.”  To impose his will and to spread fear among the Indians, Stevens ordered the Washington Mounted Rifles up from the Columbia River.  These volunteers were led by Captain Hamilton J. G. Maxon (1813-1884), a tough and experienced Indian fighter whose loyalty was unquestionably with Stevens.During a series of patrols around the Nisqually River vicinity, Maxon’s men killed a number of Indians who were in hiding in the dense forest.  The exact count of deaths varied, ranging from as few as eight to as many as 30. The majority of accounts agree that the dead were women, children, and elderly men, largely unarmed and fleeing for their lives.  These events have been a point of contention and controversy ever since.  The various accounts warrant a thorough review, although the entire truth can never be known.

What Happened That Day

On March 18, 1856, Governor Stevens ordered Maxon to search the area around the lower reaches of the Nisqually River.  He was instructed to cooperate with friendly Indians under the command of W. B. Gosnell.  These were to be identified by red bands wrapped around their blue caps.  All other Indians were to be considered hostile.  Maxon’s men seized cached provisions but found no Indians or Hudson’s Bay Company men, and the patrol was concluded on March 23.  Three days later, James Tilton, Adjutant General of the Washington Volunteers, ordered Maxon to lead another patrol, this time toward the headwaters of the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers.  Captain S. C. Achilles, commanding another unit of volunteers, was to assist Maxon.

Notes taken by Private A. J. Kane, who accompanied the expedition, were printed in the April 11, 1856, edition of the Pioneer and Democrat, an Olympia newspaper.  Since it is the only first-person account of Maxon’s scout, during which the Mashel Massacre occurred, Kane’s notes are reprinted here in their entirety:

“On the 29th ult., leaving their horses at McLeod’s, Pierce county, with a guard of 16 men, Capt. Maxon, with the balance of his company in conjunction with Captain Achilles, of the same battalion, and a detachment of 18 men — in all about 58 strong, accompanied by an Indian guide, that had been made a prisoner at the Yelm prairie, a few days previous, proceeded up the Nisqually river, where, at some distance eastward, the Indian referred to, reported a band of hostiles encamped.  The command struck into the timber, on foot, with six days rations, on a trail leading to the forks of the Nisqually and Michael rivers, near the residence of Mr. L. A. Smith, and proceeded eastward to a small prairie. Finding a horse there, they supposed Indians were in the neighborhood; surrounded the prairie, but found none. Proceeded on to Olalley lake, at which place, fresh sign of moccasin, horse and dog tracks, were discovered. Scouts were sent out, but ascertaining that there were no Indians in the immediate neighborhood, the command encamped for the night. Started next morning at day-light, believing a band might be found at a small lake, distant some three or four miles. Found no Indians there. Breakfasted and started on — experienced considerable difficulty in further finding or following the trail — crossed a swamp between the two lakes spoken of — where, on the advance guard reaching the opposite side, the barking of dogs was heard, and word sent back that there were Indians ahead. Capt. Maxon then divided the command in the centre, and moving by the right and left flanks, made a surround, when an Indian called “Chuck-nose,” and two women and children come forward and surrendered. Two other Indians were then discovered on the retreat — were fired upon, they returning the shot. Subsequently one was killed and the other taken prisoner. The prisoners there taken, then gave information of a band of some six others, having a number of horses, at a small prairie on the eastern side of the Owhop river. Went there — found that they had left but recently, as the ashes at the camp ground were yet warm. Found there eleven head of horses and two colts. Also, a large sack of jerked beef. This happened very opportune, inasmuch as in the melee in the morning, some of the men had lost all their rations. Made a careful search, and encamped for the night there. Next morning, at day-light, Capts. Maxon and Achilles, with a portion of the command, pushed out for the forks of the Nisqually and Michael. The balance were ordered to remain in camp. Ascertaining to a certainty that the hostiles were close by, the plan adopted for procedure was very skillfully and adroitly arranged. It was determined to send into their camp, in advance, one of the Indian women taken the day before, to engage the hostiles in conversation, whilst they were being surrounded. This was managed on her part with great prudence. A portion of the party gained a position, unseen on the opposite side of the river, and the ranch containing the hostiles being completely surrounded, our volunteers crawled up to within twenty feet of it, when Capt. Mason gave the order to “close in.” The surprise was so complete that but one hostile gun was fired. Being encamped immediately on the bank of the Michael, after the first volley, they jumped into that stream with an object of gaining the opposite side, and making their escape; but they found themselves completely netted, as they were there met by the volunteers, that had previously crossed over. Three were killed directly in the stream, and two in the forks below. One Indian woman, only, it is supposed escaped. One of those killed was the tyee scoundrel “Skie-kie,” who, all the prisoners taken agree in saying led the party that murdered Messrs. Wm. White and Northcraft, near Eaton’s prairie and the Yelm. One fell by the hands of Capt. Achilles. Capt M. and party, then proceeded back to camp for breakfast. The horses taken, were then sent into Ft. Stevens, Yelm prairie, in charge of the Indian boy, taken out as guide — the Indian women and children accompanying.

“At 12 o’clock M., a reconnoitering party of 10 men were dispatched to the scene of the engagement in the morning, and to cross the Michael at its fork with the Nisqually river, whilst the balance of the command proceeded to cross the Michael about a mile above, in search of the trail which it was said led to ‘Jim’s’ encampment — distant about one day’s march — where the prisoners reported a large band of horses had been collected. Previous to crossing that stream, however, a party of Indians, supposed to be five or six in number, were discovered crossing over on a log. They were immediately fired upon by the advance guard, killing one and from appearances, seriously wounding another. The balance gaining the opposite side, fled rapidly down that stream, pursued by the volunteers; but the banks being very steep and rugged, the party lost considerable time in gaining the table land, and searching the brush for them. The first notification that the detachment at the forks had of an attack above, or of the presence of Indians in their vicinity, was given by one jumping into the Michael with an object apparently of making across the Nisqually; in attempting to do which, the current in the first mentioned stream being very rapid, he was washed to within 20 feet of the shore, where he was fired upon, killed and carried down. He would have been brought ashore, but at this moment another Indian was discovered in the forks, and not knowing but that a large band was hovering around, an order was given for all to retire to the brush re-load and form for a regular engagement.  A careful search was then made on both sides of the Michael, and finding no further sign, proceeded up that stream, where, at a short distance they met the party above referred to coming down. All then proceeded up on either side of the river until next day between 10 and 11 o’clock, but finding no further fresh sign, or even trail, and being nearly out of provisions, it was deemed advisable to make the Owhop river in the homeward direction, in the hope of finding tyee ‘Jim’s’ band of horses, and a portion, at least, of the hostiles. It was also ascertained that by pursuing a direct north-westerly course, at least half a day’s march would be avoided in gaining the settlements. On their way in, they found where, but recently, a somewhat large encampment had been. Proceeded down — crossed the Tenook and encamped, and the next day the command reached the encampment at McLeod’s place, from whence it started, having been absent therefrom six days, and distant, thence, between 40 and 50 miles” (“Eight Hostiles Killed”).

Subsequent Accounts

Nothing in contemporary accounts indicates that anything unusual had occurred during Maxon’s late March scout up the Nisqually. Shots were fired, combatants were killed.  It was a litany repeated over and over, except this time there were no white casualties whatsoever. It was proclaimed a victory at a very low cost. The Pioneer and Democrat also noted that “Eight hostiles were killed, in all, during the excursion, three were taken prisoners, and of course the women and children were sent into the settlements unharmed” (“Eight Hostiles Were Killed”).  But Indian witnesses began to share stories of the killing of innocents who were not simply the victims of collateral damage. The first inkling of what might have happened that day to be recorded in the public record is in the account of A. V. Kautz, writing of his 1857 summer ascent of Mt. Rainier. During his approach to the mountain, Kautz visited the Mashel Prairie, a location that he was familiar with from a previous visit the year before as a soldier.  He left this record of his experience:

“This prairie takes its name from the stream near by, and is situated between it and the Owhap on a high table — land or bluff, not more than one or two miles from where these enter the Nesqually. It is perhaps half a mile long, and 200 or 300 yards wide at the widest point. The grass was abundant, and it was an excellent place to leave our horses. Fifteen months before, I had visited this spot, and camped near by with a small detachment of troops, searching for Indians who had hidden away in these forests, completely demoralized and nearly starving. A family of two or three men, and quite a number of women and children, had camped in the fork of the Mishawl and Nesqually, about two miles from this prairie, and were making fish-traps to catch salmon. When we fell in with them we learned that the Washington Territory volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed the most of them without regard to age or sex. Our own little command in that expedition captured about thirty of these poor, half-starved, ignorant creatures, and no act of barbarity was perpetrated by us to mar the memory of that success” (Augustus V. Kautz).

The Mashel Massacre goes unmentioned in several of the early major histories of the region, including those by Hubert Howe Bancroft (1890) and William Bonney (1927).  Hazard Stevens, his father’s biographer, has only this to say: “Major Maxon and his company scouted and searched the whole length of the Nisqually valley far into the range, leaving their horses and plunging into the tangled forests on foot, and on one of their scouts killed eight and brought in fourteen captives of the enemy” (Stevens).  Elwood Evans reports the events pretty much as they were stated in the Pioneer and Democrat article based on A. J. Kane’s notes, avoiding any judgmental accusations.

Yet the massacre story is present in many more modern treatments.  Where did these later writers get their information?  Largely it came from the efforts of two men of questionable integrity. One of these was attorney and judge, first in Washington and later in Alaska, James Wickersham (1857-1939).  On October 9, 1893, he addressed the Washington State Historical Society, discussing the unfair Medicine Creek Treaty and other causes of the Puget Sound Indian War. Toward the end of his presentation, he gave this sensationalized account of the Mashel Massacre:

“In the summer of 1856 Maxon’s company was sent up the Nusqually on a scout, and near the Meshall they came upon a camp of Indians.  They surrounded the camp and killed them all, — thirty-three persons, — men, women and children.  It was a fishing camp and there were but four or five men present and about twenty-eight women and children, all of who were cruelly murdered.  On being rebuked for killing the little children, one of this crowd of cut throats said ‘nits make lice,’ and for this reason these soldiers in the livery of Washington Territory beat out the brains of sixteen or seventeen children and threw the corpses into the Nisqully River.  But what report contains a history of this foul outrage?  What historian gloats over it and holds it up to scorn and condemnation along with the White River massacre?  The White River massacre was perpetrated by savages who saved the innocent children and fed them, warmed them and returned them to their friends; the Mashell massacre was perpetrated by fiends who slaughtered the innocent children without pity or shame.  Let the murdered women and children of Meshall be a lasting blot on Maxon’s company!” (Wickersham, 1893).

Wickersham was an anomaly — a white racist who hated the Chinese, but who was an enthusiast of Native American culture.  Undoubtedly he heard of the massacre story from Nisqually friends. But the statement above loses credibility in its yellow journalism.  Who were the witnesses who reported it, if all were killed?  Especially ludicrous is the use of the “nits make lice” quote, of Sand Creek Massacre infamy.  And what witness came forward who heard that statement?  The death count of 33 is the highest of any known.

It is said that Wickersham, like the other chronicler of the Mashel Massacre, Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), hated Hamilton Maxon. Why has not yet been determined for sure. Elwood Evans, first president of the Washington State Historical Society, apparently criticized Wickersham’s address and asked for evidence of the massacre, because Wickersham responded in another address given on October 30, 1893, and quoted from Ezra Meeker’s book Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. Through this quote Wickersham presents his rebuttal to Evans:

“Colonel Shaw returned to Camp Montgomery while Maxon’s company again turned south and east and went up the Nisqually to near the canyon, where they discovered a large fishing camp, and here they murdered everyone — men, women and children.  But Mr. Evans says, where is your record?  Such as it is, is on pages 307-8 of Governor Stevens’ war message (letter), which lies open before me.  Here is all there is of it: “We (Maxon) continued our returning course next on the trail, being generally in a south and east direction.  *  *  *  *  Again arrived at Michel prairie.  *  *  *  *  Having no provisions, I have come to this place, where I await orders.  Signed, H.J.G. Maxon, Capt. Com’d’g Mounted Rifles.

“Now, read those eight asterisks and you have the massacre.  The record is mutilated — it is wanting in completeness. When Governor Stevens printed his message with appendix, he found it too vile in this spot and cut out the account of the massacre — at any rate it should be in this very spot under date of April, 1856.  But it is not there and we must supply it” (Meeker 1905).

This was Wickersham’s first proof offered, that the massacre was present in Maxon’s letter, but that the pertinent information was struck from the record by Governor Stevens.  This first point has been proven false, as a result of some detective work by writer Abbi Wonacott, author of Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually. The letter that Wickersham refers to does indeed appear in Message of the Governor of the Territory of Washington (Stevens 1857), in an appendix of attached correspondence.  And the puzzling asterisks are in the letter.  But Ms. Wonacott obtained a copy of the original Maxon letter from the Washington State Archives. The removed portions of the letter contain information concerning a later patrol by Maxon’s unit and provide no information on the Mashel Massacre. Why these unimportant details were cut from the record is not known.  It may have been done due to space considerations, but they were certainly not removed in an effort to conceal anything.  So, Wickersham’s first proof is an incorrect assumption.  In his address, he offered his second proof:

Under date of Sunday, August 21, 1892, the account of James Longmire, who was an intense partisan of Governor Stevens, was published in the Ledger and from that I quote one paragraph:

“About this time Governor Curry of Oregon sent a company of troops to our assistance, under Captain Miller.  Indians were still stealing horses and killing cattle.  A band of these robbers were followed by Captain Maxon to the Michel River, where the last one of them was killed” (Meeker, 1905).

These lines are a direct quote from the pages of the Tacoma Sunday Ledger, which published James Longmire’s account of his pioneer experiences (Tacoma Sunday Ledger, 1892).  But it is a long stretch to assume the massacre is referred to in that last sentence.  So Wickersham’s second proof is inconclusive.  Then he plays his trump card:

“Robert Thompson, who now lives at 24th and South C. Street, Tacoma, was present when Maxon’s company attacked this camp and I quote a letter from him on this subject:  ‘Tacoma, Oct. 29, 1893.’James Wickersham. — Dear Sir: I know about the killing of the Indians by Maxon’s company on the upper Nisqually.  They killed about fifteen to seventeen, maybe more.  [We know from other sources there were nearer thirty. – E. M.]  I saw the dead ones — two in the river.  There were but two men among them. (signed)     R. Thompson.’

“Mr. Thompson is known by all old settlers to be reliable, and in this matter he absolutely refused to state a number above those actually seen by him dead on the ground and the two in the river. The whole truth is that about thirty or more were cruelly massacred, nearly all being women and children” (Meeker 1905).

This evidence is more difficult to dismiss than Wickersham’s other two proofs.  But even this is somewhat suspect. For one thing, it is curious that this message turned up at his address just one day before his rebuttal address to the Washington State Historical Society.  And no trace of Thompson’s letter has ever been found. Thompson was attached to the Quarter Master Department, which handled supply and installation for the Army and the volunteers. So he could have been in the vicinity.  But he is not listed as a member of Maxon’s troop, or of Achilles.  Why Thompson was away from his unit, as an unauthorized participant in a strenuous search and destroy maneuver, is an unanswerable question.  The evidence for the Mashel Massacre, as presented by Wickersham and reiterated by Meeker, is therefore flimsy.Yet the real proof of the massacre is present in the Nisqually oral tradition.  Why did not Wickersham and Meeker simply use those accounts to prove that the massacre occurred?  It seems clear that these two prominent white men did not think that anyone would believe an Indian. So they went grasping after straws to construe a “white” account of the event.

Can Meeker’s Word Be Trusted?

Both Wickersham and Meeker, especially Meeker, do a disservice to Washington state history in their elevation of assumptions into fact and to their distortion of historic events.  Meeker’s disingenuousness is readily apparent in his book Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound, in which he seeks to slander Hamilton Maxon and conceal his own past.  The following account of events is interesting and revealing of Meeker’s true character, in light of the popular view of him as a defender of the Indian cause and of Leschi in particular.  Remember: the subtitle of Meeker’s book is The Tragedy of Leschi.

In November 1857, Leschi was arrested and put on trial for the murder of a Puget Sound settler, Sampson Moses.  The first jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.  The primary argument for acquittal was that the killing occurred during a time of war, so could not be charged as a murder.  Meeker was on the jury, and urged acquittal.  Hopelessly deadlocked, the jury was dismissed.

A second trial didn’t include Meeker on the jury, and the verdict was “guilty as charged,” and the sentence was death.  Meeker’s argument for Leschi’s innocence is puzzling in light of his subsequent actions.

The date of execution was set at January 22, 1858.  But maneuvering by certain politicians prevented the death warrant from being issued.  When the execution day passed with Leschi still alive, many citizens rose up to protest the breakdown of law and order.  Mass meetings were held at which it was demanded that the verdict of Leschi be upheld.  One of these was chaired by Hamilton Maxon.

In his 1905 book, Meeker castigates Maxon for his participation in such a witch hunt, and reiterated his charge that Maxon “was known to have been engaged in the fiendish massacre of helpless women and children, the difference being that the location was on the Michel River and the number twice as great as the white people massacred by the Indians.”  Meeker goes on to admit attending a similar meeting, but insists it was only to express the citizen’s concern for the “total disregard of law in their midst.”  Meeker insists that his group, unlike Maxon’s, did not call for retribution against Leschi, “omitting any reference to the participation of the Indian Leschi in the massacre of women and children during the fall of 1855, for which he was not on trial, and in which the participants in the meeting did not believe he was guilty” (Meeker 1905).

The following is taken from the first resolution passed by the citizen’s meeting that Meeker attended: “We wish to express our indignation at the part of our said sheriff acted in the late farce of the non-execution of the sentence of the law and justice upon the notorious Indian Leschi, who a few short months since was murdering, in cold blood, our inoffensive and defenseless neighbors and their children, and would, had it been in his power, swept every civilized being from this fair land.”

Historian William Bonney identifies Meeker as the chairman of the meeting, and both he and the Pioneer and Democrat indicate that he was the first person to sign the resolutions.  This meeting was held on January 26, 1858.  On February 19, 1858, Leschi was hanged.  People like Ezra Meeker had sealed his fate.  Leschi’s executioner, Charles Grainger, was quoted as saying “I felt I was hanging an innocent man.”

Although Leschi was killed, his efforts to resist were not entirely in vain.  On January 19, 1857, a presidential Executive Order quadrupled the size of the original Nisqually reservation established by the Medicine Creek Treaty and included more desirable land.  Of course much of that land was returned when Ft. Lewis was created, many years later. On December 10, 2004, a special state historical court cleared Chief Leschi of murder charges.

Traditional Indian Accounts

According to Nisqually tribal member and author Cecilia Svinth Carpenter, “the story of the Mashel Massacre has always been a part of Nisqually oral tradition” (Cecilia Carpenter, personal communication with Abbi Wonacott, August 26, 2008).  These accounts have rarely, however, reached the expression of actual printed words.  Carpenter herself briefly reports the traditional accounts in her books on the Nisqually Indians (Carpenter 1994, 2002, 2004), but provides no references. The earliest evidence of the oral tradition, recorded mere weeks, or less, after the event, appears to be the account of A. V. Kautz, related earlier: “When we fell in with them we learned that the Washington Territory volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed the most of them without regard to age or sex” (Kautz, 1875).

The story of the Mashel Massacre was passed down through extended families, from generation to generation.  One such family was that of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually Indian and fishing rights activist.  Billy’s grandfather was a young boy at the time of the Puget Sound Indian War and passed his memories on to his descendents.  Although he was not a witness, he recalled stories that he was told.  He repeated these to his son, Billy Frank Jr., who related this version in a taped interview:

“Those Indians at the massacre, they were … up on the hill looking down at the place where the Mashel runs into the Nisqually.  They said the soldiers came on them and the Indians all ran down the hill and swam across the [Nisqually] and ran up the other side.  And the soldiers were shooting them from the top of the hill.  There was a woman carrying a baby on her back and they shot her.  She and the baby fell into the river and floated down … . Some of the young got away — climbed up the hill on the other side of the river.  I don’t know how many they killed, but there were a lot of them” (Wilkinson, p. 17).

Another account of the Mashel Massacre is that of Henry Sicade.  He was a Nisqually Indian, born in 1866, who received a college education and became a relatively wealthy farmer in the Puyallup Valley.  Active in politics, he was director of the Fife School for a number of years.  On April 10, 1917, he read a paper at a meeting of the Research Club of Tacoma, relating some of the oral traditions of the Nisqually and other Native American groups.  In his presentation Sicade relates this account of the Mashel Massacre:

“Shortly after this, the soldiers were pressing the Squallys and they retreated up the mountains, some getting away to the Yakima country.  About 40 to 50 women, children and babies and two old men were sent up Squally River to hunt a hiding place.  This part of the story is a sort of family history.  Seeing the party was rather large and making slow progress, a woman with her children suggested that the party travel in two or three sections so that they could be more easily managed.  The larger party of about thirty, including the two old men, decided to keep together and the smaller party promptly sheered off and was soon gone up the river bank and into the timbers.  Looking back as the last child was helped, the woman who acted as leader saw the larger party overtaken by a band of white men, every man armed.  The old men and the women were shot down, the defenseless children were killed and later the babies were found crushed against the boulders by the river and in the river, not a life being spared” (Sicade 1917).

When Sicade’s paper was printed in 1940, in a publication celebrating Washington state’s fiftieth Anniversary, it was preceded by a disclaimer: “Some points in the tradition as it came to Mr. Sicade do not tally with contemporary records, especially for some war events.  But events of Indian wars should not be judged by our civil laws” (Sicade, 1917).  Once again, whites do not really trust Indians to speak the truth.  And of course, oral traditions typically result in a wide variety of versions.

Terrible Things, and Shameful

What is clear, however, is that terrible things, and shameful, happened where the Mashel joins the Nisqually.  It seems impossible that we will ever know exactly what happened.  Some portray the tragedy as just another consequence of the folly that is war.  Prominent historian Aubrey Haines commented on the Mashel Massacre in just such a fashion: “That attack on the small band of Nisqually Indians led by Ski-hi is one of the least known events of the Indian war, and consequently, one of the most misrepresented.  It was not a ‘massacre’ but a surprise attack of a sort which was a standard tactic of Indian warfare and used by both white and red men” (Haines, 1999, p. 220).

Yet this simple description fails to explain why what happened left such an indelible mark on a whole people.  Yes, in that war, as in all such conflicts, horrific things happened, and innocents died.  We will never know exactly what happened that day, but we cannot afford to let the memory of it fade.


Huber Howe Bancroft, History of the Pacific States of North America, Vol. 26, Washington, Idaho, and Montana (San Francisco: The History Company, Publishers, 1890); William Bonney, History of Pierce County, Washington (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1927); Cecelia Svinth Carpenter,Where the Waters Begin: The Traditional Nisqually Indian History of Mount Rainier (Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, 1994); The Nisqually: My People (Tacoma: Tahoma Research Service, 2002); Leschi: Last Chief of the Nisquallies (Tacoma: Tahoma Research Service, 2004);  Elwood Evans, History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington (Portland: North Pacific History Company, 1889); Caroline Denyer Gallacci, The City of Destiny and the South Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Tacoma: Heritage Media Corporation, 2001);  Aubrey L.  Haines, Mountain Fever: Historic Conquests of Rainier (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1962] 1999); Augustus V. Kautz, “Ascent of Mount Rainier,” The Overland Monthly, Vol. 14, No. 5 (May 1875); Ezra Meeker, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound: The Tragedy of Leschi (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Stationery and Printing Co., Seattle 1905); Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); “Eight Hostiles Killed,” Pioneer and Democrat (Olympia, Washington Territory), April 11, 1856, p. 2; “The Indian War: Movements of the Troops,” Pioneer and Democrat, April 18, 1856, p. 2; “Mass Meetings of the Citizens of Pierce County, W.T.,”  Pioneer and Democrat, February 12, 1858; Henry Sicade, “The Indian’s Side of the Story,” Address to the Research Club of Tacoma, April 10, 1917,  Reprinted in Building a State, Washington: 1889-1939 ed. by Charles Miles and O. B. Sperlin  (Olympia: Washington State Historical Society, 1940); Hazzard Stevens, The Life of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, Vol. 2.  (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900); Isaac Ingals Stevens, Message of the Governor of Washington Territory.  Also; the Correspondence with the Secretary of War, Major Gen. Wool, the Officers of the Regular Army, and of the Volunteer Service of Washington Territory (Olympia: Edward Furste, Public Printer, 1857); James Longmire, “Pioneer: Interesting Story of His Experience in Hunting Buffalo Coming Across the Plains,” Tacoma Sunday Ledger, August 21, 1892, pp. 9-10;  James Wickersham, “The Indian Side of the Puget Sound Indian War,” Address to the Washington State Historical Society, filed October 9, 1893, Washington State Historical Society, Olympia;  Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank’s Landing: A Story of Salmon, Treaties, and the Indian Way (Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2000); Abbi Wonacott, Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually: The Mashel Massacre of 1856 (Spanaway, Washington:  Bellus Uccello Publishing, Bethel School District, 2008). By Stephen B. Emerson, March 28, 2009

Nisqually River near confluence of Mashel River, Pierce County, 2008

Photo by Stephen B. Emerson

Home About Us Fun & Travel Education Contact Us Sponsors Advanced Search is the first online encyclopedia of local and state history created expressly for the Internet. (SM) is a free public and educational resource produced by History Ink, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt corporation.
Contact us by phone at 206.447.8140, by mail at Historylink, 1411 4th Ave. Suite 803, Seattle WA 98101 or email

A Letter on Behalf of Leschi’s Widow, 1915

Introduction: In 1915 the Superintendent of the Nisqually Agency appealed to his superiors to provide a modest income to Leschi’s Widow. His letter appears below.


Cushman Indian School.
Tacoma, Wash. Feb. 3, 1915.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Washington, D. C.


I have the honor to invite attention to the enclosed affidavit of Mary Stillman, who says she was formerly the widow of Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Tribe of Indians, who was killed by United States Soldiers about 1854.

The killing of this Indian is a matter of history which has caused a great deal of comment by some of the older citizens of this state and by nearly all of the Indians in Western Washington, who believe that Leschi was murdered for the treason that they do not think he was guilty of the crimes to which he was charged.

There is on file in the Indian Office a report regard to the killing of Chief Leschi.

Mr. Ezra Meeker who has written a book concerning the early history of Washington wrote several letters to the Office requesting a copy of this report and was several times advised that it could not be found, but when he made a trip in his ox wagon over the Oregon Trail to Washington, D. C., about 1908, I made a thorough search of the old records from the State of Washington, and found the report for him, and I would be very glad to have this report considered in connection with this affidavit. If there is any way possible to render this old lady assistance, I hope the Office will do so at an early date because she is in very destitute circumstances, and in fact is living on the charity of another Indian.

If the Office could find some way to furnish such things that will make her few remaining days more pleasant I believe it will have a good influence among the Indians who regard the killing of Leschi by the soldiers as unwarranted.

Very respectfully,


Throws Light on Debated Medicine Creek Treaty Edwin Ells Presents Carefully Studied Paper to Pioneers’ Gathering on Famous Agreement Entered Into Between Governor Stevens and Washington Indians.

Throws Light on Debated Medicine Creek Treaty Edwin Ells Presents Carefully Studied Paper to Pioneers’ Gathering on Famous Agreement Entered Into Between Governor Stevens and Washington Indians.

Northwestern historians and old settlers in Washington have disagreed heartily upon several points in connection with the singing of the Medicine Creek treaty, entered into by Gov. Isaac J. Stevens with the Indians of the region in 1854.

At the pioneers’ picnic at Lake Sequalitachew Wednesday, Edwin Eells, a native son of Washington, read a paper on this subject. It is a theme on which he had bestowed considerable thought and to which he had devoted long research. It is said by northwest historians to have cleared up several disputed points about the incident. Mr. Eels concludes in favor of Gov. Stevens and suggests that a monument to mark the spot would be eminently fitting.

Text of the Paper His paper follows:

It is a privilege we all heartily enjoy of meeting here today, on this historic spot made memorable by the unfurling of the stars and stripes 69 years ago, by the representatives of the United States government under the supervision of Commodore Wilkes.

Personally, I take a peculiar pleasure in this observance, as it is both the month and the year of my own birth in this state. The good services of the State Historical society in marking this spot with that appropriate monument is well worthy of its object. The pioneers of the state are closely allied to the historical society from whom it draws much of its most interesting information, and they are also indebted to it for preserving the memories of the past, and doing honor to the brave and the true who were prominent factors in the deeds of the long ago.

It is peculiarly appropriate that we today suggest the propriety of marking another spot not many miles from here, and just across the line over in Thurston county, whose pioneer society is here represented, where 55 years ago another holiday—Christmas—was observed with most interesting ceremonies. I refer to what is commonly known as Medicine Creek treaty with the Indians of the upper sound region, and which was the first treaty made in this then territory, for the extinguishing of the Indian titles to the extinguishing of the Indian titles to the lands then partially occupied by white people. Gov. Isaac J. Stevens was the first governor of Washington Territory, and was appointed in March, 1853. He was a man, small in stature, but big in brain, and of indomitable, usually doing the work of three men. This office at that time carried with it ex officio, the position of superintendent of Indian affairs. He was also charged with the duty of exploring the country and ascertaining the practicability of a railroad route across the northern belt, of the United States and connecting with the waters of Puget Sound. This he did with marked efficiency and success. Starting from the head waters of the Mississippi river with a party which at first consisted of nearly 250 men, he spent six months on the way making the necessary investigations, arriving in Olympia November 25, 1853. On his way he came through the counties of many warlike Indians, known to be hostile, not only to the whites, but also almost constantly at war among them were the Blackfeet, the terror of those times.

With singular tact and marked success he not only gained their consent for him to pass through their country, but secured their friendship, so that he was specially appointed to make a treaty with them, which he did two years later. This secured peace and amity, was lasting, and of untold benefit in the development of the northwest coast. In doing all of this he gained an experience which was of material benefit to him in dealing with the Indians of this territory in later years.

Almost immediately on his arrival he issued a proclamation, calling for an election to be held on the 30th of the following January to choose a delegate to congress and members of the first legislature, which met February 28, 1854. During this time he made a hired excursion down the Sound in a sailboat called a “plunger,” along the eastern shore, going as far as Victoria, where he met the representatives of the Hudson’s Bay company. While en route he visited and conferred with many tribes of Indians, and got glimpses of their number, condition, modes of life, etc. With this information as a basis he subsequently developed an Indian policy, which he endeavored to carry out.

Urgent business called him back to Washington City and he left Olympia on the 26th of March for the seat of government, going by way of San Francisco and the Isthmus. He arrived in New York in May and immediately went to Washington city, where he spent several months. The following September, accompanied by his wife and four children, he left Boston for Puget Sound, arriving about the 1st of December, having been detained on his way about six weeks by serious sickness in his family from the Panama fever.

The second legislature met on the 4th of December and on the following day he delivered his message to that body. While the legislature was in session he planned his campaign and organized his force, for extinguishing the possessory titles of the Indians to the lands in this territory. Most of the treaties were prepared in Olympia before he started out, with the intention of trying to induce the Indians to accept the terms.

Gov. Stevens Able Man.
I have been thus full in describing Gov. Stevens work and circumstances, in order to show hoe little time he had for the peroration and consideration of the important matters connected with the Indians. He was a very able man, saw all the points of a case at a glance, made up his mind quickly, and then went at things with a rush and almost always made it go. If in the hurry and bustle or the times he should have made a few mistakes, it would not only have been excusable, but ought to have been expected.

On the other side of the Nisqually river and running parallel with it, and about a half mile distant is a small stream now known as McAllister’s creek, then called She-nh-nan or Medicine Creek, which also empties into the waters of the Sound. Its source is a very large spring, near the foot of the bluff from which it gushes forth, at almost its full size from the start.

About a mile above its mouth on a high knoll above the surrounding marsh and between the two streams was the spot selected for the meeting. A party of men having been sent down a few days before to clear the ground and erect the tents, on the 24th of December Gov. Stevens and his staff came down from Olympia in canoes and made their camp. Word having been sent out, between 600 and 700 Indians had come together and on the following day they assembled to meet the governor. Through interpreters he explained to them what he wanted, gave them presents of food, etc. for a sumptuous Christmas dinner and dismissed them until the next day. In the meantime members of his party were busily engaged in doing missionary work, explaining, persuading and trying to induce them to assent to the terms he desired them to accede to. On the 26th they reassembled, and the negotiations were concluded by the signing of the treaty by Gov. Stevens representing the government on the one part and 62 chiefs and head men making their marks, which were witnessed by 19 white persons, on the other part. The tribes represented were the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squakson Indians.

By the terms of the treaty the Indians relinquished their exclusive right of occupancy to all of Thurston and Pierce as well as parts of King and Mason counties. The government agreed to pay $65,000 in annual installments during the term of 20 years, one-half to be paid in goods, such as blankets, clothing, tools, etc., in the way of annuities, and the other half to be used in moving them to their reservations and getting them settled thereon. They were also to be provided with schools and carpenters, blacksmiths, and farmers to instruct them in the arts of civilized life, and also a physician. Three reservations of about 1,280 acres each were assigned them. One comprising the Squakson island, 12 miles north of Olympia, on which it was expected to locate the superintendency and headquarters of the Indians. Here a very considerable amount of money was subsequently expended, and for the Nisqually Indians two sections of land near the mouth of the Nisqually river, and the same amount on the south side of Commencement bay for the use of the Puyallup Indians. It was also provided that if at any time the government should see fit, it would have the right to remove them to some other reservation by paying them for their improvements and the expense of moving them and also assigning them other lands of equal or greater value.

The treaty having been duly signed and witnessed was immediately dispatched to Washington city, and on the 3rd of March, 1855, was ratified by the senate and became a law, being the first and only treaty which was acted upon during the next four years. Although treaties were made with all the other Indians on the Sound during the six weeks immediately following, they did not reach Washington city in time to be acted upon at that session. Before congress again assembled the following winter, the Indian war had broken out which, with other contributory cause, delayed action on the other treaties until 1859. After the close of the Indian war it appeared that there was much dissatisfaction among the Indians with the Nisqually and Puyallup reservations both as to size, location and quality. At a subsequent meeting with the Indians new reservations, the ones they at present occupy, were assigned them to which they agreed. These selections were approved by the president and became their subsequent homes.

Congress made the regular appropriations from year to year to carry out the terms of the treaty, and so far as the record goes, the government performed its part of the agreement. However, for a period of many years there was much corruption and inefficiency in the Indian service and during the war of the rebellion the currency depreciated so much that these several amounts were so much reduced as to be of but very little value to the Indians.

The officers of the government have been severely criticized for the way in which this treaty was made. It has been claimed that the Indians were overreached, given very inadequate reservations, and otherwise imposed upon, that it was one of the contributory causes of the Indian war that followed. It is even claimed tat some Indians whose names were appended to the treaty as signers never made their marks at all, but were violently opposed to its terms, and that one of them went so far as to tear up his commission as sub-chief. It is true that the land assigned them was very unsuited to their needs. It is also true that at least three of the signers of the treaty joined the hostiles and were very active enemies of the whites in the war that followed.

Question of Undue Influence.

Whether or not any undue influences were used to induce the Indians to sign the treaty, and whether those signing all fully understood the terms of the treaty or not, it is quite possible that the influence of strong aggressive men of great will power and superior intelligence did cause some few Indians to make their marks who would not have done so under normal conditions. But with the large majority of the Indians there was a strong desire to settle conditions which were becoming somewhat strained. The Indians had a possessory right of occupancy and whites were coming in and settling down on their choicest lands, with no compensation having been given to them. They were peaceably inclined, felt friendly to the whites, wanted the matters settled and had confidence in the officers of the government, and believed that they were making the best adjustment possible under the circumstances. They therefore willingly assented, although probably not fully understanding all of the details. This as to the large majority, to which of course there were some exceptions.

The inadequacy of the lands assigned them for their use as reservations is the most glaring evidence of imposition on their credulity. On this point it is but just to Governor Stevens to say, that with his scant knowledge of the Indians at the time, their conditions and habits, he had formed a plan to colonize them all on one o two large reservations farther down the Sound. In the very next treaty made a month later with the Snohomish Indians, a large reservation of a full township or 36 sections was assigned them, with a proviso that other Indians might be allowed to move on to it, if thought best. While this arrangement was pending on his mind, it was not polite for him to suggest it to the Indians as a part of the first treaty. He did, however, as stated before, reserve the right to move them to some other place on certain conditions. He, therefore, only looked upon these reservations as temporary assignments and expected that their permanent homes would be somewhere else.

Usual & Accustomed Places I – The Medicine Creek Treaty

The relationship between the original inhabitants of Washington and the non-Indians who started arriving in the late 18th century is one of the great ongoing stories of this state’s history. The impact of trade, disease, culture, conflict, and law on Native Americans from this region tells us a lot about our nation and ourselves. The following is an examination of the struggle between Indians and non-Indians over the right to fish for salmon, one of the great natural resources of the Northwest.



The origin of the conflict over salmon has its roots in the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. During that year Isaac Stevens concluded a number of agreements in which, essentially, Indians surrendered title to much of their land in the region for a series of promises and commitments by the U.S. government.

One of these was the following:

ARTICLE 3.- The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing, together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses on open and unclaimed lands: Provided, however, that they shall not take hellfish from any beds staked or cultivated by citizens . . .

Continued access to fishing grounds was to be protected for Native Americans. In this first agreement between Northwest Indians and the U.S. government the issue of fishing was a very important matter for the Indians to include in the legal relationship which would govern their relations for years to come.

The Medicine Creek Treaty, as well as all of the other treaties signed during this period, is an important document in relation to the future legal battle over salmon fishing rights. The U.S. Constitution defines the status of treaties in the following way:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

The above language means that the rules instituted by the treaty have the power of federal law. In our political system, federal law may not be contradicted or overruled by state law. Thus, a right guaranteed by treaties could not be wiped out even if the state of Washington passed a law abolishing it. The state of Washington could not, for instance, pass a law abolishing Indian reservations.

Yet, our federal system of government allows states to control many types of activities within the state’s borders. For instance, when you decide to go fishing (if you are a non-Indian) you get a state of Washington fishing license and wait for the state to tell you when fishing season is going to open. These are state rules. But what if the state law contradicts a federal law? What happens if a state law says that everyone in the state, Indian and non-Indian may not fish? Would this be a violation of the language of Article 3 of the Medicine Creek Treaty? What then

This is where the courts enter the picture. In our system of government the legislature passes laws and the courts make sure that these laws do not violate the rules laid out in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. There are state courts and federal courts and their roles are essentially the same. Let’s go back to the imaginary state law forbidding fishing. You decide to go fishing anyway and you are arrested by an agent of the Game Department. You are accused and then convicted of violating the state’s prohibition on fishing. Following the conviction, if you or your lawyer believes that this law violates some part of the state or federal constitutions you might appeal to a higher court and have them analyze if that is actually the case. This is an important function of the courts, the right of judicial review. This is the right of the court to declare a law unconstitutional. If the court believes that this law is wrong, unconstitutional, then they strike down the law. They throw it out. This is a tremendous power and the courts have taken this power seriously and used it carefully.

Here is another relevant example. The language in the Medicine Creek Treaty guarantees the right of Indians to fish in the usual and accustomed places. What does this mean? Can they fish anywhere? May they only fish on their new reservations? Do they have to follow state laws regarding fishing? The court’s ultimate job is to interpret what usual and accustomed actually means. This often puts the court in an unpopular position since a law on the books has been passed by a majority of the legislature which, in turn, must represent a majority of the inhabitants of the state. This is the whole basis of our republican form of government, majority rule. Thus, in some cases, we have a small body of men and women, the court, telling the majority that they may have done something wrong. After all, what may be popular, may not be right (in a legal sense).

The history of fishing rights will, therefore, examine the relationship between the state and federal governments and the state and federal court systems. It will examine the relationship between the Indians of Washington and the state government. The following reading will also examine the relationship between Indians and non-Indians in this state.



The treaties signed by Governor Stevens and the tribes of Washington all contained key language related to fishing. This was the wording that promised Indians the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” This language would have serious implications in later years. For instance, the Lummi Indians fished around Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Point Roberts, Village Point, Lummi Island, Fidalgo Island and Sandy Point. They sometimes fished as far south as Seattle and as far North as the Fraser River.They fished the Nooksack River and the other rivers which flowed into Boundary Bay. Once the Lummis were restricted to their reservation lands, many of these “usual and accustomed” places would lie beyond their reservation boundaries. Once settlements, farms, and competing non-Indian fishing grew, this language (“usual and accustomed”) would be put to the test.

The first major court test regarding Northwest Indian fishing rights was the case of United States vs. Taylor in 1887. Washington was still a territory and the case was tried in a territorial court. The controversy began when a settler named Frank Taylor fenced in his land along the Columbia River in order to protect his crops. The fence blocked Yakama Indians from using their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations” and they went to district court in order to have the fence removed in accordance with the treaty guarantees. The Yakamas lost in district court, but they appealed to the Supreme Court of the Territory where they won. There the judges ruled that treaty rights had pre-eminence over a homesteader’s rights and the fence had to come down. Subsequent cases would prove not to be so favorable to Native Americans in this state.

As the boom in the salmon canning industry took off in the late 19th century the pressure on Indian fisheries increased. In the case of the Lummi Indians near Bellingham, salmon packers began setting traps and driving pilings into areas considered to be part of the Lummi’s “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” Upset by this turn of events the Lummis petitioned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. to help them in their battle to honor their treaty rights. In a letter dated September 22, 1894 and signed by 52 Lummis they wrote:

Living as we do on the shores of Puget Sound our principal means of subsistence, especially during certain seasons of the year, is fishing our best grounds are situated near the reef of Point Roberts.

Several years ago white men began to encroach on our ground. We were willing to have them share with us the right to fish but not satisfied with equal rights they have yearly made additional obstructions to prevent our catching fish, by setting traps, and placing piling around the grounds. They have driven us from our old camping ground on the beach and have so treated us that we feel we must now appeal to you for assistance…

We the Indians of this reservation do therefore earnestly pray that you call upon the U.S District Attorney of Seattle to persecute those who are robbing us of our treaty rights.

These Indians realized that their rights were being infringed despite court cases and treaty language. The state did not respond and proceeded to license two fish trap sites in the traditional fishing areas of the Lummis and allowed a man named Waller to tear down structures used by the Lummis for smoking fish since 1859 without any repercussions. The Lummis finally made it to court with their case in 1897. In the case of United States , Hillaire Crocket, Captain Jack vs. Alaska Packers Association and Kate Waller, the Lummis’ suit was dismissed by presiding Judge Hanford. He reasoned that the traps set up by the Alaska Packers were not an infringement because there were plenty of fish elsewhere and, after all, the Lummis were able to sell the fish they did sell to the packers. The packers provided the Lummis with a good living, and driving them away wouldn’t make economic sense. Also, the judge maintained that recognizing the Lummi’s arguments would be granting them “special rights.” Thus access to “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds was being restricted with the force of law.


As fishing in the region increased there began to appear concerned about the impact it was having on the salmon runs. As early as 1894 the Oregon Fish Protector contained the following warning:

It does not require a study of statistics to convince one that the salmon industry has suffered a great decline during the past decades, and that it is only a matter of a few years under present conditions when the chinook of the Columbia will be as scarce as the beaver that once was so plentiful in our streams. Common observance is amply able to apprehend a fact so plain. For a third of a century, Oregon has drawn wealth from her streams, but now, by reason of her wastefulness and lack of intelligent provision for the future, the source of that wealth is disappearing and is threatened with annihilation.

This increasing concern led to a series of state efforts to “protect” the salmon. Restrictions were set on when and where to fish, and licenses were required for those engaged in fishing. As early as 1889 the state government passed laws which closed rivers to fishing, allowing Indians to catch only what was needed for their subsistence. In 1907, all rivers in the Puget Sound were closed to net fishing. These would become another area of conflict between non-Indians and Indians. How would these regulations apply to Indians? Would they apply to them merely off reservation or would they apply to them in all situations in order to prevent their having “special rights”.

Once Washington became a state the tribes and state government began a series of struggles over their legal relationships which would extend to today. In 1899, early in Washington’s state history, Attorney General P.H. Winston, wrote an opinion representing the state’s view on whether or not the state could tax Squaxin Indian’s fishing gear like it did non-Indian citizens of the state. He wrote: “the Indians on the Squaxin Reservation are not discriminated against by the license laws of the state… They have the right to fish at usual and accustomed places with all citizens of the state. No more, no less.” In other words, everyone in the state, Indian and non-Indian, would obey the same laws. At the Cascades of the Columbia the houses used for shelter and fish drying by Indians, and protected by treaty language, were torn down by whites.


Problems arose for Yakima fishermen who found their access to their “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds blocked, this time by a “fish wheel” owned by a man named Winans. Columbia fish wheels were revolving wheels (9-32 feet wide) and rotated due to the force of the current. Salmon were guided into the revolving wheels and then down a long chute into a bin on the shore. Some wheels had long lines of pilings set in the river bed to help lead the salmon to the wheel which might help explain a daily catch at some sites of 3000 fish. One particularly effective wheel (Seufert’s No. 5) once caught 209 tons of salmon in one year. In its worst year, it only snared 10 tons of fish. Fish wheels were state licensed methods of catching large quantities of fish. In court Winans’ attorneys argued the following two points: 1) since the fish wheel was a superior method of fishing to Indian’s techniques it therefore gave Winans superior rights (i.e. the right to ignore treaty obligations); and 2) since Washington was now a state the treaty between the Yakamas and the federal government was no longer binding on the residents of the state.

The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an opinion written by Justice Joseph McKenna the U.S. Supreme Court would have none of these arguments. Technical advancement had nothing to do with treaty rights; and in spite of statehood, the Indian’s rights, guaranteed under the treaty, gave them the right to cross land, fish in rivers, and build temporary shelters at their fishing sites. the decision also introduced a concept which would be used in court decisions made in the 1970’s. The treaty had to be interpreted as the Yakamas might have in the 1850’s. The court went further by establishing the “reserved rights doctrine.” By this the court meant that “the treaty was not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them–a reservation of those [rights] not granted.” Fishing privileges had been granted to whites, while still Indians reserved the right to continue fishing as they always had done. The U.S. had the authority to protect off reservation fishing rights if it did not “restrain the state unreasonably in the regulation of the right.” The latter language left open the possiblity of state regulations. It implied that some state regulations of Indian fishing were constitutional as long as they were reasonable.

The state of Washington, however, was not particularly impressed by the Winans decision. In 1915, the Washington Director of Fisheries, Leslie Darwin wrote:

the Indians off the reservations have no rights superior to those of the White. Practically every Indian has an allotment of land, and a home of his own. This is very much more than is possessed by the average fisherman of this state. It would seem unfair, therefore, to tax the white man for a license and not require one of the Indians, particularly where the Indian engages in competition with the white man… But much more objectionable yet is the insistance of the Indians upon the right to disregard the closed season which our laws established.

Thus, taking the opening provided by the Winans opinion, the state of Washington applied its fishing laws to Indians. In cases argued before the Washington State Supreme Court in the same year, Indians argued that they could not be criminally prosecuted for fishing off reservation without a license. In one case, a Yakama Indian named Towessnute was arrested for catching a salmon with a gaff hook, a violation of state law. In the other case, Alexis, a Lummi Indian, was arrested for fishing without a license and fishing during a closed season. In the case of Alexis he was convicted in the local court and fined $250.00. Both Indians appealed their cases to the State Supreme Court. There, in a 1916 case entitled State vs. Towessnute, the court ruled against both Indians stating that they were bound to obey state laws. Traveling to and having acess to “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds was not in question here. Obeying state laws to protect fisheries was. State Supreme Court Justice Bausman wrote:     

The premise of Indian so vereignty we reject. The treaty is not to be interpreted in that light. At no time did our ancestors in getting title to this continent ever regard the aborigines as other than mere occupants, and incompetent occupants, of the soil. Any title that could be had from them was always disdained… Only that title was esteemed which came from white men… The Indian was a child, and dangerous child of nature, to be both protected and restrained. In his nomadic life, he was to be left , as long as civilization did not demand his region. When it did demand that region, he was to be alloted a more confined area with permanent subsistence… These arrangements were but the announcement of our benevolence which, notwithstanding our frequent frailties, has been continuously displayed. Neither Rome nor sagacious Britain ever dealt more liberally with their subject races than we with these savage tribes, whom it permitted to squander vast areas of fertile land before our eyes. 


The state court decision appeared to contradict the Winans decision, but an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was not made by the Indians who lost their cases. The decision, however, did not stop Indians from exercising the rights they believed were granted by treaty. Throughout this time period there were many incidents related to fishing. On the Green River the Muckleshoots were forbidden from using their accustomed net methods during spawning season off reservation. Non-Indians running a new hatchery on the riverhad the stream dammed and were taking the salmon for their spawn. As a form of good will the hatchery crew would give a salmon a day to some Indian family. A Muckleshoot was arrested for using a spear in violation of state law. The state passed a law which limited Indians to fishing within five miles of their reservations, but on the Skokomish River Indians were afraid to fish at the “usual and accustomed” site at Cushman Falls because the falls were five miles away in a straight line, but eight miles away as the river flows. This fear was a result of state officials removing their nets form the river on a site they claimed to be reservation land. James Nimrod, a Nisqually, told a federal investigator that the state would not even let him fish on creeks running through the reservation. He summed up the problem this was, “Now I am bothered when I fish.” Other developments were also limiting Indian fishing. When Pacific Coast Power Company diverted part of the White River above the Muckleshoot Reservation, silt built up and hurt fish runs, and the company eventually paid $10,000 to 17 Muckleshoots for damages to the fishery. As one neighbor of the Nisquallies said in 1920, the only place the Nisquallies, “could fish accustomed” fishing grounds was being effectively curtailed.

Medicine Creek Treaty Links

Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies

By Cecelia Svinth Carpenter      Nisqually Tribal Historian

Tribal Life
Leschi was born to be a leader. His people believed that the stars that rose over the Nisqually Plains on the day of his birth in 1808 predestined him to become someday a war chief on behalf of his people, but ironically the title of chief would be bestowed upon him by a territorial governor who would later demand his life on the gallows.

Leschi’s parents were a Nisqually father and a Yakima mother. It was then the custom of the Nisqually people to arrange marriages outside of tribal lineage so as to minimize the shortness of stature and the broadness of shoulders that is typical of the canoe Indians of Puget Sound. His mixed heritage provided Leschi with a tall agile body, strong heavy shoulders and a face more slender than others in his village. Most distinguishing and most remembered by those who were to describe him later were his alert, penetrating eyes that seemed to size up a situation immediately. As he grew to adulthood he became known as a man of great intelligence possessing superb oratorical abilities. He developed the wisdom of a judge and was often called upon to settle disagreements among his tribesmen.

Because of his wealth of houses, Leschi’s father was held in high esteem. His sons, Quiemuth and Leschi, benefited from this distinction within the tribe. However because it was the custom, they would not carry their father’s name but would choose their own. Leschi had one sister and a brother-in-law whose name was Stahi.

The Nisqually people were first known as the Squally-absch, meaning “people of the grass country,” for they inhabited the vast prairies dotted with blue camas blossoms which lay to the east of the head of Puget Sound. The French voyageurs called them Nesquallies and conferred the same name upon their river which flowed through the heartland of their prairie and reached from Puget Sound to the forested slopes of the Cascades. Americans later changed the spelling to Nisqually.

Although the Nisquallies roamed a vast land area running north to the Puyallup and south to the Cowlitz and shared berry picking and hunting grounds with both, they tended to locate all of their villages along the Nisqually River, its tributaries and along the sound. The villages sharing the Nisqually watershed held a common bond with the river which provided their main food source. In the summer the bands moved to the lower river and caught great quantities of salmon which were dried and stored for winter consumption. They returned to the smaller, higher streams during the cold season. The foothills of the beloved mountain, Tacobud, (Mount Rainier) provided excellent winter hunting.

One of their villages was located on the Mashel River at the point where it empties into the Nisqually. Leschi was born and raised in this village. The Mashel site lay adjacent to an upland prairie which provided winter grazing for the family’s horse herd. Language maps suggest that this was a bilingual village and indeed, Leschi spoke both the Sahaptin language of his Yakima mother and the Salish of his father who was originally from the salt waster Salish village at Minter Creek on the Kitsap Peninsula. It is recorded that Leschi never learned to speak English but that he spoke a few words of Chinook jargon, a trading language. During the summer, thirty to forty families would gather along the Muck Creek where it joins the Nisqually near the present town of Yelm. Leschi came here each summer with his family for food gathering and friendship. The rich bunch grass of the area provided summer pasture for his horses. . . .

The first treaty concluded was the Medicine Creek Treaty, so named because the signing took place on She-nan-num or Medicine Creek on the Nisqually Delta. The treaty was explained to the assembled Nisquallies, Puyallups and assorted bands who spoke Chinook jargon, and on December 26, 1854, the governor asked those he had appointed chiefs to sign. Leschi refused although an X appeared before his name. He felt that the proposed Nisqually allotment, south of the delta on high forested land, would condemn the tribe to a slow death, for there would be no river for fishing, no pasture land for horses. Moreover, to sign the treaty might mean eventually being moved to the dreaded lands to the north.

Governor Stevens made more treaties to the north and east. Meanwhile, Leschi, traveling across the Cascades to the Yakimas and the Klickitats and then south into Oregon, noticed the hostility of these inland peoples to the settlers rushing onto Indian land. In October 1885, he went to Olympia and met with Acting-Governor Charles Mason (Stevens was away) and told him that the Nisquallies wanted peace with the white man, but they also wanted to stay on their river bottom where they could fish and farm. Receiving no clear direction from Mason, Leschi returned home to his fall plowing.

The Indian War

Early in 1855, due to a fear of an Indian uprising, Governor Stevens secured form the legislature approval for a volunteer militia. Volunteers had been used in the Indian uprising in Oregon although General John E. Wool, Commander of the U.S. Army’s Pacific Division for regular troops (as they were known), had sharply criticized their use, believing that the Indian tribes had turned hostile because of their premature presence.

In September of 1855, Indian Agent Michael Simmons encouraged friendly Indians to move onto Fox and Squaxin Islands where they would be safe should an outbreak occur. Then, on October 24, 1855, Acting Governor Mason provoked hostilities by ordering Eaton’s Rangers, a detachment of volunteers, to apprehend Leschi and his brother Quiemuth, for preventative reasons. Upon reaching Nisqually they found that the brothers had fled, leaving their plow in the wheat field. The volunteers pursued the Nisqually chiefs. Indian drums sounded throughout the foothills and not a canoe was seen in the river.

Leschi and Quiemuth fled northeast towards the White River, possibly heading for the Naches pass and east of the mountains. A roving band of warriors ambushed the pursuing Eaton’ Rangers at Connell’s Prairie in Pierce County, killing two men. The remainder of the militia turned back to Olympia.

At this time about one hundred and fifty warriors of the Duwamish, Puyallup and Klickitat tribes were camped with their wives and children in the White River area. Approximately thirty-five Nisqually fighters and their families joined them. Drawing the force under his leadership Leschi proposed that this war was with the troops, not the settlers. Unknown to him, however, renegade Indians looted and burned the homes of three White River families, killing nine.

On the thirty-first of October 1855, a seven man vanguard of Captain Maurice Maloney’s troops, returning home from the Yakima area via the Naches Trail passed through the Indians’ camp. All seemed friendly at the time, but the seven were ambushed a mile beyond the camp. When Maloney’s main force reached the same camp area a few days later, the surprised Indians fled across the White and Green Rivers. Following a three day battle during which both sides suffered casualties, Maloney disengaged and continued to Fort Steilacoom. News of this outbreak sent the settlers of Western Washington fleeing into towns. Governor Stevens, returning from his treaty trek east of the mountains, provided the settlers more than sixty volunteer built blockhouses.

[Upon his return west of the mountains, Leschi was taken into custody, tried, and convicted.]

Even though Stevens would not halt the execution, it still did not take place as planned. Before it was scheduled to occur a Federal Marshal arrested the Pierce County officials in charge of the hanging for having sold liquor to the Indians. So the execution date passed. The territorial Legislature, in a questionable interference in judicial matters, ordered the Supreme Court to set another date, February 18, 1858. When U.S. Army authorities refused to allow the hanging of Leschi at Fort Steilacoom, a scaffold was erected about a mile east of the fort.

Leschi waited in silence. He had taken a stand for his people in the reservation matter, and in time the Nisquallies acquired better land. But, false accusations and political maneuvering would cost him his life. He accepted fate and made peace with his God. Leschi heard the beating of the Indian drums in the distance and his heart must have become one with his people, the Squally-abasch. He approached the scaffold, bowed his head and prayed. Turning to Thurston County Sheriff Charles Granger, Leschi thanked him for the kindness he had shown him while a prisoner in his care, then said he was ready. Leschi’s death was as dignified as his life. Granger believed he had hanged an innocent man that day.

The Legacy of Leschi

Daniel Mounts, Indian Agent at the Nisqually Reservation, took Leschi’s body and buried it in a spot known to few. On July 4, 1895 his remains were moved to a site at the mouth of the Muck Creek near his old village. In 1917 when Pierce County donated a large tract of land to the United States for an army post the north-eastern portion of the Nisqually Reservation was condemned and included in that parcel. Muck Creek was in that section and so, for the third time, the body of the Chief was moved, this time to the Cushman Indian Cemetery near where his daughter lived. On the memorial stone over his grave are the words:

This is a memorial to Chief Leschi, 1818-1858. An arbitrator of his people.

On the back of the same stone are the words:

Judicially murdered, February 19, 1858, owing to misunderstanding of treaty of 1854-55. Serving his people by his death. Sacrificed to a principal. A martyr to liberty, honor and the rights of people of his native land. Erected by those he died to serve.

Leschi’s legacy has lived on through his daughter who married Chief Tom Stolyer, the founder of the Cushman Indian School near Puyallup where the Cushman hospital was later built. For three generations only daughters descended from Leschi. Today only the descendants of Quiemuth, the Chief’s brother, carry the Chief’s name.

Leschi left a still greater legacy to his tribesmen who today live on or near the remaining portion of the reservation on the Nisqually River near Yelm. The courage and determination Leschi displayed on behalf of what he felt rightfully belonged to his people have been carried down through six generations of Nisquallies who today insist on receiving their fishing rights reserved through the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1851. They still hope that someday the portion of their land on the Nisqually Plains where the Muck Creek flows and the blue camas flowers bloom will b regained and Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies, will be brought back home to a final resting place among his people.

–Cecelia Svinth Carpenter
Nisqually Tribal Historian

War Clouds

Introduction: The following is an excerpt from The Story of Yelm , 1848-1948. It describes the violence that occurred in the counties surrounding Yelm in 1855.

War Clouds Over Yelm Prairie

War clouds began to gather. Indians forgot the food they had enjoyed at the white man’s table. White men forgot that in the earlier days Indians had frequently kept them from starving. By the last of September 1855, friendly Indians around Yelm Prairie, and other places as well, began warning the settlers that trouble was coming, and the surly demeanor of the chiefs was in itself a warning. McLean Chambers, Frank Goodwin, and Mr. Perkins began taking turns standing guard nightly at the Longmire cabin.

On Oct. 11, Longmire took his family to Olympia for safety. He rented a house, put the boys, Elcaine and David in school and returned to the prairie to work on a drainage ditch on what is now the Crossland place. John Mollhigh, a friendly Indian, was helping. One day while at work, Longmire sent Mollhigh to the cabin to start the fire, saying he would follow shortly and make coffee. The Indian started but immediately dropped back into the ditch, saying, “The Nisquallies are at your cabin.”

Longmire proposed to go and talk to them, but Mollhigh warned, “They are in war paint. They will not listen.”

Later he was forced to join the hostiles, but always insisted he had saved the life of his employer. This claim Longmire recognized by giving Mollhigh a horse every fall, in time for the great gambling games his tribe held on Nisqually Plains (now Ft. Lewis).

When the squaws [women] brought news of the White River massacre, McLean Chambers, Braille, the Hughes family, and apparently all other white people fled to safety. Mr. Longmire was the last to leave. All the horses had been stolen and he stopped for help at the George Edwards place. Edwards’ wife being a Nisqually, they had not fled. However, that night they took the precaution of hiding in the barn. The next morning Mr. Longmire rode on into Olympia on a horse borrowed from the Hudson’s Bay Co.

In Olympia, a company of militia was formed under the captaincy of Charles Eaton. About 67 offered to join the new company, but refused to take the oath of the American Army, so the company was formed with only twenty members. It was known as the Puget Sound Rangers. When the company ranged across Yelm Prairie looking for Indians, they found Longmire’s cabin burned. The oxen which he had driven across the plains had been killed and the meat cut from the carcasses.

The Rangers decided the hostiles were still in the near vicinity. They found a young Indian boy looking for horses on the White claim, and captured him. They tried to force him to tell him where the warriors were. The third time they placed a noose about his neck and threatened to hang him, he agreed to tell, on condition that they would spare his parents. The soldiers promised. The boy’s father turned out to be Old Chucknose, long a friend of the whites, who was later imprisoned. While in prison, he killed himself and was buried across the present road from the Mosman place, the last Indian to be interred in that plot. Old settlers will recall seeing the pile of bright tin buckets placed on his grave, all carefully punctured to destroy their usefulness in this world and so to deter thieves.

The Indians were routed from their camp along the Nisqually by the Rangers and fled to join the larger force. Some, from east of the mountain, under Qualchain, went home in disgust after the defeat at Connell’s Prairie, for, said the horse Indian, a chief rode into battle, he did not go on foot.

Ft. Stevens was started Feb. 19, 1856, soon after the battle of Seattle, which was in January, and before the battles of Connell’s Prairie and the attack on The Dalles, in March. On April 3, Gov. Stevens declared martial law. A short time later, several bands of Indians surrendered and the citizens of Yelm Prairie, tired of their long sojourn away, came back to their claims. Those who had cabins standing were lucky. McLean Chambers found his cabin intact and sold it to the Longmires.

But the roving bands were still attacking. Settlers were forced to flee to the fort or to the blockhouses. Sometimes the women and children were left at the shelters while the men and the boys went home to till the fields, put in the crops, tend the stock, and to bring back game and staples from the deserted homes. On one of these scares while the family

was forted up, on June 6, 1856, Melissa Longmire (Mrs. L. N. Rice), was


Queimuth Surrenders

The life of the settlers was thus unsettled until early summer, when Queimuth, chief of the Nisquallies, sent word by Ozah, a Frenchman living near where the Northern Pacific Railroad crosses the river, that he wished to surrender to Longmire.

"Bring him in at night." Said Mr. Longmire. "If he is seen he will be killed, even though he is a prisoner of war."

So after dark, Mr. Longmire, Ozah, Van Ogle of Puyallup, and Mr. Braille, with squaw Betsy Edgar [Betsy Edgar was the wife of John Edgar an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. She was a Nisqually Indian woman] as guide, escorted Quiemuth to the governor’s office in Olympia. They arrived wet and muddy about three a.m. The governor offered them food, and the party dispersed, with the exception of Mr. Longmire and his prisoner, who prepared to spend the remainder of the night before the fire in the office.

Both were tired and went to sleep almost immediately. Before daylight, however, Mr. Longmire was awakened by the sound of a shot, the confusion of people running, and a groan. He found Quiemuth dying, not only shot, but stabbed in the heart. Longmire and the governor were both horrified and chagrined at the breach of faith.

Joe Buntin was known to have made threats against Quiemuth, and he was arrested, but at the trial he was acquitted. The death of Quiemuth seemed to put an end to the depredations. Soon the prairie was safe for anyone..

Timeline of Events

The Absence of Peace

Introduction: The following provides background on the fighting that broke out in the western part of Washington Territory in the mid 1850s.


1850 – Donation Land Act passed by U.S. Congress

1853 – Longmire family moves on to land east of Yelm prairie

December 26, 1854 – Medicine Creek Treaty signed (Ratified by Senate March 1855) Nisquallies to move to land in Township 17 North, Range 1 West. (parts of sections 22, 23, 26, & 27) Around 1,700 acres. (For Edwin Eells account of this written in click here.)

Summer 1855 – Leschi goes east of the mountains

Fall 1855 – At least eight miners on their way to eastern Washington gold fields killed in the Yakima Valley.

September 1855 – Indian agent George Bolan’s charred and mutilated body was found in a gully in the Simco Mountains east of the Cascades.

October 16, 1855 – James McCallister writes a letter to acting Governor Charles Mason stating that Leschi “has been doing all he could possibly do to unite the Indians of the country to rise against the whites.”

October 22, 1855 – Leschi visits acting governor Mason to discuss Nisqually dissatisfaction with the Medicine Creek Treaty. Mason invites Leschi to come camp near Olympia while things cool down.

October 24, 1855 – Mason sends Eatons Rangers to “escort’” Leschi back to Olympia. Neither Leschi or his brother are found, though Leschi’s plow is found amid furrow. Cecelia Svinth Carpenter has written: Indian drums sounded throughout the foothills and not a canoe was seen in the river. (For other accounts regarding the breakdown of order click here.)

October 27, 1855 – Eaton’s command attacked. First casualties of the hostilities.

October 28, 1855 – Families living along the White River, in what is today King County, attacked and killed.

Fall 1855 – Indian Agent Michael T. Simmons encourages “friendly” Nisquallies to move to Fox or Squaxon Island.

January 5, 1856 – Leschi visits Fox Island to speak with Simmons about ending the strife.

February 4, 1856 – Leschi visits John McLeod at Muck Creek to see if there can be an end to the violence.

February 19, 1856 – Ft. Stevens constructed on the Yelm Prairie

April 1856 – Mashel Massacre.

May 1856 – Martial law declared by Governor Stevens

November 1856 – Leschi captured.