By Cecelia Svinth Carpenter Nisqually Tribal Historian
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