Usual & Accustomed Places V – Confrontations at Frank’s Landing & the Puyallup River


This part of the story has to do with the fishing rights struggle which took place at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River. This includes the story of how the lands of the Nisqually people were lost during World War I. The story also demonstrates the types of tensions which arose over fishing rights in Washington in the sixties.


For the next part of the story we have go back seventy years to the American involvement in the First World War. Some of the most serious violent incidents during the fishing disputes have their origins in the actions of the federal government in 1917. In 1916 two Tacoma businessmen went to Washington D.C. and offered the War Department 70,000 acres of land for a new fort (now Ft. Lewis) in south Pierce County. Besides their patriotic fervor about training an army division to fight in Europe, these men understood the economic benefits that thousands of soldiers stationed in their region would bring to the city of Tacoma. The county required a vote on providing bonds to buy the land for the base, and anyone who opposed the project was overrun by the war fever that was spreading across America. In an editorial (Jan. 17, 1917) in an Olympia newspaper the case for the base was expressed in the following way:

In a stirring address before a Tacoma audience, General J. Franklin Bell, commander of the western district of the United States Army, took occasion to scorn the ignorant opponents of the army project (Ft. Lewis) who placarded Tacoma with scurrilous posters libeling and defaming the army and the American soldiers. General Bell referred to the men who spread the posters about as “red anarchists.” He might have applied still stronger terms and have fallen far short of expressing the extreme disgust and contempt with which law abiding, respectable citizens regard the slander mongers who are vilifying the United States Army.

As a matter of fact, the army post will be no more of a benefit to Tacoma than it will to the soldiers. The American Lake location is one of the most desirable in the country. The close proximity of Seattle and Tacoma to the post adds to the advantages. But there are still other reasons why the soldiers quartered at the post will derive great benefits. The American soldiers are a sober, law abiding lot of men. Most of them, as General Bell has said, come from farms. They take their service seriously. They are seeking to improve themselves.

The blatant, lying agitators who have been seeking to defeat the army post project by defaming the United States Army cannot be prosecuted, but it is a shame that such an element of undesirables should be permitted to associate with decent people.

The Washington legislature facilitated the county purchase of the land by passing a bill which made it compulsory for Pierce county to sell bonds to raise not more than two million dollars for the purchase of the 70,000 acres. (That was not the only issue on the legislature’s agenda in early 1917. Another bill introduced that year prohibited “miscegenous marriages between whites and persons of as much as one-fourth Negro, Japanese and Chinese blood.” ) After a vote in which the pro-base side recorded a 5 to 1 margin of victory, the county began condemnation hearings. The county used the right of eminent domain, which compensated property owners for their lands which were being taken over by the county. The condemnation hearings worked in the following manner. The county had a value attached to each parcel of land, usually based on property tax evaluations. In the case of Paul Seifert he asked $112,000 and the county offered $36,000. A condemnation jury heard arguments for each figure and awarded a settlement price. In the case of Seifert he received $40,00 for his 3,300 plus acres, but this was unusual because the juries usually awarded valuations equal to or below the county’s figure. Getting a fair market value for one’s land in 1917 was very difficult. One writer summarized it this way: “All kinds of pressure was used and many who tried to get a fair value were accused of being pro-German; and this and the war-time necessity had great influence, and one had to be very courageous to fight against war-time spirit.” Slowly the area for Ft. Lewis expanded. One of its neighbors was the Nisqually Reservation which at that time was located on both the Pierce and Thurston County sides of the river.

This changed after a visit of General Burr to south Pierce County in December 1917. The general made it clear to the local Bureau of Indian Affairs agent that “the safety of the Indians during hours of target practice would require the removal of the Indians . . . to avoid ricocheting shells; . . . the entire reservation would have to be abandoned during those hours.” This amounted to thirty-three hundred acres north of the Nisqually River. Constitutional law, however, makes it very clear that a county has absolutely no power to condemn and take over Indian land (which has the status of federal territory). The Indian agent at the scene suggested to the Army that they lease the territory from the Nisqually tribe and then return it after the war. He did not rule out altogether any type of deal for land which was so important to the Nisqually tribe. Before any official agreement could be reached the Army decided to act and ordered all of the Indians north of the river to leave their homes and settle elsewhere. Some left immediately and those that resisted were loaded onto wagons and carried away. Some received only a few hours notice of their removal and others had little to time to prepare their new houses and lived in makeshift shacks along the Nisqually River.

Next began a series of deals which can only be labeled as illegal. The county began “condemnation” hearings on the reservation lands on the Pierce County side of the river. The U.S. Interior Department (in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs is located) issued a protest against this. Meanwhile the “condemnation” hearings continued and the Army agreed to “buy” the land from the Nisquallies. Vine Deloria, an Indian writer, summarized it this way:

The Army in effect purchased the Nisqually land long after it had removed the Indian owners, by allowing a local court to transfer the land titles to Pierce county, which in turn was bound by agreement to cede the Army several thousand acres in return for the construction of a fort near Tacoma. At best, it was a shadowy transaction, unworthy of the United States Government, but under the circumstances, not unlikely.

The compensation to the impacted tribal members provided by the federal government in April 1918 was $75,000. After the war the government re-examined the issue of the “land grab” and decided that further $85,000 in compensation was necessary. By this time, however, things had changed dramatically for the Nisqually Indians. Tribal members from the condemned land were scattered around the Pacific Northwest, one side of the river was now under the jurisdiction of Ft. Lewis, and the state began interpreting the “condemnation” of tribal lands as a reflection of the fact that the Nisquallies had “ceased to exist,” apparently ignoring tribal lands in Thurston County. Game Department officials began harassing Nisqually fishermen.

One of the more important developments for our story had to do with Willy Frank, Sr. Willy Frank had owned more than 200 acres in the condemned part of the reservation. When the Army moved him from his land, he received money as compensation. With that money he was able to buy six acres of land in Thurston County on the west bank of the Nisqually River. This site became known as Frank’s Landing. Willy Frank, Sr. always maintained that this land had the same status as reservation land (meaning it was not subject to state laws) because it was a direct compensation for the reservation land he lost during the war. The state of Washington never saw it that way and consistently battled with Willy Frank and his son, Bill Frank, Jr., over fishing and supposed violations of state fishing laws.

Time and again Indians set their nets in the Nisqually River at the landing, claiming that this was reservation land. Time and again state officials seized the nets and boats or arrested the fishermen. Time and again Bill Frank, Jr. maintained that this was reservation land. A state official responded, “They’ve got all kinds of room on the reservation if they’ll just fish there. We have no intention of bothering any Indians fishing on the reservation, and we’ve strictly adhered to that.”

The same state official concluded that the fishing disputes were just another part of the civil disobedience movement sweeping the nation. He said, “We don’t need that type of thing here. There’s a legal way to handle this…. All citizens have the same amount of privilege. The Indians should be governed by the laws the same as anyone else.

Bill Frank, Jr. stated, “This is one big merry go round. It’s making us sick. We’re going to shoot them [state officials] next time.”
This exchange took place in 1965. By 1968 there were signs posted at the landing: “Private-Federal Trust Property,” and “No Trespassing Under Provision of Federal Trespass Law.” Hank Adams, one of the leaders of the fish-in movement, issued a “Citizen’s Letter to His Governor” dealing with the status of Frank’s Landing. It stated:

The Armed Guards are under specific instructions to use weapons only to prevent the specific actions by State enforcement officers to

The tensions had continued to mount during this time. Patrol boats of the Game Department patrolled the river and State Patrol cars were stationed on nearby roads. Search lights were beamed into the houses at the Landing in the middle of the night. Dozens of arrests were made, some for illegal fishing and others for obstructing justice. Film crews from Seattle and London showed up to record the ongoing story. Dozens of non-Indians arrived to show support for the fishermen. Black activists and University of Washington students arrived to show their solidarity with the Native Americans. Also, according to the state “a bunch of hippies” had arrived to show support. Threats, epithets, and taunts were often exchanged by those involved. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was now handling the defense of many of the Indian defendants. A headline in the Seattle Times summarized the situation: “Nisqually Fishing Confrontation Now 46 Days Old.” Pictures of an armed Indian were run with the above story in the Times.


A more serious confrontation took place along the Puyallup in September, 1970. In July of that year a group of Puyallup Indians and their supporters organized an encampment on what they claimed was a piece of the old Puyallup Reservation which had not been wiped out by the suspicious land deals that had extinguished, in the mind of the state, their reservation. Calling itself the “Medicine Creek Nation” the Puyallups proceeded to set nets from this site where the Burlington Northern Railroad bridge crosses the river. From July on the Indians fished while negotiations continued between themselves and the state on the subject of an Indian fishing season on the river. During August some arrests were made and following that Native Americans began patrolling the banks armed with rifles. Tensions increased. The encampment held over forty people at this time.

On September 4th the Police Chief of Tacoma, Lyle Smith, visited the camp and said that the firearms had to be put away. Railroad workers had complained about weapons being pointed in their direction, and the railroad blamed the protesters for shooting at a switching engine. On September 9th, the day after negotiations between the Game Department and Indians broke down, police and game officials, some dressed in battle gear and armed with rifles and tear gas, positioned themselves around the encampment. Using a loudspeaker the police warned the Indians, “Lay down your arms and peaceably leave the area or be placed under arrest,” because the encampment was an unlawful assembly. The Indians countered with their own bullhorn telling the police to stay off their land. One said, “If anyone lays a hand on that net, they are going to get shot,” and another pronounced, “We’re serious. There are no blanks in our guns.” Soon a Game Department patrol boat approached the net tied to one of the bridge supports. The Indians fired several warning shots at the boat and the police moved in. Using billy clubs and tear gas the police and game wardens began arresting those present, beating those who resisted, and chasing those who tried to run away. An Indian threw a Molotov cocktail and the railroad trestle started burning. Smoke and tear gas filled the air. Eventually over fifty people were arrested, and the camp was destroyed. Headlines read “Gas, Clubs Route Indian Fishermen,” “Bullets Fly But Net is Seized,” and “Bulldozers Bury Remains of Medicine Creek Nation.”

In Washington, state game officials were pleased, as were their sport fishing supporters. People who were sick and tired of violence and supposed lawlessness thought this was a victory for “law and order.” The state had won the battle, but in doing so had started losing the war for public opinion. Photographs and news footage of the incident appeared on the national news. Vine Deloria, a guest on a national evening television talk show, spent a half hour discussing the situation and showing pictures of the police attack. The armed situation at Frank’s Landing, the continued fishing in spite of state policies against it, and now this major incident were all showing that the issue needed to be resolved. The state and the Indians were not getting this accomplished for a number of reasons. The federal government decided to step in.

  1. trespass upon this property for the purposes of making an arrest or serving a state-issued warrant of arrest; and
  2. trespassing for the purpose of confiscating the fishing net emplaced in the river off Frank’s Landing and affixed to it.

If state enforcement officers attempt to proceed upon the property of Frank’s Landing after being warned against trespassing the weapon will be used against trespassers. Likewise, if the net is emplaced in the water off Frank’s Landing, the weapon will be used against any State officer placing a hand on that net.

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