The Dispossessed: The Condemnation of the Nisqually Reservation

The Dispossessed: The Condemnation of the Nisqually Reservation

(With permission from Cecelia Svinth Carpenter)

Because the reservation set aside in the treaty was inadequate as a home for the Tribe, a two year armed conflict ensued between the Tribe and the territorial government. As a result of the Indian Wars in the Puget Sound, the location of the reservation was changed by executive order to a more extensive and favorable area which included 3,000 acres of grass land prairie, six miles of river and the confluence of the Nisqually River and Muck Creek. The new boundaries essentially encompassed many traditional village sites and some prime grazing areas of the Nisqually people. Hence, the “Squa-Squally” people of the grass or grass people, could now live and support themselves.

Thirty years later, the entire reservation was divided up under the Allotment Act among individual Nisqually families in an attempt to induce tribalistic people to become individualistic landowners and draw them into non-Indian society, i.e. assimilation. The Nisquallies did in fact become highly proficient in agriculture and horsemanship. This self-sufficient and tranquil lifestyle was shattered forever in 1917 when over two thirds of reservation, including the best prairie lands, was condemned on the Pierce County side of the River and transferred to the Department of War for the Fort Lewis Army Base.

In 1884 our lands were allotted to individual Nisqually families. The allotment boundaries were drawn in an east west direction so that most of the families who had land up on the prairie escarpment would also have a few acres of the bottom land below next to the river banks.  Homes were built on the upper prairie land with gardens planted on the lower bottom land. Ramps were installed along the hillside to pump spring water up to the prairie residents. The prairie land was found to host only berry crops and provide grazing areas for the cattle.

 World War I

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 $40,000 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, 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 reexamined 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. (From “Usual and Accustomed Places” by Ed Bergh)


Nearly all existing Nisqually home sites were located in this condemned portion of the reservation. The families living there were given notice to vacate their homes and property immediately. Wagons, cattle, barns, farm implements and other valuable belongings had to be left behind as the families were evicted from their land by government soldiers and led across the Nisqually River in the dead of Winter. Most evicted families had no choice but to spend the winter subsisting in impoverished tent shelters on the remaining portion of the reservation. Later, many were relocated to other Indian reservation, or resettled on off-reservation lands in neighboring towns and Non-Indian communities. The devastating impact of this condemnation and dispersion on the economic, social and cultural survival of the Tribe cannot be overstated: the results of seventy years of hard work developing lands for a viable community on their new treaty reservation were wiped out overnight. An entire generation of Nisqually families were disenfranchised from their own homeland.

 In a section of a longer essay Cecilia Carpenter reflected on the condemnation experience

The 1918 Condemnation

The records show that in 1918 when the Pierce County side of the Nisqually Indian Reservation was condemned, we had at least 13 homes, six cemeteries, two churches and a tribal headquarters on this side of the river. Some of the dispossessed families moved across the river, but, because that segment of land had also been allotted and utilized, many of the families were forced to find other accommodation. Slowly we moved most of our dead. Many of them were reburied in a newly established cemetery across the river.

This area became a “no man’s land” as the military designed an impact area for a firing range. It became off limits to our Nisqually people who, however, continued to fish the river. Our fishing rights remained intact as they had not been included in the condemnation.

 Willie Frank Sr.

Willie Frank Sr. gave the following account of the Nisqually condemnation years later in 1966. He said: Indians were advised to lease the land on a long time lease. But no. Army would not do that… Finally just condemned the land and bought it… Picked Indians up in truck and hauled them over to standing trees and left them… No buildings …no shelter … Indians camped there. No place else to go… Later two white men (brothers) built a saw mill and made rough lumber… They never bought our fishing rights. We were paid $8,000, for ours. I bought this place, six acres, part in Thurston County. Never have to pay any tax on it… Just like the reservation… I built a nice little house . . .

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