Disease at Ft. Nisqually – Journal of Joseph Heath

From: The Journal of Joseph Thomas Heath (1848)  Eyewitness at Ft. Nisqually

 Monday, January 31st- Sent to the Fort for goods for my people. (Received a) note from the Doctor saying that there is great mortality among the Sandwich Islanders and Indians at Vancouver and elsewhere from dysentery following the measles. Many (are) ill here now with the latter, but none of my people at present.

Tuesday, Feb. 1st- Sent Ben to Mr. Smith’s for a plough which I lent him sometime since. (A) large party of Kla-ka-tats (Klickitats) arrived, who were gambling all night with the Indians here and losing horses, guns, blankets and property to a great extent. (I) gave them some potatoes. (Have been) visiting the sick and I believe there is only one lodge that has not two or three. (Have been) giving them provisions. 

Wednesday, 2nd- Indians (were) horse racing and gambling, at which the losers of yesterday regained nearly all their losses. One of the shepherds (is) laid up with the measles, the number of sick daily increasing.

Friday, 4th- Brought home three cows to give milk to the Indian babies, their mothers, ill with the measles, having none and the poor children (are) almost starving.  Made a bottle with a cow’s horn to feed them with, which answers admirably. Sent plough to the Fort and brought back a barrel of flour, the sick people having nearly finished the last.                                                         

Saturday, 5th- Killed a fat hog. Sent half a dozen fowls to the Doctor. Gave some to the sick. Visiting and driving them into their lodges.

Dr. Tolmie said the measles appeared at Fort Nisqually the first week in January and spread to the Indian camps before the end of the month. After being ill with the malady some Indians died of inflammation of the lungs as well as dysentery.

Sunday, 6th- Visited and gave provisions to the sick, the number of whom is daily increasing. (I have) great difficulty in preventing them (from) going into the cold water.  Rode out with four Indians to try for deer to make broth. Found only three and neither of us getting a shot, (was) much disappointed. 

Monday, 7th- Moved sheepfold. Hauling fence poles and firewood. Finished planting three roods of potatoes for early crop. Cut up and prepared (a) pig for salting. (It) had only been put up five weeks and was three inches and a half thick in fat. Traded a quantity of salmon from the Scatchets and, what with visiting and giving medicine to the sick, (it) made a busy day. 

Tuesday, 8th- Made biscuit and visited the sick. Sent to the Fort for plough. (Received a) present of a loaf of bread from the Doctor, upon which and a piece of roasted shortbones I feasted prodigiously. (Had a) note from him saying the typhus fever was raging at Vancouver, causing many deaths.

Wednesday, 9th- Making and hauling fence poles. Salted bacon. As usual, visiting the sick. (Have) much trouble in keeping them in their houses and preventing them getting into the cold water as well as drinking it. Two who have done so and would not follow my advice are now suffering more than any of the others. Gales. 

Thursday, 10th- Joe, one of my ploughmen, laid up. Melted down the lard. 

Friday, llth- Began ploughing, but from the alterations they have made, cannot work with it. Ben and Jemmy, the cook, (are) laid up. Put hams into pickle. Attending to the sick. Rain. 

Saturday, 12th- (The) number of sick (is) increasing daily, many of the poor creatures in a sad state, the strongest men suffering the most. Much of my time (is) taken up with them. Took “Count D’Orsay” to cook for me whilst Jemmy is ill. 

Sunday, 13th- Visited the sick and gave them provisions. Fed the oxen and cleaned up the house. Two more of my people laid up. Rode out alone in the afternoon and killed a fine doe, making an excellent shot at full speed and in thick cover. 

Monday, Feb. 14th- All my people now laid up, excepting the shepherd. Turned the oxen out, as there is no hope of doing any ploughing for a fortnight. (It) will throw me back greatly in my sowing, but thank God I have a large quantity of wheat sown, which is more promising than I have ever yet seen since I have been in the country. 

Visited the sick, cut up the deer and divided (it) amongst them as well as giving them other provisions. Fed the pigs and cut up wood and set casks to catch rain water.  Sent to the Fort and got some blankets to lend the poor wretches, who suffer from want of covering, many of them having nothing but mats. 

Tuesday, 15th- The shepherd (is) laid up and the shepherd boy recovered just in time to take the sheep. Went my “medical rounds” and afterwards rode out with three Indians to try for deer. 

Wednesday, 16th- No work whatever going on. Visit from the Doctor, who remained a couple of hours (and) walked over the wheat which he thinks (is) better looking than his own

,War (has been) declared between the Americans and Indians. (The Cayuse War, resulting from the Whitman massacre.) Should not be much surprised if eventually it reached here, as should the Americans suffer the slightest defeat, it is not improbable that a general rise of the Indians would take place throughout the coast, in which case the whites, I fear, would have to abandon the country.

Thursday, 17th- Four or five of my people (are) beginning to recover and no new cases today. (A) woman (is) ironing and mending stockings and skin trousers.

Friday, 18th- Volunteers came and cut up firewood for me and removed (the) sheepfold. Walked out with my gun and three Indians, found two old bucks, one of which I killed, much to their envy, after it had been shot at and missed by one of them.  Divided it amongst them and the sick. 

Saturday, Feb. 19th- Went my “medical rounds.”

Tuesday, 22nd- As usual, seeing all the sick. Only three fresh cases and most of the others getting well.

Wednesday, 23rd- Nothing to do. Tired of having no work going on. After going to all the sick, wandered about the farm.

Sunday, 27th- Went my medical rounds. Rode to the Fort and dined with the

Doctor. Much talk about the Indian war.

Monday, 28th- Thank goodness, some of my people (are) at work again, ploughing, cleaning up peas, hauling and cutting up firewood. Cleaned up (the) small barn, ready for thrashing oats. Commenced writing (letters) for home. Several fresh cases of measles. 

Friday, 3rd- Attending as usual to the sick, the greater part of whom are now recovering, not having more than 14 or 15 cases. A baby which they would wash whilst the eruption was upon it died, and a woman, daughter of the great medicine man, will most probably share the same fate from the same treatment. 

Saturday, 4th- Sent to the Fort for beef for my people, got only 40 pounds, also salt and medicine. (Had a) visit from a young American of the name of Chambers (one of the brothers Tom or Andrew), who came to purchase wheat and peas. (He) remained the night. Had fortunately got a chicken in the house intended for my Sunday’s dinner. 

On my return found that a woman, daughter of the great medicine man, had died. They would not attend to my instructions and five medicine men have been trying hard to kill her the last week, have succeeded and now wish they had followed my advice. 

Thursday, 9th- Almost all my people away at the funeral. Cut up pigs.

Friday, 10th- Three or four more attacked with measles. Was in hopes that it was nearly over. Salted bacon and put the first to dry. 

Sunday, 12th- Visited the sick. Rode out about ten miles from home to visit a patient who had been under my hands for about three weeks, apparently in a consumption. (He) had greatly recovered whilst here, but left on a cold day, contrary to my wish and is now nearly as ill as ever. 

Joseph Heath.  Memoirs of Nisqually.  Fairfield, Washington:  Ye Galleon Press, 1979.

From:  Kathryn Marie Troxel.  Fort Nisqually and the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company.  PHD Thesis, Indiana University Thesis, 1950

During the first week in March 1836, there broke out a severe epidmeic among the Indians, which soon infected the Hudson’s Bay company employees, then apparently subsided only to break out again in early 1837 and exact an appalling loss of life,  This infection is described by Kittson as a severe throat ailment.,  He attempted to treat the Indians who would come to him with purges, Dover’s powders, blistering the neck, and the app tobacco give n to them by Kittson, and hew in turn denounced the medicine men as murderers.

The Columbian Exchange: Disease in the Northwest

The Columbian Exchange:  Disease in the Northwest

A little over 120 years ago fighting was still going on along the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States between two groups of Europeans.  At the same time, three thousand miles west, people living along the Nisqually River began dying in large numbers.  Those suffering experienced throbbing headaches and backaches.  They began vomiting.  Their temperatures shot upward.  Within days some would die.  Others survived these symptoms, but suddenly sores appeared in their mouth and throat.  Pustules arose from their skin.  Many must have died for the Nisqually people had been overrun by a European disease, smallpox, well before they ever set eyes on Europeans.  The death toll is unknown, but if the history of smallpox is any guide, 30% or more of the people who contracted the disease succumbed to its devastating power.  Families must have been, destroyed, stories of days past were lost, skills were not handed down, fears and doubts would have increased.  Yet, people survived, life and trade, joking and laughter returned. 

Less than a generation passed when a sailing ship with Englishmen aboard, under the command of Captain George Vancouver, plied the waters of the south Puget Sound region.  On May 21, 1792 Peter Puget wrote  the following passage:

Carr Inlet

 [I]n the SW corner of the Cove was a small Village. . . Two of the three in the canoe had lost the Right Eye & were  much pitted with the Small Pox, which disorder in all probability is the Cause of the Defect.

The pox had struck hard and fast in the region.  Examples of its destructive path of unburied skeletons, abandoned houses, overgrown villages greeted Vancouver’s crew as they moved back and forth in the newly named “Puget Sound.”   What Vancouver and others examining the subject did not realize was that this smallpox outbreak had probably begun it’s migration in Mexico City and before it had exhausted its human hosts it had infected people across the continent.  For the Nisqually people the disease must have reached them after traveling among the horse mounted tribes of the plains, over the Rockies, down the Snake-Columbia River system and then north.  The airborne disease remain hidden for two weeks and was not contagious.  Then around day fourteen the first symptoms would be experienced.  For the next two weeks the airborne disease was at its most contagious.  Consequently, people on the move, people involved in the trading networks of the Native peoples of the west unknowingly brought more than trade items to barter.  

This was, however, just the beginning.  The indigenous people of North America had never been exposed to dozens of deadly diseases that had moved back and forth between the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  There the disease created their deathly work and slowly their impact faded as immunities were developed among the living and methods were developed to limit the damage of the pathogens.  For the people living along the rivers and creeks of the south sound they had centuries of disease history to catch up on.  Their lessons would arrive rapidly.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company set up Fort Nisqually and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company they placed them near the Nisqually River.  The fort became a loading and unloading station for ships, a destination for those wanting to trade, and a way station for those moving north to Vancouver Island from the Hudson’s Bay installation on the Chehalis River.  Trade benefited, but it came with a cost.  Between the first epidemic previously mentioned and 1853 deadly diseases would regularly strike the Nisqually people.  Smallpox returned in 1801, 1824, and 1853.  The intermittent fever and ague, a form of malaria struck off and on during the decade after it’s introduction to the region in 1837.  Measles appeared in 1848.

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 . . .



Introduction: In The Puyallup-Nisqually, Marian Smith, the author, identifies some members of this cultural group as “Prairie people” or “horse Indians.” The following is a discussion of the horses used by those “people of the prairie.” Smith writes: “sabakwtbabc.” Prairie people. These were characterized as horse Indians. They were inland groups of a particular kind, the differentiation resting upon their ownership and use of horses. . . .

The herds of horses owned by each family of the prairie groups were always small, never exceeding ten or twelve for a family. Under the best conditions a family counted on no more than two horses for each adult: one to ride while shifting camp and the other to act as a pack animal. Several children rode a single horse. However, the number of horses claimed by the members of an entire village was sometimes considerable.

Pasturage was relatively scarce, especially in the region of the Puyallup, and each hard winter took its toll of horses. Before the coming of the whites animals depended for winter feed upon the six foot bunch or joint grass which stood above the moderate snows of the area. Panthers, driven from the mountains in search of food and following the deer to the low lands, also destroyed some horses each year. Mares occasionally killed panthers which attacked their colts but they were generally no match for the big cats. A horse discovered freshly killed was the signal for a general hunt in which the panther was tracked by its trail in the snow, treed without the help of dogs, and shot. Although such hunts were more dangerous before the introduction of guns, they were attempted nevertheless.

Horses were treated as pets and each one of the small herd was thoroughly gentle. There was none of the wildness characteristic of the large, unwieldy herds of the Sahaptins. A family herd was often built up from a single mare and this animal was regarded with a great deal of sentiment, was kept long after her usefulness had expired, well treated and fed on roots from the family supply when other feed was exhausted, and was never traded nor staked in gambling as were other horses of the herd.

The animals were turned loose and breeding was a completely chance affair. Colts were kept with the others while on a journey by placing some grass in the pack of another animal, which it then followed closely. The herd was kept to the local range by barricading the trails with brush, the natural barriers of stream and timber line being sufficient to keep it from wandering. Since all of the horses of the area were easily recognized and their owners known, a stray horse was identified and kept on the range until an opportunity for its return offered. Only the stray of an enemy would be used in any way, an act which might occasion or was the result of “bad blood” between the owners. When a new horse was introduced into a herd, scales from above the first joint of its leg were dampened and rubbed on the leg of another horse and the two were tied together for a night. After that the new horse would not wander.

Nisqually People and the River

Nisqually People and the River   By Cecelia Carpenter

Every river has its people.”   Stillaguamish saying

For generations the Nisqually Indian people lived and thrived in the Nisqually River Basin. They occupied the entire watershed from Its marine waters to the foothills of the great mountain they called Ta-co-bet. They used different parts of the watershed as determined by altitude and changes in the season in their continuing quest for food. Most of the Nisqually people were concentrated in the lower watershed where many permanent winter villages were located. During spring and summer months they dug camas bulbs in the prairie lands and gathered berries in the woodlands. During summer and early fall they ranged upriver to hunt the deer, elk and bear and gather huckleberries. From the early spring runs to the late winter catches, they netted salmon, their most basic food item. Last but not least, the sandy saltwater beaches of lower Puget Sound provided the Nisquallies with seasonal clams and oysters.

The Nisqually people have always been a fishing people. The salmon has not only been the mainstay of their diet but the foundation of their culture as well. Because their ties to the Nisqually River have run deep throughout their lengthy and continuing history, it is of special value to examine their relationship with the river and its tributaries. Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Indian historian and enrolled member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, has conducted extensive historical research and written numerous articles and books on the history of her tribe. She has written the following narrative especially for this educator’s guide:

Arrival of the People

The Nisqually Indian people have occupied the lands of the Nisqually River Basin for thousands of years. The oldest known village is over 5,000 years old. The ancestors of the present Nisqually people are believed to have migrated northward from the Great Basin at a time when that area became dry and the neighboring mountains began to shake. They traveled north to a point in eastern Washington from there they could view a toll mountain peak rising in the western sky, the mountain they would later call To-co-bet, the mountain called Ta-ho-ma by the Yakama people.

They crossed the mountain on its southern flank on a pass that led them into a forested paradise dotted with alpine meadows and freshwater streams. Their first stop was on Squaitz Creek, now called Skate Creek, and there they established their first permanent village. It wasn’t long before they viewed the mighty rushing waters of a glacier-fed river they would later call the Nisqually. They followed it westward down through a canyon, through heavy mixed forests and across the prairie lowlands, to the point where it emptied into the marine waters they would soon call the “whulge” but today is known as Puget Sound.

The Name

The Indian people gave the name “squalli” to the grasses that grew in the vast lowlands prairies. Because their custom was to call the river by a geographical or natural identification, they called the mighty stream the Squalli River and called themselves the “Squalli-absch”, meaning “the people of the grass country, the people of the river.” Throughout time, the name Squalli-absch, evolved to the Anglicized name of Nisqually.

Winter Villages

Besides the village at Squaitz Creek, the Nisquallies established winter villages at Elbe and Mashel. Then, skipping the more densely forested area that stretched from Chop Creek, and passing Tanwax and Murray Creeks, they established themselves on both sides of the mouth of Yelm Creek. From Yelm Creek to the delta, there were many Nisqually villages, with two favoring the quieter tributary streams of Muck Creek and Mitsukwei Creek, and all within easy traveling to the nearby salt water beaches.

Reaching the delta, the Nisqually people spread out to settle on the She-nah-num or McAllister Creek, and at the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek. Spreading to the north and into the prairie lands, villages were established on Gravelle Creek, at the southern tip of Nisqually Lake and upstream on the Muck Creek. It is believed that some of the population from Muck Creek moved over to Clover Creek. Other villages, adjacent to the river basin, were considered to be associated or closely related.

Criteria for selecting a site for a permanent winter village was carefully adhered to. The first priority was to be located by a freshwater source. The second requirement was to provide safety from the natural elements, in which case a cove located above a floodplain with a solid earthen backdrop for protection from winter winds would be favored. The third concern was for safety from enemy raids from northern tribes, which entailed a good lookout position and several backdoor escape routes. Lastly, but one for which any site in the basin qualified, was that the village should be located close to several food sources.

A Nisqually winter village usually consisted of from two to three cedar plank buildings, each measuring about 30 feet wide and as much as 100 feet in length. The houses were positioned in such a manner as to rebuff the particular wind or weather patterns indigenous to that site. Each structure could house up to as many as eight separate or related families depending on the size of the building. It was desirous to limit the population of each village to control the spread of epidemic illnesses.

The houses were constructed with cedar slobs fashioned from logs cut from huge western red cedar trees, split into boards with a stone or wooden wedge and carefully planed to a smooth surface with a sharp-edged cutting tool called an adze. A framework of house poles, notched and grooved, provided a stable foundation for the house. One end of each cedar plank was placed in a horizontal position in a ditch dug around the perimeter of the house, raised to an upright position and tied to the framework with a strong rope made from cedar bark. The ditch was then filled with dirt and rocks to hold the plank wallboards firmly in place. Cedar planks were laid across the gabled roof but were not permanently attached, which allowed the boards to be moved aside so that smoke from the inside cooking fires could escape. A long pole was kept handy to “raise the roof” for that purpose. Roof boards could be laid in a vertical position as well as in a horizontal position.

There were door openings at each end of the building over which a wide cedar slab was placed in a slanted position on the inside of the opening, allowing for the occupants to enter or exit while keeping out a direct wind current. There were no windows in the winter home. If light was desired, roof boards could be moved aside.

The inside area was marked off into separate living quarters with each family group having its own cooking fire and wall space. Two rows of shelves lined the inside walls. The bottom shelf, more like a platform and the wider of the two, served as a bench by day and sleeping bed by night. The space beneath the bed was used for storage of the family’s personal items. The upper shelf was used for the storage of dried food items. Smoked salmon hung from the ceiling cross beams. Cattail matting lined the inside walls to keep out winter drafts and covered portions of the dirt floor. Soft cattail matting and animal skins adorned the bed. For the most part, the floors were just dirt worn smooth from constant wear. All in all, the Nisqually winter home was a comfortable place in which to live.

Summer Homes

The Nisqually summer houses were temporary structures which were easily transported and quickly constructed as the Indian family moved about in their seasonal trek for food. Bundles of cattail matting, tightly woven to shed the rain, were carried from place to place. Upon arriving at the summer berry or root digging spot, long slender poles were cut and fashioned into a tipi-type frame and tied together at the top. The cattail matting was unrolled and hung on the structure in a horizontal spiral manner. Sometimes the poles formed a shed-like structure with a slanted roof and mats draped over the top and down the back and sides. The front was usually left open if weather permitted. Fir or cedar boughs could be used to cover the roof if matting was not available. Even an A-frame covered with boughs could serve as emergency shelter. The frames were usually left in place when the family returned home so they could be used again.


The clothing of the Nisqually people was simple and effective. During the warm summer months clothing requirements were few. The men wore only a buckskin breech cloth and the ladies wore but a skirt with a soft cedar bark breech cloth underneath. A few extra wraps were sufficient for the mild fall weather but the winter cold meant warm wraps must be added. The rain, which was heaviest in the spring, had to be dealt with at any time. Cedar bark garments were used to shed the rain, and buckskin garments were used for warmth. Other than a few ornaments, these two materials could build a Nisqually wardrobe.

The cedar tree not only furnished the planks for the winter house and the flatbottom river canoe but portions of its bark were carefully removed in long strips to be used to make clothing. Done correctly, the life of the tree was not damaged. The bark was cut into smaller strips, sliced into layers, then dried and stored for later use. When unpacked during the winter months, the bark could be soaked and pounded until it was soft and pliable, and woven into capes, skirts, hats and robes. Most of these clothing items were for the ladies.

Most of the men’s clothing came from animal skins and furs. Wearing next-to-nothing during warm weather, the men donned long-sleeved buckskin shirts and matching leggings in winter. Their buckskin capes were made with the animal fur worn on the inside. Fur caps sometimes replaced the conical cedar bark hats. Going barefoot was not uncommon but moccasins were worn by both sexes. They were made from buckskin and tied with a strap around the ankle. For winter wear they were lined with fur.

The children’s wardrobe was a miniature replica of the adults’ clothing items. Both the cedar bark blanket and assorted fur pieces were used for the baby’s cradle. Diaper material came from soft dried grasses and mosses collected on summer harvest trips. When a garment was torn or worn thin, it was mended, but when it became too soiled to be washed off in the nearby stream, a new garment was made.


Wood, stone and bone, as well as plant and animal items, were used by the Nisqually Indian people to make all of the various articles needed for cooking, eating, hunting, fishing and woodworking. Stones were fashioned into cutting tools, wedges, daggers, spears, digging points, hammers, anchors, food grinders and arrowheads. Animal bones and horns were used to create children’s toys, needles, spoons and ladles. Wood, being the most plentiful material, was carved, chipped, chiseled and burned to be made into plates, spoons, boxes, paddles, herring rakes, fish dubs, hair combs, toys and games. These lists are not complete, of course. Almost every person was considered an expert in working with at least one type of material. The canoe maker or the fish trap builder, well-respected for their special talent, usually wasn’t expected to do anything but that type of work during the winter months.

Baskets came in several sizes and shapes and were made from an assortment of materials. There were open-meshed baskets for carrying clams, watertight coiled baskets for cooking, and large twined baskets for storing food. There were baskets for picking berries and for digging roots and smaller baskets to hold a variety of items. Basket materials consisted of cedar bark, cedar tree roots, spruce roots, grasses, rushes and cattails. Basket designs or imbrications were made from stems of the maidenhair fern, wild cherry bark or bear grass. Nettle fibers and nettle roots were the favorite materials used to make twine and rope, fish nets and duck snares. Animal intestines were saved to be made into useful storage containers for oil products. Nothing in Indian country was wasted.

A Bountiful Harvest

The Nisqually Indian people were fish people. The salmon was their main source of food. It was from the Nisqually River and its tributaries that they obtained as many as five species of salmon, each returning to the river at different times of the year to spawn. There was the Chinook, the pink or Humpback, the silver or Coho, the dog or Chum, and the red or Sockeye. Steelhead, a seagoing trout, was also caught.

Most fish traps, or weirs, were built in the slower, more shallow tributary creeks, although historical records cite that some fish traps were built in the turbulent river itself. The fish traps in the smaller streams consisted of two picket-like fences made of alder and maple stretched across the stream, allowing only a small space for the fish to enter. Trapped in the space between the fences, they could be easily dipped out in nets. The river fish traps were balanced on tripod poles and were more complex due to the forceful currents in the larger streams.

Salmon could be roasted, steam-baked, dried or smoked. They could be cut into filets and roasted on sticks beside the cooking fire to be ready at dinner or placed on racks and dried and/or smoked for a longer period of time before being packed and stored for winter use. When later unpacked, the dried fish was usually soaked in warm water to soften the fibers. Smoked fish was a favorite food for travelers, as were pemmican cakes made of powered dry fish mixed with animal fat and powered berries.

The marine waters of Puget Sound provided an additional source of salmon as well as a good supply of herring and flounders. The sandy saltwater beaches offered clams, oysters, geoducks, mussels and barnacles. Most shellfish were roasted in an earthen steam-baking pit, the same method used for cooking the camas bulbs.

Camas bulbs were also an important part of the Nisqually meal. Growing abundantly in the vast prairies which bordered both sides of the lower portion of the Nisqually River, they were harvested in the spring and early summer with a forked digging stick made with an ironwood handle and bone points. Earthen steam baking pits were constructed out on the prairies where the family had set up a summer camp. The pit was constructed by digging a hole about five feet deep and lining it with small rocks. A fire was built on the bottom to warm the rocks. Food items, moistened and wrapped in large leaves, were then placed on the warm rocks and covered with a layer of boughs and dirt. A fire was built over the top and kept burning for several days. A stick left extending through the dirt could be removed so additional water could be added if needed. When the bulbs were cooked through, they were laid out on racks to dry before being stored. The secret of storage was to be sure that all moisture was extracted from the food items so that they would not become moldy.

A variety of berries was picked in the bushy lowlands and mountain foothills. Red huckleberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and salal berries were picked and dried on special racks built over a low burning campfire. Salmon berries, being too mushy to dry, were eaten fresh or made into juice. Hazelnuts and acorns added another dimension to the Nisqually food list, as [were] an assortment of new tender sprouts such as found on cattail and fern plants. The greens were brought in and blanched in hot water in the watertight cooking baskets. The water was heated by placing hot rocks in the cooking baskets and replacing them until the contents were cooked. Herbal plants were picked and dried to be used to combat certain illnesses.

Deer, elk and bears were hunted in the woodlands. While a bow and arrow was sufficient to bring down a small animal, these larger animals had to be caught in snares laid along the animal trail. Bears could be captured by digging a pit and covering it with a layer of branches and rocks. Birds and ducks were caught in special nets stretched between two poles.

The Nisqually people knew the season and place where all of their food items could be obtained. From early spring to late fall groups of family members traveled to their favorite spots, set up camp, picked the produce and prepared it for use during the long winter months while the earth slept. Never did the Nisqually disturb the earth to plant a crop. Instead they accepted the bounty of the natural world and in the winter sang their ceremonial songs of praise and thankfulness for a good harvest and issued an invitation for a bountiful season to come.


The Nisquallies depended heavily on the river, not only because it was the home of the salmon, but also because freshwater was essential to their health and well-being. Water was used for drinking, cooking and bathing and a variety of domestic, recreational and spiritual uses. The village was always established within a short distance of a freshwater source. Personal hygiene habits included a daily bath in the nearby stream when the weather permitted. Certain berries were used for soaps and shampoos. Bark and dried ferns were used for toweling and buffing the skin.

Clothes were washed in the stream with large stones serving as washboards. Utensils and soiled dishes were also carried outside to be washed. If a food item needed washing, it was placed in an open-meshed basketbag and rinsed in the creek. Water needed for cooking, however, was carried to the family hearth in a watertight basket and dipped out with a ladle. Hands were washed before and after a meal by dipping fingers in a water basket-bowl passed around for that purpose. Water was seldom consumed during a meal.

Water played an important part in the recreational life of the village members. Canoe races were carried on between individuals of the tribe as well as between tribal groups at get-together festivities. Every member of the family learned how to swim and the children spent many happy hours playing in the creek as they learned to swim and manage a canoe. The Nisqually River served as a highway to connect the many villages established on or near its banks, and recognizing the heavy forests that lined the shores of Puget Sound, it was often more expedient to send a messenger by canoe than a runner through the forest.

The river canoe was a flat-bottom, shovel-nose dugout canoe which was poled instead of paddled, while the salt water vessel was constructed with a sharp bow and stem to ride the rough waves sometimes found in the waters of Puget Sound.

Lastly, water contained spiritual powers. The significance of the steam bath and the subsequent bathing during purification rites denoted added strength and energy. The vision quest requirement that it must take place beside a moving stream expressed cleanliness of body to match the spiritualness of the occasion. Moving water was believed to be an energy force. Certain spring-fed streams were thought to have medicinal values used in curing, and were respected as sacred places and carefully protected for, indeed, the water did have curing qualities.


The world of the Nisqually was centered in the Nisqually River Basin. The river which flowed like an 80-mile long ribbon through the heart of the basin was their lifeline. Without the river and the mountain from which the glacier-fed river originated, the people knew that they would perish. And so, as would be expected, a very intricate web of togetherness developed between the people, the river, the mountain, the land, the climate, the salmon, the animals and the plants. All were held together by an inner consciousness or spiritual awareness that found its expression in the everyday actions, words, songs, and dances of the Nisqually Indian people.

It was believed that the Great Creator, the Sagalie Tyee, who created all forms of life did not breathe breath and spirit into humans alone but had bestowed this great gift to all living things. Man alone had the speaking voice to extol and give thanks. It was believed that the salmon spirit as the deer spirit existed to provide themselves as food for man. For this privilege man must learn how to capture and utilize each species, never wasting, always thrifty and ever thankful for each item taken for food.

And so it was that the Nisqually observed certain ceremonials such as the vision quest taken by the young at the time of puberty to find a spirit companion and the winter spirit dances at which time the individual sang his special song to his spirit power. All festivities were spiritual expressions to the Great Spirit.

Other Topics

There are several areas of the Nisqually traditional history that are too extensive to discuss hereto but can be found in other manuscripts. Topics could include the extended family, kinship ties, Nisqually legends and myths, oral language, basket making, canoe construction, buckskin tanning, tribal government, burial practices, trade, Chinook Jargon, neighboring tribes and many others.

Closing Remarks

This article has been written to convey to the classroom teacher the resourcefulness of a group of people who lived in the Nisqually River Basin for thousands of years before the first foreigners came to these shores. When one stops to think about the ingenuity and inventiveness these people displayed in utilizing everything that nature provided to meet their basic needs, it would seem that they should have first place in the study of the Nisqually River Basin in your classroom presentation.

In teaching Nisqually traditional history let the teacher be mindful that the descendants of these Nisqually Indian people described herein continue to live in the Nisqually River Basin. Please convey to your students that the Nisqually people have been here for thousands of years, that they are still here and will continue to be here. Although they live on a reduced portion of their traditional land through which flows but five miles of their beloved river, they continue to revere the whole river and entire land area as their ancestors did. Today they share the responsibility for the well-being of the Nisqually River and the Nisqually River Basin with several other user groups as they continue in their vigilance as guardians of their namesake. For they remain, as of old, “the Squalli-absch, the people of the prairie grass, the people of the river.”

Additional Materials by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter

They Walked Before: Indians of Washington State, Washington State Historical Society, 1977. Reprint in 1988 by Tahoma Research Service.

Leschi: Last Chief of the Nisquallies, Heritage Quest, Orting WA, 1986. Reprinted from 1976.

Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction, Tahoma Research Service, Tacoma WA, 1986.

Historic Perspectives of the Nisqually Tribal Water Resources, unpublished, Nisqually Tribal Library, Olympia WA or Tahoma Research Service, Tacoma WA.

Where The Waters Begin: The Traditional Nisqually History of Mount Rainier, Northwest Interpretive Association, Seattle WA, 1994.

The Trouble Waters of Medicine Creek, Masters Thesis on Nisqually-Puyallup Fishing Rights. Pacific Lutheran University Library, Tacoma WA, 1971.

Other Nisqually Related Books

Haeberlin, Hermann and Erna Gunther, The Indians of Puget Sound, University of Washington Press, 1930.

Smith, Marian, The Puyallup-Nisqually, Columbia University Press, 1940.

Clark, Ella, Indians Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1971.

Barnett, H.G., Indian Shakers, Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.

(From: The Living River: A Guide to the Nisqually River Basin 1996) Used with permission





















Circular on Long Hair

Circular Long Hair Prohibited

January 13, 1902.
To, Superintendants:

This Office desires to call your attention to a few customs among the
Indians which, it is believed, should be modified or discontinued.

The wearing of long hair by the male population of your agency is not in
keeping with the advancement they are making, or will soon be expected to
make, in civilization. The wearing of short hair by the males will be a
great step in advance and will certainly hasten their progress towards
civilization. The returned male student far too frequently goes back to
the reservation and falls into the old custom of letting their hair grow
long. He also paints profusely and adopts all the old habits and customs
which his education in our industrial schools has tried to eradicate. The
fault does not like with the schools as with conditions found on the
reservations. These conditions are very often due to the policy of the
Government toward the Indian and are often perpetuated by the
superintendent’s not caring to take the initiative in fastening any new
policy on his administration of the affairs of the agency.

On many of the reservations the Indians of both cheeks paint, claiming
that it keeps the skin warm in winter and cool in summer; but instead,
this paint melts when the Indian perspires and runs down into the eyes.
The use of this paint leads to many diseases of the eyes. The Persons who
have given considerable though and investigation to the subject are
satisfied that this custom causes the majority of the cases of blindness
among the Indians of the United States.

You are therefore directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair,
and both sexes to stop painting . With some of the Indians this will be an
east matter; with others it will require considerable tact and
perseverance on the part of yourself and your employees to successfully
carry out these instructions . With your Indian employees and those
Indians who draw rations and supplies it will be an east matter as a
non-compliance with this order may be induced to comply with the order
voluntarily, especially the returned students. The returned students who
do not comply voluntarily should be dealt with summarily. Employment,
supplies, etc., should be withdrawn until they do comply and if they
become obstreperous about the matter a short confinement in the guardhouse
at hard labor, with shorn locks, should furnish cure. Certainly all the
young men should wear short hair, and it is believed that by tact,
perseverance, firmness, and withdrawal of supplies the superintendents
can induce all to comply with this order.

The wearing of citizens clothing, instead of Indian costume and blanket,
should be encouraged.

Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited. In many
cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading
acts and to disguise immoral purposes. You are directed to use your best
efforts in the suppression if these evils.

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

The Introduction of Horses to the Southern Puget Sound Salish

By. Daniel L. Boxberger [Portions of this essay reprinted with permission of the author]

Abstract – Before the 1830s the Indians of the "plains" of South Puget Sound were distinguished as "horse" Indians as opposed to their neighbors who were "canoe" Indians. This paper will discuss the acquisition of horses by the Southern Puget Sound Indians and attempt to demonstrate that horses were a pre-contact occurrence west of the Cascade Mountains. The use of horses by these Indians well into the present century will also be explored.


If the Northwest Indian had been obliged to choose between his canoe and his house, he would doubtless have taken the canoe. It was necessary tor getting his living. Without it, he would have been penned forever on a narrow beach, with no chance to trade, to visit or go to war. He could have given up everything else which he made from cedar such as house, clothes and utensils, but his whole wav of life would have changed without the canoe (Underhill 1945:88).

There were certain permissive factors in the environment that allowed cultural developments in certain aspects of native culture. Some of these—dependence on exploitation of marine resources, elaboration of canoe navigation, emphasis on Woodworking — came to be distinctive of the areal culture (Drucker 1955: 9).

Dugout canoes of red cedar or redwood (only rarely were other woods used) were essential to the way of life of the Indians of the North Pacific Coast (Drucker 1965: 27).

How this way of life achieved its individuality is still under discussion. It is distinct from that of the Eskimos and the Plains Indians, and from the hunting Indians of Canada. The effect of the sea, of the coastal habitat, has all been important, and the symbols of marine fauna and of existence near the water color the mythology, art, ritual, and theater of these remarkable people (Hays 1975: xi-xii).

…they depended on sea and river transport and had an extensive knowledge of the local waters, and this was true of all these coastal people (Bancroft-Hunt 1979: 25). . . . .

This paper will discuss the introduction of horses to the Indians of the South Puget Sound areas, that is, the groups which today compose the reservation communities of Puyallup, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, and Chehalis, and consist of the identifiable bands of Skope-ahmish, Puyallup, Nisqually, Swanamish, Mical, Chehalis, Cowlitz, Taidnapam, Klickitat, and several other bands that inhabited the lowland area south and east of the lower reaches of the Puget Sound. . . . .

Horses in Southwest Washington

The first recorded contact with the people of South Puget Sound was the Vancouver expedition of 1792. Vancouver’s crew explored the inlets and bays in small boats during May of that year. There was no mention of horses by anyone involved in this expedition, but it must be remembered that horses would not necessarily be seen near the shoreline nor did the members of the expedition go ashore in the area of Southeast Puget Sound (the Nisqually flats and surrounding area) where horses could have conceivably been present.

There is one mention of horses west of the Cascade Mountains by another of these early ship bound explorers, but north of Puget Sound. The Spanish explorer Pantoja, on shore at Point Roberts (Isia de Zepeda) in 1792 recorded the following:

It was also learned from an Indian of eleven or twelve years of age, whom the storekeeper Jose Ignaeio Gonzalez bought, that on the north side there is some flat country through which many people come to trade for fish and stay for two moons, bringing iron, copper, and blue beads, wearing distinct dress and having different bows and arrows, some larger than theirs, and with some large quadrupeds, with a round hoof, a mane, and a long tail. They tie on the backs of these four tercios of fish and in order to make them travel whip them with a piece of hide. Comprehending from his signs that these were horses, a painting of one was shown to him. As soon as he saw it he said that that was what they were (Wagner 1933: 187).

A dozen years later Lewis and Clark noted that the range of horses did not extend beyond the "Great Falls" of the Columbia River (near the present city of The Dalles, Oregon), 15 February 1806: [spellings are from the original]

The horse is confined principally to the nations inhabiting the great plains of the Columbia extending from Latitude 40° to 50° N and occupying the tract of country lying between the rocky Mountains and a range (Cascades) of Mountains which pass the Columbia river about the great falls or from Longitude 116 to 121 West. In this exte(n)sive tract of principally untimbered country so far as we have lea(r)nt the following natives reside (viz) the Sosone or snake Indians, the Chopunnish, Sokulks, Cutssahnims, Chymnapums, E(c)helutes, Eneshuh, & Chilluckkittequaws, all of whom enjoy the benefit of that docile, generous and valuable animal the horse, and all of them except the last three have immence numbers of them. Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are lofty eligantly formed active and durable;

in short many of them look like the fine Engllish coarsers and would make a figure in any country. Some of the horses are pided (pied) with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with the black brown bey or some other dark colour, but much the larger portion are of an uniform colour with stars snips and white feet, or in this rispect marked much like our best blooded horses in Virginia, which they resemble as well in fleetness and bottom as in form and colours, the natives suffer them to run at large in the plains, the grass of which furnishes them with the only subsistence their masters taking no trouble to lay in a winters store for them, but they keep fat if not much used on the dry grass of the plains during the winter, no rain scarcely ever falls in these plains and the grass is short and but thin. The natives (except those near the R. Monts) appear to take no pains in selecting their male horses from which they breed, in short those of that description which I have noticed appeared much the most indifferent.

whether the horse was orrigeonally a native of this country or not it is out of my power to determine as we cannot understand the language of the natives sufficiently to ask the question, at all events the country and climate appears well adapted to this anamal. horses are said to be found wild in many parts of this extensive plain country, the several tribes of the Sosone who reside towards Mexico on the waters of (the Multnomah) river or particularly one of them called Sha-bo-bo-ah have also a great number of mules, which among the Indians I find are much more highly prized than horses, an eligant horse may be purchased of the natives in this country for a few beads or other paltry trinkets which in the U’States would not cost more than one or two dollars. This abundance and cheapness of horses will be extremely advantageous to those who may hereafter attem(p)t the fir trade to the East Indies by way of the Columbia river and the Pacific Ocean, the mules in the possession of the Indians are principally stolen from the Spaniards of Mexeco; they appear to be large and fine such as we have seen. among the Sosones of the upper part of the S.E. fork of the Columbia we saw several horses with Spanish brands on them which we supposed had been stolen from the inhabitants of Mexeco (Thwaites 1904: 73-74).

The preceding quote points out several important considerations: that the Plateau Indians were still getting their horses from the Shoshone (who in turn were getting them from the Spanish); that they had already developed breeding techniques; that there was not always sufficient pasturage; and that the horse was already so abundant that it could be purchased inexpensively. That horses could conceivably be used west of the mountains is evident in another quote from Lewis and dark, on 14 April 1806 at the "Great Falls,"

these are the first horses we have met with since we left this neighbourhood last fall, in short the country below this place will not permit the use of this valuable animal except in the Columbian vally and there the present inhabitants have no use for them as they reside immediately on the river and the country is too thickly timbered to admit them to run the game with horses if they had them (Thwaites 1904: 280).

As with Vancouver, Lewis and dark did not explore the area west of the Cascades and north of the Columbia River where the horses would have been found west of the mountains. The fact that they did not mention horses is not evidence that horses were not present.

The first recorded contact with horse-using Indians of South Puget Sound is from the journals of traders associated with the American Fur Company involved with the establishment of Fort Astoria in 1811. In June of 1812 Robert Stuart (1953: 31) reported that "Horses and Dogs are the only domestic animals in possession of the natives" unfortunately Stuart does not make it clear to which natives he was referring. Therefore we must take the statement of Alexander Henry (1897: 839) as the first proof of horses west of the mountains.

27 February 1814:

Our four Iroquois who had been up the Kowlitch returned last night; there are plenty of beaver in that river but the continual rising and falling of the water prevents success with traps. The natives there have some beaver in hoard, and wish us to come up, as they are not on good terms with the natives on the coast, and do not like to come here to trade. They have a great many horses which they use in hunting deer.

The Kowlitch is the Cowlitz River, and it is interesting to note that the first mention of horses would state that they had a "great many," if the Indians that the Iroquois hunters contacted were Salish (it is not likely they traveled up the river too far in one day) then the acquisition of horses by the Salish may have already had some antiquity.

After 1814 the mention of horses in the trader’s journals becomes commonplace. The traders could customarily purchase or "rent" horses from the Indians of the upper Cowlitz River to make the portage to the salt water of south Puget Sound. Ross, in 1814, states "the portage across the dividing ridge to the Chick-all-is River on the west is considerable but the means of transportation abundant, horses being everywhere plentiful" (Ray 1966: B-28). In 1828 Ermatinger noted "We hired a few more horses today, of which there appears to be no want on our road…the Indians are very anxious to lend them and that too at what I think a very moderate remuneration" (Ermatinger 1828: 5). In December of 1824 John Work obtained horses from the Holloweena Indians to portage from Black Lake to the Cowlitz River (Work 1824) and after the establishment of Fort Nisqually in 1833 the records mention hundreds of horses (Tolmie 1832-1835: passim).

If horses had been a post-contact phenomena west of the Cascade Mountains then we would not expect them to be so common so soon. We can only conclude that horses were introduced from the Yakima via the Klickitat over the mountain passes to the people of the Puget Sound lowlands. The question remains when?

We have argued that the Yakima received the horse by 1735. Extrapolating from the rapid spread of horses amongst other tribes we could conclude that the horse spread west of the mountains relatively quickly, yet lack of concrete evidence and prudence keeps us from establishing an early dateline. We know that the horse was abundant by 1814, the question arises, how long does it take to establish an abundant herd? Other scholars have glossed over this question or ignored it completely. Haines has suggested a theoretical possibility of one pair of horses producing 300 offspring in a period of twenty years (Haines 1938a: 113). Of course, this is assuming maximum reproduction rate, no deaths by predators, not any other environmental restrictions. It is not likely that wild herds would have increased much at all.

Other tribes seemingly depended more on horse stealing than horse rearing to acquire new animals. Franchere noted a Spokane woman who had seen a Spanish town in her youth (Anastasio 1972: 163), Lewis and dark noted Spanish brands on many Indian horses, and other tribes likely traveled afar to raid horses as well (Spier and Sapir 1930: 222 noted that the Klickitat had traveled to California on slave raids and undoubtedly expeditions were made to acquire horses too).

Despite the difficulties horses spread quite rapidly to the Plateau and we would lean toward the assumption that their spread to the South Puget Sound area was not delayed greatly. If we are to believe Haines the Shoshone spread the horse over an area of 2,000 kilometers in approximately thirty years and the horse spread from the Nez Perce to the Yakima in five years. If the Yakima had the horse by 1735 wouldn’t we expect their neighboring bands (i.e., the Klickitat) to also have horses at around the same time or shortly after? Carrying this one step further, if the Klickitat were accustomed to making the trek over the mountain passes wouldn’t the horse be a welcome addition to these excursions? Based on these presumptions we are inclined to believe that the horse made its first appearance west of the Cascade Mountains by the mid-1700s.

The Plains of Western Washington

The seemingly incongruent physiography of parts of Western Washington has been noted from very early on (see Norton 1979: 175-176). Norton has argued that the plains, or prairies, of this area were man-made in origin. Her argument is that periodic burning was an aboriginal form of land management that produced important food plants that otherwise would have been choked out by the climax forest. She quotes Dr. J. G. Cooper, a nineteenth century observer, as stating that "the introduction of the horse, about the beginning of this century, was further inducement for burning…" (Cooper 1860: 23). How

Cooper came by this date is not made clear in his paper as he does not elaborate but the important part of his statement is that he thought the Indians burned to create pasturage for their horses as well as food for themselves. To paraphrase the age old chicken and egg question, which came first the horse or the prairie? The answer is obvious. Since burning was just as common without the area as within, especially among the Skagit, Quileute, Hoh, and Twana (Norton 1979: 179, 181) and likely others as well, it would suggest that the horse-using Indians found these prairies a desirable place to keep horses, there was rarely summer drought or harsh winter weather as was common east of the mountains, and thus began the westward movement of Sahaptins and horses, with the Nisqually and other Coast Salish gradually adopting their use.

We would tend to believe that the spread of horses to the Salish Indians was a slower occurrence than the spread of horses between groups in the Plateau. Taylor’s (1960: 404) statement seems to support this. Taylor quotes Gibbs (1855) as classifying the Nisqually as "equestrian," but in 1838-9 two Nisqually villages only possessed 24 and 28 horses for populations of 258 and 132 respectively. Yet, in 1855, one Nisqually individual, the Chief Leschi, owned over fifty horses (Meeker 190: 348), and the Nisqually treaty was written to stipulate that the Indians be allowed to run their horses on unclaimed lands

(Boxberger 1979: 116). It appears that the Salish were less enthusiastic when it came to adopting horses than were the Sahaptins. Gradually though, the Salish were converted.

The Post-Settlement Era

The importance of the horse to these people cannot be overstated. Gibbs noted in the 1850s that these tribes were equestrian in their habits (1877: 178) and designated them as "horse Indians" in his chart (Ibid: 241). Leschi owned fifty horses and horses were important enough to warrant mention in the Medicine Creek Treaty. Yet, in 1838 the Hudson’s Bay Company census listed the Nisqually as possessing far fewer horses than the Klickitat (Taylor 1960: 402- 403). We have suggested that the Sahaptins moved west of the mountains, with their horses, and the Nisqually and other coast tribes adopted their use. Some tribes, the Nisqually, Cowlitz and Chehalis, gradually adopted their use, while neighboring tribes never did. For example, "the Puyallup have long been thought of as a salt water and river people in distinction to the horse owning Nisqually" (Smith 1940: xi). It is expected that the environmental restrictions, i.e., the extent of the prairies, limited the usefulness of the horse and therefore limited the extent of its spread west of the mountains.

The Nisqually continued to increase their herds and their dependence on the horse through the 1800s:

Indians at Nisqually spend much of their time on horseback wandering from place to place sheepherding (ARCIA 1871: 275).

By 1873 the Nisqually had enclosed their entire reservation (4717-1/2 acres) to keep their livestock from straying (ARCIA 1879:151).

This dependence upon horses continued well into the present century and whether the taking of a great deal of the best pasturage for Fort Lewis in 1914 or the lessened dependence on horses by the population in general caused their decline is open to study.


It has been demonstrated that the appearance of horses west of the Cascade Mountains in what is now Washington state was a pro-contact occurrence. Sahaptin-speaking Indians moving over the mountain passes from the interior brought horses with them possibly as early as the mid-1700s. Gradually these Sahaptins established permanent residence on the west side of the Cascades and taking advantage of the abundant pasturage, increased their herd sizes. By 1800 horses had spread to the neighboring Nisqually, Chehalis, and

Cowlitz, Salish-speaking Indians, who gradually adapted to their use. Environmental restrictions kept the horse from spreading to other Salish tribes.


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1975 Children of the Raven. McGraw-Hill, NY.

Jacobs, Melville
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1905 Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. Lowmand and Hanford, Seattle.

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1896 The Ghost Dance Religion: Smohalla and His Doctrine. Bureau of American ethnology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

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Splawn, Andrew Jackson
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Stuart, Robert
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Suckley, George and Gibbs, George
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[This article originally appeared as an essay in Western Washington Socio-Economics: Papers in Honor of Angelo Anastasio edited by Herbert C. Taylor, Jr. and Garland Grabert. Bellingham, Washington: Western Washington University, 1984]

Nisqually Time

Time. Time was measured by seasons and by moons. Two seasons were recognized, winter or cold and summer. Spring was "the coming of summer" and fall was "the coming of winter". A year was designated by reference to the following or preceding season corresponding to the one during which the designation was made, next cold or last cold. Moons were reckoned according to the phases of the moon, from full moon to the next moon. A record of moons was kept by women of menstrual periods and of the lapse of time to child birth, by tying knots in a sinew thread. This was the only use of knots for reckoning or record keeping which was reported and it seems to have had a quite specific function. Information on the calendar was difficult to obtain and the following list is combined from two informants neither of whom was sure of his data:

January – "little brother winter month."

February – "rest."

March – "windy."

April – "calm."

May – none

June – "little brother summer month."

July – "summer moon."

August – "moon of salal-berries."

September – none

October – none

November – none

December – "winter month."

The day was divided into four parts marked by four points: (I) the darkness before dawn; (II) mid-morning, between nine and ten by our clocks; (III) mid-afternoon; and (IV) the darkness after sunset. Noon and midnight were relevant only in so far as they indicated the amount of daylight or of darkness to follow. The Nisqually informants said that they had seen the old Indians watch their shadow and when it pointed north they would say, "Half the sun has gone." At Yelm, on the Nisqually prairie, was situated, about 1875, a day clack which the information who described insisted was of Indian construction. It consisted of a pole six to ten feet high stuck firmly in the ground in an UN-shaded spot. The position of the first shadow if the pole visible at sunrise was marked the last shadow visible at sunset. The sticks were placed equidistant from the foot of the pole. Half way between the sticks, in the side toward which the shadow of the pole fell during the day, was placed a third stick. Between this and the sunrise and sunset sticks were placed a fourth and fifth stick. As the day progressed, the amount of daylight yet to occur could be told at a glance by reference to the shadow of the pole as it fell along this improvised dial. The portions of the day, which were given by all informants, were not points, however, but rather vague periods of time similar to our everyday use of the terms noon, afternoon and evening.