The Puget Sound War

In 1855, concerned about a potential Indian uprising, American settlers in the Puget Sound area of Washington formed four companies of soldiers. One of these companies, Eaton’s Rangers, attempted to apprehend Nisqually chief Leschi. Leschi and his brother Quiemuth were peacefully cultivating their wheat fields when the Rangers moved in. Warned of the Rangers’ approach, Leschi and Quiemuth fled their homes. This action by the Rangers against peaceful Indians started the Puget Sound War. Following this initial incident, the Rangers then roamed the country harassing peaceful Indians.  

Nisqually warriors under the leadership of Leschi attacked the Americans in the White River Valley. They were careful to attack only the American volunteers. They made it known to the American settlers that they were protesting Stevens’ treaties. In the words of one settler:

“The Indians sent us word not to be afraid-that they would not harm us.”

At White River, two American families were warned that the Indians were coming. The families, some of whom were members of the volunteer companies, stayed and were attacked. Nine people were killed, but the warriors took the children-two boys and a girl-and delivered them unharmed to an American steamer at Point Elliot.

The Americans responded to the White River “massacre” by herding 4,000 peaceful Indians to Fox Island so that they could be carefully watched. Many of the captives died from inadequate food and shelter.

Leschi attempted to draw all of the tribes of Western Washington into a general war against the Americans, but his coalition of Nisqually and Puyallup warriors never numbered more than a few hundred.

The Indian tribes in the southwestern portion of the territory were in close communication with Nisqually, Klickatat, and Yakama warriors. While these tribes had no tradition of warfare, but tended to be business-oriented (i.e. traders), the Americans were fearful that they would join the Indian uprisings. Americans with rifles began to raid the peaceful Indian villages, disarming the Indians, and placing them under surveillance. Some of the Indians-Upper and Lower Chehalis-were herded together on Sidney Ford’s farm near Steilacoom; some of the coastal Indians, including the Cowlitz, were placed in a “local reservation” on the Chehalis River; and the Chinook were placed inland at Fort Vancouver. The Indians were crowded together, denied access to adequate food, and stripped of their personal property. The southwestern tribes were held captive for almost two years during the Puget Sound War.

In 1856, Governor Isaac I. Stevens, responding to the Indian war led by Leschi, called for the extermination of all “hostile” Indians. In response to the Governor’s call for extermination, a small group of about 100 Duwamish, Taitnapam, Puyallup, Nisqually, and Suquamish warriors attacked the community of Seattle. The attack resulted in two American deaths and no Indian deaths. Some described it as a “half-hearted” affair.

Encouraged by Stevens’ call for extermination, American volunteers began to hunt down peaceful Indians. At the Nisqually River, the Washington Mounted Rifles under the command of H.J.G. Maxon murdered a group of 30 Indians who had gathered to fish. Nearly all of the Indians were women and children.

Governor Stevens detained people who were opposed to his war against the Indians. When the Chief Justice of the Territory issued a writ of habeas corpus for the release of these opponents, the Governor simply declared martial law:

“Whereas, in the prosecution of the Indian war, circumstances have existed affording such grave cause of suspicion, such that certain evil disposed persons of Pierce county have given aid and comfort to the enemy, that they have been placed under arrest, and ordered to be tried by a military commission; and whereas, efforts are now being made to withdraw, by civil process, these persons from the purview of the said commission.”

With these words, the Governor suspended the functions of all civil officers in the county.

Wishing to put an end to the bloodshed, Leschi sent his brother Quiemuth as an emissary to the Governor to indicate his willingness to surrender. Quiemuth was murdered in the Governor’s office. While the murderer was arrested, he was not brought to trial as none of the Americans would testify against him.

Stevens renewed his calls for the Indian leaders’ heads and offered a reward. In response, Sluggia, Leschi’s nephew, revealed his uncle’s location in exchange for 50 blankets.  Subsequently, Leschi was captured by the Americans.

As a result of this brief war in which the Indian warriors demonstrated impressive powers, the Americans met with the Indians at Fox Island. The Indians told the Americans of their dissatisfaction with the 1855 treaties and the Americans promised to give them larger tracts with ground for horses.

For his leadership in the war against Washington colonists, Nisqually chief Leschi was tried in an American court. Despite testimony that Leschi was seen by reliable witnesses at an entirely different location at the time of the specific crimes of which he was accused and couldn’t have committed them, he was found guilty of murder. In 1858 he was hung.

From the American viewpoint, the trial showed their superiority and authority over the Indians and their sense of fairness. Indians, however, were baffled by the American response to murder. Among the Indian nations of Western Washington, homicides were not viewed as crimes that imperiled the public order. Homicides were seen as injuries to and by individuals and their families. The adjudication of homicide, therefore, involved these families and making restitution for the deaths. This was often called “covering the dead” and involved payments from one family to another. Justice was about healing, not punishment.

Russian Castaways Among the Indians

The Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed in 1799 as a quasi-governmental monopoly to control the North American fur trade and rule the Russian colony in Alaska. Within a decade, the company managers began to expand their operations down the Pacific coast from their headquarters at New Arckhangel (present-day Sitka, Alaska).  

In 1808 the Russian schooner Sv. Nikolai (St. Nicholas), owned by the Russian-American Company, sailed from New Arkhangel to explore Vancouver Island and then the Washington/Oregon coast to the south. The schooner carried 22 people, including five men and two women who are identified as Aleut from Kodiak Island. Also on board is the wife of the navigator (who served as the schooner’s captain). The schooner was to barter with Natives for sea otter pelts and to discover a site for a permanent Russian post in the Oregon country. However, the ship was driven ashore on a sandy beach near the mouth of the Quilayute River near the present-day town of La Push, Washington on the present Quileute Indian Reservation.

After salvaging part of their cargo, the Russians clashed with the Quileute, abandoned most of their supplies, and fled south into Hoh country. Timofei Tarakanov, one of the Russians on the ship, would later describe their encounter with the Quileute this way:

“We killed three of the enemy, one of who they dragged away. How many we wounded I do not know. As spoils we acquired a large number of spears, raincoats, hats, and other things left at the scene of the battle.”

Their initial encounter with the Hoh was somewhat friendly. However, it was soon evident that the Hoh wanted to capture the group to sell as slaves to other coastal Indians. In a brief encounter, two men and two women, including the Russian wife of the party’s leader, were captured by the Hoh. The rest of the Russians and Aleut fled toward the interior to escape the coastal Indians.

Away from the coast, they spent a miserable winter struggling to avoid starvation. On a number of occasions, they plundered native camps, occasionally fighting with small groups of natives. They vainly sought some way they might be rescued.

The following year, the Russians and Aleut returned to the coast hoping that they would find some way of being rescued. They found that the wife of their leader had been sold by the Hoh to the Makah. They actually made contact with her and found that she was fairly comfortable and content. When she found that they were planning a raid to rescue her, she rejected the idea. Instead, she urged the Russians to surrender to her captors. Timofei Tarakanov reports it this way:

“In horror, distress, and anger, we heard her say firmly that she was satisfied with her condition, did not want to join us, and that she advised us to surrender ourselves to this people.”

A few of the Russians surrendered to the Makah and the rest were captured by the Hoh and the Quileute.

In 1810, an American captain sailing for the Russian-American Company paid a large ransom to the Makah to rescue thirteen of the survivors from the shipwreck of the Sv. Nickolei. Another American captain purchased one or two more survivors from the Indians in the Columbia River area. The wife of the Russian leader died before she could be ransomed and at least one Russian is reported to have gone native.

Port Townsend (WA) and the Indians

By 1859, the S’Klallam Indian community of Kah Tai was well established on what the American newcomers would call Port Townsend Bay in Washington. When the newcomers began to arrive they encountered Chief T’chiis-a-ma-hum who welcomed them and worked to maintain peace between the two very different groups. Since English-speaking people found Indian names difficult to pronounce, it was common for them to give Native leaders the names of European royalty.  Thus the chief was called the Duke of York and his two wives were called Queen Victoria (See-Hei-Met-za) and Jenny Lind. Later historians will record the chief’s name as Chet-ze-moka, or Chetzemoka. The city park in present-day Port Townsend was dedicated to him in 1904 and in 2009 one of the new ferries between Port Townsend and Keystone was named for him.

Chetzemoka Park


Shown above is the photograph of chief Chetzemoka which is displayed in the city park in Port Townsend which bears his name.

Chet-ze-moka was born in Kah Tai about 1808. His father, Lah-Ka-Nim, was from the Skagit tribe and his mother, Quah-Tum-A-Low, was S’Klallam. The S’Klallam are a Salish cultural and linguistic group related to other tribes of British Columbia and to most of the tribes of the Puget Sound area. S’Klallam means “strong people.”

Salish Sailing Canoe

Salish Canoe 2

Salish Canoe 3

Shown above are some pictures of S’Klallam canoes. These photos are on display in the Jefferson County Museum in Port Townsend.

Salish artifacts 1

Salish artifacts 3

Shown above are some S’Klallam artifacts on display at the Jefferson County Museum in Port Townsend.

General A. V. Kautz visited the S’Klallam on Puget Sound in 1853. He described their housing:

“Their abodes are permanent, for they live in extensive houses, reminding me of the tobacco sheds in the east. They are formed of large posts, supporting beams, some of them so large that it is a source of wonder how they are handled.”

Traditional S’Klallam leaders basically gave advice to help settle disputes. As with most other Indian nations, chiefs could not really compel any one to do anything. Chiefs, aided by a group of advisors, made decisions regarding the utilization of fishing grounds, gathering areas, and hunting territory. Chiefs were expected to be generous. When the advisors were called upon, the chief feasted them.

When Chet-ze-moka’s brother died in 1854, Chet-ze-moka was selected chief of his people.

By the 1850s, the Indian nations in Washington were concerned about the American intrusions into their lands and arrogant disregard for tribal sovereignty and religious freedom. In 1854, a large council was held in the Snohomish village of Heb-Heb-O-Lub. Chiefs from the Nisqually, Duwamish, Skagit, Lummit, Skykomish, Snoqualme, and S’Klallam attended. Representatives from the Yakama argued for action against the American settlers. Yakama leader Owhi asked for immediate action by all of the tribes to drive the settlers out. S’Klallam chief Chet-ze-moka disagreed and suggested that peaceful coexistence was possible.

In 1854, there was an outbreak of hostilities between the S’Klallam at Dungeness and army troops. The skirmish left four dead: two S’Klallam men, an Army captain, and an Army lieutenant. Three S’Klallam men were subsequently arrested for murder and three more were flogged for a related theft. The three men who were accused of murder quickly escaped from jail. Soldiers approached a S’Klallam camp on the Hood Canal and demanded that the prisoners be surrendered. The band refused and the soldiers destroyed the camp and the Indians’ winter supply of salmon. Farther down the Canal, Chief Chet-ze-moka was captured and held hostage until the prisoners were returned.

In 1855, the S’Klallam under the leadership of Chet-ze-moka, the Skokomish under the leadership of Nah-whil-luk, and the Chimakum under the leadership of General Pierce (Kul-kah-han) met with Governer Isaac Stevens in treaty council at Point-No-Point. The tribes agreed to move to the Skokomish Reservation in Washington under the Point-No-Point Treaty. Very few S’Klallam actually moved to the reservation because it was in Twana territory, their traditional enemies.

The treaty called for the tribes to give up 438,430 acres of their ancestral land and to move to a 3,840 acre reservation within one year of ratification. The treaty also called for the tribes to stop trading at Vancouver Island, to exclude alcohol from the reservation, and to free all of their slaves (something the United States had not yet done with their African-American slaves).

One of the Americans who knew Chet-ze-moka fairly well and understood tribal feelings was James Swan. In his 1857 book The Northwest Coast; or Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory, he wrote:

“They feel as we would if a foreign people came among us, and attempted to force their customs on us whether we liked them or not. We are willing the foreigners should come, and settle, and live with us; but if they attempted to force upon us their language and religion, and make us leave our old homes and take up new ones, we would certainly rebel; and it would be by a long intercourse of years that our manners could be made to approximate.”

James Swan

A photograph of James Swan and some of the artifacts which he collected for the Smithsonian Institution is shown above. From 1861 on, he collected and shipped hundreds of items from the Northwest Coast to the Smithsonian.

In 1859, James Swan was invited by Chet-ze-moka to observe a Chemakum tomanawos ceremony. While Swan was allowed to enter the lodge on the first night of the ceremony and to listen to the opening chants, he was not allowed to observe the rest of the ceremony even though he was Chet-ze-moka’s guest. This portion of the ceremony was closed to non-Indians. He did, however, witness the potlatch given by chief Chet-ze-moka at the end of the ceremony and sketched the distribution of presents.


Shown above is Swan’s drawing.

By 1870, the non-Indian residents of Washington were clamoring for the government to forcibly remove all Indians to reservations. In 1871, the S’Klallam at Port Townsend were ordered removed to the Skokomish Reservation. Their canoes were tied to the stern of a waiting ship. As the ship left with the S’Klallam in their canoes trailing behind, their village was burned. While the fire was deliberately set by a group of soldiers from Fort Townsend on orders from higher authorities, some official reports claimed that the fire started accidentally.

When the stern wheeler reached the Skokomish Reservation, the S’Klallam canoes were cut loose and they paddled to shore. Within a few days, most had returned to their homeland. Under the leadership of Chet-ze-moka they established a new village across the bay from Port Townsend at Indian Island.

In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes visited Port Townsend. Among those who were introduced to the President is Chet-ze-moka (Duke of York), the leader of the S’Klallam. There is no report on the conversation between the two leaders. Chet-ze-moka was acutely aware that the treaties with the Indians of Puget Sound had not been fulfilled and most Indians at this time believed that the President had the power to order them fulfilled.

The United States government in dealing with Indians nations has always preferred to deal with tribal leaders who were absolute dictators, selected by and loyal to the United States. There has been little concern for nourishing, recognizing, or encouraging democracy among the tribes. In 1884, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs reduced the authority of S’Klallam chief Chet-ze-moka to that of a sub-chief.

Chief Chet-ze-moka died in 1888 at the age of 80. The people of Port Townsend provided an elaborate funeral. The Seattle Weekly Intelligencer reported:

“no Indian in Washington Territory, and very likely none in the United States, ever received so flattering a funeral as did the Duke of York.