The incident known as the Mashel Massacre occurred in late March 1856 on the Mashel prairie just north of the confluence of the Mashel and Nisqually rivers (present-day Pierce County). It was the last episode of the Puget Sound Indian war that had begun in 1855. Governor Isaac Stevens ordered the Washington Mounted Rifles up from the Columbia River. These volunteers were led by Captain Hamilton J. G. Maxon (1813-1884). During a series of patrols around the Nisqually River vicinity, Maxon’s men killed a number of Indians who were in hiding in the dense forest. The exact count of deaths varied, ranging from as few as eight to as many as 30. Most accounts agree that the dead were women, children, and elderly men, largely unarmed and fleeing for their lives. These events have been a point of contention and controversy ever since. This essay reviews the event and the accounts surrounding it.
Puget Sound Indian War
In late 1855, conflict between the Indians east of the Cascade Mountains and American soldiers and settlers spilled over the mountain passes, igniting what has come to be known as the Puget Sound Indian War. Hostilities commenced on October 27, 1855, in what is often called the White River Massacre, in which nine white settlers were killed and others driven from their homes. The next six months would come to be known as the time of the blockhouses, as these log forts sprang up across the landscape of the southern Puget Sound. The fighting was usually desultory and indecisive, but the Indians were slowly starved into submission, as they could no longer follow their traditional subsistence lifestyle.
The last major battle of the Puget Sound Indian War occurred on March 10, 1856, at a ferry on the White River, another indecisive skirmish. A few days later, Leschi (1808-1858), the most influential Nisqually Indian leader, led his group of about 70 over the pass to the Yakama Country, and hoped for safety (Leschi was later brought back to the Puget Sound area and hanged). The shooting war was nearly done, but one last drama played out that would leave a lasting mark on the region, an incident known to local history as the Mashel Massacre.
Stevens and MaxonEven though the war was approaching its close, Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1858), the Governor of Washington Territory, turned his outrage against former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) men and their mostly Indian families. These men had farmed with the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and staked their own claims after the HBC had largely disbanded following the 1846 boundary settlement. These farmers had quietly gone about their lives while other settlers fearfully cowered in the blockhouses through the winter. Said Stevens, “Whoever can remain on his claim unmolested is an ally of the enemy and must be dealt with as such.” To impose his will and to spread fear among the Indians, Stevens ordered the Washington Mounted Rifles up from the Columbia River. These volunteers were led by Captain Hamilton J. G. Maxon (1813-1884), a tough and experienced Indian fighter whose loyalty was unquestionably with Stevens.
During a series of patrols around the Nisqually River vicinity, Maxon’s men killed a number of Indians who were in hiding in the dense forest. The exact count of deaths varied, ranging from as few as eight to as many as 30. The majority of accounts agree that the dead were women, children, and elderly men, largely unarmed and fleeing for their lives. These events have been a point of contention and controversy ever since. The various accounts warrant a thorough review, although the entire truth can never be known.
What Happened That Day
On March 18, 1856, Governor Stevens ordered Maxon to search the area around the lower reaches of the Nisqually River. He was instructed to cooperate with friendly Indians under the command of W. B. Gosnell. These were to be identified by red bands wrapped around their blue caps. All other Indians were to be considered hostile. Maxon’s men seized cached provisions but found no Indians or Hudson's Bay Company men, and the patrol was concluded on March 23. Three days later, James Tilton, Adjutant General of the Washington Volunteers, ordered Maxon to lead another patrol, this time toward the headwaters of the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers. Captain S. C. Achilles, commanding another unit of volunteers, was to assist Maxon.Notes taken by Private A. J. Kane, who accompanied the expedition, were printed in the April 11, 1856, edition of the Pioneer and Democrat, an Olympia newspaper. Since it is the only first-person account of Maxon’s scout, during which the Mashel Massacre occurred, Kane’s notes are reprinted here in their entirety:
"On the 29th ult., leaving their horses at McLeod’s, Pierce county, with a guard of 16 men, Capt. Maxon, with the balance of his company in conjunction with Captain Achilles, of the same battalion, and a detachment of 18 men -- in all about 58 strong, accompanied by an Indian guide, that had been made a prisoner at the Yelm prairie, a few days previous, proceeded up the Nisqually river, where, at some distance eastward, the Indian referred to, reported a band of hostiles encamped. The command struck into the timber, on foot, with six days rations, on a trail leading to the forks of the Nisqually and Michael rivers, near the residence of Mr. L. A. Smith, and proceeded eastward to a small prairie. Finding a horse there, they supposed Indians were in the neighborhood; surrounded the prairie, but found none. Proceeded on to Olalley lake, at which place, fresh sign of moccasin, horse and dog tracks, were discovered. Scouts were sent out, but ascertaining that there were no Indians in the immediate neighborhood, the command encamped for the night. Started next morning at day-light, believing a band might be found at a small lake, distant some three or four miles. Found no Indians there. Breakfasted and started on -- experienced considerable difficulty in further finding or following the trail -- crossed a swamp between the two lakes spoken of -- where, on the advance guard reaching the opposite side, the barking of dogs was heard, and word sent back that there were Indians ahead. Capt. Maxon then divided the command in the centre, and moving by the right and left flanks, made a surround, when an Indian called “Chuck-nose,” and two women and children come forward and surrendered. Two other Indians were then discovered on the retreat -- were fired upon, they returning the shot. Subsequently one was killed and the other taken prisoner. The prisoners there taken, then gave information of a band of some six others, having a number of horses, at a small prairie on the eastern side of the Owhop river. Went there -- found that they had left but recently, as the ashes at the camp ground were yet warm. Found there eleven head of horses and two colts. Also, a large sack of jerked beef. This happened very opportune, inasmuch as in the melee in the morning, some of the men had lost all their rations. Made a careful search, and encamped for the night there. Next morning, at day-light, Capts. Maxon and Achilles, with a portion of the command, pushed out for the forks of the Nisqually and Michael. The balance were ordered to remain in camp. Ascertaining to a certainty that the hostiles were close by, the plan adopted for procedure was very skillfully and adroitly arranged. It was determined to send into their camp, in advance, one of the Indian women taken the day before, to engage the hostiles in conversation, whilst they were being surrounded. This was managed on her part with great prudence. A portion of the party gained a position, unseen on the opposite side of the river, and the ranch containing the hostiles being completely surrounded, our volunteers crawled up to within twenty feet of it, when Capt. Mason gave the order to “close in.” The surprise was so complete that but one hostile gun was fired. Being encamped immediately on the bank of the Michael, after the first volley, they jumped into that stream with an object of gaining the opposite side, and making their escape; but they found themselves completely netted, as they were there met by the volunteers, that had previously crossed over. Three were killed directly in the stream, and two in the forks below. One Indian woman, only, it is supposed escaped. One of those killed was the tyee scoundrel “Skie-kie,” who, all the prisoners taken agree in saying led the party that murdered Messrs. Wm. White and Northcraft, near Eaton’s prairie and the Yelm. One fell by the hands of Capt. Achilles. Capt M. and party, then proceeded back to camp for breakfast. The horses taken, were then sent into Ft. Stevens, Yelm prairie, in charge of the Indian boy, taken out as guide -- the Indian women and children accompanying.
"At 12 o’clock M., a reconnoitering party of 10 men were dispatched to the scene of the engagement in the morning, and to cross the Michael at its fork with the Nisqually river, whilst the balance of the command proceeded to cross the Michael about a mile above, in search of the trail which it was said led to 'Jim’s' encampment -- distant about one day’s march -- where the prisoners reported a large band of horses had been collected. Previous to crossing that stream, however, a party of Indians, supposed to be five or six in number, were discovered crossing over on a log. They were immediately fired upon by the advance guard, killing one and from appearances, seriously wounding another. The balance gaining the opposite side, fled rapidly down that stream, pursued by the volunteers; but the banks being very steep and rugged, the party lost considerable time in gaining the table land, and searching the brush for them. The first notification that the detachment at the forks had of an attack above, or of the presence of Indians in their vicinity, was given by one jumping into the Michael with an object apparently of making across the Nisqually; in attempting to do which, the current in the first mentioned stream being very rapid, he was washed to within 20 feet of the shore, where he was fired upon, killed and carried down. He would have been brought ashore, but at this moment another Indian was discovered in the forks, and not knowing but that a large band was hovering around, an order was given for all to retire to the brush re-load and form for a regular engagement. A careful search was then made on both sides of the Michael, and finding no further sign, proceeded up that stream, where, at a short distance they met the party above referred to coming down. All then proceeded up on either side of the river until next day between 10 and 11 o’clock, but finding no further fresh sign, or even trail, and being nearly out of provisions, it was deemed advisable to make the Owhop river in the homeward direction, in the hope of finding tyee 'Jim’s' band of horses, and a portion, at least, of the hostiles. It was also ascertained that by pursuing a direct north-westerly course, at least half a day’s march would be avoided in gaining the settlements. On their way in, they found where, but recently, a somewhat large encampment had been. Proceeded down -- crossed the Tenook and encamped, and the next day the command reached the encampment at McLeod’s place, from whence it started, having been absent therefrom six days, and distant, thence, between 40 and 50 miles" ("Eight Hostiles Killed").
Nothing in contemporary accounts indicates that anything unusual had occurred during Maxon’s late March scout up the Nisqually. Shots were fired, combatants were killed. It was a litany repeated over and over, except this time there were no white casualties whatsoever. It was proclaimed a victory at a very low cost. The Pioneer and Democrat also noted that “Eight hostiles were killed, in all, during the excursion, three were taken prisoners, and of course the women and children were sent into the settlements unharmed” ("Eight Hostiles Were Killed"). But Indian witnesses began to share stories of the killing of innocents who were not simply the victims of collateral damage. The first inkling of what might have happened that day to be recorded in the public record is in the account of A. V. Kautz, writing of his 1857 summer ascent of Mt. Rainier. During his approach to the mountain, Kautz visited the Mashel Prairie, a location that he was familiar with from a previous visit the year before as a soldier. He left this record of his experience:
"This prairie takes its name from the stream near by, and is situated between it and the Owhap on a high table -- land or bluff, not more than one or two miles from where these enter the Nesqually. It is perhaps half a mile long, and 200 or 300 yards wide at the widest point. The grass was abundant, and it was an excellent place to leave our horses. Fifteen months before, I had visited this spot, and camped near by with a small detachment of troops, searching for Indians who had hidden away in these forests, completely demoralized and nearly starving. A family of two or three men, and quite a number of women and children, had camped in the fork of the Mishawl and Nesqually, about two miles from this prairie, and were making fish-traps to catch salmon. When we fell in with them we learned that the Washington Territory volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed the most of them without regard to age or sex. Our own little command in that expedition captured about thirty of these poor, half-starved, ignorant creatures, and no act of barbarity was perpetrated by us to mar the memory of that success" (Augustus V. Kautz).
The Mashel Massacre goes unmentioned in several of the early major histories of the region, including those by Hubert Howe Bancroft (1890) and William Bonney (1927). Hazard Stevens, his father’s biographer, has only this to say: “Major Maxon and his company scouted and searched the whole length of the Nisqually valley far into the range, leaving their horses and plunging into the tangled forests on foot, and on one of their scouts killed eight and brought in fourteen captives of the enemy” (Stevens). Elwood Evans reports the events pretty much as they were stated in the Pioneer and Democrat article based on A. J. Kane’s notes, avoiding any judgmental accusations.
Yet the massacre story is present in many more modern treatments. Where did these later writers get their information? Largely it came from the efforts of two men of questionable integrity. One of these was attorney and judge, first in Washington and later in Alaska, James Wickersham (1857-1939). On October 9, 1893, he addressed the Washington State Historical Society, discussing the unfair Medicine Creek Treaty and other causes of the Puget Sound Indian War. Toward the end of his presentation, he gave this sensationalized account of the Mashel Massacre:
"In the summer of 1856 Maxon’s company was sent up the Nusqually on a scout, and near the Meshall they came upon a camp of Indians. They surrounded the camp and killed them all, -- thirty-three persons, -- men, women and children. It was a fishing camp and there were but four or five men present and about twenty-eight women and children, all of who were cruelly murdered. On being rebuked for killing the little children, one of this crowd of cut throats said 'nits make lice,' and for this reason these soldiers in the livery of Washington Territory beat out the brains of sixteen or seventeen children and threw the corpses into the Nisqully River. But what report contains a history of this foul outrage? What historian gloats over it and holds it up to scorn and condemnation along with the White River massacre? The White River massacre was perpetrated by savages who saved the innocent children and fed them, warmed them and returned them to their friends; the Mashell massacre was perpetrated by fiends who slaughtered the innocent children without pity or shame. Let the murdered women and children of Meshall be a lasting blot on Maxon’s company!" (Wickersham, 1893).
Wickersham was an anomaly -- a white racist who hated the Chinese, but who was an enthusiast of Native American culture. Undoubtedly he heard of the massacre story from Nisqually friends. But the statement above loses credibility in its yellow journalism. Who were the witnesses who reported it, if all were killed? Especially ludicrous is the use of the “nits make lice” quote, of Sand Creek Massacre infamy. And what witness came forward who heard that statement? The death count of 33 is the highest of any known.
It is said that Wickersham, like the other chronicler of the Mashel Massacre, Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), hated Hamilton Maxon. Why has not yet been determined for sure. Elwood Evans, first president of the Washington State Historical Society, apparently criticized Wickersham’s address and asked for evidence of the massacre, because Wickersham responded in another address given on October 30, 1893, and quoted from Ezra Meeker’s book Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. Through this quote Wickersham presents his rebuttal to Evans:
"Colonel Shaw returned to Camp Montgomery while Maxon’s company again turned south and east and went up the Nisqually to near the canyon, where they discovered a large fishing camp, and here they murdered everyone -- men, women and children. But Mr. Evans says, where is your record? Such as it is, is on pages 307-8 of Governor Stevens’ war message (letter), which lies open before me. Here is all there is of it: “We (Maxon) continued our returning course next on the trail, being generally in a south and east direction. * * * * Again arrived at Michel prairie. * * * * Having no provisions, I have come to this place, where I await orders. Signed, H.J.G. Maxon, Capt. Com’d’g Mounted Rifles.
"Now, read those eight asterisks and you have the massacre. The record is mutilated -- it is wanting in completeness. When Governor Stevens printed his message with appendix, he found it too vile in this spot and cut out the account of the massacre -- at any rate it should be in this very spot under date of April, 1856. But it is not there and we must supply it" (Meeker 1905).
This was Wickersham’s first proof offered, that the massacre was present in Maxon’s letter, but that the pertinent information was struck from the record by Governor Stevens. This first point has been proven false, as a result of some detective work by writer Abbi Wonacott, author of Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually. The letter that Wickersham refers to does indeed appear in Message of the Governor of the Territory of Washington (Stevens 1857), in an appendix of attached correspondence. And the puzzling asterisks are in the letter. But Ms. Wonacott obtained a copy of the original Maxon letter from the Washington State Archives. The removed portions of the letter contain information concerning a later patrol by Maxon’s unit and provide no information on the Mashel Massacre. Why these unimportant details were cut from the record is not known. It may have been done due to space considerations, but they were certainly not removed in an effort to conceal anything. So, Wickersham’s first proof is an incorrect assumption. In his address, he offered his second proof:
Under date of Sunday, August 21, 1892, the account of James Longmire, who was an intense partisan of Governor Stevens, was published in the Ledger and from that I quote one paragraph:
“About this time Governor Curry of Oregon sent a company of troops to our assistance, under Captain Miller. Indians were still stealing horses and killing cattle. A band of these robbers were followed by Captain Maxon to the Michel River, where the last one of them was killed” (Meeker, 1905).
These lines are a direct quote from the pages of the Tacoma Sunday Ledger, which published James Longmire’s account of his pioneer experiences (Tacoma Sunday Ledger, 1892). But it is a long stretch to assume the massacre is referred to in that last sentence. So Wickersham’s second proof is inconclusive. Then he plays his trump card:
"Robert Thompson, who now lives at 24th and South C. Street, Tacoma, was present when Maxon’s company attacked this camp and I quote a letter from him on this subject: 'Tacoma, Oct. 29, 1893.This evidence is more difficult to dismiss than Wickersham’s other two proofs. But even this is somewhat suspect. For one thing, it is curious that this message turned up at his address just one day before his rebuttal address to the Washington State Historical Society. And no trace of Thompson’s letter has ever been found. Thompson was attached to the Quarter Master Department, which handled supply and installation for the Army and the volunteers. So he could have been in the vicinity. But he is not listed as a member of Maxon’s troop, or of Achilles. Why Thompson was away from his unit, as an unauthorized participant in a strenuous search and destroy maneuver, is an unanswerable question. The evidence for the Mashel Massacre, as presented by Wickersham and reiterated by Meeker, is therefore flimsy.
'James Wickersham. -- Dear Sir: I know about the killing of the Indians by Maxon’s company on the upper Nisqually. They killed about fifteen to seventeen, maybe more. [We know from other sources there were nearer thirty. – E. M.] I saw the dead ones -- two in the river. There were but two men among them. (signed) R. Thompson.'
"Mr. Thompson is known by all old settlers to be reliable, and in this matter he absolutely refused to state a number above those actually seen by him dead on the ground and the two in the river. The whole truth is that about thirty or more were cruelly massacred, nearly all being women and children" (Meeker 1905).
Yet the real proof of the massacre is present in the Nisqually oral tradition. Why did not Wickersham and Meeker simply use those accounts to prove that the massacre occurred? It seems clear that these two prominent white men did not think that anyone would believe an Indian. So they went grasping after straws to construe a “white” account of the event.
Can Meeker's Word Be Trusted?
Both Wickersham and Meeker, especially Meeker, do a disservice to Washington state history in their elevation of assumptions into fact and to their distortion of historic events. Meeker’s disingenuousness is readily apparent in his book Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound, in which he seeks to slander Hamilton Maxon and conceal his own past. The following account of events is interesting and revealing of Meeker’s true character, in light of the popular view of him as a defender of the Indian cause and of Leschi in particular. Remember: the subtitle of Meeker’s book is The Tragedy of Leschi.
In November 1857, Leschi was arrested and put on trial for the murder of a Puget Sound settler, Sampson Moses. The first jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. The primary argument for acquittal was that the killing occurred during a time of war, so could not be charged as a murder. Meeker was on the jury, and urged acquittal. Hopelessly deadlocked, the jury was dismissed.
A second trial didn’t include Meeker on the jury, and the verdict was “guilty as charged,” and the sentence was death. Meeker’s argument for Leschi’s innocence is puzzling in light of his subsequent actions.
The date of execution was set at January 22, 1858. But maneuvering by certain politicians prevented the death warrant from being issued. When the execution day passed with Leschi still alive, many citizens rose up to protest the breakdown of law and order. Mass meetings were held at which it was demanded that the verdict of Leschi be upheld. One of these was chaired by Hamilton Maxon.
In his 1905 book, Meeker castigates Maxon for his participation in such a witch hunt, and reiterated his charge that Maxon “was known to have been engaged in the fiendish massacre of helpless women and children, the difference being that the location was on the Michel River and the number twice as great as the white people massacred by the Indians.” Meeker goes on to admit attending a similar meeting, but insists it was only to express the citizen’s concern for the “total disregard of law in their midst.” Meeker insists that his group, unlike Maxon’s, did not call for retribution against Leschi, “omitting any reference to the participation of the Indian Leschi in the massacre of women and children during the fall of 1855, for which he was not on trial, and in which the participants in the meeting did not believe he was guilty” (Meeker 1905).
The following is taken from the first resolution passed by the citizen’s meeting that Meeker attended: “We wish to express our indignation at the part of our said sheriff acted in the late farce of the non-execution of the sentence of the law and justice upon the notorious Indian Leschi, who a few short months since was murdering, in cold blood, our inoffensive and defenseless neighbors and their children, and would, had it been in his power, swept every civilized being from this fair land.”
Historian William Bonney identifies Meeker as the chairman of the meeting, and both he and the Pioneer and Democrat indicate that he was the first person to sign the resolutions. This meeting was held on January 26, 1858. On February 19, 1858, Leschi was hanged. People like Ezra Meeker had sealed his fate. Leschi’s executioner, Charles Grainger, was quoted as saying “I felt I was hanging an innocent man.”
Although Leschi was killed, his efforts to resist were not entirely in vain. On January 19, 1857, a presidential Executive Order quadrupled the size of the original Nisqually reservation established by the Medicine Creek Treaty and included more desirable land. Of course much of that land was returned when Ft. Lewis was created, many years later. On December 10, 2004, a special state historical court cleared Chief Leschi of murder charges.
Traditional Indian Accounts
According to Nisqually tribal member and author Cecilia Svinth Carpenter, “the story of the Mashel Massacre has always been a part of Nisqually oral tradition” (Cecilia Carpenter, personal communication with Abbi Wonacott, August 26, 2008). These accounts have rarely, however, reached the expression of actual printed words. Carpenter herself briefly reports the traditional accounts in her books on the Nisqually Indians (Carpenter 1994, 2002, 2004), but provides no references. The earliest evidence of the oral tradition, recorded mere weeks, or less, after the event, appears to be the account of A. V. Kautz, related earlier: “When we fell in with them we learned that the Washington Territory volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed the most of them without regard to age or sex” (Kautz, 1875).
The story of the Mashel Massacre was passed down through extended families, from generation to generation. One such family was that of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually Indian and fishing rights activist. Billy’s grandfather was a young boy at the time of the Puget Sound Indian War and passed his memories on to his descendents. Although he was not a witness, he recalled stories that he was told. He repeated these to his son, Billy Frank Jr., who related this version in a taped interview:
"Those Indians at the massacre, they were ... up on the hill looking down at the place where the Mashel runs into the Nisqually. They said the soldiers came on them and the Indians all ran down the hill and swam across the [Nisqually] and ran up the other side. And the soldiers were shooting them from the top of the hill. There was a woman carrying a baby on her back and they shot her. She and the baby fell into the river and floated down ... . Some of the young got away -- climbed up the hill on the other side of the river. I don’t know how many they killed, but there were a lot of them" (Wilkinson, p. 17).Another account of the Mashel Massacre is that of Henry Sicade. He was a Nisqually Indian, born in 1866, who received a college education and became a relatively wealthy farmer in the Puyallup Valley. Active in politics, he was director of the Fife School for a number of years. On April 10, 1917, he read a paper at a meeting of the Research Club of Tacoma, relating some of the oral traditions of the Nisqually and other Native American groups. In his presentation Sicade relates this account of the Mashel Massacre:
"Shortly after this, the soldiers were pressing the Squallys and they retreated up the mountains, some getting away to the Yakima country. About 40 to 50 women, children and babies and two old men were sent up Squally River to hunt a hiding place. This part of the story is a sort of family history. Seeing the party was rather large and making slow progress, a woman with her children suggested that the party travel in two or three sections so that they could be more easily managed. The larger party of about thirty, including the two old men, decided to keep together and the smaller party promptly sheered off and was soon gone up the river bank and into the timbers. Looking back as the last child was helped, the woman who acted as leader saw the larger party overtaken by a band of white men, every man armed. The old men and the women were shot down, the defenseless children were killed and later the babies were found crushed against the boulders by the river and in the river, not a life being spared" (Sicade 1917).
When Sicade’s paper was printed in 1940, in a publication celebrating Washington state’s fiftieth Anniversary, it was preceded by a disclaimer: “Some points in the tradition as it came to Mr. Sicade do not tally with contemporary records, especially for some war events. But events of Indian wars should not be judged by our civil laws” (Sicade, 1917). Once again, whites do not really trust Indians to speak the truth. And of course, oral traditions typically result in a wide variety of versions.
Terrible Things, and Shameful
What is clear, however, is that terrible things, and shameful, happened where the Mashel joins the Nisqually. It seems impossible that we will ever know exactly what happened. Some portray the tragedy as just another consequence of the folly that is war. Prominent historian Aubrey Haines commented on the Mashel Massacre in just such a fashion: “That attack on the small band of Nisqually Indians led by Ski-hi is one of the least known events of the Indian war, and consequently, one of the most misrepresented. It was not a ‘massacre’ but a surprise attack of a sort which was a standard tactic of Indian warfare and used by both white and red men” (Haines, 1999, p. 220).
Yet this simple description fails to explain why what happened left such an indelible mark on a whole people. Yes, in that war, as in all such conflicts, horrific things happened, and innocents died. We will never know exactly what happened that day, but we cannot afford to let the memory of it fade.