Stolen totem pole unveiled in Seattle's Pioneer Square on October 18, 1899.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2076
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On October 18, 1899, a 60-foot totem pole from Fort Tongass, Alaska, is unveiled in Seattle's Pioneer Square and "greeted by cheers of a multitude of people." The totem had been stolen from a Tlingit village several weeks before and was presented to the City of Seattle by the Chamber of Commerce "Committee of Fifteen" -- the group of Seattle vandals (who were prominent citizens) that had taken the totem.

Attorney William H. Thompson (d. 1918) responded to allegations that the totem was stolen by saying: "The village has long since been deserted ... Here the totem will voice the natives' deeds with surer speech than if lying prone on moss and fern on the shore of Tongass Island" (Dorpat).

Native Americans of the Northwest Coast carved totem poles to document important events, family history, and to identify a family or a clan. The Seattle totem belonged to the Raven Clan (English surname Kinninook) and had been carved in about the year 1790 to honor a woman named Chief-of-All-Women who drowned in the Nass River while on a journey to visit an ailing sister. The top carving was that of a raven, which in Tlingit mythology did everything, knew everything, and seemed to be everywhere at once. In Seattle, the raven faced north up 1st Avenue.

In 1899, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sponsored a "Good Will Committee" of "leading Seattle citizens" on a tour of Southeast Alaska ports aboard the steamer City of Seattle. When the ship stopped at Fort Tongass, third mate R. D. McGillvery went ashore. He later described what happened:

"The Indians were all away fishing, except for one who stayed in his house and looked scared to death. We picked out the best looking totem pole... I took a couple of sailors ashore and we chopped it down - just like you'd chop down a tree. It was too big to roll down the beach, so we sawed it in two."

Members of the Committee of Fifteen paid McGillvrey $2.50 for his effort and the pieces were hoisted aboard the ship.

In 1935, James Clise, the ringleader of the escapade, described the event this way:

"I was, at the time, the Acting President of the Chamber of Commerce and the excursion was largely under my direction. ...

"Arriving at the point designated, we found an abandoned Indian village with probably 100 or more totem poles, from which 17 had been taken a year previously by the Harriman Expedition and distributed to different colleges throughout the East. I should have stated that there were two decrepit Indians which we finally succeeded in interviewing, who made no objection to our taking the pole to Seattle. In fact, the Indians were as pleased at our taking it as were the people of Seattle to receive this outstanding example of workmanship of the Northern Indians" (Clise).

A federal grand jury in Alaska indicted eight of Seattle's most prominent citizens for theft of government property. As Clise explains it:

"By some skillful work and co-operation of certain designing white men then living in Seattle, eight or ten of the principal men aboard the vessel were indicted by the Courts of Alaska for removing the totem pole to Seattle. No attempt was ever made to serve the papers or to take the men interested to Alaska. On the contrary, on one occasion every Senator and Representative from the Pacific Coast states went in a body to the State Department in Washington and asked the dismissal of the suit. They explained it was beyond their power to do so..." (Clise).

When a newly appointed U.S. District Court Judge for Alaska stopped in Seattle enroute to his new posting, he was entertained at the Rainier Club and, as Clise writes, "the entertainment was such a remarkable success that upon his taking his Judicial position in Alaska, one of his first acts was to dismiss the suit" (Clise).

The Tlingit Tribe demanded $20,000 for the stolen totem, but settled for $500, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paid.

On October 22, 1938, an arsonist seriously damaged the totem. It was removed and in 1940 replaced with a replica carved by the descendants of the carvers of the original totem.


Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now and Then Vol. 2 (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1984), 32-35; Joseph H. Wherry, The Totem Pole Indians, (New York: Wilfred Funk, Inc., 1964), 64, 89; William C. Speidel, Sons of the Profits (Seattle: Nettle Creek Publishing Co., 1967), 329-331; Viola Garfield, Seattle's Totem Poles (Bellevue, WA: Thistle Press, 1996), 9; Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, Data on the History of Seattle Park System Vol. 4 (Seattle: Seattle Parks Department, 1978); James William Clise, "Personal Memoirs 1855-1935" Mimeograph, Altadena, California, 1935, Seattle Public Library.

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