Leschi (1808-1858) and his half-brother, Quiemuth (ca. 1798-1856), were respected members of the Nisqually Indian Tribe of South Puget Sound. In 1854 they were appointed by Washington Territory's first governor, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), to represent their tribe during treaty talks near Medicine Creek in north Thurston County. Outraged by the inadequate reservation imposed by the treaty, Leschi took up arms and became the leading chief of a fighting force comprising members of several Puget Sound tribes. Outgunned and outmanned, in the spring of 1856 Leschi and his remaining followers retreated to the Kittitas Valley. But he had become the primary focus for the vengeance of Governor Stevens, and upon returning west in late 1856 Leschi was betrayed, arrested, and charged with the murder of a volunteer militiaman. After two trials and a convoluted and error-filled legal odyssey, Leschi was convicted, and on February 19, 1858, was hanged at Steilacoom. Still, the Puget Sound War had not been fought in vain; in January 1857 larger and more appropriate reservations were approved for the region's tribes. Nearly 150 years later, in 2004, a specially formed historical court exonerated Chief Leschi of the crime for which he was executed.
The Nisqually Indians' homeland was the watershed of the Nisqually River, ranging from the saltwater shores of South Puget Sound east to Mount Rainier. The tribe had prospered there for thousands of years, but decimated by diseases brought by outsiders, it numbered no more than a few hundred by the mid-1850s. Those living nearest Puget Sound relied on fishing for their primary livelihood, while those in the upriver foothills and prairies were more reliant on hunting, and later, farming. Both groups supplemented their diets by gathering camas roots, berries, and other edibles.
The tribe spoke Lushootseed and lived in a dozen or so villages along the banks of the Nisqually and its tributaries. Organized in extended-family groups, they resided in large cedar-plank dwellings during winter and in temporary shelters while hunting, fishing, or gathering during the warmer months. Each village had a headman, but there was often no broader governance; the last tribal-wide Nisqually chief was Laghlet, who died in 1849 and was not replaced.
The Nisquallies were polygynous, with men often having two or more wives. Marriage between Nisquallies and the nearby Puyallups, and from east of the Cascades the Yakama and Klickitat, was not uncommon. Neither notably aggressive nor particularly adept at combat, they would flee when they could, and fight only when they must. Their most daunting enemies were fierce Haida raiders who came by sea from British Columbia to slaughter and enslave. As did most Northwest tribes, the Nisquallies also kept slaves, some captured during battle, most purchased from other tribes.
A World Changes
By the first decade of the nineteenth century, a few non-Native trappers and traders, mostly French Canadians, were passing through Nisqually territory without incident. In 1833 the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) built a trading station, Fort Nisqually, near today's DuPont, the first permanent European settlement on Puget Sound. In 1838 HBC established the Puget Sound Agricultural Company on a 180-square-mile swath of Nisqually land, pasturing livestock and planting wheat where the tribe had long gathered food. Nonetheless, the company maintained amicable relations with the Nisquallies, employing some, trading with many, sanctioning marriage between white men and Native women, and strictly prohibiting the sale of liquor to tribal people.
The 1846 Oregon Treaty set the boundary between America and British Canada at the 49th parallel, but allowed HBC to continue its operations south of that line for an indeterminate time. In 1850 the Donation Land Claim Act offered free land in Oregon Territory, which brought a flood of new American settlers to the Northwest. Most showed little deference to the ownership claims of HBC, much less those of the region's tribes. The company's operations slowly withered, but Fort Nisqually would remain an HBC operation until 1869. The Native peoples would have no such grace period; in 1851 their fate was sealed when Congress created the reservation system with passage of the Indian Appropriations Act.
Son, Brother, Husband, and Father
Native American oral traditions preserve cultural beliefs. Cecilia Svinth Carpenter, a historian and enrolled member of the Nisqually Tribe, opens her biography of Leschi citing such a belief:
"Leschi was born to be a leader. His people believe that the star 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" (Carpenter, Leschi ..., 7).
Leschi's birth name is unrecorded. By tradition, Nisqually boys could pick their own names at an appropriate age. There is only guesswork about why Leschi chose the name he did -- it is not translatable, and he may simply have liked the sound of it.
It is generally accepted that Leschi was born in early January 1808 at Bashelabesh, a prairie village near where the Mashel River joins the Nisqually River, about 25 miles upstream from its mouth. His father, Ya-nat-co (ca. 1775-1856), was prosperous, his wealth represented by a large herd of horses.
Leschi's mother, Conuzita (ca. 1790-1874), is often identified as a member of the Klickitat Tribe, but most sources say that We-ow-wicht, a Yakama chief, was her father. Thus the Yakama tribe's war chief, Owhi (1800-1858), was her brother, and Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877), who succeeded We-ow-wicht as the Yakama chief, was her nephew. They and Owhi's son, Qualchan (d. 1858) would be allied with Leschi in the coming war. Only Kamiakin would survive it.
Leschi's half-brother, Quiemuth (ca. 1798-1856), was about 10 years older. Growing up, they were inseparable. Leschi also had a sister, whose name is unrecorded. She was married to Stahi (1820-?), a close friend and wartime comrade of Leschi and Quiemuth.
Leschi had three wives, but the dates of the unions are not recorded and several names are given. His first wife was Tyee Mary (or Sara) Leschi (1799-1872), and the union was childless. He later took a second wife, Mary (or Annie) Leschi Stillman (1815-1915), a member of the Squaxin Tribe who married a white man after Leschi's death. She and Leschi had two daughters, Kalakala "Jennie" Leschi (1836-1880) and Sarah Leschi (1842-1897). Kalakala and a white settler, Charles H. Eaton (1818-1876), lived together for many years in a relationship that produced five children. They may have married, although no record exists.
Leschi's third wife, Mary, was born in 1839 and must have been in her early to mid-teens at the time of the marriage. She died in 1924, outliving her husband by nearly seven decades.
Leschi in Peacetime
Little is known of Leschi's life up until the mid-1850s. When young, he and Quiemuth enjoyed a degree of respect based on the wealth and reputation of their father. As adults they lived with their families near Muck Creek, northwest of their birthplace. They farmed, hunted, and raised a growing herd of horses, which brought them prosperity and respect on their own merit. Leschi's reputation for sagacity was such that he was often asked to arbitrate tribal disputes. However, neither he nor Quiemuth were anointed or recognized as chiefs until the titles were thrust upon in them in 1854 by Isaac Stevens, Washington Territory's first governor and superintendant of Indian affairs, soon to be the Nemesis of both.
There are no known depictions of Leschi created during his lifetime. Almost every eyewitness account agrees that he was unusually light-complexioned for a Coast Salish person, but that is about the only description that seems widely accepted. Estimates of his height vary from 5 feet, 7 inches to 6 feet, tall for a coastal Native and likely a reflection of his mother's Yakama and Klickitat heritage. Nisqually historian Cecelia Carpenter has noted that "It was then a 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 typical of the canoe Indians of Puget Sound" (Carpenter, Leschi ..., 7).
Like most Coast Salish tribes, Nisqually mothers commonly strapped boards to their infants' heads to shape their skulls, creating a steeply sloped forehead and flattened parietal and occipital bones in the rear. Sources cannot even agree on whether Leschi had been so treated. Pioneer and amateur historian Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) quoted Charles Grainger, Leschi's executioner, as saying "his head was not flattened much, if any at all. He had a very high forehead for an Indian" (Meeker, 454). In the same volume, Meeker quotes Judge James Wickersham -- "He was a true flathead, and had large brain room" (Meeker, 211). The first observation seems most likely, as the tribes from whence his mother came did not follow the custom.
Even those white settlers not disposed to respect Leschi noted his unmistakable presence, accentuated by a penetrating gaze, erect bearing, and a habit of keeping his own counsel. In Lushootseed he was said to be a captivating and persuasive orator. He was conversant in Sahaptin, the language of his mother's people, but by most accounts had almost no working knowledge of English and only partial familiarity with Chinook Jargon, a trading language of a few hundred words, a mash-up of English, French, and a number of indigenous dialects.
As for Leschi's nature and character, he was regarded by most HBC personnel as honest and helpful, if somewhat taciturn. In the mid-1840s he had guided at least one white settler, James McAllister (1812-1855), to fertile land for homesteading, and in return McAllister taught Leschi and Quiemuth how to cultivate potatoes and wheat. In 1853 Leschi loaned pack horses from his herd to American volunteers building a military road. Owen Bush (1832-1907), who with his parents had settled at Bush Prairie in the mid-1840s, spoke Salish and knew Leschi well. He is quoted by Ezra Meeker as saying:
"Leschi was as good a friend as we ever had. He was dignified in his intercourse and proud of his country, and, I may say, proud of himself ... The Indians could have killed us all any time during the eight years we were here before Governor Stevens came, but instead of molesting us in any way they helped us all they could" (Meeker, 207-208).
But Leschi remained an enigma to many. HBC's chief trader at Fort Nisqually, William Tolmie (1812-1886), who had known Leschi since 1833 and later fought his execution, described him as "a shrewd Indian, hard to fathom and find out" (Olson, p. 29).
Governor Isaac Stevens
If Leschi was unusually tall for his kind, Isaac Stevens was notably short for his, standing only about three inches over five feet. He had a large head, a long torso, and short, bandied legs, the probable result of a congenital pituitary insufficiency.
Stevens's diminutive size was more than compensated for by his intelligence, demonstrated bravery, and unbridled ambition. He placed first in his graduating class at West Point in 1839, served in the prestigious Corps of Engineers, and fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1847. He later worked for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which was surveying and mapping the country's largely unexplored western regions.
When the U.S. Congress created Washington Territory out of the northern portion of Oregon Territory in March 1853, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Stevens, a fellow Democrat, as its first governor. After establishing a government and a patronage system, his next priority was to wrest from the indigenous people their ancestral lands, and he requested and was given the additional role of superintendant of Indian affairs. Indicative of his energy and driving ambition, during his trek west to take up his offices, Stevens led a successful survey for the Northern Pacific Railway Exploration, a federally funded effort to determine the best route for a transcontinental railroad.
Stevens finally arrived in Olympia, the territorial capital, on November 25, 1853. Months earlier, George W. Manypenny (1808-1892), commissioner of the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, had directed him to consolidate the approximately 50 identifiable tribes in Washington Territory into as few kindred groups as possible and give each group the smallest possible reservation. Manypenny thought six or eight reservations should be sufficient, and there is evidence that Stevens did not fully agree with these directives. But there was no doubt he would carry them out, and a month after his arrival he reported to Manypenny that the Indians were "useful in many ways" and, "if confined on reservations under the direction of efficient agents ... little objection, if any, would be made by the whites" (Kluger, 49-50). Months later, with almost complete disregard for any objections the Native people might have, Stevens set about his task.
When Stevens decided to tackle the treaties in the fall of 1854, it made sense to deal first with the Native people nearest Olympia, identified as the "Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squawskin, S'Homamish, Stehchass, T'Peeksin, Squi-aitl, and Sa-heh-wamish tribes and bands" (Medicine Creek Treaty, Preamble). Stevens appointed a three-man team to lay the groundwork, with Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867) serving as special Indian agent. Simmons had come west with Owen Bush's family and established the first American settlement north of the Columbia River, which he named New Market (today's Tumwater). Burly, blunt, and functionally illiterate, he seemed an odd choice for the task Stevens gave him, but he knew the local Native people and had a reputation for fair, if not overly warm, dealings with them.
Simmons was assigned to visit the various tribes, recommend to Stevens which could be consolidated for treaty and reservation purposes, and identify or appoint chiefs to represent them. For the Nisquallies, who had had no overall leader since the death of Laghlet, he made Quiemuth chief and the younger Leschi subchief. Simmons also counted the members of the several tribes and bands that would be affected by the treaty, coming up with a suspiciously exact 638, a number that presumably was to influence the size of the reservations. The true count, later determined, was more than 2,000.
Perhaps the most important member of the team, and the most sympathetic to the Natives' predicament, was George Gibbs (1815-1873), a well-traveled ethnologist and Harvard-trained attorney who was to draft the treaty's text, the boilerplate of which would be used in future treaties as well. The third member was Bejanmin Franklin "Frank" Shaw (1829-1908), who had disdain for the Indians and little regard for their interests, but was fluent in Lushootseed and Chinook Jargon.
Stevens and his crew wasted no time. The tribes were directed to gather for a treaty conference on Christmas Day, 1854, at Medicine Creek, known to the Nisquallies as She-Nah-Nam. By December 24 approximately 700 Natives -- including 62 who Simmons had identified as leaders -- had set up camp across the creek from Stevens and his small cadre.
The Medicine Creek Treaty
The details of the treaty meetings have been thoroughly dissected in dozens of books, articles, and scholarly papers. It suffices here to say that what occurred at Medicine Creek was not negotiation, but diktat. The treaty was written before the parties met; only the reservations' precise boundaries were not detailed, and that only because Stevens's haste had left no time for proper inspections and surveys. An incomplete understanding of the treaty's terms by the Native people was guaranteed when, at the governor's insistence, it was read only in Chinook Jargon, far too limited a tongue to convey the nuanced meanings of the document's legalese.
Stevens had settled on three reservations: Squaxin Island for the tribe of that name, one for the Puyallups and one for the Nisquallies, each sketchily described, 1,280-acre (two-square-mile) sites atop bluffs facing Puget Sound. The tribes collectively were allotted approximately six square miles; in return, they were required to surrender approximately 3,960 square miles of the land of their ancestors.
The treaty also ignored the fact that the Nisquallies comprised two groups, the "fish people" who lived near the saltwater, and the upriver "horse people," who were primarily herders, hunters, farmers, and gatherers (Kluger, 78). The reservation's adjacency to Puget Sound and the promise that the Nisquallies would retain "the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations" (Medicine Creek Treaty, Article 3) made it marginally acceptable to the fish people. But it was on heavily forested and rocky ground, unsuitable for farming or stock raising, and with no frontage on the Nisqually River, around which the tribe's life had revolved for many centuries. Moving there would spell death for the lifestyle and horse-based prosperity of many upriver Nisquallies, most consequentially Leschi and Quiemuth.
Leschi's behavior at the treaty conference was not at all "hard to fathom," to borrow Tolmie's characterization. Most sources agree that after the first reading of the treaty on December 25, Leschi angrily tore up the certificate appointing him subchief and stamped it into the mud. Some accounts say he then left the conference in a rage. Others indicate that he was still there on December 26, but refused to put his mark on the treaty. An "X" appeared next to Leschi's name; whether he put it there has never been determined. The weight of evidence supports Leschi's claim that he did not, and his angry response to the treaty is not in serious dispute. In January 1858, Tolmie wrote to Washington Territory's new governor, Fayette McMullen (1805-1880), "Leschi, I have learned from both whites and Indians, protested vehemently there [Medicine Creek] against the reservation originally appointed for the Nisquallies" (Kluger, 95).
After Medicine Creek, Leschi, who had lived in peace among whites for 21 years, became the primary focus of the fury and vengefulness of Isaac Stevens. Perhaps it was simply that Leschi was the first Native American to stand against him face-to-face to condemn the inaugural treaty's gross inequities. Whatever the causes, in the words of author Richard Kluger, from the beginning to long after the end of the Puget Sound Treaty War, Stevens would wage a "vendetta aimed at destroying the last chief of an obscure American tribe -- a man who was, so far as modern scrutiny can tell, a patriot no less devoted to his little nation, equally brave, and just as smart by his own culture's determinants" (Kluger, 3).
Path to War
There is much about Leschi's activities after Medicine Creek that remains unknown or in dispute even today. His defenders point out that he had been dealing amicably with non-Natives since Fort Nisqually opened in 1833, when he was just 25 years old. Something approaching friendship existed between Leschi and a number HBC personnel, and he had been helpful to many early settlers, as attested to by Owen Bush and others. But after the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act brought waves of land-hungry pioneers into the region, serious strains developed. Then came the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act, making it the law of the land to confine Native Americans in reservations. At Medicine Creek the Nisquallies and others tribes and bands learned just what the consequences of this would be -- the loss of their homeland, and with it the slow death of their culture, their traditions, and in time, themselves.
After Medicine Creek, Leschi and Quiemuth retreated upriver to their Muck Creek home. In the early months of 1855 Leschi was reported to be going on horseback to Nisqually villages and those of other tribes in the region, perhaps to gauge sentiment, perhaps to warn of Stevens's perfidy, perhaps to recruit for war, most probably for all three. There is no evidence or even allegations that Leschi was involved in any violence on these forays, but it was soon clear that he was gathering followers. George Gibbs, not unsympathetic to the Native people, characterized Leschi during this time as "a busy intriguer" (Kluger, 115), and there is no reason to doubt that characterization.
In the spring of 1855 Leschi crossed the Cascades to confer with his Yakama relatives, Kamiakin, Owhi, and Qualchan, who had not yet signed a treaty with Stevens but knew that it was soon to come. Through Leschi's mother they were joined to him by blood; in June 1855, after having been coerced in their turn into signing away their land, they would join him in war.
Leschi returned to his own territory, perhaps emboldened by his more militant eastern kinsmen. He had no reputation as a warrior, but he had the respect of his people, an intimate knowledge of the region's terrain, and was a crack shot with a rifle. He also had been closely observing white people for more than two decades, and in October 1855 an HBC employee spotted him on a nearby prairie, drilling his warriors "like soldiers" (Eckrom, 20).
The Puget Sound Treaty War would not be fought in set-piece battles; the Natives knew that the numbers and weaponry of the military and militias would eventually be overwhelming. Nor did Leschi and his fighters try to take and hold territory, using instead practiced tactics of ambush and skirmish. In a typical attack, they would inflict as much damage as they could from concealed positions, then fade back into the forests they knew so well, taking with them, whenever possible, their dead and wounded. This would be a war of attrition, but it was a war, and recognized as such by both sides. Leschi was not fighting to overturn the reservation system in its entirety, but simply to force the government to provide reservations in locations and of sufficient size to give the tribes a chance for continued existence.
The Shooting Begins
The shooting war began east of the Cascades in September 1855 after Yakama people killed several white prospectors, and then U.S. Indian Subagent Andrew Jackson Bolon (c.1826-1855), who was sent to investigate. In response, a military force of 84 men, led by Major Granville O. Haller (1819-1897), trotted forth, only to beat a humiliating retreat when met by a superior Native force.
Events were also moving rapidly west of the Cascades. While Stevens was off pressing treaties onto tribes across the territory, young Charles Mason (1830-1859) was the acting governor. On October 16, 1855, he received a letter from James McAllister (whom Leschi had earlier guided to fertile land) stating in part, "Sir, I am of the opinion that he [Leschi] should be attended to as soon as convenient for fear that he might do something bad" (Kluger, 126).
Mason sent word that he would like to meet with Leschi, and on October 22, Leschi and Quiemuth traveled to Olympia. Leschi told Mason that he still harbored friendly feelings for whites in general and did not want to break the peace, but that his people needed a larger and more suitable reservation. Hoping to neutralize them, Mason asked Leschi and Quiemuth to return to the territorial capital with their families, guaranteeing their well-being. The Nisqually chiefs were non-committal, but had no intention of complying.
Two days later, in one of many strange twists in Leschi's tale, Mason directed Captain Charles H. Eaton, who lived with Leschi's daughter Kalakala, to lead 19 volunteer militiamen (including James McAllister) to apprehend Leschi and Quiemuth and take them into protective custody. When they reached the brothers' land at Muck Creek they found it abandoned, "a plow left standing in mid-furrow, a herd of horses left untended" (Kluger, 128). Leschi, his young wife Mary, Quiemuth, and two others had fled northeast. Near the White River they met a group of warriors, including Muckleshoots, who under the leadership of Chief Kitsap and Chief Nelson were in revolt against the terms of the Point Elliott Treaty, signed just weeks after Medicine Creek and equally confiscatory. Leschi now had allies, and soon he was recognized as the most influential chief among chiefs.