Outraged by the sites and sizes of the reservations imposed on South Puget Sound tribes by the Medicine Creek Treaty, Leschi, a respected Nisqually, took up arms and was recognized as the overall leader of warriors from several of the affected tribes. In the spring of 1856, outgunned and outmanned, Leschi and his remaining Nisqually followers retreated to the sanctuary of the Kittitas Valley, where his mother's powerful kin held sway. Even out of combat, the Nisqually chief remained the primary focus for the vengeance of Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862). Upon returning west in late 1856, Leschi was betrayed by a relative, arrested, and charged with the murder of a volunteer militiaman. After a convoluted and error-filled legal odyssey and two trials, Leschi was convicted, and on a cold February 19, 1858, hanged at Steilacoom. But his fight had not been in vain -- a year before his execution, 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 his life was taken.
Leschi at War
Once at war, Leschi had no qualms about killing regular soldiers and militiamen, and there is little doubt, though very little hard evidence, that he did so effectively. But several accounts, including from white settlers, support Leschi's insistence that he opposed the killing of women, children, and non-combatants, believing this would bring shame to the Native cause and turn supportive non-Natives (of which there were a substantial number in Pierce County) against them. Some warriors allied with Leschi had no such qualms, with tragic results.
Leschi's many skirmishes with soldiers and militia are not well documented, perhaps because Native warriors were adept at remaining unseen. The most notorious attacks he was accused of, all but one occurring in the last four days of October 1855, were:
The Killings of James McAllister and Michael Connell: Strong evidence exists of Leschi's involvement in the first white fatalities of the Puget Sound Treaty War. On October 27, 1855, after finding Leschi's Muck Creek farm abandoned, Captain Charles H. Eaton sent ahead two militiamen, James McAllister (whom Leschi had earlier helped find a fertile homestead) and Michael Connell, to try to locate Leschi; both were shot and killed from ambush.
Leschi is reported to have told a fellow Nisqually, Packwood Charlie, "I was engaged in the murder of McAllister" (Kluger, 133). He admitted ordering another Nisqually, Toopapyti, to shoot McAllister. When Toopapyti hesitated, Leschi allegedly warned that he would kill Toopapyti, then shoot McAllister himself, and Toopapyti complied. There is no evidence that Leschi ever denied complicity in the killings. (Note: Indicative of how difficult it is to distill truth from a welter of conflicting accounts, at least one source [Eckrom, 23] states that "Packwood Charlie" was actually the nickname of Captain Charles Eaton.)
The White River Massacre: The next day, in the White River Valley in King County, came the worst atrocity committed by Native Americans during the Puget Sound conflict. Most of the attackers were Muckleshoots and Klickitats, led by their chiefs, Nelson and Kanasket. Nine white settlers were killed, including two children and an infant. Leschi denied involvement, and evidence is lacking to prove otherwise. In his meticulously researched book, Richard Kluger writes that although "under [Leschi's] loose command," the White River attackers were "evidently out of his control" (Kluger, 134). It was the only mass killing of non-Native civilians west of the Cascades during the war, a fact some cite as evidence that Leschi's views prevailed.
The Death of Abram Benton Moses: The single killing for which Leschi was indicted and convicted occurred on October 31, 1855. A small group of volunteer militiamen was passing through a swampy area near Connell's Prairie in Pierce County. Two of the men, Antonio B. Rabbeson (1825-1891) and Abram Benton Moses (d. 1855) were, respectively, the sheriff and former sheriff of Thurston County. They were attacked, and Moses and militiaman Joseph Miles shot dead. More than a year later, Leschi would be indicted for the killing of Moses.
The Battle of Seattle: The evidence of Leschi's direct involvement is equivocal. Isaac Stevens and others blamed him and the Yakama chief, Owhi, for the attack, which came on January 26, 1856. The weight of evidence establishes Owhi's involvement, but no one on either side could firmly place Leschi at the scene, and he denied that he had had played any part. Although shocking, it was a relatively minor affair, lasting just a day. Native warriors sniped from the woods to the east of the muddy little settlement, while a cannon from the American warship Decatur shelled them in return. Two white settlers were killed, one by friendly fire. No Native casualties were found.
Leschi Seeks Peace
After the White River massacre, special Indian agent Michael Simmons (1814-1867) and his deputies rounded up nearly 4,000 Puget Sound tribal members and interned them on several islands. Most of the Nisquallies were housed on Fox Island, where they were supervised by a white fisherman, John Swan (1826-1905).
On January 5, 1856, 21 days before the Battle of Seattle, Leschi and 33 armed braves came to the island by canoe. Leschi asked Swan to tell the authorities that in return for peace, all the rebelling tribes wanted were new reservations in places and of a size to let them live as they were accustomed. Leschi also denied any involvement in the White River massacre, blaming it on cultus (Chinook Jargon for "bad") Indians (Kluger, 148).
Swan sent a message to Fort Steilacoom, just six miles away, asking that someone come meet with the chief. The fort's response was to borrow the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) steamship Beaver and send troops to arrest Leschi and his warriors. In their haste, the officers neglected to bring enough small vessels to ferry soldiers safely to shore, and after a brief standoff Leschi and his men eluded capture.
Shortly after the Battle of Seattle, Leschi made another offer of peace, this time through John McLeod, a white settler who had remained near Muck Creek. Leschi's offer eventually made its way to Governor Stevens. Whether intended as a response or not, Stevens shortly thereafter made a grotesque offer to the Snoqualmie chief, Patkanim (ca. 1815-1858) -- $20 for the head of any Leschi warrior and $80 for Leschi's head. A band of Snoqualmies soon located and attacked Leschi's camp in the forest, and after a night-long battle forced them to flee deeper into the woods.
Victory in Defeat
By March 1856 Leschi and his remaining followers were hungry, ill-clothed, isolated, and relentlessly pursued. His peace overtures spurned, he tried to slow the enemy's momentum by attacking military fortifications and a ferry landing being built at Connell's Prairie. It failed badly, and Leschi was done fighting. He and about 70 remaining followers made their way across the Cascades to take refuge with the Yakama Tribe in the Kittitas Valley. Leschi's young wife Mary did not accompany them.
In early August 1856, Governor Stevens convened a second treaty conference with several hundred Nisquallies still on Fox Island. In a blatant, self-serving lie, he told the assembled that the original reservations set out at Medicine Creek "were suggested by yourselves. I had them surveyed and found them not good" (Kluger, 181). Although inventing a history to his liking, he did promise revisions to the original treaty, painting it as an act of great magnanimity. Stevens claimed without proof to have sent word to Leschi and other chiefs 19 months earlier that the reservations would be changed. This seems highly unlikely, given Leschi's repeated offers to lay down arms in return for better reservations.
On January 20, 1857, President Franklin Pierce approved a new reservation for the Nisquallies, 4,717 acres (7.5 square miles) of bottomland straddling the Nisqually River and running about four miles northwest from Muck Creek. The Puyallup Tribe, whose leaders had not gone to war, was given a 36-square-mile site, and the Muckleshoot and related bands who had signed the Point Elliott Treaty received a reservation of their own. Now in hiding east of the Cascades, Leschi knew nothing of this victory.
Out for Blood
His reluctant admission that the first reservations were "not good" did nothing to diminish Stevens's deep hatred for Leschi. As a military man, he was angered that the Puget Sound Treaty War did not have a decisive ending, much less a formal surrender. The hostilities west of the Cascades simply petered out, depriving Stevens of the military glory he felt was his due.
By this time, his campaign for retribution had lost the support of the U.S. military, largely because of the predations of the governor's volunteer militias. In late March or early April of 1856, a militia unit led by Captain Hamilton J. G. Maxon (1813-1884) came upon a camp of 40 to 50 Nisquallies, mostly women, children, and unarmed older men, near the Mashel River. Maxon attacked, killing somewhere between 17 and 30 Native Americans, none of whom posed the slightest threat. Pleased, Stevens rewarded Maxon with a promotion to major, and later rejected the army's demand that he disband his undisciplined volunteers.
Stevens vs. the Courts
The Nisqually River was (and is) the dividing line between Pierce County and Thurston County. Since the establishment of HBC's Fort Nisqually in 1833, whites and Native people had lived side by side in Pierce County and maintained generally good relations. Politically, most people in the county were aligned with the Whigs (predecessor to today's Republican Party) rather than with the Democrats, a party that supported, or was willing to tolerate, the continuation of slavery.
Thurston County followed a different path. Upon his arrival in Olympia in late 1853, Stevens filled dozens of patronage positions with Democrats. The county became a political fiefdom, with Stevens the unchallenged party boss. In early 1854 a pro-Stevens newspaper, the Pioneer and Democrat, began publishing in Olympia, an unquestioning house organ for the governor, parroting and even outdoing his diatribes against Native Americans.
In early March 1856 Stevens became convinced that white farmers near Muck Creek, some married to Native women, were aiding Leschi and his warriors. He had a dozen families arrested and threatened several of the men with charges of treason. A territorial judge ordered them released; Stevens responded by declaring martial law in Pierce County, suspending all functions of civil government, including the courts.
As the farmers remained jailed, a series of outrageous events played out. These included the jailing by Stevens of Edward M. Lander (1816-1907), the chief justice of the territorial supreme court, who when released issued a bench warrant for the governor's arrest. Stevens responded by extending martial law to Thurston County and having Lander arrested a second time. Stevens was cited for contempt of court, but granted himself a temporary pardon (although a $50 fine was eventually paid by one of his supporters). There were armed confrontations between Stevens's militias and civilian authorities in courtrooms and at the governor's home. Finally, on May 28, another judge ordered the farmers brought to the Pierce County court. A prosecutor determined the charges against them were without merit and they were finally released.
The governor's outrageous behavior prompted a group of former associates, including George Gibbs, the author of the Medicine Creek Treaty, to write to the U.S. secretary of state in protest. Their letter claimed that Stevens's worst tendencies had been "further inflamed by the immoderate use of ardent spirits, and in his fits of intoxication [he] knows no bounds to his language or to his actions" (Kluger, 172). The territorial legislature and the U.S. Senate both censured Stevens, and the secretary of state informed him that President Pierce had expressed "distinct disapproval of your conduct so far as respects the proclamation of martial law ..." (Kluger, 175). But by now Stevens considered himself above reproach; the chastening did nothing to moderate his behavior, and his campaign against Leschi continued unabated.
Leschi Comes Home
In June 1856, with 20 unarmed warriors and their families, Leschi approached Colonel George Wright (1803-1865), commander of the army's Ninth Infantry bivouacked not far from Leschi's encampment in the Kittitas Valley. Despite Leschi's pledge that he was now irrevocably for peace, Wright feared that the chief's return to his homeland might reignite hostilities. He promised the Nisquallies that so long as they remained under his jurisdiction and caused no trouble, he would assure their personal safety.
Stevens was not pleased, and demanded of Wright that "no arrangement be made which will save their necks from the Executioner" (Kluger, 188). Wright offered to encourage Leschi and his followers to return to Pierce County, but only if Stevens would guarantee their safety, which he of course would not consider. His hatred undimmed by the passage of time or the outbreak of peace, he told the army commander of Fort Steilacoom, Colonel Silas Casey (1807-1882), that Leschi and others were "notorious murderers" who had committed savage acts "under circumstances of treachery and blood thirstiness almost beyond example" (Kluger, 189).
By the early fall of 1856 word of the new reservation had reached Leschi in the Kittitas Valley, prompting some of his followers to cross back over the Cascades. Leschi, said to be homesick and missing his wife, returned as well, but remained in hiding. He ventured once to Fort Nisqually to confirm to HBC's William Tolmie that he would wage no further war, even offering to cut off his right hand as proof of his sincerity. Leschi was willing to put himself under the protection of Casey at Fort Steilacoom, but Casey, wary of Stevens, thought it in Leschi's best interest to stay hidden in the woods for the time being.
Leschi and the Law
On November 3, 1856, a grand jury convened in the Third Judicial District at Steilacoom, Judge Francis Chenoweth (1819-1899) presiding, to consider charges again Leschi. As a foretaste of what sort of justice Leschi could expect, the foreman of the grand jury was none other than Antonio B. Rabbeson, the sheriff of Thurston County and a witness to the death one year earlier of his predecessor, Abram Benton Moses. Not surprisingly, the grand jury indicted Leschi for killing Moses, but that was not the last of the Rabbeson's involvement. In the two trials that followed, he would be the primary witness for the prosecution, the only one whose testimony, however muddled, implicated Leschi.
Ten days after the grand jury indictment, on November 13, Leschi's nephew Sluggia delivered him into custody in return for a reward of 50 blankets. An additional motive for the betrayal may have been Sluggia's infatuation with Leschi's wife Mary. Leschi was taken first to Steilacoom, then briefly to Stevens's Olympia home, where the two had their first face-to-face encounter since Medicine Creek. No record of what occurred at that meeting remains.
Leschi's First Trial
With Leschi at last in captivity, the governor wasted no time. He sent a message asking Judge Chenoweth to open his court in special session to bring Leschi immediately to trial. Although he had been at odds with Stevens during the martial-law controversy, the judge complied. The first trial of Leschi got underway on November 17, 1856, at Steilacoom, where many did not share the virulent anti-Indian sentiment that prevailed in the governor's Olympia stronghold.
Unfortunately, all notes and records from that trial were destroyed in a fire, leaving researchers with just a few personal recollections and the biased reporting of the pro-Stevens Pioneer and Democrat, then the region's only newspaper. Its account claimed that "The evidence of A. B. Rabbeson Esq. was conclusive, and to the point. He testified that ... he saw Leschi, Quiemuth, and another Indian issue from the brush, and take a position in the road in front of him, at a distance of not to exceed thirty-five or forty feet; and that then and there Leschi deliberately leveled his gun at him and fired" ("Leschi, Quiemuth, etc."). Note that Rabbeson testified that Leschi had fired at him, not at Abram Benton Moses, who the evidence showed had been shot somewhat earlier.
Only two witnesses were identified for the defense. William Tolmie of HBC apparently vouched for Leschi's good character and reputation. In yet another bizarre twist, Leschi's nephew and betrayer, Sluggia, was the other defense witness. According to the Pioneer and Democrat (which identified him as "Sluggy"), he testified that he was "present when Moses and Miles were killed, and that he knew, at that time, Leschi was on the other side of the Cascades" ("Leschi, Quiemuth, etc.").
The case went to the jury, which included Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), at about 7 p.m. that evening. According to Meeker, writing 50 years after the event, "The judge [Chenoweth] had charged that if the deed were done as an act of war, the prisoner could not be held answerable to the civil law. Four of us so held, and refused to convict" (Meeker, 420). Meeker later said there were only two votes for acquittal, one of them cast by him. Either way, the question of whether Leschi had actually been at the scene, and if so, whether he had shot Abram Moses, was never reached.
On the morning of November 18 Judge Chenoweth ordered a mistrial and excused the jury. On November 19, perhaps heartened by the result, Leschi's half-brother, Quiemuth, traveled to Olympia and surrendered to Stevens. That night he was murdered, shot and stabbed while sleeping in the governor's house. No one was ever charged with the crime.
Leschi's Second Trial
A month after Leschi's first trial, in a move that some historians claim was nefarious (Olson, 30) and others characterize as probably routine (Kunsch, 78-80), the territorial legislature moved Pierce County into the Second Judicial District, with Olympia designated as the place where court would be held. Leschi would be retried in the lion's den, where Stevens ruled supreme, the racist paper Pioneer and Democrat steered public opinion, and a jury would likely include men predisposed to finding him guilty.
The trial began on March 18, 1857, with Judge Lander presiding. Lander had both grappled with Stevens over martial law and commanded a militia unit that had fought in the Puget Sound Treaty War, possibly against Leschi himself, circumstances that today would require his recusal. In yet another strange turn, Frank Clark (1832-1833), who had been a prosecutor in the first trial, was now co-counsel in Leschi's defense, together with William Henson Wallace (1811-1879), who four years later would become Washington Territory's fourth governor.
Once again, Rabbeson was the prosecution's star witness, and once again his testimony was convoluted and, to many observers, unpersuasive. He testified that the attack took place in two volleys, with Moses and Miles killed in the first. It was somewhat later, near sunset, that Leschi allegedly had appeared with two other Native men and shot at Rabbeson. Neither he nor any other witness claimed to have seen who had fired the first and fatal volley, leaving the jury little to guide them but speculation and prejudice. Significantly, Judge Lander refused to give an instruction that the killing of an armed enemy in wartime was not recognized as murder.
That was enough to ensure a verdict of guilty, returned on March 19. A request for a new trial was denied, and Leschi's execution date was set for June 10. His attorneys appealed to the territorial supreme court, which would not convene until December, guaranteeing that the execution could not be carried out before January 1858.
A Foregone Conclusion
The territorial supreme court had three justices -- Chenoweth and Lander, who had, respectively, presided over Leschi's first and second trials, and Obadiah B. McFadden (1815-1875). Lander was absent from the territory, so only Chenoweth and McFadden heard the appeal, which was argued on December 16, 1857. Any hope that it would be favorable to the accused was put to rest by the second and third sentences of Justice McFadden's opinion, joined in by Justice Chenoweth.
"The prisoner has occupied a position of influence, as one of a band of Indians, who, in connection with other tribes, sacrificed the lives of so many of our citizens, in the war so cruelly waged against our people on the waters of Puget Sound.
"It speaks volumes for our people that, notwithstanding the spirit of indignation and revenge, so natural to the human heart, incited by the ruthless massacre of their families, that at the trial of the accused deliberate impartiality has been manifested at every stage of the proceedings" (1 Wash. Terr. at 13).
The guilty verdict was sustained and a new execution date set for January 22, 1858, at the town of Steilacoom, the army having refused the use of its fort. Ezra Meeker, not always the most reliable chronicler, wrote many years later that after the court's decision, Leschi made a statement. He denied having killed either Moses or Miles, and said, with William Tolmie translating, "I do not know anything about your laws. I have supposed that the killing of armed men in war time was not murder. If it was, the soldiers who killed Indians were guilty of murder too" (Meeker, 427-428). Territorial Governor Fayette McMullen, who had recently replaced Stevens, was unmoved, and a pardon was denied.
As the day of execution approached, Colonel Casey of Fort Steilacoom made clear to civilian authorities that the army wanted nothing to do with the hanging, which "his whole garrison viewed as outright murder" (Kluger, 238), a sentiment shared by the designated, if reluctant, executioners, Pierce County Sheriff George Williams and his deputy.
Attorney Frank Clark, who had both prosecuted and defended Leschi, hatched a devious plan to prevent the execution. On either the evening before or the very day it was scheduled, he enlisted a Native man to claim before a U.S. commissioner that the sheriff and his deputy had been selling liquor to the Natives, a serious offense that justified their immediate arrest. The willing lawmen, in on the plan, were taken into custody and unavailable to carry out the execution. The apparent goal of the ploy was to provide time for an appeal to President James Buchanan (1791-1868) to prevent the hanging.
It was in vain. The territorial legislature quickly ordered the supreme court to resolve the issue, and the court assigned the matter to Judge Chenoweth. He set a new execution date, February 19, and ordered that even though it would still take place in Steilacoom, the Thurston County sheriff would be in charge.
On the appointed day, Leschi was taken on horseback from Fort Steilacoom to the gallows where, with tribal drums sounding mournfully in the distance, he met his death at 11:35 a.m. Even the Pioneer and Democrat, which had been demanding his demise for years, was moved to report, "Leschi, the brave in battle, was launched into eternity without having moved a muscle to indicate fear of death (by hanging) so dreadful to an Indian" ("Execution of Leschi"). Years later Charles Grainger, the reluctant hangman, told Ezra Meeker, "I felt then I was hanging an innocent man, and believe it yet" (Meeker, 454).
Justice Long Delayed
On December 10, 2004, after years of effort by Nisquallies to clear the name of their last chief, a special "historical court" comprising present and former justices of the Washington State Supreme Court heard evidence and argument on the legality of Leschi's conviction and execution. The panel unanimously concluded, in the words of Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, "Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder" ("Historical Court Clears ..."). The court did not decide whether Leschi had in fact killed Moses. Rather, agreeing with Ezra Meeker's verdict, given nearly 150 years earlier, the justices ruled that Leschi, as a legal combatant in war, could not be held accountable under law for the death of an enemy soldier. Although the decision carries no practical legal significance, it validates the first words on the grave marker of the chief, which read:
Judicially Murdered, Feb. 19, 1858