Fort Dent Park in Tukwila was once a winter village for the Duwamish Indian tribe. After being partially vacated following the signing of the 1855 Point Elliott treaty, the site briefly became home to a small military blockhouse. Years afterward the property was used as farmland, until it became a King County park in 1968. Currently (2003) the park is owned by the City of Tukwila.
Meeting of Two Rivers
Fort Dent Park is located directly southeast of the former confluence of the Black River and the Green River, where they merged to become the Duwamish River. In 1916, the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered Lake Washington, causing the Black River to dry up. Centuries prior to this, the Fort Dent Park site was an important winter settlement for the Duwamish Indian tribe.
The aboriginal name for the village was Sqoa’lqo, which meant “meeting of two rivers.” It consisted of two large houses, measuring 60 by 120 feet, and was located along the northern shore of White Lake, a shallow body of water situated southeast of the confluence. Other nearby villages included T’awedIc (“river duck”) and S!qali’ls (“bad looking,” a description of the rock outcropping north of the Black River).
Native Americans believed that the large hill farther to the east of the village was part of the old world, before Moon The Transformer changed the landscape around Puget Sound. They named this hill Swa wa tiu tud, meaning “the old ground.”
There Goes the Neighborhood
Living near the confluence of the river, as well as next to the lake, brought much wealth and prestige to village residents. Salmon were plentiful. Ducks and geese were trapped in nets or hunted with spears and arrows. Beaver and bear populated nearby wetlands. Wapatos, a type of tuber, grew well in the marshes. The combination of these abundant resources never left the inhabitants wanting.
The first white visitors to the site were most likely Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders, who enjoyed brisk business with the Indians in the 1830s. In 1850, Colonel Isaac Ebey (1818-1857), on an exploratory expedition up the Duwamish River, noted the economic potential of the site.
In 1853, the first settlers arrived. Joseph and Stephen Foster claimed land on the west side of the Duwamish River and began cutting trees south of the confluence. These were floated downstream to Henry Yesler’s sawmill in Seattle. The next year, Henry Tobin took a nearby claim and built a sawmill along the Black River. Groves of trees began to fall.
The Indian War
Most of the Duwamish, Green River, and White River tribes were on friendly terms with the settlers. They traded knowledge about local resources, as well as material goods, and also worked in the sawmills. These tribes were represented by Chief Noah Seattle (178?-1866), known for being a “firm friend of the Whites.” On January 22, 1855, Chief Seattle was one of 81 Puget Sound tribe leaders who signed the Point Elliott Treaty, which ceded ownership of most of the Puget Sound basin in return for money, education, health care, and other payments.
The treaty also ordered all Indians to move to Port Madison Indian Reservation across Puget Sound. While many in the lower basin accepted the move, some members of the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes farther upstream did not. On October 28, 1855, nine settlers were killed in attacks near Kent and Auburn.
Three months later, the city of Seattle came under siege in what became known as the Battle of Seattle. The Native American attackers were driven off by artillery fire and by Marines from the U.S. Navy sloop-of-war Decatur, anchored in Elliott Bay. On their retreat upriver, the Indians burned and destroyed homesteads, including Joseph Foster’s cabin and Henry Tobin’s sawmill.
Dent in the Old Ground
To protect the settlers from further attack, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens ordered small forts and blockhouses to be built throughout Western Washington. One site chosen was near the village of Sqoa’lqo. Not only was the site strategic as a bottleneck between Seattle and the White River Valley, but there was also plenty of fishing, hunting, and potato gathering nearby to supply the military.
The blockhouse at the confluence was built by the Washington National Guard, Company B, Ninth Infantry. Frederick T. Dent led this unit and gave his name to the fort upon its completion. Dent went on to become a colonel in the Civil War, and later an aide-de-camp to President Ulysses S Grant.
Although ordered to leave for Port Madison, some Indians at Sqoa’lqo refused to go. They did not fight the government, but remained firm that they would live and die on ancestral land. In 1857, the Muckleshoot Reservation was created near Auburn for Green and White River groups, but one of the village leaders reiterated that they would rather die on their “old ground.”
Change of Worlds
For years, a small group of Indians stayed in the valley and refused to move. This caused problems for the settlers, who complained to the government that Indian fish weirs at the confluence impeded boat traffic. Nevertheless, homesteaders bought up the surrounding land and the Indians found decreasing access to the river.
In 1871, Lewis V. Wyckoff, King County Sheriff, bought White Lake. Wyckoff commuted to Seattle by steamer from his riverside home. In 1876, he sold the property to Chris and Claus Jorgenson, who drained the lake to create farmland. By this time, the military had abandoned the fort.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, only a few Indians were left along the Black River. Any issues over their use of the river’s resources became moot when the river disappeared in 1916. The last few remaining moved to reservations or to nearby towns.
Gone Are the Days
When Chris Jorgenson retired around 1910, he divided his property amongst his children. His sons George and Otto received the land around Fort Dent, which they held until the 1960s. At that time, many developers had their eyes on the property, but when the passage of Forward Thrust bonds in 1968 led to the creation of many new parks throughout King County, Fort Dent was one of them
Construction of the park began in 1972. The former White Lake site was covered with more dirt and leveled to create soccer fields and play areas. Any evidence of centuries of Native American occupation has long since been eradicated.
King County operated the park until 2001, when a $52 million general fund shortfall led to the closure of 20 parks throughout the county. In 2002, the King County Council approved the transfer of park ownership to the City of Tukwila.