Governor Isaac Stevens ejects Judge Edward Lander from his court under martial law on May 12, 1856.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/27/2003
  • Essay 5130
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On May 12, 1856, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) uses martial law and militia officers to eject Judge Edward M. Lander (1816-1907) from his court. This is Washington's first civil rights crisis. Lander had issued a writ of habeas corpus for the release of farmers whom Stevens had imprisoned, believing them friendly to Native Americans battling Territorial troops.  The farmers are former employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, and at least some have Indian wives. Lander issues a contempt of court citation against the governor. The U.S. Marshal tries to serve the order and is thrown out of the governor's office. Governor Stevens has Lander arrested. The drama will play out with Stevens being fined for contempt.

During the Indian War of 1855-1856, Isaac Stevens was the military commander of Washington Territory. He began to suspect that settlers in the Nisqually Valley, with their family connections with the Indians, were supporting the enemy. Stevens ordered the men to evacuate their farms to within the protection of Fort Steilacoom. They refused and Stevens declared martial law and had them arrested. The farmers appealed to the Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, Francis A. Chenoweth, for writs of habeas corpus. The judge was sick in bed on Whidbey Island, but issued the writs. Judge Edward Lander was in the militia at Georgetown and resigned his commission so that he could convene a court at Steilacoom.

On May 7, 1856, Lander opened court but was interrupted by a Colonel Benjamin Shaw and some volunteers. Shaw closed the court by order of the governor. To avoid violence, Lander adjourned court. Lander and his records were taken into custody and transported to Olympia.

In Olympia, Stevens announced that the decree of martial law applied only to Pierce County and he ordered Lander released. Lander opened court again on May 12, 1856, and issued the writs for the release of the farmers, and cited the governor for contempt. The U.S. Marshal and his posse attempted to arrest the governor, but they were ejected. Stevens summoned a company of volunteers from Tumwater, two miles away. The volunteers tracked Lander to a law office, kicked in the door, and hauled the judge before the governor. The governor told Lander he could go free if he got permission from the governor to hold court. Landers refused. Stevens ordered Lander imprisoned with the farmers at Camp Montgomery (on the site of the future Spanaway).

Chief Justice Chenoweth got out of his sickbed, traveled to Steilacoom by canoe and opened court. He ordered the Pierce County Sheriff to organized a posse of 50 men. Stevens responded by sending a company of armed volunteers, but they backed off when confronted by the posse. Chenoweth issued new writs and ordered the settlers and Lander released. Colonel Shaw, commander of the volunteers at Camp Montgomery, refused to honor the writs. Chenoweth ordered the Marshal to arrest Shaw.

Stevens empanelled a court martial to try the settlers, but his own militia officers decided that they did not have jurisdiction and that the prisoners should be turned over to civil authorities. Stevens capitulated and had the settlers released. Chenoweth released Shaw. Lander eventually fined Stevens $50, which was paid by Stevens partisans.

The Territorial Legislature and the U.S. Senate both censured Stevens. The Secretary of State wrote to Stevens, "your conduct, in that respect, does not therefore meet with favorable regard of the President."


Gordon Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen, (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1975), 28-29.
Note: Delbert McBride (1920-1998), descendent of John McLeod, who was one of the arrestees, gathered the following information: "The list usually given [of the arrestees] is five men -- Charles Wren, John McLeod, Lyon A. or "Sandy" Smith, Henry Smith and John McPhail. Henry Murray and Peter Wilson were included in the original order but not actually arrested. ... [Wren may have been part Indian,] but I believe the rest came direct from Scotland." McBride was, for 16 years, Curator at the Washington State Capitol Museum, and, as a descendant of McLeod and his Indian wife, an expert on early Washington tribal and European/American history. Delbert McBride notes in possession of Timothy W. Ransom, Olympia, Washington. E-mail Communication, Timothy W. Ransom, Ph.D, to David Wilma, May 13, 2003.
This entry was corrected on January 30, 2006, and November 28, 2018.

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