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In 1855, concerned about a potential Indian uprising, American settlers in the Puget Sound area of Washington state formed four companies of soldiers. One of these companies, Eaton’s Rangers, attempted to apprehend Nisqually chief Leschi. Leschi and his brother Quiemuth were peacefully cultivating their wheat fields when the Rangers moved in. Warned of the Rangers’ approach, Leschi and Quiemuth fled their homes. This action by the Rangers against peaceful Indians started the Puget Sound War. Following this initial incident, the Rangers then roamed the country harassing peaceful Indians.


Leschi is shown above.

Nisqually warriors under the leadership of Leschi attacked the Americans in the White River Valley. They were careful to attack only the American volunteers. They made it known to the American settlers that they were protesting Stevens’ treaties. In the words of one settler:

“The Indians sent us word not to be afraid—that they would not harm us.”
At White River, two American families were warned that the Indians were coming. The families, some of whom were members of the volunteer companies, stayed and were attacked. Nine people were killed, but the warriors took the children—two boys and a girl—and delivered them unharmed to an American steamer at Point Elliot.

The Americans responded to the White River “massacre” by herding 4,000 peaceful Indians to Fox Island so that they could be carefully watched. Many of the captives died from inadequate food and shelter.

Leschi attempted to draw all of the tribes of Western Washington into a general war against the Americans, but his coalition of Nisqually and Puyallup warriors never numbered more than a few hundred.

The Indian tribes in the southwestern portion of the territory were in close communication with Nisqually, Klickatat, and Yakama warriors. While these tribes had no tradition of warfare, but tended to be business-oriented (i.e. traders), the Americans were fearful that they would join the Indian uprisings. Americans with rifles began to raid the peaceful Indian villages, disarming the Indians, and placing them under surveillance. Some of the Indians—Upper and Lower Chehalis—were herded together on Sidney Ford’s farm near Steilacoom; some of the coastal Indians, including the Cowlitz, were placed in a “local reservation” on the Chehalis River; and the Chinook were placed inland at Fort Vancouver. The Indians were crowded together, denied access to adequate food, and stripped of their personal property. The southwestern tribes were held captive for almost two years during the Puget Sound War.

Leschi with a fleet of six war canoes and 33 armed warriors traveled to Fox Island.  Here Leschi met with John Swan and told him that he had come on a diplomatic mission, not a war party. Leschi asked Swan to send a message to the American authorities: his people were not fighters and had taken up arms only because they had been misled at Medicine Creek into accepting a hellish reservation. Swan sent a messenger to Fort Seliacoom to ask Captain Erasmus Keyes, the commanding officer, to meet in council with them. Keyes, in turn, sent a request to Fort Nisqually to borrow the Beaver, an old paddle-wheel steamer operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Keyes then used the steamer to dispatch an expeditionary force against Leschi.

While Swan rowed out to the steamer to determine if the Americans had come to negotiate peace—they had not—Leschi quietly recruited about 24 more warriors from the Indians imprisoned on Fox Island. Then the Nisqually canoes slipped away undetected at night.

In 1856, Governor Isaac I. Stevens, responding to the Indian war led by Leschi, called for the extermination of all “hostile” Indians. In response to the Governor’s call for extermination, a small group of Duwamish, Taitnapam, Puyallup, Nisqually, and Suquamish warriors attacked the community of Seattle. While the Americans would later credit Leschi for leading the attack, there is no actual evidence that he was involved. Nor is there any reliable estimate on the number of Indians involved: unreliable chroniclers of the event estimated between 150 and 1,000 Indians were involved.

The Americans in Seattle had been warned of the attack by friendly Indians and so they were prepared for it. The Indians, on the other hand, had no experience in attacking a well-defended settlement. Their old smoothbore muskets lacked range and accuracy and they were unprepared for the ferocious cannon fire that the Americans laid down. The Indian raiders torched and looted a few of the buildings on the fringes of the settlement. The “battle” lasted for a full day, which included a break for lunch by both sides. At the end of the day, the Indian attackers simply vanished in the night. They caused relatively little physical damage. The attack resulted in two American deaths and no Indian deaths and historians will later describe it as a “half-hearted” affair.

Encouraged by Stevens’ call for extermination, American volunteers began to hunt down peaceful Indians. Stevens steadfastly refused to consider that the treaties and his actions toward the Indians have created the war: instead he vows to extract revenge. The militia was ordered to consider all Indians as enemies and they were given a license to kill.

At the Nisqually River, the Washington Mounted Rifles under the command of H.J.G. Maxon encountered an encampment of 40-50 Nisqually, mostly women and children, who were fishing and trying to hide out from the war. With a license to kill, the soldiers shot at everything that moved. Their initial targets were the Indians who were slow and decrepit; when they ran out of these targets, they chased the fleeter victims into the water, which soon ran red with their blood. According to tribal oral tradition, some infants had their skulls dashed on the rocks. About 30 Indians, nearly all women and children, were killed.

Governor Stevens detained people who were opposed to his war against the Indians. When the Chief Justice of the Territory issued a writ of habeas corpus for the release of these opponents, the Governor simply declared martial law:

“Whereas, in the prosecution of the Indian war, circumstances have existed affording such grave cause of suspicion, such that certain evil disposed persons of Pierce county have given aid and comfort to the enemy, that they have been placed under arrest, and ordered to be tried by a military commission; and whereas, efforts are now being made to withdraw, by civil process, these persons from the purview of the said commission.”
With these words, the Governor suspended the functions of all civil officers in the county.

Wishing to put an end to the bloodshed, Leschi sent his brother Quiemuth as an emissary to the Governor to indicate his willingness to surrender. Quiemuth was murdered in the Governor’s office. A group of men entered through an unlocked door, briefly scuffled with the Americans who were guarding the Indians, shot Quiemuth through the hand and chest, and then, when struggled to his feet, stabbed him in the heart with a knife with a very fine blade. The men then fled and were not pursued by the guards. While the murderer was arrested, he was not brought to trial, as none of the Americans would testify against him.

Stevens renewed his calls for the Indian leaders’ heads and offered a reward. In response, Sluggia, Leschi’s nephew, revealed his uncle’s location in exchange for 50 blankets.  Subsequently, Leschi was captured by the Americans.

As a result of this brief war in which the Indian warriors demonstrated impressive powers, the Americans met with the Indians at Fox Island. The Indians told the Americans of their dissatisfaction with the 1855 treaties. Governor Isaac Stevens, on the other hand, insists that all of the treaty troubles stem from the Indians themselves. Before an audience of Indians who had participated in the earlier treaty councils, he went on to recite a version of history which seemed to be pure fantasy. He insisted that the Americans had never violated their pledges of friendship and asked them why they went to war. Stevens did, however, promise to give them larger tracts with ground for horses.

For his leadership in the war against Washington colonists, Nisqually chief Leschi was tried in an American court. The crimes for which Leschi was accused had occurred during a period which both the Indians and the Americans recognized as a war, even though there had been no formal declaration of war. Yet, there was no consideration given to this fact and the trial took place in a civilian court. In his first trial judge instructed the jury that if the deed was done as an act of war the prisoner could not be held answerable to the civil law. The result of this first trial was a hung jury.

In Leschi’s second trial, the government brought in a judge who had taken an active part in the battles against the Indians. He had been an officer in one of the militias called to duty to exterminate Indians.

At the trial Leschi said:

“I do not anything about your laws. I have supposed that the killing of armed men in war time was not murder. If it was, then soldiers who killed Indians were guilty of murder too.”
Leschi also testified:
“I went to war because I believed that the Indian had been wronged by the white men, and did everything in my power to beat the Boston soldier, but for lack of numbers, supplies and ammunition I have failed.”
Despite testimony that Leschi was seen by reliable witnesses at an entirely different location at the time of the specific crimes of which he was accused and couldn’t have committed them, he was found guilty of murder. In 1858 he was hung.

From the American viewpoint, the trial showed their superiority and authority over the Indians and their sense of fairness. Indians, however, were baffled by the American response to murder. Among the Indian nations of Western Washington, homicides were not viewed as crimes that imperiled the public order. Homicides were seen as injuries to and by individuals and their families. The adjudication of homicide, therefore, involved these families and making restitution for the deaths. This was often called “covering the dead” and involved payments from one family to another. Justice was about healing, not punishment.

More than a century after the Americans hung Leschi, it was apparent to many historians and others that his trial had been somewhat unfair. In March 2004, both houses of the Washington state legislature passed resolutions stating that Leschi was wrongly convicted and executed and asked the state supreme court to vacate Leschi's conviction. The court's chief justice, however, said that this was unlikely to happen, since it was not at all clear that the state court had jurisdiction in a matter decided 146 years earlier in a territorial court. On December 10, 2004, Chief Leschi was exonerated by a unanimous vote by a Historical Court of Inquiry following a definitive trial in absentia.

Native American Netroots Web BadgeCross Posted at Native American Netroots

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Originally posted to Native American Netroots on Thu Nov 22, 2012 at 08:25 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Invisible People.

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