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 marked the beginning of the Puget Sound War.
For his leadership in the Puget Sound War, Nisqually chief Leschi was tried in an American court in 1858. 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 book The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, Richard Kluger writes:
“How, then, could the civil court of law be used to prosecute soldiers—whatever their nationality or race and whether marching in array across an open battlefield or attacking by stealth from cover—as murders when they were engaging in exactly the grisly task they had been sent to do: take their enemies’ lives?”
Richard Kluger also writes:
“Murder was a personal act while war was a sanctioned, impersonal group activity, usually to advance a governing authority’s policies or interests, that freed its participants from individual responsibility. How, then, could Leschi be tried as a murderer for engaging in combat to save his people’s homeland and birthright?”
The 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. Richard Kluger reports:
“Under modern legal ethics, he would almost surely have had to recuse himself from acting as judge at Leschi’s trial.”
At the trial Leschi said:
“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, 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 therefore couldn’t have committed them, he was found guilty of murder. He was hung in 1858.
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. According to historian Alexandra Harmon, in her book Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities Around Puget Sound explained that:
“…homicides were not crimes that imperiled an abstract public order; they were injuries to and by individuals and their families, who had responsibility for rectifying the social consequences.”
The adjudication of homicide in Indian nations, 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 had been 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 with a unanimous vote by a Historical Court of Inquiry following a definitive trial in absentia.
More American Indian histories
Indians 301: The Puget Sound War
Indians 101: The 1856 Battle of Seattle
Indians 201: The war against the Yavapai
Indians 101: Utah's Walker War
Indians 201: Sealth (Seattle), Suquamish/Duwamish Leader
Indians 201: Skolaskin, a Sanpoil Prophet
Indians 101: Ilchee, a Powerful Chinook Woman
Indians 101: The 1855 Walla Walla treaty council