January days dawn typically cold and gray on Seattle’s rain-slick streets. Near Pioneer Square, the historical heart of the city, where potholed asphalt slopes down to Elliott Bay, the bluffs of a small island once gave way to a gravelly beach. The island, its bluffs, and the beach have been buried for over a century beneath urban fill, but the slope still mirrors that of the old landscape. In a place where written history does not go deep, the power and dynamism of the modern city is a thin blanket resting on the lineaments of an older and largely forgotten world.
Out on the bay container ships lit up like billboards ride at anchor waiting to deliver cargoes from Asia, and ferries cross steely waters, looking like so many illuminated palaces. Around me, streetlights still shine, but the city already thrums with the low rumble of traffic and construction. Workers in yellow rain gear and residents holding their coats close hurry, heads down, through drizzle to work, but I sit in my car on my own errand. Today is January 12. On that day in 1854, in colder, clearer weather, over one thousand native people disembarked from scores of canoes hauled up on the beach and gathered around driftwood fires. Joining them were about one hundred American settlers, new neighbors only recently arrived.
If I could take you back to this same spot that January day, we would find ourselves, absent the fill, balancing unsteadily atop the bark-shingled roof of the Seattle Exchange, a log cabin store built with
native help for David Swinson Maynard, a Vermont doctor with a medical degree from Middlebury College, who had arrived when the place was an Indian village. Everyone had assembled to hear Isaac Ingalls Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory, announce plans for upcoming treaties with the Indians.
After Stevens made a brief speech, a large old Indian with a powerful voice stepped forward. In the west, a pale moon hung openmouthed in the sky over the Olympic Mountains. In the hybrid settlement bearing his name, Chief Seattle spoke compellingly about change and continuity, love and loss, justice, kindness, and the power of the dead.
Another pioneer doctor, Henry Allen Smith from Ohio, penciled snatches of what he heard in his diary. Edited and published thirty-three years later, what Smith wrote is considered to be one of the greatest orations ever delivered by a Native American. But the anniversary of that speech, which I mark this morning, passes without notice. Indeed, none of its anniversaries have ever been noted. How is this possible?
In the Pacific Northwest, written history begins late in the eighteenth century, when European and American explorers took possession of the last great temperate swath of North America. Following them, traders, missionaries, settlers, government officials, and naturalists left impressions of the land and its inhabitants that historians interpreted and organized into a record of life in this far corner of the world. In these accounts, native people in their tens of thousands were generally treated as features of the landscape—resources that study and exploitation might render useful. Such utilitarian motives rarely lent themselves to reflections on the deeper themes Chief Seattle addressed on that January day.
In the twenty-first century, we wrestle with the contradictions of that history. We have learned that the dominance many of us assumed as a birthright leaves us vulnerable to unexpected shocks. The power and influence our ancestors acquired make us soft targets even as the pursuit of wealth breeds poverty. Uneasily, many search for meaning in the words passed down to us from a man we hardly know.
It is no small thing to be the largest city in the world named after a Native American. Although Seattle was a person of considerable stature in his day, very little is actually known about him. His preliterate people do not show up in the historic record until the 1790s, and their genealogical memory did not extend many generations beyond. The earliest references to him and his people come from the logs, journals, reports, letters, and accounts written by those who arrived to claim and exploit the land. Missionaries who played a crucial role in this conquest described their native charges from a somewhat different perspective, recording their languages and myths to more effectively convert them. The emphasis in all these writings was on utility. It was only when ethnographers, anthropologists, and linguists interested in native cultures and societies for their own sake made records of what native peoples actually thought and said in their own languages that we began to realize how unique their world was. But by then, it had been largely swept away.
The first historical reference to Seattle appears in an 1833 journal entry made by William Fraser Tolmie, a young Scottish doctor hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company to tend to its local employees. Tolmie described Seattle, then in middle age, as “a brawny Soquamish with a roman countenance & black curley hair, the handsomest Indian I have seen.” Nearly two decades later, a government official, Indian agent Edmund A. Starling, mentioned a significant detail about Seattle in a report to Governor Stevens. Describing native traditions of leadership, he wrote:
"Sometimes a free male or chief will take a slave, and raise her to the condition of one of his wives. The condition of their issue I could never entirely comprehend. Seattle, one of the most sensible and influential chiefs on the Sound, was born of parents of this condition. His father was a chief or Tyee and his mother being a slave. He is chief at present of the Sowquamish Tribe. ’Tis a stigma, however, upon him, which were it not for his known good sense, would take much influence from him that he otherwise would have."
A handsome nobleman or the son of a slave? In the Journal of Occurrences at Nisqually House
, the daily log kept by chief traders at the Hudson’s Bay Company post near the head of Puget Sound, few native leaders have as many negative epithets associated with their names as Seattle. He was described as violent and troublesome, “a blackguard,” “a villain,” and “a scamp,” and one distressed writer recorded his wish that Seattle’s own people would murder him. He has since been described as a friend to the whites, their enemy or their stooge, a counselor to his people, and a traitor to his race. Ambiguity is his hallmark.
Even though Seattle was in his sixties when Americans gained power on the Sound, they wrote most of what little is recorded about him and had the most dealings with him. It may surprise many that long before he died, he was quoted in the New York Herald
’s morning edition. Even so, what was written about him is often superficial and contradictory. Indeed, the paucity and ambiguous nature of what we know about Seattle has allowed him to be refigured to suit a variety of purposes. He has been described as a war leader, a peacemaker, a gifted orator, a savage who communicated only in signs and grunts, a friend, a traitor, a drunk, a supporter of temperance, a religious leader, a philosopher, and an environmental saint.
Like Jesus and King Arthur, other iconic figures about whom little is known for sure, he has become a malleable symbol. Aside from his oft-repeated name, the only literal mark he left in history was a short line marked across another, an X
made beside the English version of his name on the Treaty of Point Elliott. Signed in January 1855, this fateful document that ceded native lands to the federal government identified Seattle as “Chief of the Dwamish and Suquamish tribes.” He died in 1866, but his passing made no news. The records of the few utterances attributed to him have been refracted through diverse cultural mediums and show evidence, as does Smith’s version of Seattle’s speech, of having been reworked to support each writer’s particular agenda.
Some will question whether there is enough historical fabric to piece together a decent garment for a man who died unnoted more than a century and a half ago. Recently, when historian, writer, and regional gadfly Knute Berger wanted to learn more about Chief Seattle and asked for a biography of him at the Seattle Public Library, he was directed to one published for a juvenile audience in 1943. There was little else.
For much of my life, I never gave Seattle the man much thought. For me, growing up in rural Snohomish County and visiting Seattle only rarely, the city with its fascinating waterfront redolent of the sea always beckoned as a place of wonders. Then in 1973, while teaching on Vashon Island, I met Marshall Sohl, a tall, bearded, and utterly charming man, the peripatetic historian of the island, who handed me a roll of microfilm with the words “I think you will find this interesting.” It contained anthropologist Thomas Talbot Waterman’s Puget Sound Geography, a list of hundreds of native place names, villages, and mythic sites that he recorded while interviewing native informants in the early decades of the twentieth century.
A place I thought familiar assumed an entirely new guise—new to me, anyway—with a supernatural dimension I could only compare to the mythic landscape of the classical world. It was utterly fascinating, and it inspired a decades-long search for more understanding. Involvement in an archaeological field school near the mouth of the Duwamish River in 1980 led to my astonished discovery that a Duwamish Tribe still existed and had a tribal office in Burien, a suburb of Seattle. Ancient history suddenly became modern. I became a student of the Duwamish Tribe, and their friendship gave me confidence to carry on the work.
It was while I was standing in one of the test pits at the archaeological site that I met David Brewster, then publisher of Seattle Weekly, who gave me the opportunity to explore cultural and historical themes, drawn from my studies, in the columns of his newsmagazine, which helped hone what writing skills I have.
When it was first suggested that I should write a biography of Seattle, I refused, saying it would be virtually impossible, given the lack of primary sources. That was twenty years ago. For a variety of reasons, and curious to see if it actually could be done, I began researching the man and writing a manuscript. In the intervening years, I came to understand why no one else had undertaken this quest, but by then I was too deep into the project to quit, and the work never failed to fascinate me and those with whom I shared it. “When’s that book coming out?” they would ask.
Native Americans, who vastly outnumbered white settlers in 1854, today represent less than 2 percent of Washington State’s population. Their precipitous decline began nearly a century before American industrial society overwhelmed, deracinated, and compressed them into the mold that a dynamic modern superpower demanded. But they survived, and what they remembered and gave scholars like Waterman provided glimpses of Seattle’s ancient world. Still, the fragmentary nature of their knowledge and the loss of native languages by the forced assimilation of native children in schools means that much of what we know comes from personal recollection and isolated accounts. Only by examining these and how they fit together can one begin to understand the outline of a complex society and a culture of great antiquity. But gaining a glimpse of an ancient world is not the same thing as trying to follow the life of an individual from it. Little is known about Seattle’s early life, and the actions of his later years can be seen only through cultural lenses clouded and askew. There is, for example, the
simple problem about how to pronounce his name. Given the difficulty English speakers have reproducing the sounds in native languages, my choice to use the form taken by the city is not entirely arbitrary.
The modern Suquamish and Duwamish regard Seattle as one of many leaders who led them, defended them, and held Americans to the promises made to them in treaties. In the small community that took his name and grew to become a thriving city, the roles he played at its founding have been overshadowed by subsequent events or edited by historians. A romantic bronze statue of him standing life-size at a busy intersection, clad in a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket, raises its right arm in dramatic greeting. A few bronze busts scattered around town preserve what was imagined to have been his stolid countenance, and a bland profile is the image used in the city’s logo. Only one photo of him is known to exist.
Some maintained that Seattle gained fame from the city named after him rather than for any particular accomplishment on his part. In a city constantly trying to define itself and anxious to be considered world-class, the ignorance surrounding him has made him an icon of convenience. Seattle is the most isolated city of its size in the continental United States, eight hundred miles north of San Francisco and twelve hundred miles west of Minneapolis–Saint Paul. Until quite recently, it was regarded as a distant outlier, mostly irrelevant to the larger national narrative. As a result, its residents cherish the icons they have. Several years ago, when an ice-cream company erected a billboard showing the bronze statue of Seattle holding one of its parti-color cones in its upraised hand, the resulting storm of public outrage forced the company to quickly remove the offending image and apologize.
Clearly, the man occupies a unique place in the hearts and minds of locals and, increasingly, in many around the world. Smith’s version of Seattle’s speech has had a lot to do with that. Shortly after Smith had it printed in 1887, which in this book comes at the end of Chapter Nine, others began questioning whether Seattle had actually said what Smith wrote, a debate that continues today. Its grip on the popular imagination is immense, so much so that several spurious and apocryphal utterances attributed to Seattle have been penned by writers eager to present him in roles that would have astonished him. Books, movies, plays, and choral and orchestral works have been crafted to present his purported messages. Paradoxically, this intense focus has kept scholars from exploring Seattle’s life, keeping him hidden in plain sight.
This book is about Chief Seattle and his relationships with the invading peoples who entered and seized his peoples’ land. By weaving together threads from surviving accounts, spun from often disparate sources, the weft of Seattle’s actions drawn through the warp of his character helps reveal the patterns of his life.
A Native American writer would doubtless produce a biography different from mine. So why do I, yet another white man, think myself qualified to write this? I was challenged to, and the challenge has been worth the effort. In the 150 years since Seattle’s death, with the exception of the biography written for a young audience, no one, native or nonnative, has done so. It is long past due. This book is not intended as casual reading for a blithe audience, but as a gad to provoke reconsideration of an important and poorly understood figure.
Copyright © 2021 by David M. Buerge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.