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Skagit River Journal

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Coll Thrush goes ghost-hunting in Native Seattle

A review of Native Seattle, Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, Coll Thrush,
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007 (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books)

Kikisebloo, or Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Sealth poses with her pup in front of her home, which was dismissed as a filthy shanty by her neighbors.

Author Rudyard Kipling visited Seattle in July 1889, just a month after the Great Fire that wiped out the original business district. "The wharves had all burned down," he wrote, "and we tied up where we could, crashing into the rotten foundations of a boathouse as a pig roots in high grass. In the heart of the business quarters there was a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth." He noted the scores of canvas tents full of men carrying on with "the lath and string arrangements out of which a western town is made." The Indians' homes had been largely spared because they had been moved away from the "respectable" part of town that had burned to the ground.

      "Seattle, it seems, is in love with its Native American Heritage," author Coll Thrush notes ironically in his new book, Native Seattle Histories from the Crossing-Over Place. But he soon illustrates how that the love is shallow, aimed at the Indian image rather than the Siwashes whom early residents branded, then ignored. In fact, the word Siwash, derived from the French sauvage, was used as an epithet to put Indians in their place.
      When 14-year-old Alonzo Russell arrived at Elliott Bay in 1853, the year that Washington became an official U.S. territory, he noticed that thousands of Indians dotted the shoreline and waterways. At that point, early-on, the geography was still indigenous in name as Indian names still applied to the most prominent landmarks.
      The most important one, to both Indians and the white settlers was the lagoon and the bluff overlooking it, which together marked the Crossing Over Place. Indians once had substantial longhouses there and Doc Maynard and the other settlers soon built structures all around that lagoon. Every time I board the train at the King Street Station, I recall that this is the site of that lagoon, covered over 125 years ago by sawdust from Henry Yesler's nearby mill. Yesler, whose wife was still back home in Ohio, fathered a child there by the 15-year-old daughter of Chief Curley or Curly (Su-quardle) in 1855. Yesler sent her to live with another mixed-race family when she was a girl but by the time Julia was 15 she was again living with Yesler and his wife. She soon moved to California, where she married, and she later returned to Washington.
      The late Stephen Jay Gould explained that "we seem to prefer the . . . model of origin by a moment of creation — for then we can have heroes and sacred places." Thus we embrace the end of one thing and the beginning of the other. Although the Indians of just the area of future King County outnumbered the newcomer settlers by at least 100 to one when the Whites began arriving in small numbers in the 1850s and '60s, the natives did not massacre the newcomers, or "chechacos" or "Bostons" as the settlers and sailors were called in the Chinook Jargon trading language. In fact, the only serious fracas came in the battle of 1856 when a few angry Indians did descend on the settlers village at Little Crossing-Over Place, but other Indians warned of the attack in time that families sought shelter in a blockade there and a few cannonballs from a U.S. warship in Elliott Bay ended the battle then and there.
      All this convinced the white settlers that they could and should take over the land where Indians had camped and fished and lived for millennia. The Indian era had ended and from then until now Indians have largely become ghosts, images rather than distinct people. Only in the last two generations has society and culture begun to talk the Indian seriously as a unique individual or in groups that are worthy of respect. We will see how that works out in the future.

Segregate the Indians and usurp their land
(Tucked Away)
An Indian cabin at Tucked Away Inside, razed in 1914-15 as the lagoon was prepared for the Chittenden Locks. This was the home of a "dusky race of primitive men."

      The Whites believed this land was their own manifest destiny and they worked from almost the beginning to segregate the native population. Even if the they pretended a generation later to honor Indian Chief Sealth and his speech of peace and harmony that was delivered during the 1855 treaty negotiations, while he was alive, he was usually a useful tool for various factions of the settlers. After the treaty was pressed upon the tribes of the territory, the chief obediently retired from his Duwamish River fishing grounds to the Port Madison reservation on the western shore of Puget Sound, later known as the Suquamish.
      Although the chechacos named their city for him, they did not understand his language or how to even pronounce his name. Seattle is an anglicized attempt at phonetic spelling, although some ethnographers insisted on Sealth (as in the school named for the chief) and Thrush chooses Seealth, while some other ethnographers such as the late Vi Hilbert suggest another spelling si?al. Hilbert insisted that "th" was impossible because there is no phonetic sound like that in the language. The settlers chose to communicate with Indians through Chinook Jargon, the trading language that had surfaced in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island in the late 18th Century. The subtle process of asserting dominance was most obvious in that area. Indians were expected to either learn English or at least speak in Chinook Jargon. The Whites made little if any attempts to learn or communicate in the Coastal Salish Indian language of Lushootseed, or as Thrush spells it, Whulshootseed.
      The assumption that they could have their way with Indian property came to a head in 1899 when a delegation from the Seattle P-I newspaper traveled up to Vancouver Island in search of Indian symbols that they could decorate Seattle's Pioneer Square with. They soon found near the Nass River a totem that had been carved to honor the spirit of their "Chief-of-all-women" who had recently drowned in the river. Claiming that the area was uninhabited, the men simply cut off the totem at ground level and ferried it back to Seattle where it was set up as planned. When the Indians complained and threatened a suit, the delegation staged their own mock trial, paid $500 to mollify the tribe and the symbol has stood in that area since.
      This dismissal of the Indian language is again most obvious in the way that Whites patronized Chief Sealth. He managed to calm down the most irate and recalcitrant Indian representatives who showed up for the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty negotiations and no one really knows whether the speech he gave to the new territorial governor, Isaac I. Smith, in January 1854 was more balm for the Indians bruised egos or whether it was symbolic of reaching out his hand to the white man. When the speech was finally recorded in print, Thrush points out, the transcript in the Seattle Star newspaper of Oct. 29, 1887, was not an approximation of Lushootseed but rather a very flowery version of what we might call church talk. Dr. Henry A. Smith produced the transcript, "from his notes" of 33 years before as he explained. Many now assume that the collection of environmental and social happy thoughts from 1887 was the real McCoy.
      Yet, for all the supposed respect shown for the chief, when he died in his Oleman house on the Suquamish reservation on June 7, 1866, his passing was not even recorded in an obituary in any of the pioneer newspapers. No brass bands, no 21-gun salute, and then the house was burned. As the next decades wore on, his fellow Indians receded further into the background, becoming mainly symbols both good and bad, especially the latter. Thrush found in remnant records that when the natives were sometimes described as the "wretched remnant," what Gould would likely call, that thing had ended and passed. That dismissal continued later for his family.

      On the last evening of May 1896, Kikisebloo, the daughter of Seeathl, died of tuberculosis in her home in the Seattle waterfront. Her passing was big news in the city, where shops sold postcard of her image and where a chance encounter with the "Indian Princess" was one of the highlights of the urban experience. . . . When the funeral finally took place on 6 June, thousands of Seattleites lined downtown streets to watch the procession make its way to a full requiem mass at Our Lady of Good Hope. Afterward, Kikisebloo was laid to rest in Lakeview Cemetery in a canoe-shaped coffin, next to her old friend and ally Henry Yesler. Her grandson Joe Foster, whose terrorized mother had committed suicide so many years before during Seattle's "village period," was the sole Indian present. — Coll Thrush
      Kikisebloo is again the anglicized approximation of his daughter's name, but she was most often simply called Princess Angeline when Whites gave up trying to fit their tongue around her Lushootseed name. As Thrush learned, Kikisebloo was considered in class terms to be an upper-class Indian, but that only meant that she was accepted into the homes of upper-class Whites, accepted through the back door as a washerwoman. She made little attempt to "suck up" to her employers. She raised hell with the recalcitrant children of the settler families and they returned the favor by throwing rocks at her.
      While the settlers made a big deal out of introducing her to U.S. president Benjamin Harrison when he visited the bay in 1891, at other times her home on the beach where her father had once reigned was dismissed as a shanty; "what a blemish" her white neighbors huffed. At least she did not try to marry one of the chechacos, an act that was considered a moral failing as well as a legal offense. When the sailors and settlers first arrived, some of the young men were too impatient to wait for eventual arrival of respectable White girls to plant their roots, and they chose instead to take up with young Indian girls — "dusky maidens" as they were known in patronizing terms, even going so far as to marry them to please the Indian father, either by a white minister, rarely, or in an Indian ceremony.
      Asa Mercer, whose father Thomas moved his family to Lake Union near Seattle in 1853, attempted to solve that problem, the shortage of proper prospective wives, by contracting a ship to transport proper ladies from Lowell, Massachusetts, and the first group of eleven female teachers arrived on Elliott Bay on May 16, 1865, and a second group arrived by ship on May 28, 1866. Thrush reviews the legal reaction to these blessed events by pointing out the laws passed in rapid succession to dissuade marriage with the natives.
      In 1855 the new Territorial Legislature passed the Color Act, which voided those marriages that had already taken place. In 1858, that law was amended to outlaw all future interracial marriages. In 1861, W.W. Miller of the Washington Standard newspaper editorialized against the degrading practices of open prostitution and concubinage in such marriages. And in 1866, the Legislature outlawed by the Marriage Act even the "common-law" sanction of marriage heretofore based on living together and then later that year the Legitimacy Act was passed, which forbade half-breed children from inheriting their deceased fathers' property if sibling children survived from a previous marriage to a white woman.

Indigenous geography
The "Chief-of-all-women" totem that Whites stole from Vancouver Island and installed at Pioneer Square.

      As we noted before, the Indians had a well-defined indigenous geography before the Whites arrived and one of the high points of Thrush's book is the collection of maps and more than one hundred place names of the places that Indians recognized as key locations in their environment. The Crossing-Over Place was nearly at the center of the Indians' world on the bay. A well-traveled trail led over the steep hill to about where Madison Village is today, and another trail soon forked to the south and east, which is followed very closely by the route of Rainier Avenue.
      To the north was Tucked Away Inside, a very important fishing village that was just downslope from present-day Ballard; it disappeared in 1914-15 and is now covered by the water in the Chittenden Locks. Spirit Canoe Power was a creek named for the attempt by indigenous Indian doctors or shamans to "reach the world of the dead to recover the souls of ailing or troubled people." That creek became the site of one of the most offensive settler practices — fouling of the Indians drinking water by their wandering cattle, and Doctor Jim, one of their most respected leaders hung himself nearby in 1880.
      Little Bit Straight Point referred to the area at the mouth of the original Duwamish River, where firs grew, where Indians fished and dried their catch and also where they hid from marauding bands of Northern Indians. After that waterway was filled in the site became the Rainier Brewery. What we now see around there now as Boeing Field and Harbor Island was all created by regrading nearby hills and moving the silt of the Duwamish waterway to what had been the shallow southern end of Elliott Bay when the settlers arrived.
      Another key geographic place was also the site of the most obvious strike by white settlers at the homes of the natives. Some Indians at the western end of the Duwamish Delta called themselves the People of the Inside Place and their homes were clustered around an area called Herring's House. In March 1893 a reporter for the Seattle Times found ten large dugout canoes full of Indian families, and all their belongings and furniture they had managed to save, alongside a smoldering pile of ashes on shore. On the weekend before, an arsonist known only as Watson had led a group of white neighbors who swooped down on the fishing village and set it afire. There was no investigation by authorities and the Indians just moved away, out to West Point near the White village of West Seattle. That incident effectively marked the end of respect for the indigenous geography and any chance the Indians had of maintaining visibility, respect and connection with the dozens of generations who had preceded them. Soon their children were shipped away to White missionary schools where their native language was literally beaten out of them and they were taught "their place."

(Indian sellers)
Coll Thush: "One of the most striking photos in any of Seattle's archives dates from the first years of the twentieth century. Taken by an unnamed photographer in front of the Frederick and Nelson Department Store at the corner of Second and Madison, it captures a Native woman, likely Makah or Nuu-chahnulth, sitting against the building's stone facade and selling baskets, blankets and other handicrafts. She looks ahead and slightly down, avoiding the gaze of a well-dressed white woman who leaves over her with an I-assume-you-can't-speak-English-so-I'll-talk-louder expression. . . . It is a moment of encounter, where women of different races and classes came together for a moment on the streets of the city to haggle over a basket." Such sellers would eventually be swept off the streets and buyers who wanted Indian trinkets or beads or woven baskets would have to seek out stores like Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, which Daddy Standless opened in 1899 on the waterfront. Because the two races did not communicate beyond employer/employee talk, the Whites never realized that the intricate and sometimes exquisite woven baskets and blankets were not only utilitarian but also told the story of place and experience, as well as communicating spiritually with the ghosts and ancestors that were out of sight.

      Definitions of one particular word illustrate the gigantic gulf in communication between the Indians and the White Chechacos. Illahee. From various points of view we learn that the word meant place, sometimes home or country (in the rural sense) as well as place. As historian James Moore observed about Annie Dillard's Northwestern historical novel, The Living, it ultimately fails in a sense because she did not establish that sense of place, but Thrush cannot be criticized that way. For instance, she researched and found a ribald verse that 1858 argonauts sang while seeking gold at the Fraser River in British Columbia. In it she found:
When we 'rive at Seattle Illahee [Seattle country]
There'll be hiyu [many] clams
And klootchman by the way
Hiyu tenas moosum [Many 'litte sleeps' (sex)]
Till Daylight fades away

      The decision by the white settlers to define Illahee as being sexual is symbolic of the disdain they felt for the natives living around them, even if they ritually set up those same Indians as symbols of something worthy or as the "white man's burden." That definition by the chechacos became even more obvious when a pioneer businessman named John Pinnell opened a brothel in 1861 at the Duwamish delta that he named The Illahee. It was built on what they called the lava beds at the delta of the Duwamish. Setting aside the possibility that the soil derived from lava or pumice, the sexual definition came into play again here. When enumerators took a census of the area, the households almost all included one or more "sawdust women" as the Illahee prostitutes were called by neighbors around Yesler's sawmill. We found a direct connection with the Skagit River when we noticed that Thrush pointed to a half-breed servant girl named Hannah Benson worked for a nearby minister. Hannah was the daughter of Jeremiah Benson and his Indian wife, who also unofficially adopted Henry Yesler's illegitimate daughter, Julia. Hannah wound up marrying Adolph Behrens, the first mailman on the Skagit River route and they lived near her sibling Steamboat Dan Benson in Skiyou, an area where Whites and Indians lived beside each other without worrying about artificial class boundaries.
      Thrush goes on to share her research about how indigenous Seattle soon disappeared after the turn of the 20th century and she shows how Indians found it harder to even make a living much less be recognized as individuals. In addition to her extensive endnotes she also explores words and concepts such as imbrication, which the Indians expressed as the word yiq. Loosely translated, it means a background cloth of a very tight weave, into which a person attempts to sew in thread to form images. In this case, she observes how difficult it was for Indians to permeate that background, how they often had to "worry" themselves into the seams if and when they were successful at all. She also shares photos that she found as she studied the subject.
      She studies each decade after the turn, showing how Indians were successful or failed in trying to communicate and make a place for themselves. The odds were against them: loss of habitat, destruction of camping and work places — symbolized by the Black River, which disappeared, and the Duwamish, which was artificially straightened — pollution and commercial fishing by the better prepared and equipped Whites. That was most obvious in the way that the Whites altered the Duwamish forever, covering the eel grass with silt and then concrete, the underwater vegetation that once sheltered young salmon and herring. The Indians must have known when the jig was up as they watched their sacred spot of salt marshes filled in with sand and gravel and their shell midden, created and piled up over many generations, covered over when the steam-breathing iron horses that the Whites brought with them needed a new home. That was Mouth Along the Side or Smith Cove, the property of Dr. Henry Smith, who paraphrased in 1887 the Lushootseed words of Chief Sealth and altered them so that the words themselves became orphans that knew no home, no Illahee.


Half-breed children
      A similar case is explored in the Journal feature about the children by two wives of Skagit County pioneer John Wilbur. [Return]

      See this extensive Journal feature about the extended Benson family of Skiyou. has a new feature on Julia and her parents and the very complex machinations between Yesler's surviving widow and his family after his death in 1892. [Return]

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Story posted on May 6, 2009, last updated June 7, 2009 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them

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