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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Dr. Henry A. Smith, the man
who invented Chief Seattle

By David M. Buerge, Seattle Weekly, Sept. 1, 1993
(Dr. Smith)
Dr. Henry A. Smith

      One May morning in 1915, Dr. Henry A. Smith carried several flats of tomato plants out to his garden at the base of Queen Anne Hill. Kneeling in the earth, he troweled out holes and set in the plants with the hands of an expert gardener, still strong despite his 85 years. It began to rain. Protected by a broad-brimmed hat, Smith kept working until he had all the plants in the soil, but by then he was drenched. When he returned to his house on the corner of West Raye Street and 13th Avenue, he began shivering.
      Three months later; on August 16, the old man died. The next day, Seattle newspapers eulogized the pioneer physician, one more death marking the passage of an era. It was an appropriate theme for Smith who deployed it often in his own writings. Among his pioneer contemporaries who nurtured literary pretensions, Henry Smith was the most attuned to the transient nature of their accomplishments.
      Henry Allen Smith belonged to a remarkable group of pioneers whose public writings provide detailed and revealing portraits of life on the frontier in western Washington Territory. Chief among these were men such as George Gibbs, [James G.] Swan, and the Rev. Myron Eells, careful observers of Native American society during the last half of the 19th century. Ezra Meeker and Eldridge Morse examined the region's complex and tumultuous early history. Arthur Denny wrote Seattle's first history, and his niece, Abbie Denny-Lindsley, left vivid accounts of a pioneer child's life.
      Smith was not as prolific as these, although like Denny-Lindsley, much of his writing has yet to be recovered. But of all that these pioneer writers produced, Smith's Chief Seattle speech, published on Cot. 29 1887, is easily the best known. It is no exaggeration to describe it as the most popular work ever produced in the Pacific Northwest and, arguably, one of the most influential. Today, its popularity assumes global dimensions.
      Chief Seattle's speech has also generated a cottage industry of criticism and research that seeks to determine if what Smith wrote really was what Chief Seattle said. Many have examined the chief's life, but so far Smith has escaped scrutiny. What kind of a man was this city's most famous writer, the man who created our image of Chief Seattle?
      He was born on April 11, 1830, to Abigail and Nicholas Smith in a comfortable three-story brick home in Wooster; Ohio, the tenth of 11 children and the fifth son. The third floor served as a church where Nicholas preached as a minister of the Disciples of Christ. The family's prosperity came from the contracts Nicholas won to build canals that carried the region's burgeoning commerce.

Gold brings the doctor west on a wagon train
      Relative affluence enabled Henry to avoid the numbing monotony of rural farm life, but shards of memory suggest that the family was not untroubled. Henry attended Wooster's common schools until he was 15, at which time his mother left and moved to Steubenville. Four years later, Nicholas Smith died. By then Henry was studying for the ministry at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Later he decided he would do I better in medicine. According to one account, a bout of malaria ended his stay at Allegheny College. After 1850 he continued his medical studies under a Dr. Charles Roode at the latter's Physio-Medical Institute in Cincinnati. Soon afterward, Smith came down with a flaming case of gold-rush fever as news from California gripped the nation. We find him next in Keokuk, Iowa, practicing medicine on the west bank Of the Mississippi in the spring of 1852. When he told his mother he had purchased a place on a wagon train bound for California for $200 and an agreement to serve as assistant physician to a relative who organized it, a Dr. Millard, she fretted. "People die on those trips," she warned him. "That's just why I'm going," he replied, "to keep people from dying." Shortly thereafter, he bought passage for her and his sister Ellender on the same train.
      A hard Midwestern winter made the emigration of 1852 one of the largest to traverse the overland trail. Ezra Meeker, another young pioneer making the trip that year, recalled that the wagons formed a cavalcade 500 miles long and three columns deep. But the cold that drove thousands westward also stunted the prairie grass. The corpses of starved animals lined the route, polluting streams and causing epidemics of cholera, On Millard's 40-wagon train, Smith worked long hours beside the doctor keeping emigrants alive

Collins in Seattle: 'I will land you in the Garden of Eden
or give you my head for a football'
      They arrived in Portland in late October, and by November Millard was advertising in The Oregonian as "Physician, Surgeon and Accoucheur. References: None." Then Smith, acting on news of a proposed railroad survey to Puget Sound, headed 'for Olympia at the end of 1852. There he met the Duwamish Valley settler Luther Collins. In a series of articles written more than three decades later, Smith described the encounter. "What are you doing here?" Collins chided. "Pack your duds and come down to my scow, the finest craft on Puget Sound, and in three days' time I will land you in the Garden of Eden or give you my head for a football."
      Smith staked a 160-acre claim on a canoe portage connecting Salmon Bay with a lagoon on Elliott Bay's north shore (ever since called Smith Cove). He built a log cabin, advertised as a doctor, and brought his mother and sister up from Portland, boarding them with friends in Seattle while he erected an infirmary with lumber barged from Henry Yesler's mill].
      The exotic new land and the romance of the frontier fired Smith's spirit, and he fairly blazed with energy, penciling impressions in a journal. Like many of his well-educated contemporaries, he was fascinated by the Indians. He quickly picked up enough Chinook Jargon, a trade patois of about 300 words, to manage them as laborers, but he also inquired about their lives.
      One fall evening, Smith test-fired a revolver he was cleaning. Afterward, terrified Indians from Salmon Bay asked him about the shots. When he told them what he had done, they expressed great relief that it was not an attack by northern Indians. Earlier, they told him, raiders had massacred many of their people.

When Territory opens, Governor Stevens arrives;
The Speech of 1854
(Chief Sealth)
Chief Sealth, 1864, photographer Sammis

      Smith had been working his claim barely a year when the new territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, arrived in Seattle, looking at terminal sites for the transcontinental railroad and announcing treaty negotiations with the Indians. Smith was present on the December day in 1854 when Chief Seattle and 1,200 other Indians met with Stevens on the beach in front of the town. He took notes of what the old chief said, the only person known to have done so. Like other settlers, however, he was doubtless more interested in the prosperity the railroad promised than the speech he was much later to make famous.
      It looked as though Seattle would be the terminus, and Smith joined with other settlers in developing the town site. He was elected King County superintendent of schools. This was not a big job since in 1854 the county boasted only 170 white residents. Smith gained greater renown that year as the man who planted its first grafted fruit orchard
      When relations between whites and Indians in the territory exploded into a bloody race war, Smith rowed his mother to Seattle in a boat with muffled oars, returning with two friends to bring in the harvest and protect his buildings. He served as a surgeon in the territorial volunteers and spent several boring weeks guarding a fort on the Duwamish River from nothing. In the end, the Indians burned his infirmary but spared his cabin.
      In the political turmoil following the conflict, Smith helped organize King County's Republican Party. Seattle's emerging, predominantly Republican elite became a kind of tribe in those years as its families intermarried. Smith's sister, Ellender, married Charles Plummer, a prosperous businessman who built her the town's most elegant residence; she died in 1859, giving birth to twins.

Smith flourishes near Snohomish
      Seattle's star faded in the years following the Indian war. Even its most enthusiastic booster, David Maynard, left town for a homestead across the bay. Smith married Mary Ann Genevieve Phelan in 1862, and their first child, Lula, was born in a house built to replace the one the Indians burned. The Smiths too were making plans to leave. In December 1863, Smith explored the Snohomish River Valley from the delta, called New Holland by settlers who had already begun diking the marshlands, to the head of navigation on the river, Snoqualmie Falls. Describing the falls in an article in the Washington Gazette, Smith gave voice to the fulgent prose that became his hallmark:
      This is truly a sublime spectacle, the river dashes over a perpendicular bank and is precipitated 300 feet into the boiling, foaming flood below; eternal rainbows circle round in gorgeous beauty, losing themselves ever and anon in snowy columns of spray that continually rise and ascend far over the gigantic pines above.
      He acquired 600 acres on a delta island, known since as Smith Island, next to an Indian village whose members provided him the labor necessary to enclose 65 acres behind a dike a mile and a half long. He built a house and an infirmary on the island's north shore, and his gardens and practice flourished. Two more daughters and a son were born on the island. The energetic Smith ran a general store, managed logging camps, and immersed himself in Snohomish County politics, representing the county in the Legislature for several terms. In 1870 he was appointed physician to the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
      Smith's florid articles continued to appear in territorial newspapers. Describing a gold-prospecting trip on the Skykomish River, he wondered, "Who knows but in the old and dusty beds thousands of fortunes await the magic touch of the miners' wand, to hasten the 'glorious sun-burst of a brighter day' soon to dawn upon our Territory."
      In a three-part description of the Snohomish and Stillaguamish river valleys, he waxed poetic. "Here will sometime, and that time is not very future, be the paradise of the husbandman, when golden harvests to the scythe will bend and prove the forests' terrors at an end; and happy children thronging home from school give earnest of refinement's coming rule."
      The doctor remained fascinated by the Indians, collecting bits and pieces of their folklore. In 1873 he published a long article, "Our Aborigines," for the Weekly Intelligencer, containing lines that foreshadow Chief Seattle's words. About the Puget Sound Indians he wrote, "Their former status is but dimly limned in the swiftly gathering shadows of a spent day, whose deepening twilight will soon merge into a night so dark that the historian's pen alone will be able to cast a single ray upon the voiceless gloom."

Family moves back to Seattle
      The boom he hoped would ignite along the Snohomish River never caught fire. In the meantime, Seattle's fortunes rose, so Smith added to his holdings at Smith Cove, purchasing property with money from his father's estate, and bought lots in Seattle. His children's need for proper schooling also brought him back to town, and in 1878, the family moved to a house at the corner of Second Avenue and James Street where he opened a doctor's office. Summers were spent out at "the ranch" by the Cove.
      In 1880, Mary Ann Smith died. A daughter, Ione, remembered that her mother became feverish and walked down to Grace Hospital on Boylston Avenue. "Before she left home she sent word to Papa, who was at the ranch overseeing the harvesters. He did not receive the message until after midnight. When he arrived at the hospital in the morning he found Mama dead. The explanation given was that chloroform had been administered to put her to sleep and some must have spilled on the pillow." The shock turned Smith's hair white.

Smith, the author, emerges
      Thereafter he moved his children to Smith Cove, devoting himself to their welfare and the work of the farm. "Papa had a passionate love for the beauties of nature," lone recalled, "was kind to all the farm animals and they, in turn, seemed to understand and love him. His power of accomplishment seemed to lay in the ease with which he could turn from one form of activity to another. Whatever he was doing, grinding an ax, planting a tree, or writing a poem, absorbed his entire attention."
      Ultimately, Smith filled six ledger books with poems. The whereabouts of these books is unknown, and only a little of this work ever made it into print. His poems were typical of the flowery verse popular at the time, and almost all fix upon a theme that dominated pioneer reflection: the enormity and the relentless character of change in their lives. It was easy to have Indians serve as the image of this change, as in this poem of the 1850s, about an Indian maiden from Shilshole Bay who drowned while seeking her lost lover:

O that the Great Spirit would answer my plea And bear me away on the wings of the waves To that lovelier land that lies over the sea, Where winds never moan over moss-covered graves.
      Much of Smith's surviving work concentrates upon the pioneering experience. Most was written as the territory hanged, when new waves of entrepreneurs and professionals gained ascendancy and shouldered the "old moss backs" from the stage. The critical moment came in 1886 during the political upheaval that accompanied the anti-Chinese riots in Seattle. Populists who were victorious in county elections talked of hanging the "Dog Salmon Aristocrats," and pioneers were roundly criticized as selfish, shortsighted obstacles to progress.

Smith recalls The Speech
(Sealth statue)
Seattle statue of Chief Sealth

      Several of the old pioneers took up the pen in their own defense. Arthur Denny, defeated as a mayoral candidate in 1886, wrote his history, taking potshots at critics as he described Seattle's early days. Crusty old Henry Yesler, who ran two successful campaigns for mayor, scratched out a few pages of memoirs. Out at the Cove, Smith now stayed aloof from the political hurly-burly, but during the summer of 1887 he published a series of articles praising the pioneers' accomplishments in the Seattle Sunday Star, a weekly literary paper that catered to respectable middle-class readers.
      Of these, only nos. 10 and 11 survive, but other writers preserved some fragments of the preceding ones. Smith was at his best in these articles, painting vivid portraits of early figures and recalling interesting and wry anecdotes. A sense of elegiac twilight suffuses what survives. Indeed, he penned the whole series as a valediction to the pioneers, who felt sorely abandoned and discounted by the communities they had created. Smith intended Chief Seattle's speech as the series' peroration, a striking interpretive stroke by which he used the spokesman for a vanquished people to admonish his own critics. It was an old device, used by Roman historians who found the speeches of defeated barbarians handy devices to tout old virtues and warn decadent readers against the sin of pride.
      The effect was diluted when the discovery of an overlooked list of figures prompted Smith to pen an 11th reminiscence featuring a bathetic poem, "Seattle." Two stanzas are sufficient to capture the poem's bumptious tone.

There's a ring and rhythmical rattle A clatter of arrows and spears, In the sibylline name of Seattle, An echo from long-buried years. And the chieftain from whom it descended Was portly, and massive, and tall, And many a white man befriended, When the hand-writing glowed on the wall.
      The reminiscences were lost, and the poem mercifully died. But the speech became an instant hit that subsequent writers included in their histories of the city. Its prophetic tone captured the pioneers' epic sense that although their world was passing irretrievably into history, its memory would never die. Their story became the national epic, and to the degree we celebrate it and feel the effects of change in our lives, the speech continues to resonate.

Smith Cove evolves into the Great Northern rail yards
      If the speech insured Smith's fame as a local writer; his faith in Seattle real estate made him a wealthy man. Toward the end of the '80s, railroad men purchased 1,000 acres he accumulated in Interbay for $75,000. He put the money to work building the London Hotel at the foot of Pike Street and the Smith block at Second Avenue and James Street.
      Then, toward the evening of his life, misfortune returned. His son, Ralph, who like his father followed the lure of gold, died in Alaska exploring the Aleutian Islands in a sailboat. In the summer of 1893, Smith suffered a serious accident that left him an invalid for seven years. He put his financial affairs in the hands of another and lost his fortune in the Panic of 1903.
      Still he remained a pioneer. Despite illness and his 73 years, he built a cottage on the west slope of Queen Anne Hill and found solace in his orchard, his garden, and his children. He was now a picturesque old man with snow white hair and blue eyes. When lone asked him how he considered himself, he responded as an agriculturist. He continued to write, publishing a few poems, but he had outlived his time. Then it was spring, 1915 — time to put out the tomatoes.

Whose speech are we reading?
      Smith's legacy leaves some vexing questions. Is the great speech he penned Chief Seattle's or Henry Smith's? Since our understanding of Chief Seattle is so deeply colored by the speech, is our image of him accurate or Smith's creation? Both, it would seem. In the speech, the fears and hopes of one people, grafted onto those of another by the town's first orchardist, were nurtured into new life.


Ezra Meeker
      Meeker was the founder of Puyallup and famous for both his hop operation and for returning East along the Oregon Trail as an older man. [Return]

      A physician specializing in obstetrics [Return]

Luther Collins
      On Sept. 14, 1851, Luther M. Collins (1813-1860), Henry Van Asselt (1817-1902), Jacob Maple (or Mapel) (1798-1884) and his son Samuel Maple (or Mapel) (1827-1880) arrived at the mouth of the Duwamish River and Elliott Bay and began exploring the area with an eye to selecting a Donation Land Claim. That was the same year that David Denny and John Low and their party settled at Alki. [Return]

canoe portage
      See our review of Coll Thrush's fine book, Native Seattle, for descriptions of this indigenous native area — "Map along the side," and other geographic landmarks named before the Whites' arrival. [Return]

Henry Yesler's mill
      The mill was at the foot of what is now Yesler Way, about three miles south of Dr. Smith's cabin, the portage and the future railroad yards of Great Northern. [Return]

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Story posted on May 18, 2009. . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
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