The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 1, Number 1, Pages 4-10
Winter, 1976

Washington Biography: Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies

By Cecelia Svinth Carpenter

Chief Leschi

Drawn by Dean M. Carpenter

Tribal Life

Leschi was born to be a leader. His people believe that the star that rose over the Nisqually Plains on the day of his birth in 1808 predestined him to become someday a war chief on behalf of his people. But ironically the title of chief would be bestowed upon him by a territorial governor who would later demand his life on the gallows.

Leschi's parents were a Nisqually father and a Yakima mother. It was then the custom of the Nisqually people to arrange marriages outside of tribal lineage so as to minimize the shortness of stature and the broadness of shoulders that is typical of the canoe Indians of Puget Sound. His mixed heritage provided Leschi with a tall agile body, strong heavy shoulders and a face more slender than others in his village. Most distinguishing and most remembered by those who were to describe him later were his alert, penetrating eyes that seemed to size up a situation immediately. As he grew to adulthood he became known as a man of great intelligence possessing superb oratorical abilities. He developed the wisdom of a judge and was often called upon to settle disagreements among his tribesmen.

Because of his wealth of horses, Leschi's father was held in high esteem. His sons, Quiemuth and Leschi, benefited from this distinction within the tribe; however because it was the custom, they would not carry their father's name but would choose their own. Leschi had one sister and a brother-in-law whose name was Stahi

The Nisqually people were first known as the Squally-absch, meaning "people of the grass country," for they inhabited the vast prairies dotted with blue camas blossoms which lay to the east of the head of Puget Sound. The French voyageurs called them Nesquallies and conferred the same name upon their river, which flowed through the heartland of their prairie and reached from Puget Sound to the forested slopes of the Cascades. Americans later changed the spelling to Nisqually.

Fort Nisqually

Although the Nisquallies roamed a vast land area running north to the Puyallups and south to the Cowlitz and shared berry picking and hunting grounds with both, they tended to locate all of their villages along the Nisqually River, its tributaries and along the sound. The villages sharing the Nisqually watershed held a common bond with the river, which provided their main food source. In the summer the bands moved to the lower river and caught great quantities of salmon, which were dried and stored for winter consumption. They returned to the smaller, higher streams during the cold season. The foothills of the beloved mountain, Tacobud, (Mount Rainier) provided excellent winter hunting.

One of their villages was located on the Mashel River at the point where it empties into the Nisqually. Leschi was born and raised in this village. The Mashel site lay adjacent to an upland prairie, which provided winter grazing for the family's horse herd. Language maps suggest that this was a bilingual village and indeed, Leschi spoke both the Sahaptin language of his Yakima mother and the Salish of his father who was originally from the salt water Salish village at Minter Creek on the Kitsap Peninsula. It is recorded that Leschi never learned to speak English but that he spoke a few words of Chinook jargon, a trading language.

During the summer, thirty to forty families would gather along the Muck Creek where it joins the Nisqually near the present town of Yelm. Leschi came here each summer with his family for food gathering and friendship. The rich bunch grass of the area provided summer pasture for his horses.

At the delta of the Nisqually River lay the council grounds. Here the bands gathered periodically as the drums called them for feasting, dancing, and scholatitudes, ceremonies performed by young men being taken into adult status in the tribe. Nisqually life was highly organized, and the unwritten laws carefully observed. Overall tribal life was peaceful. The only diplomatic problems were with the Snoqualmies and the tribes of British Columbia who often came south seeking slaves. Up until 1849, Laghlet was the acknowledged chief of the Nisquallies; his oldest son Wyamock would have been his successor had it not been that he was of a "wild nature" and therefore not permitted to rule. So the tribe went without a central leader until Quiemuth and Leschi were appointed chiefs for the purpose of signing treaties with the whites, at which time the tribe willingly accepted their leadership.

Nisqually Canoe

The British Arrive

The British and the Americans both sought control of the Pacific Northwest. The British were after beaver pelts, but the Americans wanted additional land and an outlet to the Pacific Ocean as well as furs. In 1818 an agreement was signed, with both the United States and Great Britain both reserving claims and rights in the Oregon country. The British fur traders rapidly moved into and occupied the area north of the Columbia River. The Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Vancouver in 1824 and Fort Nisqually in 1833, the latter becoming a trading center for the entire Puget Sound area. The fort was built on high land north of the Nisqually Delta.

 


The British acted civilly toward the Nisquallies, forbade liquor to be sold to them,
and recognized marriage between British subjects and Indian women.


 

In 1838 Hudson's Bay extended their Nisqually holdings to include a thirty by sixty mile "Puget Sound Agricultural Farm," much of which impinged upon tribal root-digging fields north of the river. Wheat fields were planted and hundreds of sheep and cattle were pastured on the prairies of the Nisqually Plains. If the British had not been skillful diplomats, there might have been trouble with Leschi's people. Instead, a good relationship developed. While French Canadians and Kanakas (Hawaiians) were brought in to work on the farm, many Nisquallies were also hired to make up the seventy-five-man workforce. The British acted civilly toward the Nisquallies, forbade liquor to be sold to them, and recognized marriage between British subjects and Indian women. In 1843, Dr. William F. Tolmie became chief trader at Fort Nisqually. He learned to speak the Nisqually language and he and his clerk, Edward Huggins, became close friends with Leschi. On several occasions Leschi served as a guide for Hudson's Bay.

The Americans Come

Then in 1846 the international boundary was set at the 49th parallel and the Americans in growing numbers came into the area north of the Columbia. The settlers soon claimed Nisqually lands under the Donation Land Act of 1850. James McAllister settled his family on fertile lands on the Nisqually Delta at Leschi's invitation.

James Longmire took up a claim east of the Yelm Prairies. The establishment of a U.S. Army fort at Steilacoom completed the encirclement of the Nisquallies.

On March 2, 1853, Congress carved Washington Territory out of old Oregon, and Isaac I. Stevens was appointed first territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. A veteran of the Mexican War, the new governor surveyed a possible railroad route on his way to Olympia. After attending to legislative duties, he set out to make treaties with the Indian tribes whose ownership of the land had to be relinquished so that American settlers could have legal titles to their claims.

 


[Leschi] knew that the Nisqually allotment, south of the delta on high
forested land, would condemn the tribe to a slow death.


 

Stevens set up a treaty commission, selected an acceptable treaty form, divided western Washington into five treaty districts, and arranged for headmen or chiefs to be appointed for each tribe. He offered schools, hospitals, blacksmith shops, and allowed each major Indian group to reserve its hunting, gathering and fishing rights, as well as a piece of land to live on. Reservations would be located at the discretion of the Treaty Commission with provisions in the treaties, which would allow the government to later consolidate the reservations in a more remote area.

The first treaty concluded was the Medicine Creek Treaty, so named because the signing took place on She-nah-nam or Medicine Creek on the Nisqually Delta. The treaty was explained to the assembled Nisquallies, Puyallups and assorted bands who spoke Chinook jargon, and on December 26, 1854, the governor asked those he had appointed chiefs to sign. Leschi refused although an X appeared before his name. He felt that the proposed Nisqually and Puyallup reservations were inadequate. He knew that the Nisqually allotment, south of the delta on high forested land, would condemn the tribe to a slow death, for there would be no river for fishing, no pastureland for horses. Moreover, to sign the treaty might mean eventually being moved to the dreaded lands to the north.

Governor Stevens made more treaties to the north and east. Meanwhile, Leschi, traveling across the Cascades to the Yakima’s and the Klickitats and then south into Oregon, noticed the hostility of these inland peoples to the settlers rushing onto Indian land. In October 1855, he went to Olympia and met with Acting-Governor Charles Mason (Stevens was away) and told him that the Nisquallies wanted peace with the white man, but they also wanted to stay on their river bottom where they could fish and farm. Receiving no clear direction from Mason, Leschi returned home to his fall plowing.

The Indian War

Early in 1855, due to a fear of an Indian uprising, Governor Stevens secured from the legislature approval for a volunteer militia. Volunteers had been used in the Indian uprising in Oregon although General John E. Wool, Commander of the U.S. Army's Pacific Division (or regular troops as they were known), had sharply criticized their use, believing that the Indian tribes had turned hostile because of their premature presence.

In September of 1855 Indian Agent Michael Simmons encouraged friendly Indians to move onto Fox and Squaxon Islands where they would be safe should an outbreak occur. Then, on October 24, 1855, Acting-Governor Mason provoked hostilities by ordering Eaton's Rangers, a detachment of volunteers, to apprehend Leschi and his brother, Quiemuth, for preventative reasons. Upon reaching Nisqually they found that the brothers had fled, leaving their plow in the wheat field. The volunteers pursued the Nisqually chiefs. Indian drums sounded throughout the foothills and not a canoe was seen in the river.

Leschi and Quiemuth fled northeast towards the White River, possibly heading for the Naches Pass and east of the mountains. A roving band of warriors ambushed the pursuing Eaton's Rangers at Connell's Prairie in Pierce County, killing two men. The remainder of the militia turned back to Olympia.

 


The volunteers pursued the Nisqually chiefs. Indian drums sounded throughout
the foothills and not a canoe was seen in the river.


 

At this time about one hundred and fifty warriors of the Duwamish, Puyallup and Klickitat tribes were camped with their wives and children in the White River area. Approximately thirty-five Nisqually fighters and their families joined them. Drawing the force under his leadership, Leschi proposed that this war was with the troops, not the settlers. Unknown to him, however, renegade Indians looted and burned the homes of three White River families, killing nine.

On the thirty first of October 1855, a seven-man vanguard of Captain Maurice Maloney's troops, returning home from the Yakima area via the Naches Trail passed through the Indians' camp. All seemed friendly at the time, but the seven were ambushed a mile beyond the camp. When Maloney's main force reached the same camp area a few days later, the surprised Indians fled across the White and Green Rivers. Following a three-day battle during which both sides suffered casualties, Maloney disengaged and continued to Fort Steilacoom. News of this outbreak sent the settlers of Western Washington fleeing into the towns. Governor Stevens, returning from his treaty trek east of the mountains, provided the settlers more than sixty volunteer-built blockhouses. Stevens met with the legislature and then pledged eradication of the hostile Indians.

Leschi now made two visits to the lowlands pleading for peace talks. On January 5, 1856 he went to Fox Island to see John Swan, Indian Agent, and on February 4th he appeared at John McLeod's home near Muck Creek. On the latter visit he asked that John Swan come to the Indian camp located on the Green River. Swan came, but because he could not offer amnesty, nothing was accomplished. Governor Stevens maintained that all hostiles must be put in jail and stand trial. The Indian warriors could not agree to this, and more violence followed.

In April the Mashel massacre occurred. Captain H.J.G. Maxon and his volunteer troops annihilated an entire group of from seventeen to thirty-five Nisqually Indians fishing at the Mashel River site, Leschi's former home. Orders of Governor Stevens had read, "All Indians found in your field of operations (except a mounted company of Indians allied to the government) are to be considered as enemies." A month of martial law in Pierce and Thurston Counties followed.

As the summer passed and tensions relaxed, Stevens, on the advice of superiors in Washington, D.C., met with the Medicine Creek Treaty Indians at Fox Island, and under Article Six of the treaty changed the location of the Puyallup and Nisqually Reservations. The new and more adequate Nisqually Reservation would be located straddling the Nisqually River including the Muck Creek village grounds.

A homesick Leschi returned to the Nisqually Plains in the fall of 1856. Knowing there was a price on his head, Leschi went to his trusted friend Dr. Tolmie who later wrote:

In October, Leschi came,...he desired to acquaint the Americans, that if they needed that assurance (to keep the peace), he would cut off his right hand in proof of his intention never to fight them again. He expressed his willingness to Colonel Casey commanding at Fort Nisqually, but that officer considered it most prudent that Leschi should, for a time, remain in the woods, as prejudice ran high against him. Soon after, tempted by a large reward, Sluggia (a Nisqually) trapped Leschi by treacherous promises of complete reconciliation with the Olympia white chiefs....Leschi was captured on November 13, 1856 and was imprisoned at Fort Steilacoom under the custody of Colonel Casey. The military considered Leschi a prisoner of war; Stevens considered him a criminal and charged Leschi with the murder of A. Benton Moses, a soldier killed in the White River ambush over a year before.

The Trial

The regular session of the district court in Steilacoom City had just concluded when Judge F.A. Chenoweth was asked to reconvene in order to hear Leschi's case. The trial began on November 17, 1856. A.B. Rabbeson, a surviving member of Maloney's vanguard, identified Leschi as having been among those Indians first encountered in the White River area. He testified that it was the same Leschi who had shot Moses on the trail a short time later. Leschi denied shooting Moses, and his defense argued that in time of war neither side could be held accountable for deeds committed anyway. The jury was unable to agree on a verdict, and a second trial was held in Olympia beginning March 18, 1857 with Judge Edward Lander presiding. This time Leschi was found guilty and sentenced to hang on June 10th.

An appeal to the Territorial Supreme Court delayed the execution. New evidence was presented when Lieutenant August Kautz submitted measurements to prove that Leschi could not have possibly been seen in the Indian camp and then almost immediately a mile down the trail. Appeals, including one by Dr. Tolmie, were made on behalf of the chief, but the high court of which Judges Lander and Chenoweth were also members, backed the verdict of the lower court and reset the execution date for January 22, 1858.

At any time Governor Stevens could have pardoned Leschi, but he chose not to, even though the recent change in the reservation location essentially vindicated Leschi. Unfortunately, local politics complicated the situation. Regular Army General Wool was holding Stevens and his volunteers accountable for the Indian war, and so Stevens used Leschi as his scapegoat. It is significant that Stevens’s harsh treatment of Leschi, was not matched by his conduct when Indians were the victims of violence. A few months before Leschi's brother, Quiemuth, had turned himself in only to be killed in his sleep in the governor's office. His murderer was never apprehended. Defenders of the Nisqually position in the intervening 120 years have criticized this apparent double standard of justice.

Even though Stevens would not halt the execution, it still did not take place as planned. Before it was scheduled to occur a Federal Marshal arrested the Pierce County officials in charge of the hanging for having sold liquor to the Indians. So the execution date passed. The Territorial Legislature, in a questionable interference in judicial matters, ordered the Supreme Court to set another date, February 18, 1858. When U.S. Army authorities refused to allow the hanging of Leschi at Fort Steilacoom, a scaffold was erected about a mile east of the fort.

Leschi waited in silence. He had taken a stand for his people in the reservation matter, and in time the Nisquallies acquired better land. But, false accusations and political maneuvering would cost him his life. He accepted fate and made peace with his God. Leschi heard the beating of Indian drums in the distance and his heart must have become one with his people, the Squally-absch. He approached the scaffold, bowed his head and prayed. Turning to Thurston County Sheriff Charles Granger, Leschi thanked him for the kindness he had shown him while a prisoner in his care, then said he was ready. Leschi's death was as dignified as his life. Granger believed he had hanged an innocent man that day.

 


Leschi's death was as dignified as his life.
Granger believed he had hanged an innocent man that day.


 

The Legacy of Leschi

Daniel Mounts, Indian Agent at the Nisqually Reservation, took Leschi's body and buried it in a spot known to few. On July 4, 1895, his remains were moved to a site at the mouth of Muck Creek near his old village. In 1917 when Pierce County donated a large tract of land to the United States for an army post, the northeastern portion of the Nisqually Reservation was condemned and included in that parcel. Muck Creek was in that section and so, for the third time, the body of the Chief was moved, this time to the Cushman Indian Cemetery near where his daughter lived. On the memorial stone over his grave are these words:

This is a memorial to Chief Leschi, 1818-1858. An Arbitrator of His People.

On the back of the stone are the words:

Judicially murdered, February 19, 1858, owing to misunderstanding of Treaty of 1854-55. Serving his people by his death. Sacrificed to a principle. A martyr to liberty, honor and the rights of people of his native land. Erected by those he died to serve.

Leschi's legacy has lived on through his daughter who married Chief Tom Stolyer, the founder of the Cushman Indian School near Puyallup where the Cushman Hospital was later built. For three generations only daughters descended from Leschi. Today only the descendants of Quiemuth, the Chiefs brother, carry the Chiefs name.

Leschi left a still greater legacy to his tribesmen who today live on or near the remaining portion of the reservation on the Nisqually River near Yelm. The courage and determination Leschi displayed on behalf of what he felt rightfully belonged to his people have been carried down through six generations of Nisquallies who today insist on receiving their fishing rights reserved through the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. They still hope that some day the portion of their land on the Nisqually Plains where the Muck Creek flows and the blue camas flowers bloom will be regained, and Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies, will be brought back home to a final resting place among his people.

Cecelia Svinth Carpenter
Gault Junior High School
Tacoma, Washington
Nisqually Tribal Historian

Nisqually Fish Symbol

(Property of the Nisqually Indian Tribe)