Leschi, The Nisqually Chief
Leschi, war chief of the Nisqually Tribe, was born in 1808 in a secluded winter village on the Mashel River where it empties into the Nisqually River at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound, near Olympia, Washington. His people believed that, on the day of his birth, a star rose over the Nisqually Plains and predestined him their leader.
Leschi’s father, Sennatco, was portage chief of the Nisqually Tribe, sturdy square-build people with round faces and broad features; his mother the daughter of Chief We-ow-wicht, a chief from the Yakama Nation, a tribe from what is now central Washington State. Chief Kamiakin, war leader of the Yakama Nation and the chief who met Lewis and Clark in their westward journey, was a cousin. The arranged marriage of Leschi’s parents was a custom often practiced by tribes to improve lineage. According to the custom of the Nisqually, his mother moved to her husband’s village to make her home and raise their children, consisting of Leschi, one sister and an older brother, Quiemuth, ten years his senior.
In appearance Leschi was of medium height at 5’7″ with strong, heavy shoulders and the slender features of his Yakama blood: A firm jaw, aquiline nose and deep-set brown eyes under a sloping high forehead. As an adult, Leschi was recognized for his intelligence and superb oratorical skills. Having a strong sense of wisdom, he was often called upon to arbitrate and settle disputes within the tribe. He learned to speak both the Sahaptin and Salish languages, but never learned English except for a few words in Chinook jargon.
The Nisqually people preferred to establish their villages along the Nisqually River, its tributaries and the southern Puget Sound area. They moved freely throughout their territory, sharing berry and hunting grounds with nearby tribes. Food was plentiful and life was peaceful as days were mostly spent gathering food, hunting, fishing and digging for roots. Other activities revolved around ceremonies, feasting and special observances. Life was highly organized, governed by the “unwritten law” of the people. Periodically problems would arise whenever the Snoqualmie Tribes and aggressive bands from British Columbia would come down from the North to raid and capture slaves. hunting, root digging and fishing. Unknown to the tribes of the Northwest Coastal regions, outsiders such as the British and American people sought control and made arrangements with each other concerning the homelands of the local tribes. In 1818 an agreement was signed between the Americans and British, reserving claims and rights in the Oregon country. Fur traders, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, moved in quickly, building Fort Vancouver on the banks of the Columbia River in 1824 and Fort Nisqually at the mouth of the Nisqually River on Puget Sound in 1833. Five years later the Nisqually Plains, important root digging fields for the tribes, were claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and named the Puget Sound Agricultural Farm.
When the British came to the Northwest in 1833 to establish Fort Nisqually, it was Leschi who observed their movements. Trouble with the Nisqually people might have been expected; but the British were skillful diplomats who treated the Nisqually civilly, and a good relationship with Leschi’s people was attained. Leschi noted they had come without their families and took Nisqually women as their wives in marriages recognized by the British. He watched their farming efforts, which later turned to raising sheep and cattle.
In time Leschi and his brother Quiemuth accepted positions as horse tenders with the fur trading company at a farm station in the Yelm Prairie. It was here that Leschi saw the advancement of the Americans, or “Bostons”, who flooded to the Pacific Northwest and took claim of traditional tribal lands in 1846 when the International Boundary was set at the 49th Parallel. Unlike the British, these outsiders arrived with families in tow and proceeded to build homes and fences in a concept of “ownership of land”, something unfamiliar to the tribal people who believed the Creator had given the land to them to share and take care of. They did not believe one man could “own” a part of Mother Earth. Four years later non-Indians claimed Nisqually lands in the Donation Act of 1850 and the U.S. Army established a fort at Steilacoom. After the United States arbitrarily assumed jurisdiction over the Indian people living below the 49th Parallel, Leschi and Quiemuth continued to monitor the government’s actions.
March 2, 1853 Washington Territory was established out of the old Oregon Territory. Issac Stevens was appointed Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He was a veteran of the Mexican War, an ambitious man whose goal was to make treaties with local tribes in order to make way for the non-Indian. A Treaty Commission was selected and western Washington was divided into five treaty districts. Five chiefs, including Leschi, were to be appointed for each tribal district. On behalf of the United States Government, Stevens offered schools, blacksmith shops, reserved hunting and fishing rights, and land to live on. One catch was the Treaty Commission would have authority to decide where the tribes would live and reserved the right to centralize the reservations to remote areas at some later date.
December 26, 1854 the Medicine Creek Treaty was presented to a gathering of Nisqually, Puyallup and other neighboring tribes. All were asked to sign the treaty. Leschi had requested a portion of the Nisqually River for fishing and a segment of prairie land for the tribal horses. Neither need was addressed in the treaty negotiations which purported that the population of thirteen Nisqually villages should be moved onto a small piece of rocky highland near Johnson Point. Leschi refused to sign, knowing that in signing he would condemn his tribe to a land with no river for fishing, no pastures for their horses, and the future threat of being moved to northern territories. Although he refused to sign, an “X” appeared before his name.
Refusing to accept the assigned reservation placed the Nisqually people in a peculiar situation, however they stood firm with the stand taken by Leschi. A period of general unrest followed: The Americans were uneasy, government officials were uneasy. The Nisqually were, for all to see, dissatisfied and restless. While Governor Stevens continued to make additional treaties with tribes in northern and eastern Washington, Leschi traveled to neighboring tribes and observed the hostility toward American settlers. October of 1855 he went to the capital of Olympia, Washington to meet with acting Governor C. Mason, where he expressed his willingness for peace and for his people to remain on their original river bottom homeland. No agreement was made, Leschi returned home.
Earlier that year, Governor Stevens got legislative approval to establish a volunteer militia although General Wool, commander of the Pacific Division, sharply criticized their intended use. He believed their presence created greater tension and hostility between the tribes and non-Indians. On October 24th, acting governor Mason ordered a detachment of these volunteers, called Eaton’s Rangers, to arrest Leschi and his brother and bring them back to Olympia for custodial protection and prevent an uprising. However, Leschi and Quiemuth heard of the proposed action, gathered their families together and fled from their camp. By the time the Rangers arrived on the Nisqually bottom, Leschi’s group was far into the mountain foothills to the Northeast. It is believed they intended to cross the mountains and seek refuge with their Yakama relatives. Other Nisqually and Puyallup warriors and their families soon joined the group, and Leschi was chosen to assume leadership, a position that would earn him the title War Chief of the Allied Indian Forces. The Rangers followed after. It was during this chase a roving band of warriors ambushed Eaton’s Rangers at Connell’s Prairie, killing two men, and sending them back to Olympia.
The war that began in the fall of 1855 was inevitable. Although Leschi stressed to his warriors this war was against the troops and not settlers, other warrior groups had already begun attacking and killing civilian families, burning their homes. Most of the fighting took place within a five mile radius and while the Indian fighters knew the lay of the land and could maneuver well in the wet underbrush, they faced a long, cold winter without sufficient stockpile of food and ammunition. They were also outnumbered by the soldier and volunteer troops who continued to grow in endless count.
In an attempt for a peaceful resolution to the increasing conflict, Leschi went to the home of one of the few Bostons he trusted, Indian Agent John Swan, to seek a renegotiation of the settlement and a revised reservation location. He believed the settlers would be as interested in peace talks as the Nisqually and was willing to make the first gesture for peace. However, the governor would not talk with Leschi until “every savage who murdered the families on the White River is hanged by the neck until dead.” Leschi did not kill nor order the attack on the white settlers and said so, but the Governor believed the chief to be a liar and would not make peace.
Four months later, in April of 1856, an entire group of 17-34 Nisqually was annihilated as they fished the Nisqually River. They had been attacked by a volunteer militia operating under Governor Stevens order which stated: “All Indians found in your field of operations (except a mounted company of Indians allied to the government) are to be considered as enemies.”
The United States government intervened and advised Governor Stevens to meet with the Medicine Creek Treaty Indians and change the locations of the Nisqually and Puyallup reservations described under Article Six. The new Nisqually Reservation now included Leschi’s village grounds at Muck Creek and land on both sides of the Nisqually River. This officially brought the war to an end, but not before a price had been placed on the heads of Leschi and his older brother Quiemuth. Hearing of this, Quiemuth returned to Nisqually and gave himself up to acting Governor Mason to face trial. He was murdered the first night as he slept on the floor of the governor’s office. The back door had been left unlocked, allowing assailants to enter from the alley. The coroner’s report stated that “Quiemuth was killed by some person unknown to the jury.” Although there was considerable speculation and several possibilities, that “unknown person” was never found or brought to trial.
Again, Leschi approached the government, seeking peace. He vowed he would cut off his right hand to show the Americans he would never fight them again. However, the commander at Fort Steilacoom, Colonel Casey, advised him not to come in that summer as there was much prejudice against him.
November of 1856 Leschi’s nephew, Sluggia (his nephew and a man Leschi had raised as a son) betrayed Leschi to the government for a total of 50 blankets. The Nisqually chief was imprisoned at Fort Steilacoom, under the custody of Colonel Casey, as a prisoner of war. Governor Stevens, however, considered him a criminal and charged him with the murder of a soldier killed during the White River ambush. Sluggia was killed by a friend of Leschi’s named Wa-he-lut, or Yelm Jim, in retribution for the betrayal of their chief and, although arrested, was pardoned on his execution day.
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.
The new execution date was changed again after Pierce County officials in charge of the hanging were arrested and charged with selling liquor to Indians, an effective delaying tactic brought about by Leschi’s supporters. The final execution date was set for February 19, 1858 but U.S. Army officials would not allow Leschi to be hanged on the grounds at Fort Steilacoom, so a scaffold was erected a mile to the east of the fort.
There had not been any great desire of the sheriff to hang Leschi, and they believed Colonel Casey would not give him up to the execution. Public pressure was great against the judge granting a respite, and the governor denied clemency. February 19, 1858 Chief Leschi went to the gallows before a small group consisting mostly of the posse and a few Nisqually, including his wife Annie. He forgave his accusers and stated again that he did not kill the soldier, Moses. At approximately 11:00 a.m. Chief Leschi went to meet his Maker with the dignity of a chief. His body was released to the Nisqually who buried him on tribal property. In 1895 he was moved to a site at Muck Creek where it rested until 1917 when that land become part of the Fort Lewis Military Reservation. He is now buried in the Cushman Indian Cemetery in Tacoma, Washington on the administrative grounds of the Puyallup Indian Reservation.
These words are written on the face of the memorial above his grave: “This is a memorial to Chief Leschi, 1808-1858.” On the back of the stone are these words: “Judicially murdered on February 19, 1858, owing to misunderstanding of Treaty of 1854-1855, serving his people by his death. Sacrificed to a principle. A martyr to liberty, honor and the rights of his native land. Erected by those he died to serve.”
Information compiled from the writings of historians Della Gould Emmons and Cecelia Svinth Carpenter.
Emmons, Della Gould and Cecelia Svinth Carpenter. “Leschi, The Nisqually Chief,” https://www.leschischools.org/Page/103 Accessed 10/21/19.