The history of Fort Steilacoom
The following is taken from the Long-Range Interpretive Plan approved by the board in November 2021. The board’s interpretive center committee is continuing to edit aspects of the plan including interpretive key messages and plans for interpretation of all four buildings and the grounds. For a list of author credits and more information, feel free to email us.
Fort Steilacoom is located on the grounds of the Western State Hospital, overseen by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, but cared for by the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association, (HFSA). In 1978 the final four remaining buildings were in deplorable condition. Plans for the hospital included demolition of the fort structures.
The area radiating one mile from the cottages is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Fort Steilacoom Historic District thanks to the efforts of Lakewood historians Cy and Rita Happy representing the Heritage League of Pierce County. Preservation efforts, in the early 1980s, by the Washington State Historic Preservation Office, the Heritage League of Pierce County, and HFSA restored these officers’ quarters, which became the Fort Steilacoom Museum.
HFSA began in 1983, when local volunteers raised funds and donated generously of their time and skills to renovate and restore the original officer’s homes that had been left in disrepair. The purpose of HFSA is to restore and preserve historic Fort Steilacoom; to perpetuate the significance of the site for the benefit of the public by operating a museum complex and a strong educational program stressing the role of the Fort in Northwest history.
HFSA sponsors events and activities to promote the history and personalities
associated with Fort Steilacoom. HFSA is a non-profit 501c3 organization run by volunteers whose Board of Directors meet each month to determine the direction of the museum interpretation. Volunteers host various work parties, living history demonstrations, guided tours of the fort buildings and lecture programs. While operating the museum, HFSA also operates a gift store that is open to the public
throughout the year.
We are often compared to other U.S. Army forts and historic sites, but it’s important to note we don’t have their backing or budget. We are the only U.S. Army site we know of managed entirely by volunteers and owned by a mental hospital.
Over the years, historians have researched the history of Fort Steilacoom to provide an accurate account of life at the military post during its period of significance. This research led to an Interpretive Center Exhibit Plan in the 1980s. Volunteers and members of the Association’s Board of Directors have also worked to develop a research library, so further research may benefit the public at large and students of
military history. Thanks are due to these individuals that have poured over research material in the quest to recreate a more accurate depiction of the first U.S. Army Post in the Puget Sound Region.
The Fort Steilacoom Long-Range Interpretive Plan is intended to form a foundation for all education and interpretive programs benefiting the public and guests of the museum. The plan will allow interpreters to forge a stronger connection between museum guests and the site. The plan is also intended to transform some guests from “users” to “champions and stewards.” While it focuses on the overall interpretive and education programs, it goes further to recommend specific strategies for engaging audiences. This plan will be the guiding document for all interpretive services and programs.
The Long-Range Interpretive Plan should be reviewed and revised by the Board of Directors at regular intervals to remain current with museum industry trends.
Sharing and preserving the first U.S. Army Post in the Puget Sound Region with area guests.
HISTORIC BACKGROUND OF FORT STEILACOOM
Before the fort
(12,000 BCE to 1849)
After the ice receded 13,000 years ago, the 640 acres of the Fort Steilacoom Historic District was the hunting and gathering area of the Nisqually and other Native people. The land was later known to Europeans as the Oregon Territory which included present-day Oregon, Washington and most of British Columbia. In 1818, the United States and Britain agreed to “joint occupation” of this land. British interests attempted to cultivate this specific prairie area into farms in order to seek to retain British influence in what was destined to eventually become part of the United States. The first farmers were settlers from the Red River area of Manitoba, Canada. One of those settlers, John Flett, would later return and become a businessman in what became the city of Lakewood.
The second farmer was Joseph Heath, who left a detailed diary of his effort to make the gravelly soil productive and of his interactions with Native Americans, British and Americans. Heath died on the farm in the spring of 1849, leaving behind buildings
no longer standing that housed the first incarnation of the fort.
Meanwhile, a treaty in 1846 between Britain and the United States determined what would become Washington would be U.S. territory. In the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexican War and facing the rapid settlement of the Pacific Coast in the wake of the California Gold Rush, the U.S. Army established Fort Steilacoom to secure American interest in the Puget Sound Region of what was then the Oregon Territory. Fort Steilacoom was a key element in America’s new Pacific Defense system.
First manned by soldiers of Company M, 1st Artillery Regiment beginning in August 1849, the fort’s first buildings were built on land leased from the Hudson’s Bay Company for $50 a month. Upon this site, the artillerymen moved into Heath’s buildings and also erected other simple log structures. By 1853, Fort Steilacoom was now a part of the new Department of the Pacific and the embryonic Washington Territory.
Expansion of the Fort
Fort Steilacoom grew in size and importance with the arrival of two companies of the 4th Infantry Regiment in 1853. In 1854, soldiers from these companies were detached to assist in survey and road-building work throughout the Puget Sound Region and across the Cascades through Naches Pass. These troops also aided in protecting the property and personal safety of recently-arrived American settlers.
With the influx of new settlers in the autumn of 1855, many Natives were growing frustrated with the drastic change to their way of life and growing violence against their communities. After the first series of treaty negotiations, the area saw increased tensions and violence between the settlers and the original inhabitants on both sides of the Cascades. Fort Steilacoom served as a temporary refuge for settlers fleeing the threat of violence. Settler Ezra Meeker described the scene:
“A sorry mess… of women and children crying; some brutes of men cursing and swearing; oxen and cows bellowing, sheep bleating; dogs howling; children lost from their parents; wives from husbands; no order, in a word, the utmost disorder.”
In explaining conflict after the events had taken place, Fayette McMullen, governor of Washington Territory, wrote to President Buchanan:
“(Native peoples) complain that the government of the United States has been giving away and is still selling their lands to settlers, without making them any sort of compensation – that they have in good faith made treaties with the Agent of the United States, whereby they were to receive compensation for their lands, and that these treaties have not been carried out in good faith by our government.
“They also say they are put off with promises by the Indian Agents, with the sole purpose of keeping them quiet until the white population becomes strong enough to drive them off entirely
“They do not understand by what right these things are done, and upon what principles of justice, the government refuses to ratify the treaties and pay them for the land, while it yet passes laws giving away and selling their homes, their hunting grounds and their graves.
“Reasoning thus, they regard the settlers as trespassers upon their domain, and consequently view them with extreme jealousy.”
The Town of Steilacoom was seriously undermanned at this time; most of its troop complement had taken the field. Skirmishing and patrols of both Regulars and Volunteer troops took place during the autumn of 1855. Fort Steilacoom took on the appearance of a fort under siege. It was in December 1855
that Fort Steilacoom lost one of its favorite officers, Lt. William Alloway Slaughter, in an ambush along the Green River. Lt. Slaughter, and two of his enlisted soldiers, were brought back to the post for burial.
Arrival of the 9th Infantry Regiment
General John Wool dispatched the first Regular Army reinforcements to Fort Steilacoom in November 1855 with the deployment of one company of soldiers from the 3rd Artillery Regiment commanded by Capt. Erasmus Darwin Keyes. They were followed shortly by the arrival of a new post commander, Lt. Colonel Silas Casey of the 9th Infantry Regiment.
Several companies of the 9th, with Keyes’s artillery troops, and troops of the 4th Infantry marched out of Fort Steilacoom in February 1856 to confront Native American warriors along the Naches Pass Road. In conjunction with soldiers of the Washington Territorial Volunteers and allied Native Americans, the American forces engaged in aggressive patrolling and occupation of key trails and traditional food-gathering sites of the Native Americans.
Several sharp firefights occurred near the White River, particularly in the area of Connell’s Prairie in today’s community of Bonney Lake. A successful raid on the warrior camp near the Mashel River by Indians under the leadership of Snoqualmie warrior Patkanim effectively quelled the warring at present.
Later raids by volunteers and the failed attempt to wipe out the fledgling settlement of Seattle undoubtedly weakened the resistance movement. However, many consider the uprising to be successful as it did lead to the renegotiation of the Medicine Creek Treaty at Fox Island in 1856. These renegotiations led to the expansion of the reservations, and the addition of the Muckleshoot reservation, among other things. Most Native people were removed to the reservations designated in the treaties.
By late March of 1856, the Puget Sound phase of wider conflict had concluded. Continued murders and fighting occurred, but none involved the Federal troops of Fort Steilacoom.
Incarceration of Leschi & New Construction at the Fort
The betrayal of a leader, Leschi of the Nisqually, by his former allies and his ensuing two trials strained relations between the officers of the fort and local civilian authorities. Leschi remained incarcerated at Fort Steilacoom after a failed attempt on his life in the office of none other than Washington Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens.
Although Lt. August Kautz presented convincing evidence at trial proving Leschi’s innocence regarding the murder charges levied against the chief, Leschi was declared guilty based on “evidence”provided in the form of eyewitness testimony newly-discovered in the second trial. A legal controversy ensued between Territorial government officials and the fort’s officers as to how to proceed with carrying out Leschi’s death sentence. Lt. Kautz borrowed the use of a printing press in Steilacoom and with the aid of Dr. Tolmie from Fort Nisqually vigorously defended the innocence of Leschi in two editions of a newspaper titled The Truth Teller.
In the end, Leschi was hung by civil authorities, not regular Army troops. Lt. Col. Casey demanded that if there was to be an execution, Leschi be executed at least 300 yards off post and that his men not be involved in the affair. Casey would later be burned in effigy by settlers thinking him too conciliatory to Native people.
The second edition of the Truth Teller appeared after the judicial murder, Kautz wrote,
“The main feature of the present state of affairs, is the case of Leschi. This Indian, having with all his people, concluded terms with Col. Wright, Gov. Stevens refused to regard the truce. He offered a reward of five hundred dollars…and succeeded by treachery, in bringing him in…
“On the 19th inst, a homicide was perpetuated by the sheriff of Thurston County, in the vicinity of Fort Steilacoom by hanging the Indian chief Leschi, under an order from the District Court…
“In a legal point of view his case is the most remarkable on record. He is perhaps the first man ever arraigned by the civil courts for an act of war, of which, in truth, he was not guilty. Convicted finally, by a jury which had prejudiced him, all clemency was forestalled by the remonstrance of a prejudiced people, he was at last executed contrary to law. ”
In 2004, a specially convened Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice, headed by a Washington Supreme Court justice, ruled that no one should have been put on trial because the killing had occurred in a time of war. Leschi was exonerated officially.
Meanwhile, in 1857, Casey secured Federal funds to expand and modernize Fort Steilacoom as befitting its status as district headquarters and its expanding role in local affairs. The fort now served as the central hub for military operations in the Puget Sound region, operations that included local security, road building, and frontier constabulary. Lt. August Kautz supervised the removal of the original log buildings and the
construction of new stick-frame and brick structures. Kautz utilized the labor of both soldiers an d ivilian contract laborers in the raising of new fort buildings. Foundation bricks were fired on site, finish lumber was purchased from local mills, and Kautz employed an innovative water ram to increase the speed of construction.
San Juan Island “Pig War” & the Military Road
Fort Steilacoom was nearly emptied of all of its troops as a result of the so-called Pig War of the summer and autumn of 1859. This boundary dispute involving the San Juan Islands gave rise to a massive build-up of American troops on the southern tip of San Juan Island.
Initially, only one company of 9th Infantry troops under the command of Capt. George Pickett had been ordered to establish a presence on the island. When confronted with the overwhelming superiority of firepower and numbers of the British Navy in the vicinity, Pickett hastily called for reinforcements. His request was granted in the form of nearly 500 artillery, infantry, and engineer troops under the command of Lt. Col. Silas Casey.
Upon arriving on the island, Casey wisely moved the camp started by Pickett to a less-exposed position, he began the construction of a redoubt intended for large guns, and he engaged in friendly, diplomatic conversation with his British counterparts anchored offshore.
The American encampment and redoubt project lasted only a short time. By November 1860, negotiations involving General Winfield Scott and British Governor James Douglas settled on the
placement of a company-sized element from both countries on either end of the island. The first American company to be stationed on the island at the conclusion of negotiations was Company C of the 4th Infantry from Fort Steilacoom. This company was commanded by Captain Lewis Cass Hunt and Lt. Arthur Schaaf while on the island until it was withdrawn and replaced in April 1860 by Captain Pickett’s company of the 9th Infantry.
In 1861, Fort Steilacoom would provide another company to the island’s defense; Capt. Thomas English of Company H/9th Infantry would replace Pickett’s company.
Concerns over the supply of, communications with, and reinforcement of military posts from Vancouver Barracks to the Cowlitz River to Fort Steilacoom and northward to Fort Bellingham led to plans for construction of a military road between these points. Survey work was completed by soldiers of the 9th Infantry assigned to Fort Steilacoom and contracts were awarded to various speculators for the construction and maintenance of this new road. While a rough-hewn, east-west freight road had been initiated between Fort Steilacoom and Walla Walla using the Naches Pass route, originally a Native
trading route, this new north-south route would never be completed. Events back east would dry up Federal funds for the project.
American Civil War Period
News of the presidential victory of Abraham Lincoln reached Fort Steilacoom in early December 1860. Southern states almost immediately began to secede from the United States in response to Lincoln’s election. Federal arsenals across the South were seized and their contents redistributed to rapidly mobilizing rebel forces. In response to this threat, Lincoln called for the concentration of Federal troops in the East. Fort Steilacoom was a flurry of activity as its companies packed and prepared to assemble
with their respective regiments in ports in California.
Upon redeployment to the East, the Regular soldiers of Fort Steilacoom would be a part of the Federal Division, the trained, professional nucleus within what would become a primarily volunteer force formed for the purpose of putting down the rebellion of Southern states. Soldiers of the 4th Regiment
assembled with their fellow companies in Southern California for transport to the East Coast. Soldiers of the 9th Regiment expected to do the same. Threats of Confederate sympathizers and the potential for both foreign and Native-American attack convinced President Lincoln to keep the 9th Infantry on the West Coast for the duration of the Civil War.
The draining of Federal troops from Fort Steilacoom necessitated the recruitment of volunteer troops to take their place. Washington Territory was never able to recruit enough men to fill the ranks of an entire regiment. Instead, the territory supplied two companies of troops and filled the rest of its allotted regiment with California Volunteers. During the American Civil War, Fort Steilacoom was manned by companies G and K of the 1st Washington Infantry Regiment as well as by soldiers from the 1st Oregon Infantry Regiment and Company E of the 4th California Infantry Regiment. These volunteer troops were a part of a much larger organization of West Coast regiments called the Army of the Pacific. In the absence of Regular Army soldiers, these citizen-soldiers took on the task of maintaining the peace between Native peoples and often hostile whites. They also improved and protected established communication and transportation routes.
Post-Civil War Period & Transfer to the Territory
By the middle of April 1865, citizens of the town of Steilacoom and volunteer troops at Fort Steilacoom had received the news of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Even before the end of war, volunteer officers had tendered their resignations and the companies of volunteer troops had begun to dwindle in size. After the war, soldiers of the 14th Infantry Regiment were stationed briefly at Fort Steilacoom. By 1868, confrontations with Native Americans east of the Cascades prompted General
Halleck to reallocate U.S. Army resources. Many of the posts established on the West Coast during the 1850s were closed, including Fort Steilacoom. The 640-acre fort and farm site was turned over to the Washington Territory.
In 1871, Territorial officials used the fort’s buildings and property as the “Insane Asylum of Washington Territory;” This asylum would continue to grow over the years. Many of the post’s original 1857 buildings would be torn down and replaced by newer, more modern facilities to support the needs of the asylum. Later, the asylum replaced its territorial name with the name Western State Hospital.
Today, four of the fort’s original buildings remain on site, open to visitors and school groups alike. The post’s Catholic chapel was moved in 1864 and currently serves an active congregational gathering place in downtown Steilacoom, not far from the fort.
Lakewood and Tacoma historians were concerned about the deterioration of the structures in the late 1970s, and submitted an application in 1978 for designation to the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning in 1983, local volunteers raised funds and donated generously of their time and skills to renovate and restore the original officer’s homes that had been left in disrepair. This dedicated group formed the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association to not only restore the buildings, but also interpret the
site for future generations.
The association currently sponsors monthly events and activities promoting the history and personalities associated with Fort Steilacoom. The HFSA is a non-profit organization run by volunteers whose Board meets each month to determine the direction of the fort’s interpretation. These volunteers host various work parties, living history demonstrations, guided tours of the fort buildings and lecture programs. The
HFSA also operates an on-site museum and gift store that is open to the public throughout the year. 1\
The HFSA recognizes that we have several histories to interpret at this site. We have a legacy of interaction with the land that goes back thousands of years and involves Native people, the British empire, U.S. expansion and settlement and the history of treatment of mental illness.
The story of the fort includes the well-documented interactions of the soldiers but others who are less documented including women of all backgrounds and Native peoples. Other
documented interactions include with settlers and politicians from early U.S. settlement and British and others from Fort Nisqually.
We have many stories to tell.
1 McPherson, John. “History of Fort Steilacoom,” http://www.historicfortsteilacoom.org/history.html, Accessed 12/20/2017.
Denfeld, Duane Colt Ph.D. “Fort Steilacoom (1849-1868),” http://www.historylink.org/File/10102, Accessed 1220.2017.