Museum board president calls for new way of managing historic site

The board president of Historic Fort Steilacoom recently authored a personal opinion column for The News Tribune. The original draft is reprinted here for convenience, and reflects Walter Neary’s personal opinion.

Current ownership of Fort Steilacoom masks the early history of Washington Territory


Hospitals and museums are different things

By Walter Neary


When it comes to celebrating history, Washington State is unique. Not in a good way.

Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood was founded by the U.S. Army as the first military fort in Puget Sound on Aug. 22, 1849. The fort will celebrate the 175th anniversary in 2024. 

Four buildings survive. You can walk through them today.

Their ownership is what makes them  unique. For instance, Wyoming’s Fort Laramie is administered by the National Park Service.

In Texas, Fort Croghan is administered by The Burnet County Historical Commission and the Burnet County Heritage Society.

In Nevada, Fort Churchill is governed by the Nevada Division of State Parks.**

I could go on, but you get the idea. Everywhere else, first and early forts are administered by groups experienced in operating parks and museums.

So – who do you think owns some of the most historic ground in Washington State?

A mental hospital. 

Western State Hospital and its parent, the state Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS).

That’s pretty unique. We’re not aware of many or any U.S. military sites of nationwide significance governed by a mental hospital.

So what’s wrong with being unique? 

Hospitals and museums are different things.

Now, I want to make it clear, this is no insult to Western State Hospital or DSHS. Hospitals do what they do. Museums do what they do. Thank heavens Western State is doing what it does. But it’s not a museum.

It might seem a little silly to be saying, “Hospitals and museums are different things” out loud because most of us would think it pretty obvious. But I must.  We’ve normalized a strange relationship in Washington. A behavioral health facility has responsibility for a historic U.S. Army site.

The reason is complex. Fort Steilacoom was decommissioned in 1868. Its buildings housed the first behavioral health facilities of Washington. The hospital moved into nearby newer buildings. The fort buildings remain on the front lawn – the old military parade grounds – of Western State. 

In the 70s, DSHS was perfectly happy to let the aging fort buildings cave in. That’s reasonable – because DSHS is not a museum. Instead, the four historic buildings were restored several decades ago at the expense of volunteers. The grounds and buildings still belong to Western State.

I suppose if you don’t think behavioral health is important, then I suppose you might think Western State has all the time in the world to learn skills in history, storytelling, museums and education. But if you’ve ever read a story in The News Tribune about Western State, you truly know the people there have other things to do.

What this means in practical terms is that few resources and little expertise are going into telling the story of Washington Territory.

Does that matter? The answer depends on whether you think we learn anything from history.

The history of Fort Steilacoom is challenging. On its face, Fort Steilacoom is part of U.S. Army history in such disputes as a border face-off with Great Britain.  

But parts of the fort’s history can be hard to tell. Fort Steilacoom’s forces were part of the war on Indigenous Tribes. Later on, the Army would protect Native Americans from vigilante civilian militias, but not at first. Fort Steilacoom housed Chief Leschi during his civilian trials so he would not be murdered in a civilian jail. As it turned out, civilian authorities staged a trial to hang Leschi  even though Army officers knew he was innocent. 

The Army obeyed the law and handed Leschi over. But Col. Silas Casey refused to allow a legal lynching to take place on Army soil. So the civilians hung Leschi in what’s now a neighborhood that got attention just a few months ago when a monument to Leschi was knocked over. 

This is a complicated, emotional story to tell. We are grateful for support from Tribal members on our museum board, but this is a story that should involve the community. We need expertise in telling stories like this. Because there are lessons to be learned.

Meantime, Fort Steilacoom’s officers would go on to fight in the U.S. Civil War. The connection is the reason many people visit our museum today. You can walk on the same floor that George Pickett walked. Pickett later became a major general in the Confederate Army. Pickett’s Charge contributed to the end of the Confederacy and is one of the most famous events of the Civil War.

Many other Fort Steilacoom figures played a role in that war. The officer who supervised construction of Fort Steilacoom’s buildings, August Kautz, served on the tribunal that tried the Lincoln assassins. 

Yet – we all know that parts of the Civil War are still being fought today. Again, the Civil War and its past and present context are a complicated, emotional story.

Now maybe we don’t want to think about the Treaty War.

Maybe we don’t want to think about the divisions of the Civil War.

Then the current situation makes sense. If you don’t want to confront and share these stories, then it makes sense to sideline Fort Steilacoom with a parent organization without expertise in museums, education and history. 

But if we do think history can teach us something, then it makes sense to look for a new parent for Historic Fort Steilacoom.

Because hospitals and museums are different things.

Walter Neary is president of the board of the all-volunteer Historic Fort Steilacoom Association, which leases the four historic buildings from Western State Hospital.

** The original draft included a list of several other U.S. Army forts around the United States. All of them, both famous and relatively unknown, are backed by public institutions familiar with education and outreach.