Fort Steilacoom Park is topic of annual meeting Oct. 15

The Historic Fort Steilacoom Association will host its annual meeting online at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15.

There will be a brief business meeting where members will elect officers to the board of directors. Then the gathering will quickly move to the topic, “The historic significance of Fort Steilacoom and Fort Steilacoom Park.”

The speaker will be Chris Staudinger, who offers lantern tours of Fort Steilacoom Park. Staudinger, the founder of Pretty Gritty Tours, brings the perspective of someone who has learned over time that the area around Fort Steilacoom and its namesake park is one of the most historically significant locations in Washington State.

Staudinger will talk about the importance of the Fort Steilacoom Historic District from the times that Indigenous peoples gathered there for thousands of years to its more recent history as the center of U.S. settlement and then a major mental hospital. “The way we as Washingtonians treat others and, in turn, determine our own humanity, as been forged on this site,” he said.

Call for volunteers: Would you like to get involved in local history?

The period during and after the pandemic mixed things up for volunteer organizations throughout Puget Sound and the nation. We have plenty of room for volunteers with a desire to get involved and to help the community. Here is a list of some volunteer opportunities with Fort Steilacoom:

We seek help with our website. There are so many resources we could share about history and our fort. If you have knowledge of WordPress and an interest in history, we’d love to speak with you.

We’re looking for a tour volunteer coordinator. We offer tours on the first Sunday of the month. We need a volunteer coordinator to email volunteers to remind them they’ve signed up, and thank them afterward. This role requires no knowledge of history.

We’re looking for a history story editor. Every year, we assemble six to eight stories about Pacific Northwest history for the newsletter we showed you above. We need someone to chase down leads and help writers decide when they should submit their stories and photos. You don’t have to edit the stories.

We’re looking for a monthly talks coordinator. In past years, we’ve welcomed guest speakers. You can see examples in this YouTube video about the wives of the officer who supervised construction of our buildings. . Or you can see another example in this video that talks about a little-known subject, Slavery in Washington Territory. Are you curious about topics? Do you like books about Pacific Northwest history? We’d love to talk to you.

We’re looking for members for our board of directors. If you have volunteered at the fort and want to help organize and conduct activities to preserve the buildings and share history, we’d like to hear from you. It does involve work. It does involve more than waiting for someone to tell you to do things. We’re looking for self-starters who “play well with others.”

Are you interested in being a board member, but have not volunteered here before? You could help build a unique community institution. Fort Steilacoom is an amazing opportunity to govern a ‘first fort’ – something that 49 other states put in the hands of government. We are also looking for potential board members who have a passion for building organizations – and have proven it during teamwork on other boards. If that’s you, please get in touch.

Interested? Email us.

Old-fashioned Independence Day Weekend: Celebrate with family activites from the 1850s on July 2, 2023

From 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 2, you can experience a July Fourth weekend through activities at some of the oldest buildings in Washington. Living history re-enactors will host children’s activities and demonstrate aspects of pioneer life ranging from foods of the time to tinsmithing.

Celebrate Independence Day like it’s 1859 in buildings that actually did witness people celebrating Independence Day in 1859. This is a great chance to learn what pioneer life was like in one of the few remaining authentic pioneer settings in Washington.

There will be games and fun and learning.

Like our nation, the entire event is free. You won’t pay for anyone you gather to enjoy the fun and celebrate history and heritage with us.

We do gratefully accept donations. The Historic Fort Steilacoom Association maintains four of the oldest buildings still standing in Washington. We do this entirely with volunteer support. Fort Steilacoom is the only ‘first fort’ of its kind in the United States that is entirely managed by volunteers and ungoverned by an educational or parks institution. And our four 165-year-old buildings need as much or more maintenance as a home that you’d live in.

But it’s up to you if you want to donate! Come join us 1 to 4 on Sunday, July 2, to celebrate the holiday and get hands-on with history.

Be sure to keep an eye on our Facebook page for any updates on this event; we’ll post full lists of what activities and fun to expect.

A note about our location: Please use our street address to find the fort. 9601 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood, WA 98498. Don’t use the name of the museum in your phone because it might lead you to the wrong place. Please don’t be the person driving around and around inside Fort Steilacoom Park looking for us. The fort is not in the park. The fort and the parade grounds are across the street on the ‘fr0nt lawn’ of Western State Hospital. When you enter Western State’s grounds at the main entrance, turn right.

Opinion: Fort Steilacoom deserves a landlord whose mission embraces history

The following is based on an opinion column from our board president, Walter Neary, printed in the summer 2023 journal for HFSA members:

This has been a historic year for Fort Steilacoom, as we make plans for a brighter future. I’m very proud of our current board for recognizing the truth of a famous quote: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

This quote occurred to me a couple years ago, when I had the pleasure of returning after exactly 20 years as president of the board of Historic Fort Steilacoom.

What I saw is the challenges we faced in 2021 were the same challenges we faced in 2001.

  • Too few volunteers.
  • Too little public unawareness that the U.S. Army fort that claimed Seattle and the rest of Puget Sound for the United States is in Lakewood.
  • Too little money for maintenance or educational programs.
  • No paid staff.
  • Buildings slowly or even quickly suffering water or other damage for lack of investment.
  • No volunteer coordinator.
  • Someone looking at the board president, or the secretary, or you name the person, like they’re the one who should accomplish things.

I could go on. You get the idea. When I joined the board in 2021, we had the same idea we had in 2001: That the problem was us, to paraphrase Taylor Swift.

  • If only we could hold more tours, that would solve the problem!
  • If only we spiffed up our newsletter, that would solve the problem!
  • If only we rejiggered something, we’d make up for the fact that Fort Steilacoom’s budget is 1.3 percent of the nearest fort museum.

Our current board has embraced a new way of thinking—the problem is Washington.

Washington is the only state in the nation that has put its most historic buildings – ‘first fort’ under the management of a mental hospital and social services agency.

Washington is the only state in the nation that asks a band of volunteers to pay for, maintain, and interpret the complex stories of a first U.S. Army fort. We’ve begun to involve Tribes through our board to address some challenging questions of interpretation. But we have a long way to go.

Suppose Washington treated its schools the same way it treats Puget Sound’s first fort. I suppose we should be glad Washington didn’t put all the public school lands under the management of DSHS. I mean, that model could save a ton of money.

  • Lay off all the school boards, administrators, and teachers. No paid staff.
  • Let parents organize the classes that take place on those lands, without tax support.
  • That would sure put some stress on parents. But the schools would be all volunteer!

And it’s likely education would suffer. Maybe—education takes expertise and investment. The fact of the matter is, based on what we see in 49 other states, a first fort needs a parent organization that knows something about education.

The search for rational governance begins

We first articulated this perspective in a guest column kindly shared by The News Tribune. Then, advocates for history and champions of clear thinking offered perspectives. Feliks Banel did a thorough look at the subject for KIRO. Knute Berger wrote a supportive note in his newsletter, Mossback.

At the same time, visionaries within the City of Lakewood have recognized what you already know as a member: Fort Steilacoom is an amazing resource. Fort Steilacoom provides:

  • Hands-on illustration of the daily life of a pioneer.
  • Direct connection to Washington Territory’s political history.
  • Direct connection to one of the, if not the most, studied historical events in the history of this nation: the U.S. Civil War.

And you can walk through four buildings configured as they were in 1858. Where else can you do that in Puget Sound? It’s a chance to learn about the daily life of pioneers in buildings that actually witnessed daily life of pioneers.

I remain hopeful the fort finds a landlord with expertise in telling these stories, whether that’s the City of Lakewood, or another parks or museum agency. Fort Steilacoom and its volunteers could do amazing things if we had the same governance found in the other 49 states.

Honoring the current landlord

Before concluding, I want to make a point about Western State and DSHS. In no way, shape, or form, is this initiative a rejection of the many ways they have supported Fort Steilacoom. We’re just looking for an appropriate landlord.

In fact, I think we’re the ones who respect DSHS. Let me explain.

The state of Washington thinks DSHS has nothing better to do than take care of four of the most historic buildings that stand together in Puget Sound.

That’s rather insulting.

That’s like me coming to your workplace while you’re on the job and saying, “Hey, you don’t have anything better to do. Go to Safeway right now and grab me some things!”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be insulted by such a request. My work must be unimportant to you.

To me, this is indicative of how we don’t support mental health care. We, as a state, think so little of mental health care workers that we ask them to do something completely inappropriate: Care for and interpret a historic resource.

The state of Washington, which has responsibility for its own history, is effectively saying, “Eh, whatever, all Western State is doing is mental health care. They have time.”

As someone who has had family members with mental health issues, this makes me angry.

Mental health care is a full time job. DSHS has enough to do, and meanwhile, Fort Steilacoom has stories to tell.

We are thrilled to be on that journey with the members who are supporting the buildings. Thank you for being a member!

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.

Celebrating women’s history in Washington Territory

Fort Steilacoom Museum in Lakewood is honored to focus on the history of women in the early creation of Washington Territory through a series of three videos found on our YouTube channel.
The three videos illuminate the lives and activities of women who lived in Puget Sound in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. We hope the videos will be of particular value to living history re-enactors and anyone else interested in the details of Washington Territory history.
These are the three videos:
  • “In Her Shoes: Tracing the Footsteps of Pierce County Women in the mid-1800s.” Historian Claire Keller-Scholz talks about girls and women who lived on the Puget Sound in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Among the people you’ll hear about: Catherine Tumalt, daughter of a mother from the Chinook Tribe and Iroquois Tribe father who came to work for the English Hudson’s Bay Company in Puget Sound. It’s her picture that accompanies this post.


  • “Women’s Work in Washington Territory.” Tacoma Historical Society’s Curator, Elizabeth Korsmo, talks about the day-to-day lives of women in the 1850’s to 1860’s. Korsmo talks about the typical employment during the time, as well as more unusual figures such as Kate Melville, Pierce County’s first female deputy sheriff.


  • “Airing Your Dirty Laundry.” Historical interpreter Peggy Barchi shares detailed information about the daily grind that army laundresses endured and the skills it took to be one. You could earn 50 cents to a dollar a month for every soldier, but it was hard work hauling water as well as clothing.
Several women were employed as laundresses at Fort Steilacoom, the first official U.S. presence in Puget Sound. Fort Steilacoom, established in 1849 and closed in 1868, played a significant role in the settling of Washington Territory.
Another video, not part of the series but still valuable, is about the wives of August Kautz, the military officer who supervised construction of our buildings in 1857 and 1858. He married a member of the Nisqually Tribe, and their descendants still live in this area. You can watch that video here.
Our association acknowledges the complex history of the Fort and its role in the colonization of the area. We are actively working to incorporate the diverse perspectives and experiences of all individuals and communities who interacted with the Fort.

Seeking vendors: Swap Meet for reenactors and other people who love history is Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Reenactor Swap Meet is back!
This will be our first living history swap meet since the pandemic. Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 25, 2023. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fort Steilacoom will host a multi-vendor sale of living history supplies. The event is free to shoppers and open to all eras of living history.
We welcome both new and used items related to reenactment: clothing, accessories, camping equipment, cookware, craft supplies, antiques, reference material, etc. Vendor fees support four 165-year-old buildings that depend on donations for maintenance.
If you are interested in selling at the event, please learn more and consider registering at…/reenactors-swap-meet…

We’re looking for volunteers! Engage Puget Sound history in a fun way

Like a lot of organizations, Fort Steilacoom was affected by the pandemic. We lost some volunteers, and we were not open to meet people to replace those volunteers.

In order to continue our programs as before the pandemic – and even better – we’re recruiting for the following:

We’re looking for a tour volunteer coordinator. We offer tours on the first Sunday of the month. We need someone to email volunteers to remind them they’ve signed up, and thank them afterward. This role requires no knowledge of history.

We’re looking for a history story editor. Every year, we assemble six to eight stories about Pacific Northwest history for the newsletter we showed you above. We need someone to chase down leads and help writers decide when they should submit their stories and photos. You don’t have to edit the stories.

We’re looking for a monthly talks coordinator. In past years, we’ve welcomed guest speakers. You can see examples in this YouTube video about the wives of the officer who supervised construction of our buildings. . Or you can see another example in this video that talks about a little-known subject, Slavery in Washington Territory. Are you curious about topics? Do you like books about Pacific Northwest history? We’d love to talk to you.

Think of the roles above as air traffic controllers: One for volunteers, one for stories, one for authors (or other Pacific Northwest speakers). With no aircraft or airports involved! No TSA! You just get to help tell the story of Pacific Northwest history.

Interested? Email us.


Affordable holiday event for families on Dec. 10: Christmas at Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood

Join us at Fort Steilacoom Museum in Lakewood from 4 to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10,  2022, as living historians re-enact the Christmas of 1857 as the holiday season might have been celebrated in these buildings 165 years ago.

Re-enactors will gather in candlelight to talk, sing, dance and dine as our predecessors did in the first U.S. military post in Puget Sound. Visitors from 2022 will walk past and witness scenes as if the visitors are spirits from the future. 

The year 1857 is remembered as a time of turbulence in Washington Territory and part of the lead-up to the U.S. Civil War. Many Fort Steilacoom soldiers would go on to serve in that war. However, Christmas at Fort Steilacoom in 1857 was a period of celebration and enjoyment as men, women and children hosted and participated in social gatherings, exchanged gifts and communed with others.

Tickets are $7 for an adult and $5 for youth. A family of up to two adults and four youth pays $12. Because this event is a fundraiser to support maintenance of the aging buildings, discounts are not offered. 

The last tour group will leave at 6:30 p.m. Because of space limitations, tickets should be purchased in advance through Eventbrite.  Tickets may be purchased at the door, but availability is not guaranteed. This event will almost certainly sell out. You can check the Fort’s Facebook page to learn if the event is sold out. 


Fort Steilacoom, the first U.S. Army post to be located in Puget Sound, is on the grounds of Western State Hospital at 9601 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood, 98498. Be sure to use that street address to find the fort. 

Please allow extra time to find the fort. GPS and map software often direct people to Fort Steilacoom Park, but that is not where the park is located. The fort is across the street. To reach the historic Fort, be sure to type in the street address, turn right after entering Western State, and then look for the cannon shelter and lights. 

About Fort Steilacoom

Historic Fort Steilacoom Association is a non-profit organization managed entirely by volunteers. There are no paid staff. No tax dollars support routine maintenance. Members of the association support the fort through donations and receive a newsletter three times a year about Pacific Northwest history. Marketing outreach is supported by a grant from the City of Lakewood’s lodging tax fund.

Fort Steilacoom occupies an important position in the U.S. settlement of Washington Territory. Beginning with its opening in 1849 and ending with its closure in 1868, Fort Steilacoom served as a beacon of American power and promise, promoting the migration of U.S. settlers to Washington and securing American interests in the region. The buildings went on to become the first incarnation of Western State Hospital.

The Fort acknowledges the complex history of the Fort and its role in the colonization of the area. The fort community is actively working to incorporate the diverse perspectives and experiences of all individuals and communities who interacted with the Fort.

For more information, visit

Fort Steilacoom Hosts First Book Sale in Lakewood since 2019

Looking for a good book to go with your mug of tea and cozy sweater this Fall? Then stop by the Fort Steilacoom Book Sale next Saturday and pick up a familiar favorite or new classic while supporting this historic site!
This used book sale includes everything from military history books to pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels and literary works such as Beowulf and Catch-22. The fiction section includes a number of Large Print editions. You can also find a selection of nonfiction works covering such areas as photography, chemistry, self-help topics, and more.
You’ll want to come early to peruse the collectible offerings, which include several complete sets of Civil War resource materials, and original printings of books from the 1880s to 1920s. Prices range from $1 per paperback and $2 for hardbacks up to $10 for unique and hard-to-find editions, such as those signed by the author. Cash, check, and credit cards are all welcome.
Doors open to the public at 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. No early birds, please, but there will be special early-bird access for Historic Fort Steilacoom Association members starting at 9 a.m. If you’re interested in becoming a member at an average price of $15 to $20, please go here: We thank members for their continued support.
This is the first used booksale at the fort since 2019. With your purchase of any books, you’re supporting four buildings that have stood in the same grouping for 165 years. Like books, these buildings can share stories too – and they will live on to tell more stories thanks to your support. See you on Oct. 1.
Be sure to use our street address 9601 Steilacoom Blvd. SW to find us; if you just type ‘Fort Steilacoom’ into mapping software, it might direct you to the park across the street. The fort is not there. Our buildings line the parade grounds by the entrance to Western State Hospital.