Reinventing Fort Steilacoom

Rethinking Lakewood’s oldest institution

By Walter Neary

The following, from our spring 2022 newsletter, comes from two talks Walter gave to Rotary Clubs in Lakewood.

In March of 1856, members of a Washington Territory militia massacred non-combatant Indians around the confluence of the Nisqually and Mashel Rivers. How do we know this? It’s not the official story. The Olympia newspaper, The Pioneer and Democrat, served to write what today we would call press releases for Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. The paper described the outcome as the result of heroic battles by the territorial volunteers.

We know about this massacre from three primary groups of sources. The first two don’t involve Fort Steilacoom, so let’s summarize them quickly — the oral traditions of the Nisqually Tribe and the memoirs of Ezra Meeker and James Wickersham.

The third way we know of the massacre involves someone who met some of the survivors afterward, namely Augustus Kautz, the U.S. military officer who supervised the construction of the “permanent” buildings at Fort Steilacoom, including the four that form our museum today.

So how do we know about Kautz and the survivors? The mistreatment of Indians did not warrant any sort of special report in those times. Kautz’s recollections come from his memoirs related to his attempted ascent of Mount Rainier. As he passed by a prairie, he wrote:


I had visited this spot, and camped nearby with a small detachment of troops,
searching for Indians who had hidden away in these forests, completely
demoralized and nearly starving. A family of two or three men, and quite a
number of women and children, had camped in the fork of the Mishawl and
Nesqually, about two miles from this prairie, and were making fish-traps to catch
salmon.

“When we fell in with them we learned that the Washington Territory
volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed
the most of them without regard to age or sex. Our own little command in that
expedition captured about thirty of these poor, half-starved, ignorant creatures,
and no act of barbarity was perpetrated by us to mar the memory of that success.

The Army brought these Natives to a place of relative safety. They brought them to Lakewood. Well, it
wasn’t Lakewood then, of course. It was Fort Steilacoom.

The reason I share this story is that it seems important, and it’s not a story we have often told
around Fort Steilacoom. Part of the reason for this is that Fort Steilacoom has, during its
history, been very focused on the buildings of Fort Steilacoom. But that’s changing and evolving.

Last winter, the board of directors approved an interpretive center plan which has been used to
train docents. You can bet the plan includes references to our four buildings, because we’re proud
of them. But the plan also discusses the people and the place.

Something I think we often fail to share is that Fort Steilacoom has seen six different uses in its history. That’s a lot; more than most areas in Washington, to be sure.
Let’s review those:

  • The hunting and gathering grounds of the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom and other tribes.
  • The farm of the Red River settlers from Canada, under the auspices of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
  • The farm of Joseph Heath.
  • The first U.S. military post in Puget Sound, Fort Steilacoom, 1849-1868.
  • The first formal mental health facility in Washington.
  • A museum (which is of course what’s there today) as the epicenter of the Fort Steilacoom District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each one of these uses could generate a huge number of stories, yet our museum’s focus has been primarily on the buildings. And of course, you can absolutely see why. In the 1980s, dozens of people mobilized to save the buildings from collapse. The men and women who saved those
buildings held a grand opening, one by one, as each building was saved.

It was done largely with volunteer labor, which is amazing.

It also tells you a bit about Washington and Washington’s relationship to history. While volunteers saved the Alamo in a similar way, the Alamo is governed today by the Texas Land Office. I am pretty sure the government had a something to do with saving Fort Sutter near where I grew up in Sacramento, California. But perhaps in Washington, we like to do things ourselves.

That must be why, with all the historians in Washington, we allow one of the state’s mental institutions to serve as landlord of some of the most historic ground in Washington.

In cooperation with the fine folk at the hospital, it was private citizens who mustered a small army to rebuild our buildings. We should be just as proud as they were. When our dear longtime secretary Orville Stout retired, he presented us with a hard drive full of images of the museum’s history. There are countless photos of people posing happily next photos of dedication of buildingsto buildings that they were preserving for us. One photo is of Steilacoom Mayor Lyle Dunkin with then-Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Jean Gardner, wife of the governor at the time.

The reconstruction of these buildings was, clearly, a big darn deal.

That said, with four glorious reminders of the pre-Civil War era in our backyard, we still have to remember that there is more to the story of Fort Steilacoom than our buildings. In future reports to the community, we’ll be sure to share more of those stories. Yet we will also not lose sight of those buildings. It was in these buildings that our predecessors walked.

They anchor us to the past.

I must conclude with a reminder that history doesn’t just happen. It has a cost. Sometimes the cost is time. But sometimes the cost is money, such as what we pay for supplies to replace rotting boards. If you had  been standing in the rain for 160 winters, you’d need repairs, too.

Everyone at Fort Steilacoom would be grateful if you’d help us support the buildings and the stories in and around them. Memberships start at $15, and you can sign up quickly and easily online at
https://historicfortsteilacoom.org/support.

We like to think that somewhere, Augustus Kautz would be smiling at your help. All this should be remembered and shared.

Author’s note: If you’d like to read more about the Mashel Massacre, Historylink has a post at https://www.historylink.org/File/8941. This author thinks they are a bit hard on Meeker and Wickersham but the reader can make up their own mind.

 

Fort Steilacoom celebrates women’s history with video fundraiser

This Women’s History Month, 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 at https://historicfortsteilacoom.org/video/
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.
Because the museum is privately supported, we are requesting a donation of $8.99 to view each video. The funds will help pay for needed repairs to the four 160-year-old buildings. The fort is entirely volunteer-run and receives no tax support for maintenance. The buildings need some urgent repairs this spring.
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.
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.
Find all three videos here: https://historicfortsteilacoom.org/video/
The four surviving buildings are available for tours on the first Sunday of the month; tickets are available through Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/…/tour-the-four-buildings-of…
Historic Fort Steilacoom is located on the grounds of Western State Hospital at 9601 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood, WA 98498

UPDATE: SOLD OUT. Enjoy an affordable family event for Dec. 11, 2021: Christmas at Fort Steilacoom 1863

Dec. 5 update: Tickets for this event have sold out except for a few individual slots. No tickets will be available at the door. Please considering visiting us on the first Sunday of a month, where you can learn about Washington Territory’s history and heritage. Get tickets here. 

Original post follows:

Join us at Historic Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood from 4 to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11,  2021, as living historians re-enact the Christmas of 1863, highlighting how the holiday season might have been celebrated in these buildings nearly 160 years ago.

Re-enactors will gather in candlelight to talk, sing, dance and dine as our predecessors did in these buildings nearly 160 years ago. Visitors from 2021 will walk past the scenes and witness them as if they are spirits from the future. 

1863 is remembered as being in the middle of the U.S. Civil War, which had ramifications in Washington Territory. However, Christmas at Fort Steilacoom was a period of celebration and enjoyment as men, women and children hosted and participated in social gatherings, exchanged gifts and communed with others.

Visitors must wear masks in compliance with state guidelines. Tickets are $5 for an adult and $3 for youth. A family of up to two adults and four youth pays $10. Because this event is a fundraiser to support maintenance of the aging buildings, discounts are not offered. Volunteers who come in direct contact will also wear masks, Living historians performing at the event will follow state performance guidelines allowing them to un-mask if appropriate vaccination and/or negative test
results are provided.

Because of space limitations with the pandemic, tickets should be purchased in advance through Eventbrite.  Tickets may be purchased at the door, but availability is not guaranteed. 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. GPS and map software often direct people to Fort Steilacoom Park; to reach the historic Port, be sure to type in the street address.

About Fort Steilacoom

Historic Fort Steilacoom Association is a non-profit organization. Fort Steilacoom is managed entirely by volunteers. There are no paid staff. 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 history of early America and the Pacific Northwest. The fort played a significant role in the settling of Washington Territory. Beginning with its construction 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 Fort 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.

For more information, visit http://www.historicfortsteilacoom.org

December talk: ‘Free Boy: Escape from Slavery on the Puget Sound Underground Railroad”

Join author Lorraine McConaghy at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, for an illustrated overview of the research for her book Free Boy and for a discussion of the people, events and ideas raised in the book.

Free Boy is the dual biography of Charles Mitchell, the enslaved boy who fled from Olympia in 1860, and his master James Tilton, Washington Territory’s surveyor general. In his flight from Olympia to Victoria, fugitive slave Mitchell was discovered on board the steamer Eliza Anderson at Seattle, by a U.S. Army squad from Fort Steilacoom hunting for Army deserters.

Dr. Lorraine McConaghy is a public historian who has devoted her professional life to researching and teaching Pacific Northwest history in a museum setting. She completed her doctorate in United States urban history at the University of Washington in 1993. She joined the staff of Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry in 1997 as the museum’s public historian and remained at MOHAI for more than twenty years. She is the author of Warship Under Sail, Free Boy:  A True Story of Slave and Master, New Land North of the Columbia, and a forthcoming history of metropolitan Seattle. McConaghy has continued to teach at the University of Washington and through Humanities Washington, and received many awards, including national recognition from the National Council on Public History, the Oral History Association, and the Association for State and Local History. In Washington, she has been awarded the Robert Gray medal, the highest honor given by the Washington State Historical Society.

Members of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association will receive the Zoom link to the presentation prior to the event. Individual memberships are $15 to $20.  To become a member visit https://historicfortsteilacoom.org/membership/.  

Fort Steilacoom occupies an important position in the history of early America and the Pacific Northwest. The fort played a significant role in the settling of Washington Territory. Beginning with its establishment in 1849 and ending with its closure in 1868, Fort Steilacoom served as a beacon of American power and promise, promoting the migration of settlers to Washington & securing American interest in the region.  Historic Fort Steilacoom Association is a non-profit organization and all donations are tax deductible. 

The Historic Fort Steilacoom Association’s mission is: Sharing and preserving the first U.S. Army post in Puget Sound with guests. 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.

For more information, visit https://historicfortsteilacoom.org.  

Life over the laundry kettles, the life of a frontier Army laundress

Book review from our journal: Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually, The Mashel Massacre of 1856

Fort Steilacoom museum reopens after being closed due to pandemic

Come see us! Historic Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood will reopen at least one weekend a month this summer so visitors can walk through and tour four buildings that witnessed key events in the early U.S. settlement of Washington Territory.

Fort Steilacoom is a history museum where guests of all ages can explore military life of enlisted soldiers, officers, the families of soldiers, civilians that worked for the garrison and those that visited from the community. Soldiers from the fort went on to serve in the U.S. Civil War.

The three cottages and interpretive center that remain from the original complex will be open for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month, starting June 6; or, in case the first Sunday is a holiday, the second Sunday of the month. The exact dates are June 6, July 11, Aug. 1, Sept. 12, Oct. 3 and Nov. 7, 2021.

There are some changes because of the pandemic. The museum will have more volunteers and tour guides than usual to keep groups small, and visitors will be required to register in advance so the museum can keep capacity at safe levels. People can sign up and pre-pay for tours at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tour-the-four-buildings-of-historic-fort-steilacoom-tickets-152800511443

Fort Steilacoom occupies an important position in the history of the Pacific Northwest. The fort played a significant role in the settling of Washington Territory. Fort Steilacoom served as a beacon of American power and promise, promoting the migration of settlers to Washington and securing United States interests in the region. 

From the U.S. Army’s arrival in 1849 until its departure in 1868, many soldiers and civilians brought the post to life with their daily tasks and calls to duty. As you tour the four remaining buildings, museum interpreters will help you connect with those that came before us and their everyday lives

For more information, visit http://www.historicfortsteilacoom.org, call 253-756-3928,  or connect with the fort at https://www.facebook.com/HistoricFortSteilacoom

Historic Fort Steilacoom is located on the grounds of Western State Hospital at:

9601 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood, WA 98498

June Talk: The Pig War of 1859

July Talk: The myth of the M1855 rifle musket: Weapons of the Coeur d’Alene War of 1858

Join us for a member’s speaker series at 2 p.m. PST on Sunday, July 18, 2021 as Chris Fischer talks about the weapons of the 1858 Coeur d’Alene War in Washington Territory.

For years, historians believed the success of the Army during the Coeur d’Alene War of 1858 came from the use of the new model 1855 Springfield Rifle Musket. The leader of the campaign, Colonel George Wright, even credited the weaponry with military success.

Chris Fischer, public historian who has spent years researching the antebellum period of history, will address our members on this topic. This presentation will include a quick synopsis of why the Coeur d’Alene campaign was undertaken, its relationship to the Yakima War, and a brief synopsis of the arms used in the early part of the 1850’s. Finally, Fischer will discuss how the failures of the Yakima War were corrected during the follow up Coeur d’Alene War and how the new weapons contributed to success. This campaign resulted in the battles of Four Lakes and Spokane Plain.

By way of context: 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.

Members of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association will receive the Zoom link to the presentation prior to the event. Individual memberships are $15 to $20. To become a member visit https://historicfortsteilacoom.org/membership/.

Fort Steilacoom occupies an important position in the history of early America and the Pacific Northwest. The fort played a significant role in the settling of Washington Territory. Beginning with its establishment in 1849 and ending with its closure in 1868, Fort Steilacoom served as a beacon of American power and promise, promoting the migration of settlers to Washington & securing American interest in the region. Historic Fort Steilacoom Association is a non-profit organization and all
donations are tax deductible. The Historic Fort Steilacoom Association’s mission is: Sharing and
preserving the first U.S. Army Post in the Puget Sound Region with guests.

May Talk: From Schuylkill Arsenal to Fort Steilacoom: U.S. Army Clothing & Equipage

Join us for a member’s speaker series at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, 2021, as Ephriam D. Dickson III talks about Schuylkill Arsenal clothing and  equipping the soldiers of Fort Steilacoom in Washington Territory.

As the mission of the U.S. Army shifted from the war with Mexico in 1848 back to the newly expanded western frontier, its logistical system  struggled with new challenges. The Quartermaster Department, which  provided clothing and equipage for all enlisted soldiers through Schuylkill  Arsenal near Philadelphia, worked to update designs but it took years for  these new patterns to reach remote frontier garrisons such as Fort Steilacoom located in today’s City of Lakewood, Washington.

picture of Mr. DicksonEphriam D. Dickson III is the chief curator at Yosemite National Park. He served as the curator at the Fort Douglas Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah, and more recently as the Deputy Chief of Field  Museums at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Members of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association will receive the Zoom link to the presentation prior to the event. Individual memberships are $15 to $20. To become a member visit  https://historicfortsteilacoom.org/membership/.

Fort Steilacoom occupies an important position in the history of early America and the Pacific Northwest. The fort played a significant role in the settling of Washington Territory. Beginning with its  establishment in 1849 and ending with its closure in 1868, Fort Steilacoom served as a beacon of American power and promise, promoting the migration of settlers to Washington & securing American  interest in the region. Historic Fort Steilacoom Association is a non-profit organization and all donations are tax deductible. The Historic Fort Steilacoom Association’s mission is sharing andpreserving the first U.S. Army Post in Puget Sound with guests.

For more information, visit https://historicfortsteilacoom.org.

Historic Fort Steilacoom is located on the grounds of Western State Hospital at: 9601 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood, WA 98498