Book Sale Fundraiser to be held April 13, 2024

10 am – 3 pm at Historic Fort Steilacoom, Quarters 2, in Lakewood.

Want to help support the mission of Historic Fort Steilacoom? Donate your gently used material to the museum for the sale! Fiction and non-fiction books in all genres are welcome. The only criteria is that they need to be in reasonably good condition (no moldy or torn materials, please!) VHS, CDs, and DVDS are accepted, though print material is preferred.

Books can be dropped off at Fort Steilacoom by appointment on Sunday, March 3, or Sunday, April 7 . Email us at [email protected] with questions, or if you have material to donate but can’t make it on the first Sunday of those months.

Update: Christmas at Fort Steilacoom 2023 will be sold out

re-enactors dancing at a holiday ball


Dec. 7 update: Thank you, thank you to our many wonderful supporters who have purchased tickets. This event is largely sold out except for two slots available as we type this, at 6:10 and 7:10.
If you would like early notice of ticket sales next year, we invite you to join our free e-newsletter mailing list, found at
The original notice follows:

Join us at Fort Steilacoom Museum in Lakewood from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9,  2023, as living historians re-enact the Christmas of 1859 as the holiday season might have been celebrated in these buildings 165 years ago. Get your tickets here!

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 2023 will walk past and witness scenes as if the visitors are spirits from the future.

The year 1859 is remembered for the lead-up to the U.S. Civil War. Many Fort Steilacoom soldiers would go on to serve in that war. However, Christmas was a period of celebration and enjoyment.

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.

Please see the Eventbrite page for information about accessibility.

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.

We only emphasize this because it’s so different from what you might have seen elsewhere. In 49 other states, ‘first forts’ are operated by educational or cultural groups with a budget. Fort Steilacoom is all-volunteer.

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

An all-volunteer museum was a great idea. Until it wasn’t.

The following is an opinion publishing in the winter 2023 issue of our newsletter  by the museum board president, Walter Neary:

It was a gift to be president of this museum board in the early 2000s and to return after a decades-long break in 2020.

One can see, very clearly, how some things change and some things stay the same.

Please allow me to reflect as someone who came, went, and then returned for a period roughly half of the museum’s life. There are lessons, and a genuine question: Do we want to be in 2040 the same place we were in 2020?

Regarding the birth of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association: I imagine, in the 1980s, a volunteer organization sounded really good. One hears all the time about the government and the problems it can bring. One hears that state and local park services are full of bureaucracy. They make inefficient decisions, and make decisions that benefit bureaucrats, not the community.

This wasn’t just an issue in the 80s. For example,  I was at a Seattle forum just this fall of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild where someone talked about how it was taking several years for a park agency to change one sign. One sign.

So in the 1980s, I am sure an all-volunteer organization sounded great. After all, our board is not beholden to any government. No one tells our board what to do. You can come on the Fort Steilacoom board and do things you could only dream of at a museum which is enmeshed in government bureaucracy.

There are no words for how free we are to do what we want related to Washington history. We only answer to ourselves. I would think many professional museum workers would think that sounds like paradise. 

So what has Fort Steilacoom done with this seeming advantage?

As it was years ago, our budget is about $20,000 a year. 

That’s a fraction of the budget of comparable sites of national significance. It’s 1.3 percent of the budget of at least one other museum I know of. 

If Fort Steilacoom was a family in Pierce County, we would be living $9,800 below the poverty line. 

And indeed, the fort community is a kind of family. But we’re not feeding mouths, we’re maintaining four 165-year-old buildings and trying to tell stories of the period 1849 to 1868. So maybe the poverty line is a poor comparison. Yet at least it’s a comparison.

Of our annual budget, the Lakewood lodging tax grant of $12,000 goes to marketing, which of course does not maintain buildings or buy insurance. 

If you remove the marketing budget, then Fort Steilacoom’s remaining budget is $8,000, which would be about $16,000 below the poverty line.

And this is after 40 years of momentum as an all-volunteer organization.

The present day

There is no question we punch above our weight. Hundreds of people tour the buildings through regular tours and special events. Our little band of volunteers works crazy hard to do amazing events in the moment, such as our annual Christmas at Fort Steilacoom.

But still. 

The one mistake we can make here is to blame ourselves. I know board members and other volunteers who take the fort very seriously. But it’s not us. There has been a complete turnover of board volunteers over 40 years, sometimes many times over. The issues remain the same. It’s ridiculous to think that’s coincidence or accident.

Can we blame ourselves? I don’t buy that. I think we’re like people who get into a car in the middle of a river, try to drive it, and blame ourselves when it’s not working. 

Maybe it’s not us. Maybe it’s the fact that the circumstances are wrong.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Walter, there are all-volunteer organizations that thrive.”

But most of the organizations I know like that are called to a mission that involves very popular themes with the public. We’re more like an elementary school than a museum with a sexy purpose. Fort Steilacoom has many important stories, but it doesn’t appeal to people the way that a community museum calls on the spirit of that community. 

If you’re in Lakewood, you surely go first to the Lakewood museum. If you’re in Steilacoom, you go to the Steilacoom museum. 

Who goes first to Fort Steilacoom? Which of the fort’s stories drives you to place it first among the museums you treasure?

We don’t have Ulysses Grant (Vancouver does). We are not the site of some big dramatic battle that gets mentioned in all the history books. Fort Steilacoom may have prevented large battles from happening. No good deed goes unpunished. For its role in working to avoid bloody conflicts, Fort Steilacoom does not provide a dramatic story that gets attention in 2023.

I do think if we market the fact that Fort Steilacoom is one of two U.S. Civil War sites in all of Washington, there’s a lot of potential.

All-volunteer or no?

I think the other challenge is the very nature of an all-volunteer group. You would think freedom is wonderful. But freedom is not as easy as it sounds. With freedom, we have the choice to do so many things. 

Or we have the choice to do nothing. We have the choice to do busy work or stand by and watch others work in seeming action without being driven to greater accomplishment. 

One way of describing this situation is called “paradox of choice.” 

This concept was coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in 2004, and it describes the way in which having too many options can actually lead to decreased satisfaction and well-being. Schwartz argues that when we have too many choices, we become overwhelmed and stressed. We start to worry about making the wrong decision, and we may end up making no decision at all.

Imagine a world where Fort Steilacoom did have professional management. That would mean the government I spoke of, with rules and bureaucracy and employees who bring their own possibilities and limits. But the fort would have resources to help operate and tell its story.

God willing, I’m going to be fascinated to see how Fort Steilacoom is managed in another 20 years! I hope the fort is not still all-volunteer, because the car is going to be pretty darn soaked by then. 


Anthropologist Marian Smith and her 1940 ‘Puyallup-Nisqually’ book

Marian Smith’s mentors told her not to write her book.

She wrote it anyway.

By Walter Neary

This article is a fuller version of an article in the winter 2023 issue of the Historic Fort Steilacoom newsletter. Comments most welcome.

Marian Smith was an anthropologist who interviewed several elders of the Puyallup and Nisqually Tribes in the late 1930s. Her book, “The Puyallup-Nisqually, Columbia Press, New York, 1940, has been cited in many ways, from the histories of Nisqually historian Cecilia Carpenter to the new mini-museum created by the Puyallup Tribe.  Smith described herself as the last student of a giant of American anthropology, Franz Boas, of Columbia University in New York. By the end of his career, Boas and his disciples had learned that much of the Native American lore they sought to catalog had been lost to time.

There is one sentence in that book that has not aged well. And some might find it offensive: “Puyallup-Nisqually culture is gone.” 

This article is about Smith, her work in relation to the Tribes and our fort – and a possible explanation for such a strange thing to say. I call it a strange thing to say, because after that sentence, the book goes on for more than 300 pages to detail Smith’s perceptions of Tribal culture.

I recently visited Smith’s papers and personal archive in London. Why are they London, you ask? Columbia University did not treat women scholars well in the 1940s, so she did not stay there after a brief stint as a teacher. Smith married an Englishman, moved, and would later become one of the key movers of the Royal Anthropological institute, which remains a vital institution today. 

I learned with sadness that Smith had saved very few of her papers from her days among the Puyallup and Nisqually. Most of the papers related to the Pacific Northwest were from a trip with students to British Columbia natives that she led late in the 1940s. But she did save a few papers from her undergraduate research days, and I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw it. I’d like to speculate about why she saved it, as I think the letter is also very important to explaining the controversial sentence above.

Smith arrived as a young undergrad in Puget Sound in 1936. She had the use of one leg; function in the other leg was lost to polio. She must have written about what she found to Boas, and/or his chief disciple, Columbia Professor Ruth Benedict. It’s on my list to see if that letter survives somewhere at Columbia. In the meantime, we know how Boas and Benedict reacted. 

I found a few notes from her 1936 days. In one, she describes how all the Tribal doctors were dead, or so she had been told. She must have suggested that she thought many memories had been lost. Because Benedict wrote back an eye-popping letter. 

In her letter Benedict very gently suggested that Smith should maybe forget the Puyallup and Nisqually and find other Tribes. Benedict had conferred with Boas. She wrote,  “Don’t take this suggestion as upsetting. If a good chance does come up, just feel free to make the most of it.”  

handwritten letter from Ruth Benedict to Ruth Boas

The scholar who would later edit the book “The Puyallup-Nisqually”
wrote Marian Smith to suggest switching her focus to another tribe.

Boas at this point was a giant of scholarship, so it would have to be intimidating for him to suggest to his youngest student that she reconsider her project

And yet. Marian Smith published “The Puyallup-Nisqually” in 1940. The two greatest figures of American anthropology at the time had suggested she find another topic. She chose not to do so.

Let’s return to how the book begins with that “Puyallup-Nisqually culture is gone.”  Well. That’s that then?  

I hope to begin a conversation by suggesting two explanations for that sentence.

One is that she personally felt that way. Columbia’s scholars spent a lot of time with a lot of Tribes in ways now thought controversial and problematic.

Here’s another option: Maybe it took the entire cultural arrogance of the Columbia University Anthropology department to put its weight behind that statement. Here’s something I probably should have told you earlier: the book was edited by Ruth Benedict.

As Boas’ career was drawing to a close, he was growing concerned that many of the recollections they cataloged were compromised. It was known that some Natives, for profoundly understandable reasons, did not want to share private recollections with a white stranger, and certainly not one who represented the full weight of the white academic system. This happened with tribe after tribe. By the end of his career, Boas knew that he and his students had collected falsehoods mixed with valuable information.

The paragraph that began with that sentence offers important context. It continues, “If the old life has come alive again and to me it certainly seems most vivid, it is due to the real and intelligent interest of my informants, especially of Jerry Meeker, John Milcane, William Wilton and Peter Kalama. They offered their memories, their hospitality, and their friendship, and this book is a monument to the culture into which they were born and which they saw vanish before their eyes.”  

At the end of this paragraph, the reader is properly muddled. 

What is in this paragraph? 

  • The culture is gone
  • It has come alive again
  • It has vanished

When Smith went to British Columbia in the late 1940s, she apparently stopped by Puget Sound to visit the Kalama family. Or maybe the pictures in her album are from her earlier days. Either way, her interested in these people seems very sincere.

So to sum up: We just don’t know the origins of the sentence. But we do know some of the reaction. A paper written by a doctoral student at the University of Washington addresses “culture is gone.” Karen Marie Capuder wrote in 2013, 

“It is undoubtedly true, as will be recounted throughout this dissertation, that incredible and often devastating changes had been wrought in peoples’ lives throughout Puget Sound due to the active efforts of federal and Christian assimilationists to destroy First Peoples’ systems of governance, spiritual praxis and land tenure, as well as their languages, subsistence strategies and sacred responsibilities within their sentient homelands. It is not entirely true, however, to say that “Puyallup-Nisqually culture is gone.” 

Very fortunately, there is more to the work than that sentence.  Any interchange with a Tribal member was precious in the late 1930s and offered vital information, whatever “scholars’ at Columbia University wanted to judge about it. Capuder notes in her dissertation that Smith gathered important materials still of use today. 

typed letter from Boas to Smith thanking her for information

Six months later, Columbia’s giant of anthropology, Franz Boas, must have eventually approved of Smith’s choice as he thanked her in this letter for information.

For example, the new Puyallup Tribe museum quotes one of the most disturbing passages in her book in one of ther displays. Smith wrote that people in Tacoma had learned that if you wanted to get land from a Native, you could arrange to have them hit and killed by a train so that it looked like an accident. Even though Smith was an anthropologist, she wrote this about present times. Surely that was a deliberate decision on her part to include a present-day detail.  

For those of us who dive deep into the history of Fort Steilacoom, Smith also quotes elders who were the grandchildren of the Natives who were part of the Fort community – and part of the Puget Sound Treaty War – in the 1850s.

Smith actually published very few political feelings of the Elders. Her main interests, driven by the Columbia approach, were the nuts and bolts of daily life: matters like clothing, spiritual beliefs, methods of giving birth and raising children. As part of that, Smith did ask about how Natives had conducted war. And that led her to a passage about the Treaty War that is most interesting. It reminds us of the writings of Fort Vancouver’s commander, who wrote in a letter home that it was terrifying how Puget Sound Natives outnumbered Army soldiers here in the 1850s. Smith’s account of the death of Lt. William Slaughter is different than you’ll find in most accounts. 

“With the cooperation of the Sahaptin relatives, a group of inland Salish sent out scouts to follow and spy upon a detachment of soldiers sent to the foothills to capture Leschi. The soldiers encamped above a stream at the head of a gully while two scouts watched their preparations from separate vantage points. Finally, a soldier moved away from the group toward the creek and toward one of the scouts. As he bent to fill his water pail, the scout rose from his hiding place, fired and killed the soldier. Not to be outdone, the other scout fired upon a second soldier who stood near the edge of the encampment”

“The camp was aroused, the scouts fled, the Indian party waiting for the attack dispersed and the soldiers were saved from a situation in which they would most certainly have been at a decided disadvantage. The fatalities were among the very few suffered by the military during the trouble. The two Indians who inflicted them were looked upon as brave men and their fame stood out strongly in comparison to the lack of similar accomplishment by others.”

This passage invites us to contemplate a version of the Treaty War that could have been much more bloody. 

In summary, we can be glad Marian Smith did not heed the gentle coaching of her mentors. We can be glad she interviewed and published recollections.

And while I have no direct evidence of this: Perhaps she held on to Benedict’s letter perhaps as a reminder of a crucial, hard decision that a young vulnerable student had to make to create arguably her most important contribution to scholarship. 

Author’s note: I thank the archivists and staff of The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in London for their assistance in research. If you’d like to know more about Marian Smith, you might start with this  Wikipedia page. Then I recommend using search engines to find the various obituaries published after her death.

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.