Editor's note: In tomorrow's edition of Crosscut, we will provide an excerpt from a new book about Leschi and the Indian Wars, "The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek," by Richard Kluger
LESCHI-Judicially Murdered Feb. 19, 1858
—Tombstone of Chief Leschi, Nisqually Leader
“Behind these words lies an essential story for all who are passionate about tolerance, dignity and justice,” writes Seattle author and attorney Michael Schein, in reference to Chief Leschi’s grim tombstone inscription.
In his new novel Bones Beneath Our Feet (Bennett and Hastings Publishing), Schein tells the story of Leschi, a brilliant orator and native leader, who faced off against the mercurial and ambitious first territorial governor of Washington, Isaac Ingall Stevens.
Schein’s tale grows out of the clash of native and white cultures in Washington Territory in the 1850s. Gov. Stevens was charged with removing native peoples from their ancestral lands and consigning them to reservations that were unsuitable for their fishing and other traditional means of sustaining their lives.
Chief Leschi, of the Nisqually tribe, was initially welcoming to white American settlers or “Bostons,” as the natives referred to them, but he objected to the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 that assigned his tribe to a small, barren reservation that was cut off from the sacred river where the Nisquallys had fished for generations. For Leschi, the treaty was a result of duplicity, threat, and manipulation by the Bostons, led by Stevens.
Leschi pledged to resist Stevens' removal policy and led native people in a series of skirmishes in the Puget Sound War of 1855-1856. Leschi evaded capture for months, to the chagrin of an ever more wrathful Stevens, but was eventually betrayed by a relative and arrested.
After his apprehension, Leschi was charged with the “murder” of an American volunteer soldier, A. B. Moses, who was killed in a skirmish with Indians in October 1855. The evidence against Leschi was tenuous and the killing occurred during a wartime incident involving two combatant forces. The first trial of Leschi ended in a hung jury. But Leschi was convicted of murder following a second trial, and was executed by hanging on February 19, 1858.
In 2004, a special historical court of inquiry exonerated Chief Leschi on the charge of murder on the basis that both he and Moses were legal combatants in a war. State Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander announced the decision, stating, "Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder." The decision represented a victory in the efforts of the Nisqually tribe to clear the name of their legendary chief.
Schein’s fictionalized account of the Puget Sound War remains true to the historical record, while exploring not only the lives of Leschi and Stevens but also the loves, hopes, fears and struggles of other natives, white settlers, and military officials who figured in the conflict and the ensuing legal proceedings.
Schein is an acclaimed author, attorney and poet. He recently sat down and discussed his historical novel on Puget Sound at a Ballard coffee shop.
Lindley: What sparked your interest in the Chief Leschi case?
Schein: In 2004 I heard news reports that a historical court of inquiry was convened to look into it. That reminded me of a student paper on the Chief Leschi case when I was teaching American legal history at Seattle University. The topic was fascinating. So I watched, probably on TVW, the proceedings of the historical court of inquiry.
I became more interested and grabbed a book by Ezra Meeker called The Tragedy of Leschi that was published in 1905. Meeker was actually on the jury during the first trial of Leschi, so he knew all the players and [included] original source documents in his book. At that point I was hooked. It’s a story of our land where we live and it’s a story of injustice, so it’s got so many elements that interest me.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!