The twilight of Native Seattle

As the city was engineered into modern Seattle, Indian life was rudely pushed aside, as if the whites no longer noticed the people who had long lived here and helped create the new city. But Native Seattle did live on, in many ways hidden to white historians, just as it does today.
Crosscut archive image.

The home of Hwelchtweed and Cheethlooteesa (1), in 1905 on the shoreline of Salmon Bay.<br /><br />
Eight years later, Hwelchteed was evicted, to make way for the Lake Washington Ship Canal (2). (Museum of History and Industry)
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Princess Angeline (3), Chief Seattle's daughter, on the front porch of her home near the Seattle waterfront, 1890. (University of Washington)
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Hwelchteed (right) outside his cabin (4) across the bay from Ballard, during what is likely his eviction by white men in 1913. (University of Washington Special Collections)

As the city was engineered into modern Seattle, Indian life was rudely pushed aside, as if the whites no longer noticed the people who had long lived here and helped create the new city. But Native Seattle did live on, in many ways hidden to white historians, just as it does today.

Editor's note: What follows is an excerpt from a striking new book, Native Seattle by Coll Thrush (University of Washington Press, 2007), which depicts the native side of Seattle, a side conspicuously absent from our urban histories and remarkably rich and varied. Thrush, a native of Auburn, Wash., records how vital Indians were in helping build the new city, and how important Seattle became to a wide network of Native Americans and North Coast Indians who came here for jobs and to remember sacred old places. Ignored by historians, these natives nonetheless kept their traditions alive for nearly 100 years after the first white settlers came. A particularly poignant chapter occurs in the period of 1880-1920, when modern Seattle was straightening rivers, blasting canals, and leveling hills – all the while callously destroying villages, traditions, and hallowed places. That story is told in the following excerpt. Seattle is a bad place to build a city. Steep hills of crumbly sand atop slippery clay, a winding river with a wide estuary and expansive tidal flats, ice age kettle lakes and bogs, and plunging ravines and creeks are all sandwiched between Puget Sound and vast, deep Lake Washington. But it was built anyway, and today Seattle's watersheds in particular are among its most transformed landscapes: Where four rivers once joined to become the Duwamish, now only one flows; Lake Washington empties to the west instead of the south and is shallower; other lakes, creeks, and beaches have been filled, dredged, culverted, and bulkheaded. In the last decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th – roughly the same years that the "last" Indians populated Seattle headlines – the city undertook a series of massive engineering projects that turned hills into islands, straightened one river and obliterated another, and reshaped entire watersheds, driven by what one urban scholar, Portland State University's Carl Abbott, has called the "leveling impulse." Seattle civic leaders had long held ambitious visions for improving what they called the "natural advantages" of their city. The deepwater port backed by two significant bodies of freshwater had spelled opportunity since the Fourth of July, 1854, when Thomas Mercer gave the name Lake Union to a body of water he hoped would someday link Lake Washington with Puget Sound. Despite various attempts at linking the lakes with flumes and ditches, large-scale efforts were beyond the reach of the young city. Other problems, most notably the steep hills that ringed downtown and the untidy margin between land and sea, remained unsolved throughout much of Seattle's early history. By the end of the 19th century, however, the technology and capital were available to begin serious attempts at terraforming. In 1895, former Gov. Eugene Semple proposed cutting a canal through Beacon Hill to connect Lake Washington with the Duwamish River, which until that point had only connected via the shallow, sluggish, and snag-filled Black River. Authorized by the Legislature, construction began in 1901, with soil and clay from Beacon Hill being used to fill the tidelands at the mouth of the Duwamish. While the South Canal project never reached completion – cave-ins and spiraling costs proved its death knell – Semple's passion for reshaping the Seattle landscape continued in the works of other men. The managers of the Seattle General Construction Co., for example, carried on with the filling of the tidelands, using sediment dredged from the Duwamish. Eight years and 24 million cubic yards of silt later, the company had replaced the river delta with the world's largest man-made island, flat, dry, and ready for industrial tenants. That same year, the flood-prone, meandering Duwamish, long a source of frustration, became the focus of engineers' efforts with the creation of the Duwamish Waterway Commission. Dredging began in 1913, and by 1920 only one original bend of the river remained within the city limits; the rest was a more or less straight, 50-foot-deep channel ideal for large seagoing vessels. The most dramatic project, however, took Semple's idea of a canal and moved it north. Under the leadership of Hiram M. Chittenden, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Seattle City Engineer Reginald H. Thomson, the Lake Washington Ship Canal linked Puget Sound, Lake Union, and Lake Washington through state-of-the-art locks at Salmon Bay, opening the lakes to maritime traffic beginning in 1917. Denny Hill was mostly gone by then, too, its earth used to fill tidelands that now fronted a wide, straight, and deep Duwamish Waterway. The Lake Washington watershed had been reoriented entirely; instead of flowing south out of the Black River, it now moved north and west through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard, and the lake itself was 10 to 20 feet lower. Together, all of these changes would have profound impacts on indigenous people and places. For the men who envisioned and then enacted these changes, Indians were irrelevant. Except as emblems of a vanishing past, native people virtually never appear in the writings and plans of Thomson, Chittenden, and the other modern creators of Seattle's new urban ecology. These people thought they were improving nature. Thomson, for example, called the Duwamish's natural curves "ugly" and "unsightly," preferring a channelized and useful river to one that was messy and unpredictable. Meanwhile, ship canal visionary Chittenden argued that the transformation of Lake Washington and Lake Union was "distinctly a case where utilitarian ends can be accomplished without any sacrifice of sentimental interests." Each of these men downplayed the social costs of reengineering Seattle's landscape; relocating undesirable people, when mentioned at all, was simply one of the benefits of efficient urban planning. That none of them mentioned Indians should not come as a surprise. For one thing, adherents to the modern urban-planning tradition paid little attention to local knowledge or history; instead, they looked to abstract, positivist models in which attachments to place and past bore little relevance. In other words, indigeneity and modernity were mutually exclusive in the minds of urban planners. At the same time, urban Indians were disappearing into a diverse category of people and communities known as Seattle's underclass, a grouping that would serve as the bogeyman in planning schemes for decades to come. The presence of Indian people, when noticed at all, could in fact mark areas in "need" of urban renewal. In 1892, for example, one observer described the "Shantytown" neighborhood around the waterfront house of Princess Angeline (Kikisebloo), the daughter of Chief Seattle, in language similar to that used to malign the Duwamish and the places where a canal needed to be built: What a blemish on this fair and growing city is that particular locality, where scores of shanties, lean-tos, and sheds, holding a heterogeneous mass of humanity, are huddled together – little children with old faces, unkempt men and women, dirty dogs, stray cats, the sewage from unclean sewers pouring down contagion and filth, moral and physical ill-being – all down that hillside, where the tumble-down dwellings are piled in many cases one over the other. In a pattern that had begun with the old Lava Beds (the vice district in south Pioneer Square) and that would continue into the late twentieth century, Indianness became a marker of urban disorder. Ironically enough, these large-scale engineering projects could themselves reveal evidence of the indigenous inhabitants of Seattle. This was particularly true in the case of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. In 1913, workers exposed a deep shell midden that had once been part of Tucked Away Inside, a community of Shilsholes on Salmon Bay. And when Lake Washington dropped several feet in 1916 as the last barrier between it and Lake Union was dynamited, even older relics were revealed. At a marshy cove on Union Bay, rows of wooden posts – the remains of the fishing weir at the indigenous town of Little Canoe Channel – stood exposed, and ancient stone hearths resurfaced along the new, lower shoreline. Rather than evoke the importance of such places to indigenous people, these unearthings only confirmed the naturalness of the engineering marvels that revealed and then obliterated them. These men thought they were restoring nature. But for native people trying to maintain connections to traditional places within Seattle, the changes to the landscape in the first two decades of the 20th century were far from irrelevant – they were devastating. Simply finding traditional foods, for example, had become close to impossible. The Duwamish estuary's eelgrass beds, which had sheltered young salmon and armies of herring, were gone, buried under the fill of Harbor Island and bisected by the new Duwamish Waterway. The great middens around Smith's Cove – proof of the spot's wealth of clams and other shellfish – were now covered by a landfill. The oxbows and bends of the Duwamish, once home to clouds of waterfowl, had become avenues for global shipping. When Lake Washington dropped with the opening of the ship canal, its outlet, the Black River, ceased to exist. Duwamish descendant Joseph Moses recalled that it "was quite a day for the white people at least. The waters just went down, down," he told a local historian, "until our landing and canoes stood dry and there was no Black River at all. There were pools, of course, and the struggling fish trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing fish into gunny sacks." In reordering the landscape for urban utility, Seattle's "Changers," as Chief Seeathl had called the white men, had dramatically reduced the utility – and habitability – of that landscape for indigenous people. There was an element of truth, then, in the "lastness" of Indians in Seattle. In the 1910s, anthropologist Thomas Talbot Waterman noted that Seetoowathl, Ollie Wilbur's relative with the crazy wife, was one of the only indigenous people left in Seattle. In many ways, men and women like Seetoowathl (Old Indian George) and Mandy Seattle were the last indigenous generation. Certainly, there were people of indigenous ancestry who continued to live in the city. Across Salmon Bay from Hwelchteed (Salmon Bay Charlie) and Cheethluleetsa (a Shilshole known as Madeline), for example, several families of Shilshole heritage lived in Ballard. People with roots in communities such as Herring's House (an important town at the mouth of the Duwamish) and Place of the Fish Spear (another Duwamish town, now buried under Boeing Field) could be found in other parts of the city. In them, the so-called vanishing race carried on. But in terms of indigeneity – which we might define by subsistence patterns, use of traditional places, ceremonial practices, firsthand experience with the pre-urban landscape, and, not insignificantly, the perceptions of observers – the deaths and departures of Chesheeahud (Lake Union John) and the others did in fact mark a discontinuity in Seattle's Native history. The first decades of the 20th century did not spell the end of Indian Seattle by any means, but they were the end of indigenous Seattle. Meanwhile, for people whose indigenous ancestors had left Seattle decades earlier, places in Seattle remained important: clam beds, fishing sites, campgrounds. But urban landscape change would erode connections between outlying Native communities and indigenous places within the urban fabric. In a 1994 interview, for example, Muckleshoot community member (but enrolled Puyallup) Art Williams, born in 1913, described traveling to Alki Point during the summers of his childhood. There, his parents would build a small timber and buckskin shelter, and for two or three weeks, they and other families would harvest clams, mussels, geoduck, octopus, and salmon from Elliott Bay and the Duwamish estuary. "All along, you'd see bonfires," he told the interviewer, "all along the beaches, where they cooked clams and do everything." Accompanied by drumming, songs, and stories, the annual trip to Alki was a continuation of older seasonal rounds. Fishing and clamming were only part of the action; the main event took place across Elliott Bay, at the foot of James Street on the Seattle waterfront. There, Native people would trade "whatever you got," in Williams's words: woolen blankets and dried clams, camas bulbs and buckskins. For two or three weeks, they would "have a big potlatch ... everybody come there and say goodbye to one another ... 'til next year comes, and then have it over again." That was about to end. As Art Williams got older, the trips to Alki Point and the Seattle waterfront became more difficult. As white Seattleites began to build beach houses with names like Dewdrop Inn and Bide-a-wee facing the beach at Alki, Indian encampments were less welcome. "No, no, no camping no more," Williams recalled. "They said no, no more camps. They wouldn't let us." Incorporated into Seattle in 1907, West Seattle had changed from an outlying community to an urban neighborhood, leaving less and less room for Native encampments. Urban growth and its attendant environmental impacts, meanwhile, led to new conservation law. Indigenous people would bear the brunt of these changes as well. State records pertaining to the arrest of native people for fishing in the Duwamish and on Elliott Bay no longer exist, but Jennie Davis testified some years later that the Duwamish and other local Indians had to stop fishing "or they will be arrested." By 1922, when Art Williams returned from the Chemawa boarding school in Oregon, he and his family had to "sneak around different places" to harvest fish and clams. They found, however, that shellfish harvests at Alki Point had dwindled, and Williams attributed this not just to urban development and scapegoating laws but to the fact that Indian people were no longer allowed to go there simply to pray for the clams' continued abundance. Indigenous stewardship of the environment, with all its religious components, had been sundered. And much more than clams had disappeared; urban growth had also destroyed the numinous forces that had given many local places their meaning. The story of Ballard's early political history, for example, is the story of residents struggling to keep each other's cattle from fouling the creek that was the town's main water supply. To the Shilsholes, that creek had once been known as Spirit Canoe after the power that resided there, but by the early 20th century the power was said to have fled, likely offended by the feces and urine of the Bostons' beasts. By the early 20th century, there were fewer out-of-the-way places for spirit powers and the practices that accessed them to carry on unmolested. Meanwhile, a Duwamish elder described to ethnographer John Peabody Harrington the effects of urban development on a supernatural horned serpent known to inhabit the Lake Washington shoreline and once employed by some of the most powerful and feared shamans. Harrington's notes simply say that by the 1910s it was "gone, not there now." Around that same time, a boulder inscribed with shamanic power figures on the West Seattle shoreline was buried under fill and concrete foundations. Other informants recounted for Harrington what had happened elsewhere in the city, contrasting indigenous places with their current conditions. Of the firs at Little-Bit-Straight Point, where a settlement and stockade had once guarded the mouth of the Duwamish River, settlers had "cut them long ago," and in their place stood the Rainier Brewery. The nearby town of Place of the Fish Spear, meanwhile, now lay beneath the Seattle Electric Co. machine shops. For all their differences, Seattle's indigenous and urban landscapes were often closer together than they seemed. While one had appeared to give way to the other in a dramatically short period of time, in reality both existed simultaneously in the minds of many Native people. Muckleshoot elder Florence "Dosie" Starr Wynn, for example, told an interviewer about trips made to the city in the 1930s and about the persistence of Seattle's indigenous landscape in her grandmother's memory: We went to the waterfront, and we went up to the public market, and we used to go up there. And when we'd take her shopping, we'd go through that road through Duwamish, that way. And she named all the rocks. The hills – well, they're gone now, because of blasting and new homes going in, and businesses. But they had names for every one of them rocks down there. ... Stories about those hills. All along that valley, there. The place-stories Dosie's grandmother told her were those of North Wind and South Wind, of the dwarves that helped Spirit Canoe travelers, and of lookouts posted on hills to warn of slavers from the north. The landscape might have been changed almost beyond recognition – the sacred horned snake "gone, not there now" – but the memory of these things remained vital for the descendants of Seattle's indigenous people. In 1931 Suquamish elder Mary Thompson said it best, telling a Seattle Times reporter that although she seldom visited the city named after her greatgrandfather, she remained connected to the place. "I always feel that I own it somehow," she said. Meanwhile, a small community of Duwamish people continued to live within the city, blending in as far as outsiders could tell but maintaining their own sense of themselves as a people. And then there is the indigenous name for the city itself. When ethnographers like Harrington and Waterman in the 1910s and Marian Wesley Smith in the 1940s interviewed elders throughout Puget Sound, they found that most did not refer to the city by the name chosen by Arthur Denny and his pioneer compatriots. Instead, they used the name of the indigenous settlement buried long ago under the sawdust from Yesler's mill. Almost a century after the founding of Seattle, "Little Crossing-Over Place" (the Whulshootseed word for the site that became Pioneer Square) continued to exist in the hearts and minds of Indian people.


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