In search of the historical Chief Leschi

An excerpt from Richard Kluger's latest book, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, explores what we know about the Nisqually leader who stood up for his people and his land in the Indian Wars of the 1850s. He was known for his shrewd intelligence, high loyalty, oratorical power, and a generous heart, and is remembered today as a martyr unjustly hanged.

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Richard Klugerman's newest book, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek.

An excerpt from Richard Kluger's latest book, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, explores what we know about the Nisqually leader who stood up for his people and his land in the Indian Wars of the 1850s. He was known for his shrewd intelligence, high loyalty, oratorical power, and a generous heart, and is remembered today as a martyr unjustly hanged.

Editor's note: In Wednesday's edition of Crosscut, we published an interview with Seattle writer Michael Schein discussing his new historical novel Bones Beneath Our Feet — a parallele look at the lives of Nisqually Chief Leschi, Washington's first territorial governor Isaac Stevens, and the struggle between the two men's cultures.

The following is an excerpt from Richard Kluger's recent book, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, a historical account of the Puget Sound Indian War of the 1850s. The war, a battle between the Native Americans and Puget Sound's new American settlers, was started after the controversial Treaty of Medicine Creek transferred the ownership of Nisqually ancestral land to the federal government, leaving the Nisqually to be forcefully shuttled inland to small, infertile parcels of reservation.

Leschi, a Nisqually leader renowned among both native and immigrant communities for his knowledge, skill, and generosity, traveled to Olympia to protest the treaty. Later, during the war he became a war chief, leading a group of about 300 Nisquallies to conduct a series of raids in the area between the tribe's ancestral land and the new reservations. After the war ended, Leschi was captured, tried, and hanged for the murder of a white settler. In 2004, a historical court of inquiry cleared him of all charges on the basis that both he and the settler were legal combatants. 

Though Leschi is today commemorated in various Seattle landmarks, relatively little is known about his person. The excerpt below is a selection of Klugerman's research about Leschi and his changing relationship with the new settlers around him.

Conflicting evidence means that the modern investigator in the matter [of Leschi's biography] is unavoidably forced to rely a good deal on hearsay and surmise in portraying Leschi and trying to separate legend from facts. That he was a historical presence, though, is certain, and the events in which he was certifiably a central actor are worthy of fresh consideration for what they reveal of the primal racial confrontation between Americans, native and immigrant.

According to Leschi’s tribal biographer, the star his people saw rising over the Nisqually Plain on the day of Leschi’s birth in early January 1808 was hailed as a portent that the new arrival was destined to become their warrior chief and savior. His native village of Bashelabesh lay midway up the Nisqually basin, thirty miles or so below Puget Sound, on the Mashel River, a tributary that snaked east to west through a broad grassland prairie and provided ideal grazing for his family’s large herd of horses. Leschi’s father, Yanatco, was a Nisqually; his mother, a Klickitat closely related to Yakima chiefs and ranking braves of that formidable tribe on the far side of the Cascades. His mother’s name did not find its way into Nisqually oral history, only the report that she sang well, or at any rate a lot. Her Yakima genes were probably the reason Leschi stood taller than most Nisquallies.

The origin and meaning of his name are unknown. In keeping with tribal convention, Leschi likely chose it himself; it may have belonged to a distant relative, or he may have just liked the sound of it. He had two known siblings, his older half-brother, Quiemuth (pronounced “Kwee-muth”), from whom he was said to have been inseparable when they were young, despite the ten-year age gap between them, and a sister who married Leschi’s friend and prominent comrade-in-arms, Stahi. The brothers helped tend their father’s growing herd of horses, whose value made the family one of the tribe’s wealthiest. With their pick of mounts, they became expert riders who roamed widely and hunted skillfully in the game-rich forests bordering the Nisqually Plain. In the warm months the family crossed to the southwest side of the Nisqually to gather roots and berries on Yelm Prairie and fish the heavy summer run of salmon.

After Leschi married, he moved from his home village and settled on land near Muck Creek, another Nisqually tributary, about eighteen miles downstream toward the Sound and a lot closer to the new Hudson’s Bay Company establishment at Fort Nisqually, which opened when he was twenty-five. Its nearness offered him opportunities to sell his talents and work product to the King George men, with whom he got on well, thanks to what was said to be his soft-spoken and unabrasive manner. He traded the skins, pelts, meat, and fish he had caught and trimmed, as well as some of the horses his family raised, for the whites’ tools, garments, and guns (with which he was said to have become a crack shot). In time, he and Quiemuth, along with other Nisqually men, worked, mainly tending horses, for the Bay’s Puget Sound Agricultural Company, the sprawling British farm and ranch operation.

His various forms of livelihood made Leschi prosperous by his tribe’s gauge, allowing him to build a substantial cedar house and accumulate a goodly herd of his own horses. By his wife Mary’s recollection, the herd may have amounted to as many as 100, though William Tolmie’s principal assistant at Fort Nisqually, who dealt with Leschi over several years, doubted that the number ever exceeded 25. According to Nisqually lore, Leschi generously shared the accumulated earnings from his horses, hunting, and employment by the Bay with his tribe in gift-giving at potlatch feasts and by alms to the infirm, aged, and those otherwise needy. Such altruism has traditionally been viewed among many Indian cultures as the noblest form of conduct. “He had a big, good heart,” Yelm Jim said of Leschi, and was “kind to all people.”

Leschi’s generosity extended to his teenage wife, who recalled that “he was always giving me presents . . . and always let me have all the nice clothes I wanted.” He would periodically sell off one of his horses at Fort Nisqually and then “bring home a lot of things. We always lived well.” He occasionally took Mary on camping and hunting trips, but he was away from home a lot on his distant travels — a mounted wanderer who kept in touch with whites and native communities on both sides of the Cascades.

He “never told me anything about his business,” said Mary. “I was young, [and] he was rich and had lots of horses, and like a fool I married him. He was old enough to be my father” — a thirty-one-year age gap that may explain why Leschi felt he could not confide in her. He had likely married Mary after his first wife died, and he already had a second wife, older than Mary by a good number of years, with whom he may have been more companionable. His teenage bride was probably the trophy wife of Leschi’s middle age, and there is contemporary testimony that he was intoxicated with her charms. By Mary’s account, he did not physically or verbally abuse her. She recalled, “I never saw him angry in my life and . . . he never spoke an angry word to me.”

Among his other talents, Leschi was, by all accounts, a highly persuasive speaker when he chose to be, in both public and private settings. Frank Shaw, one of the few whites in early Washington Territory days who was fluent in Salish dialects, called Leschi “the greatest orator I ever heard.” He may have been as circumspect as he was articulate. According to tribal stories, Leschi was often invited to act as an informal judge and arbitrator, with a knack for smoothing out differences among a people whose contentiousness and family feuds died hard (and continue to smolder in the twenty-first century).

Soon after William Tolmie returned to take charge of Fort Nisqually in 1843, he detected a shrewd intelligence and high trustworthiness in Leschi, whose duties he expanded beyond tending horses and herding cattle. Tolmie seems to have used him as something of a straw boss in his dealings with the Bay’s Nisqually and other native employees. On at least one occasion that impressed the Scottish business manager, Leschi and Quiemuth saw to it that a fellow Nisqually workman charged with abusing a non-Indian hand was brought forward to accept his punishment. And there is reason to believe that the brothers rendered valuable service to the Bay’s ranching subsidiary by patrolling for native rustlers. Such invaluable cooperation cemented a genuine bond between Tolmie, the Salish-speaking impresario of the biggest commercial enterprise in the territory, and the Nisqually brave. Leschi took to wearing, on selective occasions, white men’s clothing bought from the Bay and was noticed from time to time riding with Tolmie in his buggy.

When American settlers began to arrive in the south part of the Whulge [the Lushootseed name for the Puget Sound] in the mid-1840s, Leschi, along with Quiemuth, was as adept at dealing with them as with the Hudson’s Bay Company people and gaining their confidence as a “good Indian.” Tolmie would later recount, “From the early days, the brothers were known for their readiness to assist the whites on all occasions.” This impression was reinforced by a less friendly observer, Hazard Stevens, who wrote in 1901 that Leschi was “a chief of unusual intelligence and energy [who] had much to do with the Hudson’s Bay Company people at Fort Nisqually, by whom he was much trusted as a guide and hunter, and was supposed to be well affected toward the whites.”

Prominent among the earliest American settlers in the region was George Bush, a half-black (his mother was Irish) former slave from Missouri who had joined a party of five families in an Oregon-bound wagon train and wound up homesteading in the Nisquallies’ terrain. Bush recalled how Leschi brought urgently needed supplies on pack horses to help the settlers during their precarious first days and taught them how to enjoy the unfamiliar types of seafood in which the area abounded. “Leschi was as good a friend as we ever had,” Bush added. Another settler, Andrew Bradley, who reached the territory in 1854, never forgot how he tried to lead his cattle across the rushing Puyallup River, misjudged the force of the current, and suddenly found himself, his horse, and his herd all being swept downstream — until Leschi, fortunately nearby, rode to the rescue. It was a favor Bradley would repay a few years later.

On another occasion that won him special plaudits in the white community, Leschi offered to lend and oversee the use of a dozen of his horses as part of an effort by the settlers to build a badly needed road at Naches Pass, the main entry point through the Cascades to the Puget Sound region. On inquiring about the pay rate for this trailblazing project, intended to facilitate white settlement in the Nisqually basin, Leschi was told that it was a volunteer effort without pay for its public-spirited participants. Whether hoping to ingratiate himself with the Americans or to benefit otherwise from increased traffic across the mountains, Leschi agreed to join the undertaking on the same unpaid basis — apparently without suspecting, we are left to assume, that he was helping seal the fate of the native population in his region.

. . .

Leschi became even more entwined with the whites encroaching on his tribal homeland when Charles H. Eaton, a neighboring farmer from Oswego County, New York, and ten years younger than himself, took Leschi’s only daughter, Kalakala, as his live-in lover. Her tribal name (meaning “Flying Bird”) was a mouthful for Eaton, who chose to call her Jenny. The couple had twin daughters in 1851 and a son two years later, Eaton family documents show, but like a number of white settlers who were enjoying the companionship of native women, Eaton would not dignify her by taking wedding vows in the manner of his own race or hers.

Although tribal members often gained social standing when their daughters married whites, there is ample reason to suspect that Leschi, like other fathers (Indian or otherwise) in his predicament, felt demeaned — and his standing in the native community thus degraded — by Eaton’s failure to sanctify the relationship. In February 1854, Washington territorial law officers dragged Eaton into the U.S. District Court in Thurston County, his home jurisdiction, on an indictment that he “did live and cohabit in a state of fornication with an Indian woman, named Jenny, being then and there in an unmarried state, against the peace and dignity of the Territory of Washington.”

The sole witness mentioned in the indictment was James McAllister, who may have been asked to testify by his friend Leschi, eager to have the white man’s government force his daughter’s lover to make her a respectable woman. No surviving record of the outcome of the case has been found in the Washington territorial court archives, but Eaton family records show that Charles and Jenny later moved east to Yakima Country and had two more children — evidence suggesting that the fornication charge was dropped after Eaton agreed to marry Jenny. But the underlying Eaton - Leschi tension was not resolved, as events in October 1855 would make clear.

Despite Leschi’s skills and accomplishments, he had not been embraced by his tribe as its foremost leader and formally designated chief of the Nisquallies. One likely reason is that the title did not carry the meaning, prestige, or authority among tribal members that were attributed to it by white society used to a hierarchal social structure. For another, the informal title of Nisqually chief did not become vacant until the death of Laghlet in 1849, when Leschi was forty-one. While it was not a hereditary title, one of Laghlet’s three sons would have been the most likely consensual choice by the headmen of the confederated Nisqually villages.

Laghlet’s oldest son, the handsome Weymoch (“Fighting Man”), was unfortunately known to be more accomplished as a vagabond lover than a leader or fighter — or much of anything else — and his two brothers were nearly as disreputable. The tribe, evidently, had been getting along well enough without a reigning chief, as it had done for extended periods in the past, and Leschi, secure in his standing both within and outside the tribe, had no need to step forward and campaign for the honorific title. Instead, it would soon be pressed upon him.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, Richard Kluger, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.


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