Best of 2011: Redeeming Chief Leschi

A Seattle writer-attorney restores the heroic legacy of Nisqually Chief Leschi in an historical novel about the 1850s wars in Puget Sound. The book also conveys a sense of the amazing culture that was in place when the white man blundered in.

Crosscut archive image.

Schein's new book, Bones Beneath Our Feet, provides a fictionalized account of Puget Sound's 1850s war.

A Seattle writer-attorney restores the heroic legacy of Nisqually Chief Leschi in an historical novel about the 1850s wars in Puget Sound. The book also conveys a sense of the amazing culture that was in place when the white man blundered in.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at coverage of the changing Northwest. This story, by Crosscut writer Robin Lindley, first appeared August 3.

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.

Lindley: Wasn’t Meeker sympathetic to Leschi?

Schein: He was. At the time, Leschi had plenty of American supporters—perhaps not the majority—but certainly a solid contingent of pioneers who felt that he was being treated unfairly and Meeker was among those.

Lindley: You’re an expert in American legal history, but you chose to tell this story in the form of a novel rather than as a history.

Schein: I love history, but sometimes I get bored just reading an accumulation of facts and dates. I feel that you can reach a wider audience with a novel and get to the emotional truth of an event in a way that you can’t with a history book. People [can] relate to events not just based on facts, but based on emotions and feelings that there are real people with real problems that are similar to theirs. You can do a strong job of that by building characters in a novel and when readers connect, they learn the history. At the same time, they get an experience to connect with and remember.

Lindley: You follow the lives of Governor Stevens and Chief Leschi in parallel sequences. How did you choose to take that approach?

Schein: It’s challenging when you have a massive amount of research and think about where to enter the story. It’s no surprise that the two main protagonists — our first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and then Chief Leschi of the Nisquallys — jumped out as the central characters. It is a tale of cultural misunderstanding and the fear of a group that you don’t understand that each side has. What better way to bring that to life than to trace their upbringings and show just how completely different they were in their formative experiences as youths. I sketch in Leschi immersed in a wild filled with the totems, the gods, and the spirits — a genuine experience for the Native American culture. Stevens, on the other hand, has a Western upbringing in which God is up in the sky and everything else is to be used and brought under our own order and force. He’s trained at West Point as a soldier. So they come from completely different universes at the very outset.

Lindley: You vividly depict the culture clash between these communal, interdependent natives versus the competitive, individualistic Americans or “Bostons” who were coming into the territory. Didn’t Isaac Stevens see his primary role as dispossessing the Indians of their lands so the whites could settle on them?

Schein: The Americans were called Bostons by the Native Americans and the British were called King George Men, and they were perceived by the natives as different tribes.

The King George men established trading posts and traded with the natives, but did not attempt to take over the land or change the way of life in any significant manner, and they dealt with the natives on a more equal basis.

The Bostons, on the other hand, came here to take over the land and to live, and that created tremendous natural conflicts even when there were many individual acts of kindness and generosity and well-meaning people on the side of the pioneer Bostons. It was inevitable there would be conflicts over use of land, over different beliefs in how to conduct yourself. There was a fair amount of intermarriage and yet the imposition of one culture’s beliefs over another.

Stevens’ primary mission was to move the natives onto reservations to free up the land, and it was official U.S. government policy that he was carrying out for the settlers, because the settlers’ land claims were not secure until the natives’ claims could be extinguished under American law. So in just six months Stevens put tens of thousands of square miles in western Washington under treaty. In exchange for this he granted a few reservations of maybe 30 or 40 square miles total. That was a difficult process and opposed at differing levels throughout the tribes, and the whole concept of a bargain made forever in which land is given for money was completely foreign to the natives. And the fact that it was explained using the Chinook trading jargon, which only had a vocabulary of about 300 to 400 words, as opposed to explaining it in their native tongues, made it doubly impossible for them to enter into a knowing bargain.

Lindley: This is the treaty of December 1854?

Schein: It’s the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, and was entered into over Christmas 1854. The book is fiction, so I took some liberties. I put the Duwamish there because I wanted Chief Sealth (also known as Seattle), because he gives a marvelous speech and I wanted that speech in the book. But he wasn’t there; he was actually at the Treaty of Point Elliott later.

The treaty was the turning point in Leschi’s view of the white man. Prior to that time, Leschi had been welcoming and helpful to the white settlers. But the treaty dictated terms that were non-negotiable: [Moving] the Nisqually to a wooded bluff off their sacred river, which would have removed them from their way of life, an untenable living situation for the tribe. Leschi realized that and refused to sign the treaty, [but] even that part is disputed historically. An “X” did appear next to his name, but Meeker’s book and the tribal history say that Leschi tore up his commission on the treaty grounds and did not sign the Medicine Creek Treaty.

Lindley: The description is detailed and reads in some ways like a nineteenth century novel.

Schein: What makes historical novels interesting is that they’re about as close to a working time machine as we’ve got. When I was, for example, writing about the battle at Connell’s Prairie, I just got in the car and went there. It’s just off the Sumner-Buckley Highway. I crashed into the woods and walked around for an afternoon with my little notebook in hand and started writing observations. I’m a creature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and walk on trails. I wanted to feel what it was like to just crash through the woods. I did that to recreate a more true experience to the best of my ability.

Lindley: Are you directly quoting historical material with the documents you include in the novel? For example, in the January 19, 1856 proclamation of Stevens you include, he sounds almost pathological in vowing to exterminate all hostile Indians.

Schein: In many places what appears to be a quoted letter or memorandum is not the [verbatim] letter or memorandum [but] a paraphrase. But that language is accurate from Stevens. That was his policy at that point: He determined that all hostile Indians would be exterminated. Those were his words and that was his message to the territorial legislature.

Lindley: It had to be challenging to portray the perspective of the native people.

Schein: It’s a difficult topic, but one that writers ought not to shy away from. While I understand that a disadvantaged or disenfranchised minority that has suffered long at the hands of the white man would be particularly sensitive to the possibility that they are being exploited yet again, I can only say that my motives in writing this book come from great empathy and admiration for the native people. What drove me to write this book was not only the sense of injustice, but also the sense of wonder at what an amazing culture preceded ours. I want people to see that there was this culture [with] a depth and a breadth that was every bit as deep and as broad as our own culture.

This particular story is not just a Native American story; it is a story of all of us. This is a story about how we came to occupy this beautiful land of Puget Sound. Should we put on blinders and not even think about how we got to be here? I don’t think so, and this book can help everybody think about how we got here and have that inform our presence here. It doesn’t mean that all the Bostons need to now pack up and go home, wherever that is. This is our home and times have changed, but it means we can walk this land with greater and deeper appreciation — a more spiritual feeling towards what has come before.

Lindley: What’s your sense of Stevens and Leschi after examining both of them?

Schein: There’s no doubt that my sympathies lie with Leschi and that Stevens is a character who gives me a lot of pause. On the other hand, I dedicate the book to the pioneers and natives of Whulge, the native word for Puget Sound. Throughout I have asked myself, "Could we, the living, have done better?" What I’m trying to say is that each generation makes its own mistakes based on whatever ideology drives them. Stevens was as much as a product of his time as any of us.

While we now see many of the flaws with that ideology, I don’t think we’re in any position to say that’s crazy or wrong. Perhaps that was called for at the time and it was certainly the dominant philosophy as characterized by Manifest Destiny. It led to material progress for tens of thousands of people and it also led to many other consequences which we now see in terms of environmental degradation and of course the unforgivable near genocide of the native population. But it’s the sin of anachronism to impose our own values to say that Stevens was criminal. Stevens was a man of his time, who thought what he did was for the greater good.

Lindley: How do you see Leschi as opposed to Stevens?

Schein: Leschi is more an average guy. He’s an eloquent speaker, but he really just wants to live his life in peace and get along.

Lindley: What happened in the White River Massacre? Didn’t whites exaggerate the losses?

Schein: The White River Massacre was an awful attack upon peaceful white settlers by Native Americans. Sometimes now it is politically incorrect to remember that things went both ways, but they did. You can understand the frustration of the tribal members who engaged in that attack after the treaty, after the time when they were being rounded up and put on unsuitable reservations, or treated as criminals to be shot on sight if they didn’t come in willingly. So these warriors were desperate. Nonetheless, they took out their rage on innocent settlers and that’s to be lamented every bit as much as the loss of native lives.

Lindley: And Leschi condemned this attack on non-combatants.

Schein: Yes.

Lindley: It’s shocking that Quiemuth, Leschi’s half brother, turned himself in to Stevens and was then killed in the governor’s office.

Schein: Quiemuth, who was Leschi’s closest family member and constant companion, was murdered in the governor’s office the very night of the hung jury in Leschi’s first trial. It’s almost impossible to conceive of in modern terms. There’s a lot of historical debate over Stevens’ actual involvement. The consensus of historians is that it was more benign neglect on Stevens’ part, but his role was not clear. The fact remains that Quiemuth was a prisoner under state protection and obviously the governor failed to protect him. Quiemuth turned himself in voluntarily when he heard of the hung jury verdict, perhaps because he was tired of running.

Lindley: And Leschi was on trial for the murder of a white settler, A. B. Moses. How did the trial come about?

Schein: Near the outset of hostilities there had been a small group of [Boston] military messengers, maybe six or seven of them, riding down from the Cascades west to deliver military dispatches to Fort Steilacoom. They accidently came upon a large group of natives who were gathered at Connell’s Prairie after the first military engagement between territorial volunteers and the natives. Three natives stepped out of the woods and fired upon the dispatch riders, and two of them were killed [including] A. B. Moses, a popular fellow and former sheriff of Thurston County. That happened in October of 1855.

The war was over in 1856 and ultimately Leschi was captured and put on trial for the murder of A.B. Moses. In the first trial, the court instructed the jury on the elements of murder and also that killing between lawful combatants in time of war does not constitute murder, and there was a hung jury. This enraged the governor and many people in Washington Territory who felt that there would be no problem convicting the feared Indian leader.

There was later some political manipulation and redistricting of the judicial lines. By redrawing district lines the trial moved to Olympia. When [Leschi] was retried in Olympia, the governor controlled the appointment of the sheriff and that determined the jury pool, and that had a substantial bearing on the outcome.

Leschi was convicted. An appeal was taken and the first murder case reported in Washington Territory Report [at] 1 Washington Territory 13 is Leschi v. Territory of Washington, and that case upholds the conviction.

Lindley: And then you have recent efforts to exonerate Chief Leschi.

Schein: This is well covered in Richard Kluger’s history, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek. Sherman Leschi, the closest living descendant of Leschi, wanted something done and mentioned that to Cynthia Iyall shortly before his death. Cynthia Iyall pushed it and there was support of the Washington Historical Society. She also got Pierce County Executive [John] Ladenburg involved. They went to the legislature and the legislature asked the [Washington] Supreme Court to look into it.

The Supreme Court determined it had no jurisdiction because the [original] decision was from a federal court and they never had anything to do with it. In addition, they had practical concerns that, if they looked into this, it would create a flood of petitions on everything that happened in the history of Washington State and Territory, and they didn’t want to get involved in that.

However, [Washington Supreme Court Justice] Gerry Alexander was interested and was persuaded to form a Special Court of Historical Inquiry. They assembled a panel of jurists that included Court of Appeals judges and trial court and tribal judges. They met at the Washington Historical Museum in Tacoma, and they heard from historians, tribal members, and military lawyers. There was also a prosecution that put on its best case.

The court didn’t get to the issue of whether Leschi was responsible for the death of A. B. Moses either directly or through chain of command. Instead, the court ruled, as a matter of law, that Leschi and Moses were lawful combatants at a time of war, and therefore Leschi should never have been tried for murder.

There were cheers and tears and it was a great moment for the Nisqually people. As Cynthia Iyall told me, from that moment forward, they could tell their children that the chief they revered and for whom their school was named was not in fact a murderer, and that it was wrong to have tried him.


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