THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK

EXCERPT

Pages 147-163

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

 

8

 

An Impressive Performance

 

 

IT WAS A WINTER of both rich satisfaction and high anxiety for Leschi. His success at hectoring soldiers in the upriver woods between the Sound and the Cascades and the Yakima-led militancy on the eastern plains had traumatized the whites all across Washington Territory, but he knew that these assertions of Indian anger and strength would not stymie the enemy for long. The settlers, taking shelter for the winter, would await the spring warming, the arrival of U.S. Army reinforcements, and the return of Isaac Stevens from his wandering campaign of treatymaking. which had thus far won the whites neither peace nor security.

Leschi, meanwhile, could hardly afford to rest on his laurels. It was taking all his powers of endurance to sustain the fight and all of his leadership skills to hold together his corps of inexperienced warriors – and particularly to restrain his younger braves from the use of terrorism as an equalizing weapon. Since there were no soldiers in the field to target, the days without combat passed slowly for the native fighters. Away from their familiar surroundings, they suffered from the dropping temperature and dwindling food, supplies, and morale. Leschi’s recruits began to slip away in the face of these privations. To make their situation still more precarious, the Nisqually-led coalition could no longer rely on their best friend among the whites, William Tolmie. As the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief officer on the Sound, he was compelled to sell weaponry and supplies to the soldiers while denying them to the natives who desperately needed them to survive in the wilderness long enough to bring Isaac Stevens to the bargaining table. Had Tolmie continued to deal with the Indians, the governor would surely have shut down Fort Nisqually and suspended compensation talks with the Bay for the takeover of its property. Given the circumstances, Leschi chose to take a daring gamble at the outset of the new year.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

Most of the noncombatant Nisquallies whom Mike Simmons had rounded up in the fall were transported to a five-mile-long island they called Bu-ta-u, after a legendary tribal princess, and known to whites as Fox Island, about a dozen miles above Olympia. The island, an ideal lookout post from which to detect northern tribal marauders, had long been frequented by Nisquallies, who came there to gather clams and oysters in its rocky tidelands, snare the plentiful ducks and pheasants, and fish in its salmon streams. But once transformed into a detention center, Fox Island lost its charm. There was no room for pasturage or horseback-riding, the housing and clothing provided by the territorial government were in short supply, and because most of the tribe’s ablest hunters and fishers were off with Leschi’s fighters, the 1,000 or so internees were dependent on white man’s food, grudgingly shipped in to sustain the overcrowded encampment. Sickness was soon rampant. While their white warden, John Swan, previously a Sound fisherman, was well known to and liked by the natives, he could do little to gloss over what Fox Island had become – a prison camp.

On the afternoon of January 5, 1856, Leschi brought a fleet of six war canoes, manned by thirty-three armed braves, onto the pebbly shore in front of Swan’s cabin on the north end of Fox Island. Swan, the sole white guardian of the island, was relieved when Leschi approached peacefully, saluted, promised that no harm would come to him, and said he had come on a diplomatic, not military, mission.

Once the two men were seated, Leschi asked Swan to convey a message to the white authorities: his people were not fighters by nature and had taken up arms only because they had been misled at Medicine Creek into accepting a hellish reservation; they wanted no more than enough space to live as they were accustomed. It was the same point Leschi had made to other prominent whites – Mason, Tolmie, McAllister, and Shaw among others – to no avail. His tribesmen and their allies had grown tired of the war; they were sick, cold, and hungry, said Leschi, and in view of Stevens’s continuing absence, they would gladly talk peace and reconciliation with any U.S. Indian agent but Simmons, for whom he harbored a “deadly hatred,” as Swan recounted their conversation a few days later to the Puget Sound Courier. Mindful of the horrified response by the white community to the White River Massacre, which he always claimed to have counseled against, Leschi insisted to Swan that the braves under his command did not attack innocent or helpless civilians – it was cultus (bad) Indians who had committed the atrocity.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

The timing of Leschi’s extended hand of peace coincided with several trying considerations on the whites’ side as well. The three-month enlistment period for which most of the volunteer militiamen had signed up when Acting Governor Mason first issued his call was about to expire, and the expectation of further sacrifice by these amateur soldiers was daunting. Furthermore, most settlers had fled to safety, and their confinement in blockhouses or behind barricades while their farms and stock stood untended was naturally producing tension and irritability. An opportunity for rapprochement was at hand.

Swan, of course, was not empowered to negotiate with Leschi, and so, whether earnestly or duplicitously, he persuaded Leschi to let him send a messenger to Fort Steilacoom, just six miles away, to ask if Captain Erasmus Keyes, the commanding officer, might parley with the Nisqually chief or arrange for an Indian agent other than Simmons to do so, pending the return of the governor, who was expected shortly. The messenger was also told to report that Leschi’s party had no harmful intentions, so any armed effort to rescue Swan or to capture the beached warriors would be ill-advised. Keyes, though also powerless to negotiate with Leschi, thought he had been handed a perfect opportunity to seize the insurgents’ principal leader and break their resistance effort. He sent an urgent request to nearby Fort Nisqually to borrow the Beaver, the Bay’s clunky old paddle-wheel steamer, long since stripped of its guns and now in service mostly as a cargo carrier. Tolmie had little choice but to agree, and Keyes made overnight preparations to dispatch an expeditionary force under Captain Maurice Maloney, still smarting from the punishment his forces had endured at the hands of Leschi’s warriors.

Soon after the Beaver set out at sunup, Maloney, who knew nothing about amphibious operations, realized that he and Keyes had brought only one rowboat for landing the troops. If they came ashore a single boatload of five men at a time, Leschi’s armed warriors would pounce on them. While the ship drew as close to shore as it dared in the hope the native raiders would take to their canoes and approach within range of the army sharpshooters on board, Leschi bided his time so long as no gunfire was directed shoreward. After a while, Swan was allowed to row to the Beaver to learn if the U.S. Army was willing to advance peace arrangements. Told that Maloney had no such instructions, and urged to remain on board lest he be held as a hostage (or worse) on his return to shore, Swan said he had given his word to Leschi that he would return – and did so. A messenger was sent back to Fort Steilacoom to ask for further guidance.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

When Swan’s ensuing day-long shuttle diplomacy between the Beaver and shore yielded no progress, Leschi tended to the second purpose of his mission, to enlist fresh recruits for his guerrilla band from among those marooned on Fox Island. He may have enticed as many as two dozen – accounts differ – before his canoes slipped away undetected at night after thirty hours on shore. In his wake many whites questioned the sincerity of Leschi’s peace feeler and suspected it was just a cover for his real purpose, luring reinforcements from their island prison. The Courier, though, was impressed, remarking, “It is in vain that we look for a parallel case of bravery in the annals of Indian warfare . . . which proves to us we have sadly underrated the courage and daring of the Indians on the Sound.” Captain Keyes seemed to have been left in a wait-and-see mode by Leschi’s gesture, suggesting in a letter to the acting governor a few days later that “forward movement at this time [by either regular army or volunteer troops] would not hasten the termination of the war, but might and probably would, induce the hostiles to recommence their depredations.”

FrontiersmanAny hope of a peaceful, negotiated settlement of Leschi’s grievance was dashed at once by Isaac Stevens on his return to Olympia two weeks later after having spent most of the year on the road, treatymaking in Indian Country. He interpreted Leschi’s foray at Fox Island not as a brave, daring, and sincere gesture of conciliation but as a confession of the rebels’ weakness due to waning manpower, firepower, and willpower. Now was the time to press the attack on the renegades, not to relent.

Within a week of his return, the governor addressed a packed session of the Washington territorial legislature, whose members he told – to “deafening cheers,” according to the account in the Pioneer and Democrat – that “the war shall be prosecuted until the last hostile Indian is exterminated.” Far from altering the Nisqually and Puyallup reservations, the governor cried fiercely, “Let the blow be struck where it is deserved,” and promised that “nothing but death is a mete punishment for their perfidy – their lives only should pay the forfeit.” The tribes at war had to surrender unconditionally “to the justice, leniency, and mercy of our government. The guilty ones shall suffer, and the remainder placed on reservations under the eye of the military.”*

 

*Among those besides Leschi who may have regretted Stevens’s return to Olympia to take active charge of the warfare against the Indians was the governor’s wife, Meg. In a chatty letter dated February 1, 1856, to her sister, Mary Howard, back in New England, Meg expressed her keen enthusiasm for Charles Mason, the young territorial secretary serving as Stevens’s stand-in. On getting back to the capital, the governor sent Mason off to Washington, D.C., for no particular errand but perhaps because of what he may have sensed in the relationship between Meg and Mason. As she told her sister, “You can’t imagine what a loss Mason is to me. For . . . months we have been together most of the time. Walked and rode together and he has been full of kindness and little attentions. 1 never knew a young man that I liked so well. If he heard me express a wish for anything he would get it for me. Then he has a fine intellectual taste and is highly educated. He took as much interest in me as I did in him. I expect you will think 1 am running on at a furious rate for a married woman concerning a young man but you can understand the tie between us when you consider how few people in this country 1 had any sort of sympathy with .... I am wild as a hawk .... 1 was never so well or happy in my life as now.” Mason died in Olympia three years later at the age of twenty-nine.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stevens chose to view the violent resistance under Leschi’s banner as an act of personal betrayal against a white dignitary (i.e., his august self), not to be forgiven lightly – or at all. Resolved to cut down the hostile Indians with or without the help of the U.S. Army, the governor now issued a new call for militiamen to replace those whose enlistment periods were about to expire. He asked for six companies, and that the new volunteers as well as those willing to stay on agree to a six-month enlistment period, long enough, he felt, to eradicate the Indian menace during the coming season of fair weather. As if trying to relive his military career while serving as the highest civilian official of his territory, Stevens now took to signing correspondence with militia officers as “governor and commander-in-chief.”

By inflating his personal power, Stevens was casting himself more firmly as an adversary of Major General John Wool, the U.S. Pacific coast commander. An old warhorse and a decorated veteran of many a campaign dating back to the War of 1812, Wool strongly disapproved of civilians serving as volunteer soldiers, answerable only to state or territorial authorities who were not professional military men. He considered militia enlistees little better than vigilantes, generally ill-trained and poorly disciplined, who posed a greater threat to the peace than irritable Indians did and who often took their empowerment as a license to kill, plunder, and profiteer. As second-ranking officer in the U.S. Army, Wool, like his sole superior, General Winfield Scott, had an outsized ego, but he was no witless blowhard. Even now, past seventy, Wool maintained his reputation as honest, public-spirited, and highly professional. He was no one for a former brevet major to try to order about, as Stevens discovered when in early February Wool got around to answering his cheeky December letter demanding an instant show of force against the Indians in the Walla Walla Valley.

“I have neither the resources of a Territory nor the Treasury of the United States at my command,” Wool replied to Stevens with disdain, characterizing the natives’ sporadic display of violence as a brushfire that he had no intention of fanning into a full-scale conflagration. Indians rarely became active hostiles unless provoked, Wool remonstrated, and those in arms west of the Cascades should be effectively isolated in the countryside while army units and territorial militia confined their efforts to protecting the settlements. Wool promised to combat the Indians “with all the vigor, promptness and efficiency I am master of . . . without wasting unnecessarily the means and resources at my disposal by untimely and unproductive expeditions.” The general confidently expected the war could be brought to a close within a few months “provided the extermination of the Indians, which I do not approve of, is not insisted upon . . . and the volunteers are withdrawn from the Walla Walla country.” The Fort Steilacoom garrison was being strengthened and would soon reach 400 men, “sufficient to bring to terms the 200 warriors” in the Puget Sound region. In short, Stevens should shut up and let the professional soldiers do their job.

 

 

 

 

 

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The governor, his own considerable hubris swelling by the day and no longer constrained by the military’s chain of command, reacted to the rebuke by going over Wool’s head – as well as that of army boss Scott, whom Stevens had previously offended by insufficiently buttering him up in his book on the Mexican War – and writing directly to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to urge Wool’s dismissal from his high post.

 

 

A FEW DAYS after the governor’s avowal to the territorial legislators that every last hostile Indian would be done away with, the objects of his wrath sent him a bloodcurdling message of their own by assaulting the maritime village of Seattle, midway up the Sound’s east coast. The settlement, with fewer than t 100 permanent white residents and nearly as many friendly natives living alongside or close by, was ringed by a rise of thick woodlands that left the town isolated on its inland side, vulnerable to attack. Seattle residents had erected a pair of blockhouses after the White River Massacre and kept a watchful eye on the surrounding forest.

In January 1 856, at an Indian encampment thrown up on the shore of Lake Washington, separated from nearby Seattle by the heavy forest, warriors from numerous tribes assembled, including a contingent of 1 00 or so Yakimas and Klickitats who had crossed the mountains under their warrior chieftains, Owhi and his son, Qualchan, Leschi’s uncle and cousin, to help the western tribes take a more aggressive stance against the whites. The Indian gathering place for the raid came to be referred to as Leschi’s camp.

Just who thought up and who led the impending raid on Seattle has never been firmly established, any more than the number of attackers, estimated unreliably by chroniclers of the event at between 150 and 1,000 Indians. Leschi, daring and seemingly ubiquitous as the leader of the native uprising on the Sound, is generally credited with having masterminded the venture, even though he explicitly denied it and evidence of his participation is sketchy at best. Strategically it was a promising idea from the Indian perspective, no matter who was responsible for hatching it. Seattle appeared to be a ripe fruit to pluck because it was small and well removed from the main white settlements at the head of the Sound. For the tribal warriors the village also hosted a prize well worth risking their necks over: the sixteen-gun sloop-of-war U.S.S. Decatur, which had been undergoing repairs for several months and looked like a sitting duck with its stores of weapons, ammunition, and food, all badly needed by the natives, not to mention the ship’s cannons, which they hoped to remove and turn against white fortresses.

 

 

 

 

 

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As the Indians pondered their plan of attack, though, they failed to take several important factors into account. For one thing, the Decatur’s repairs were nearly completed, the ship was now back in the water, and its shipboard contingent of ninety U.S. marines was in place and available to defend the settlement. So were most of the seventy-two militiamen from the region who had just been mustered out of service but not yet dispersed. Tactically, moreover, the natives had no experience when it came to assailing a well-defended settlement. Their old smoothbore muskets lacked range and accuracy, hand-to-hand combat against whites with bayonets and revolvers was a frightening prospect, and the natives were entirely unprepared for the ferocious cannonfire aimed their way.

Early in the morning of January 26 rifle shots from the forested hillside behind the village began to pepper the cabins below, setting off a hurried exodus to the residents’ prearranged shelters. They had been tipped off by an Indian friendly to them who drifted in and out of the encampment on Lake Washington. Had the attackers drawn closer before firing or owned more accurate rifles, they might have turned Seattle’s streets into a shooting gallery and exacted a heavy toll on the citizenry. By the time the sporadic gunfire intensified into a steady barrage, though, the villagers had made it safely to cover; only two of them were picked off fatally, and nine others were wounded.

Unwilling to charge the better-trained and well-armed defenders of the port and storm the warship with its prized supplies, the raiders clung to the fringe of the settlement, where they torched and looted a few of the buildings. For the most part, they were kept in check by sporadic cannonfire from the Decatur’s batteries, aimed more or less blindly toward the timbered slope where most of the attackers remained hidden. Howls of dismay and indignation greeted each long-distance volley falling on them from the sky, and cries of lamentation went up when any of the missiles drew blood. How many casualties white gunnery inflicted was never determined since, as usual, the natives took their dead and injured with them on leaving the battleground. After the day-long fight, with a break for lunch by both sides, the attackers slipped away, regrouped by a swampy stand of willow on the west shore of Lake Washington, and then vanished into the night after having caused relatively little physical damage.

The psychological impact of the raid on the white community was quite another matter. That the Indians had come so near to the settlement was doubly stunning because Governor Stevens had visited Seattle only a few days earlier in an effort to allay residents’ fears over a rumored assault on their village. “I believe that the cities of New York and San Francisco will as soon be attacked by the Indians as the town of Seattle,” he had declaimed. Thus the undertaking may be said to have served its purpose for the Indians. Word of the raid particularly frightened settlers who had previously been reluctant to abandon their homesteads for refuge in blockhouses and other temporary havens. Enlistments in the new militia units Stevens had called for jumped. Around Olympia and Steilacoom, deep regret was expressed over the shaping role in the bold attack attributed to Leschi, until lately the most trusted and admired of his people.

 

 

 

 

 

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But was Leschi really involved in the notorious raid and, if so, to what extent? The Nisqually chief would deny soon afterward that he had taken part in the raid, but most historians have dismissed Leschi’s denial. The well-regarded Hubert Howe Bancroft, in his 1890 History of Washington. Idaho and Montana, 1845-1889, stated that a parley was held by Leschi, Owhi, and other leaders – no place or date was given or source provided for the report – during which “the plan was arranged for an immediate attack on the town.” The plan called for “the  ‘friendly’ Indians to prevent the escape of the people to the ships in the bay, while the warriors assembled to the number of more than a thousand in the woods which covered the hills back of town made the assault.” No mention was made of Leschi’s role once the shooting began. In his 1922 History of Oregon, Charles Henry Carey wrote that “a considerable number of hostiles led by Leschi of the Nisquallies and Owhi of the Upper Yakimas attacked Seattle and poured hot fire into the town all day.” No source was given. Clinton Snowden’s 1909 History of Washington went so far as to say, “A few days after the battle Leschi sent word to Captain Gansevoorst [recently installed skipper of the Decatur] that he would return in another month and destroy the town” – again no source was provided for this bit of bravado, out of keeping with almost all other accounts of Leschi’s deportment. A. J. Splawn, a cattle rancher who spent fifty years among the Yakima people recording their history, touched on the Seattle raid in his 500-page, 1917 biography titled Kamiakin: Last Hero of the Yakimas. Splawn wrote that in January 1856, Kamiakin’s subchief, Owhi of the Upper Yakimas, received a message from Leschi “asking that a band of warriors be sent him to aid in his contemplated attack on Seattle.” Splawn concurs that Leschi’s uncle Owhi brought along his son, Qualchan, one of his tribe’s best warriors, to lead a band of 100 braves over the mountains to Leschi’s camp near Lake Washington; he added that “Qualchan told the Nisqually leaders that he disapproved of their plan of attack,” but provided no details about their disagreement. When the attack failed, “Qualchan and his braves returned to the Kittitas valley,” just east of the Cascades.

 

 

 

 

 

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The closest thing to hard evidence placing Leschi at Seattle is the testimony, however sketchy, recorded at a special U.S. military commission hearing convened at Seattle on May 15, 1856, to settle, among other issues, who the perpetrators were. An Indian named Clackem testified he had spent time at Leschi’s base camp near the upper White River, where he had been detained as a suspected informer. He had not wanted to join Leschi’s party of fifty warriors hauling eight canoes on the trip to Seattle, but went just the same; he did not say whether he himself joined the raiders or saw Leschi among them. “Old Mose,” eager like others among the tribal witnesses to ingratiate himself with his examiners and avoid punishment, said he had sent his son to Seattle to warn the whites of the imminent raid. In answer to a direct query as to whether he saw Leschi among the warriors there, he said: “I suppose I saw him, but did not recognize him.” Another native witness, Sklinsum, confirmed having seen Clackem at Leschi’s White River camp, but when asked if Leschi was among the raiders who arrived on the western side of Lake Washington, he said, “I think he was.” A brave called “Bob” said he heard that Leschi was around but did not actually see him. Another Indian, Bruream, testified, “I first saw Leschi at the lake. They [not explicitly naming Leschi] made me come with them to Seattle. They gave me some beef.”

With no stronger evidence than this, newspapers and other popular accounts of the event routinely cite Leschi as the raid’s instigator and spearhead, and his alleged role has been memorialized by the white community, which now refers to the upscale lakeside Seattle neighborhood where the Indians reassembled after the raid as Leschi Park. Thus do legends sprout. Today’s Nisquallies are of two minds about the raid and whether Leschi inspired it. Tribal shaman Jim McCloud, prideful about the cheeky assertiveness if not the outcome of the mission, says that Leschi “camped there, organized it – and was behind it.” But one should not ask or expect a shaman to provide documentary evidence. Nisqually tribal historian Cecilia Carpenter, who gathered an archive that occupied much of her home in the Parkland section of Tacoma, doubted that Leschi was at Seattle, but her opinion as well rests more on supposition than hard evidence.

 

 

THE BATTLE of Seattle – a shooting spree more than a military engagement – was the high-water mark of the Indian resistance movement west of the mountains. While the raid inflicted only small losses in life and property on the whites, it was a far more aggressive statement of the natives’ burning resentment than the earlier game of hide-and-seek they had been playing to lure their pursuers into woodland ambushes. But the raid did not affect the balance of power, which now began to shift away from Leschi’s ragged little army.

The failure of the Seattle incursion to garner fresh weaponry and supplies – the attackers must have spent a considerable portion of their remaining “gun food” on the unavailing raid – stood in marked contrast to the condition of their foes, growing more numerous and fearsome.

 

 

 

 

 

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Patkamin, believing that Indian defiance of the white man was doomed, now brought his band of seventy-five Snoqualmie warriors over to Stevens’s side, hoping in return to extract favorable treatment for his tribe. The addition of Pat’s braves to others who had already gone over to the settlers’ side to save their skins meant that Leschi now faced as many Indian enemies in the field as allies he retained in his own ranks. Worse still for his military outlook was the arrival of a new, astute commander of the regular army garrison at Fort Steilacoom, along with several hundred more troops.

Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey of the Ninth U.S. Infantry division had graduated from West Point a dozen years before Stevens, earned battle scars in the Mexican War, and fought Indians on two coasts – the Seminoles in Florida and the Coquilles in Oregon – and elsewhere in between. Having learned the natives’ ways of war by use of speed and stealth, he would soon turn them against Leschi’s ambushers. Possessor of a lucid military mind and a deft pen, Casey later wrote a two-volume treatise on infantry tactics that became a standard guide for U.S. Army troops during the Civil War.

Friendly and cooperative with Stevens on the surface, the tough-minded Casey put up with little guff from the governor, whom he took for an ambitious intriguer out to crush the straggly Indians and gain glory for it. “It will afford me pleasure to cooperate with the force [of militiamen] you are [going] about raising,” he wrote Stevens soon after his arrival at Puget Sound. Since he shared the views of his superior, General Wool, about the troublemaking tendencies of undisciplined volunteer soldiers, Casey added, “As my small rations are limited I shall not be justified in opening them to you.” Translation: Please leave the fighting to us, Governor.

Aware of the growing size and improving skill of the white forces likely to be thrown against his as soon as warmer weather arrived, Leschi tried again to reach out for a negotiated peace, now that Stevens was back in Olympia. For an intermediary he selected a neighbor, John McLeod, one of a group of former employees of the Bay’s Puget Sound Agricultural Company who were of British, Gaelic, or French descent but had become naturalized American citizens, married Indian women or those of mixed blood, and established their own farms along Muck Creek, not far from Tolmie’s domain. A thirty-four-year-old ex-sheepherder; McLeod was locally renowned as a prodigious drinker, a Bible-wielding moralizer, and fiercely independent. When promised by Leschi, just as Jim McAllister had been, that he and his partly Indian family would not be harmed if they stayed on their land and did not side with the white soldiers once the fighting began, McLeod – along with most of his Muck Creek neighbors – chose not to abandon their farms and join the white flight to the blockhouses and stockaded forts and towns.

 

 

 

 

 

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A week after the Seattle raid, Leschi and fifteen of his warriors paid a clandestine visit to McLeod. According to an account in the Courier, Leschi wanted McLeod to deliver a message to the new commander at Fort Steilacoom, who he hoped might be more receptive to it than Isaac Stevens, with his insistence on the Indians’ unconditional submission. The gist of Leschi’s message was similar to what he had told John Swan at Fox Island a month earlier about the natives’ desire to end the war. In the interim, though, had come the Seattle raid, which, whether or not under Leschi’s command, had served to let white officials know that the Indian resistance was still capable of disturbing the peace and delaying the expansion of white settlement. Speaking to McLeod with what the newspaper termed “savage earnestness,” Leschi assailed Stevens,

 

accused him of having deceived them at the [Medicine Creek] treaty, and said he would like to have two pieces of paper taken, on one to be written the wrongs done by the Indians; on the other the wrong the whites have inflicted upon them. Let these two papers, said he, be taken to the Great Chief, and let him decide who is the most to blame – the Indian who has had his lands taken from him, or the white man who has deceived him?

 

Leschi ended his message for Casey by insisting that neither he nor his warriors had taken part in the Battle of Seattle. In a further effort to show his good faith, he also asked the Fort Steilacoom commander to dispatch John Swan, lately retired from his post as warden on Fox Island, to visit the Indian guerrillas’ hideout deep in the forest between the White and Green rivers in order to observe his people’s condition and to hear them express firsthand their desire to coexist amicably with the whites. Casey, probably without clearing the mission with Stevens, urged Swan to take up the offer by Leschi; at the least, Swan could bring back useful intelligence about Leschi’s capacity to continue waging war.

 

 

 

 

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After a stay of a day and two nights at the remote Indian war camp, a ring of twenty log cabins arranged for maximum protection beside the Green River, Swan returned and reported to Casey on the bleak conditions and signs of discord among the 150 or so braves gathered there. “Leschi is anxious for peace,” the Courier said Swan had concluded, “but he wishes a guarantee that his people will receive no punishment, and that a new reservation shall be set apart for their use. He fears that if his people lay down their arms private citizens may take their lives for what they have done in war.”

Stevens offered no receptivity to Leschi’s terms and almost surely interpreted his plea and straitened circumstances as further proof of the Indians’ growing desperation in the face of an expected all-out assault by white soldiers. Leschi’s vulnerability was revealed ten days after Swan’s stay when the Nisqually leader received other visitors, distinctly unwelcome ones. Baited with an offer from white officials of twenty dollars for the head of any of Leschi’s warriors and eighty dollars for the chief’s, Patkamin’s Snoqualmie braves made their way to Leschi’s secluded camp. Outnumbered by the defenders, Pat’s men used the cover of darkness to surround Leschi’s compound but were detected by the Nisqually sentries. According to an account in the Pioneer and Democrat, the two chiefs loudly exchanged insults through the night air, each promising to own the other’s head once daylight came. After withstanding ten hours of steady gunfire, which grew more intense and destructive as Pat’s marauders crept closer, Leschi’s men ran for it at dawn. They splashed across the Green River or clung to logs to stay afloat, but lost at least nine braves and perhaps twice that many; the attackers, far fewer. It was Leschi’s first real defeat since he had taken up arms, and ironically it was inflicted by those of his own race.

As Leschi tried to regroup his forces, in part by urgently seeking reinforcements from his Yakima and Klickitat relatives beyond the mountains, Silas Casey moved out from Fort Steilacoom with 250 trained army regulars, determined to flush out pockets of Indian resistance with short, swift jabs. Meanwhile, Stevens was dispatching his volunteer units in every direction to inflict all possible pain on any natives at liberty (instead of being inside their assigned internment camps) and to build forts, blockhouses, and ferry landings ever deeper in Indian Country for easier pursuit of their quarry. Stevens was unmoved by advice from Office of Indian Affairs Commissioner Manypenny urging him to “avoid vindictive and unnecessary bloodshed” and to bear in mind that Indians “who were criminal may be treated with magnanimity after laying down arms.”

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

With a total force of nearly 700 regulars, volunteers, and friendlies scouring the countryside as it burst into bloom, the governor insisted it was no time to exercise restraint or to act charitably. In a snarling March 9 reply to Manypenny, Stevens delved into fantasy to make his case. The Indians were on the rampage, he wrote, threatening “entirely unprotected” settlements, targeting supply trains, inciting hostility among friendlies by “wiles and falsehoods” – all requiring that the white community be saved from “the treacherous and ferocious Indians who have barbarously murdered men, women and children and laid waste nearly two entire counties . . . and whilst they shall be made unconditionally to surrender and their leaders to be made to suffer death, the Indians generally shall be dealt with in a spirit of humanity and kindness.”

It was a rant by a once self-possessed man who had allowed his pride, wounded by his own misjudgments, to turn him delusional, bordering on the pathological. The wrong he had done the tribes, more acute in some cases than others, was nothing in his mind when compared to the way they had wronged him by disavowing his treaties with them. How dare they defy him! In deep denial of his contribution to the outbreak of hostilities, Stevens would take it out on the Indians’ collective hides and, in the process, become an out-of-control avenger. His fulminating letter to Manypenny was awash with distortions. The Indian resistance fighters had not laid waste much of anything, let alone “two entire counties” or Seattle, and their barbarous killing spree of civilians on the White River was four months in the past and had not been repeated. Meanwhile, as he neglected to mention to the head of the Indian bureau, militiamen had slain and mutilated a revered Indian chief, Peopeomoxmox, and his guards who had come to parley under a flag of truce.

Stevens’s letter also disclosed a troubling unfamiliarity with basic human psychology. Did he really think the way to end the fighting was to promise a death sentence to every rebel Indian leader? If anything, it would guarantee their diehard resistance. And when did the governor suppose he had ever shown the natives “a spirit of humanity and kindness” that might have encouraged them to place their fate in his hands by surrendering to him unconditionally?

 

 

LESCHI’S GRAVEST problem from the first had been the meager support given his struggle of defiance by the tribes west of the Cascades, few of whose members were willing to stand up to Isaac Stevens. Most, like old Chief Seattle, had resigned themselves to a stiflingly confined existence as the whites dictated. And the stouter-hearted plains tribes led by the Yakimas’ Chief Kamiakin were disinclined to throw in with Leschi’s nearly exhausted guerrilla campaign.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

To blunt the eastward surge of the white soldiers, Leschi had to gamble now by trying to bloody the troops newly based at barracks on Connell’s Prairie. On the evening of March 9, he positioned about 150 braves, the bulk of his thinning ranks, on a heavily wooded hillside overlooking a narrow road from the prairie down to the nearby White River, where army engineers were constructing a ferry landing and adjacent fortification. Given their advantage in numbers, firing from cover on higher ground, and the element of surprise, Leschi’s braves seemed poised for a major victory.

But the Indians were overanxious. As a column of volunteers proceeded single file down the road early the next morning on their way to help the engineers by the river, a native rifleman opened fire prematurely. The whites in the lead scrambled for cover while those in the rear raced back to camp to summon reinforcements.

As the two-hour firefight grew in fury, the attackers’ lurking women spurred on their braves with thunderous drumbeats intended as well to unnerve the whites. The Indians, though, were unwilling to press their early advantage by breaking from cover and charging down on the soldiers. New militia units, responding quickly to the reported ambush, were able to prevent the attackers from encircling the poorly positioned column of militiamen. The longer the battle lasted, the better the volunteers coordinated their movements to deflect the full brunt of the enemy fusillade. Still, they were firing uphill, and their officers saw that the only way to dislodge their assailants from their hiding places was to engage them hand to hand. But as Major Gilmore Hays later described the action:

 

It was deemed too dangerous to charge them in front. Capt. Rabbeson was ordered to take a few men and join Capt. Swindell to make a flank movement to the right and charge the enemy in his rear.*

 

*The heroic Captain Rabbeson was the same Tony Rabbeson who had barely escaped with his life only a few miles away the previous October as a member of the Tidd express party, whose ambush by Leschi’s men he described in the Pioneer and Democrat soon after.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

This they succeeded doing in the same gallant manner, that they had done at an early hour during the fight. Simultaneous with this movement, Captain Hennes and Capt. White charged them from the front. The Indians were routed, put to flight, and pursued for a mile or more along the trail . . . covered with blood. It is believed that not less than twenty-five or thirty were killed dead on the field, and many wounded – they were seen carrying off their wounded and dead from the time the fight commenced until its termination ....

I regard the victory of this day as complete – a grand triumph. The Indians had together their whole force. They picked their ground. They brought on the attack without being seen by our own troops. They exceeded us in numbers nearly if not two to one, and we whipped and drove them before us.

 

The celebratory spirit among the volunteers was echoed in a reply to Hays from his commanding officer, General James Tilton, at militia headquarters: “The morale of the enemy being now broken by the shock it has received from the blow lately inflicted by the Central Battalion, following so rapidly the defeat of the enemy lately sustained from the U.S. regulars under the gallant Col. Casey of the 9th Infantry, it is confidently expected that these savages will be speedily annihilated and driven over the Cascades.”

Indian morale was further depressed by events that soon occurred near Seattle, north of Leschi’s theater of operation. There a force of Duwamish rebels and their allies rejected an order to disband by officers from two arriving U.S. Navy ships. The result was an assault on their terrain by marines who killed or wounded nearly half of the 120 natives. The Puget Sound Indian War was over; only the militant tribes east of the Cascades remained an unspent force. And thanks to the policy adopted by Colonel George Wright, in charge of army operations there, of not forcing the plains tribes to submit so long as they stayed off the warpath and did not commit individual acts of violence against whites, sustained combat appeared to be all but over.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BITTER WATERS OF MEDICINE CREEK                     Pages 147-163

 

 

Given the forces ranged against him, likely only to grow in size, Leschi now had three options. He could surrender himself and his men unconditionally in the hope that Stevens’s call for vengeance would be tempered by recognition that the insurgency had been the final spasm of protest from a people fearful that their whole way of life was doomed. Alternatively, Leschi could divide up his people and allow them to disperse into the countryside, perhaps to reassemble sometime in the future, but essentially quitting the fight with little to show for their effort. Or he could retreat over the mountains and seek refuge with the Yakimas and their relatives for a time, waiting for Stevens to retire or to be removed from his post and praying that his replacement would prove forgiving – and maybe even grant his tribe a more generous reservation.

Leschi chose the third course, trying to hold together his hungry and ill-clad cohort as it dragged through the late-winter snows and over the mountains in flight. Yet he could take solace even in travail, considering the long odds that had militated against his success. For the fact was, as historian Alexandra Harmon has pointed out, Leschi’s little army “had demonstrated impressive powers. They had terrified settlers, avenged some injuries, and forced Americans to acknowledge their pride and strength.” But Isaac Stevens was not among them.