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Christmas at Medicine Creek



ISAAC STEVENS’S FIRST ORDER of business on returning to Olympia in early December 1854 was to name a formal territorial commission to work out the treaty language and procedures for  dealing with the tribes west of the Cascades and closest to the areas of white settlement. The governor, always a demanding boss and hopeful of having the nearby natives under treaty within a month, put pressure on his commissioners to get cracking.

The ablest and most thoughtful of them, George Gibbs, who among his multiple vocations was both a lawyer and a surveyor familiar with the geography of the region, had the key assignment of drafting a treaty text that could serve as the template for the subsequent council sessions Stevens planned to convene. Meanwhile, Mike Simmons, U.S. Indian agent for the Sound, and his junior business associate, Frank Shaw, were to figure out which tribes to meet with in what order and groupings. Because many of them were loosely structured and lacked an acknowledged headman, Simmons and Shaw were assigned, in the course of mingling with the natives as advance men for the treaty councils, to determine who should act as official tribal chiefs, so that Stevens would be able to deal with authority figures instead of an unruly melee.

The level of disrespect that young Shaw harbored toward the natives he was dealing with may be gauged from a reflection he offered in later years:


Personally, I have always believed that there was a great deal of humbug about making any treaties with the Indians.... The question was, shall a great country with many resources be turned over to a few Indians to roam over and make a precarious living on, making no use of the soil for timber or other resources, or should it be turned over to the civilized man who could develop it in every direction and make it the abiding place of millions of white people instead of a few hundred Indians.






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To have suggested to Shaw that “a great country with many resources” had never been “turned over” to a few roaming Indians – their people had in fact been living there for thousands of years – but was now in the process of being grabbed away from them would likely have struck him as nitpicking. The Americans were on the side of morality and compassion because, according to their government’s official rationale, the natives were being liberated from their savagery by being separated from their land.

To begin the treatymaking, Stevens’s commission chose the tribes of the south Sound, the ones adjacent to the territorial capital – the Nisquallies, the Puyallups, the Muckleshoots, and the band on little Squaxin Island, a dozen miles north of Olympia at the mouth of Budd Inlet, which marked the southern extremity of the Sound. Explaining why he gave top priority to these tribes, the governor wrote Manypenny, “They form a very considerable portion of the Trade of the Sound. They are good laborers, and are employed in families, vessels, lumberyards, and on farms. They catch most of our fish, supplying not only our people with clams and oysters but salmon to those who cure and export it.”

To count the number of Indians who would be affected by the first treaty and to invite them to attend the council session, Simmons and Shaw visited their villages and preached the necessity of compliance. Simmons, whom admirers called “the Daniel Boone of Washington Territory,” had been picked by Stevens as his prime Indian agent because he supposedly understood the natives’ disposition and was trusted by them. More to the point, they no doubt saw in his strapping physical presence a veiled threat to the Indians’ safety if they risked disobedience. Edward Huggins, William Tolmie’s assistant at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Nisqually emporium, was among those who viewed Simmons as a dubious conduit between the races. He wrote, “I always thought ’twas very unfair to give a man without any education [a] position of great trust and grave importance to the public,” especially one like the unlettered Simmons, who “had to depend entirely on the integrity of his aid[e]s to perform his duties.” Simmons’s level of competence may be gauged by his report to the governor that the population of the tribal bands at the southern end of the Sound totaled exactly 638 – an underestimate of 60 to 100 percent, according to head counts that soon followed. The miscalculation likely contributed to Stevens’s judgment about the amount of room he ought to set aside for the first tribes whose homelands he was busily planning to appropriate.






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Because the Nisquallies were the most numerous tribe among those to be covered by the first treaty, Simmons and Shaw took particular care in determining who among them should be officially recognized as responsible for carrying out the binding terms of the treaty, a formal transaction between sovereign entities. In the Nisqually nation, tribal chief was not an elected position, filled in an orderly fashion; democracy was not an essential element of Indian culture. For the previous five or so years no Nisqually had been even informally recognized as the tribal headman. But the brothers Leschi and Quiemuth, who moved easily between the tribe’s “fish people” nearer the Sound and the “horse people” upriver and closer to the prairies, were highly regarded by both tribal members and the whites who had dealt with them. The papers Simmons issued to them commissioned Quiemuth, a full decade older than his half brother, as chief and Leschi as subchief. Their formal elevation at the behest of the Bostons probably struck the brothers as a pointless exercise, but it served the governor’s purpose of capturing the tribe’s attention and ensuring a heavy turnout at the council meeting, set for December 24.

The task of fashioning the treaty language had prevented Gibbs from donning his surveyor’s cap in time to stake out specific reservation sites for inclusion in the document. Stevens had toyed with the idea of shunting all the tribes on the western side of Washington Territory to the less fertile, semiarid plains on the eastern side of the Cascades, but older settlers, Simmons and Shaw probably among them, dissuaded him by predicting that the affected natives would forcibly resist so traumatizing a transfer. A second idea was to keep the western tribes on their side of the Cascades but to move them all onto a single large reservation about forty miles above Olympia at the head of Hood Canal, a long, hook-shaped inlet on the western side of the Sound. Such an enforced amalgamation of tribes was also seen, by Gibbs especially, as combustible. Bunching a few friendly tribes on several smaller reservations made more sense.

The question of the reservations – how many and where to put them – was paramount at the December 10, 1854, planning session of Stevens’s treaty commissioners, who combed through Gibbs’s text, intended for all the upcoming treaties. The commission hoped to assign the Indians west of the Cascades to a maximum of ten reservations – and the fewer the better – while diverting them from the immediate vicinity of the white settlements at Olympia, Steilacoom, and Seattle, along the southeastern shore of the Sound, where expanding logging and maritime activity was concentrated.






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The minutes of the commissioners’ meeting, under the heading of “Probable reserves,” begin with these words: “Say three villages, Squawksin, Nisqually, Puyallup. Perhaps all may be removed to Squawksin.” The first elliptical sentence may have meant the commissioners were contemplating a separate reservation – but calling them “villages” – for each of the three named tribes. The second sentence may have meant that the tribes could instead be consolidated in a single reservation on Squaxin Island either as an immediate or eventual alternative. But the likelihood is that upon learning just how small the island was – 2.16 square miles, meant for close to 2,000 Indians – and unsuitable to settlement, with very little arable land or fresh water, the treaty commissioners dropped the idea. The island would suffice for the small Squaxin tribe itself, but two additional reservations of comparable size, one each for the Nisquallies and Puyallups, were projected on bluffs close to the Sound. Probably because of Stevens’s impatience, the commissioners did not have or take the time to pinpoint the sites for these two reservations before the council session began, though their approximate locations were likely set.


Mount Rainier


There is no evidence to suggest that the contents of the first treaty were shared with the chiefs or any members of the affected tribes in advance of the event. On the contrary, there is evidence that Stevens felt his task would prove easier if the tribes were given neither the time nor the means to grasp fully what was being asked of – and done to – them. How else to account for the unseemly haste the governor insisted upon in scheduling the first council session? Had this been a just negotiation, the Indians would have been entitled to an ample chance to digest all the provisions of the treaty – it was, after all, a transaction of a kind entirely beyond their experience. That Stevens supposed a thorough understanding on the tribes’ part would be counterproductive to his mission may be further inferred from his order that the council sessions be conducted not in the natives’ own Salish language but in the far more rudimentary Chinook jargon. Salish dialects varied so much from tribe to tribe that regional exchanges were sometimes difficult. Chinook, a half-century-old patois of English, French, and fractured native tongues, was widely used in the Northwest to carry out simple barter or convey travel directions, dietary preferences, or libidinous (even amorous) yearnings.






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 But Chinook was a crude language with an elementary vocabulary of 300 to 500 words – whereas the Salish tongues offered a word selection ten times larger – and was thus incapable of expressing nuances or the abstract social concepts embedded in a document crafted by a Harvard-trained lawyer like Gibbs. Yet Shaw was restricted to Chinook at the treaty conclave with the south Sound tribes. If Stevens had wished to befog the meaning of the treaty he was about to propose – or  to expand rather than narrow the communication gap between the races – he could not have picked a better way.



THE WEATHER was nasty that Christmastime at the southern end of Puget Sound – rainy and chilly for the three days of Isaac Stevens’s all-important first treaty council with the natives.

The place his commissioners had chosen for the session was familiar to the Indians and relatively easy for the territorial officials to reach by water. Fifteen miles east of Olympia and a mile or so from the Sound, the low-lying clearing of about two acres, which the Nisquallies had long used as a meeting ground, was bounded by a clear stream the natives called She-Nah-Nam and a marshy tidal flat. The stream flowed through the alluvial bottomland of the Nisqually basin and ran parallel to the river a half mile away. The Indian name for the narrow waterway signified that historically it had been used by tribal shamans as a sacred retreat to restore their curative powers through immersion in its pure spring waters. The trout there were known to be large and especially delectable. White settlers called the place Medicine Creek. Pioneer James McAllister had a thriving farm right up the way, thanks to Leschi, who had shown him the fertile, convenient site.

Members of the governor’s party arrived by schooner and canoe a day in advance to prepare the scene. With Indian assistance, they cleared away the brush at the foot of a small knoll that rose from one end of the council ground, its soaring fir and cedar trees draped with long, straggly strands of moss that formed a gloomy, almost mystical backdrop for the proceedings. Mike Simmons and his helpers put up a large tent on the combed earth to shelter the governor and his commissioners and store the mounds of food brought in for this special potlatch – beef, mutton, deer, elk, geese, ducks, and, of course, the tribes’ staple, salmon.






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The rest of the Indians started arriving by canoe and horseback on Sunday morning, December 24, and kept streaming in all day – among them entire families, some in colorful ceremonial costume despite the inclement weather. Across the creek from the white officials’ tent they set up a makeshift village of huts assembled from cedar mats, and soon the air grew smoky from their campfires. The prows of their beached canoes protruded between the huts, and behind them their tethered horses’ whinnies competed with the babble of tribal tongues and the playful shouts of wrestling boys. White observers estimated that about 700 Indians congregated at the site. Gibbs was struck by the size of the throng and, always the ethnographer, by the short, crooked legs of the many half-swaddled infants whose large heads, beady black eyes, and unkempt locks gave them a wild, elfin look.

The proceedings were chronicled by the secretary of the treaty commission, twenty-five-year-old James Doty, son of a former governor of Wisconsin, whose energy and ability had been noticed while a member of Stevens’s railroad survey party the previous year. Doty carefully logged in the exotic, polysyllabic names of the tribes and bands there assembled, apparently in order of their numbers on hand: Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squawskin [sic], Shomamish, Stehchass, T’Peeksin, Squiaitl, and Sahehwamish. The preamble of the treaty identified them as “tribes and bands of Indians, occupying the lands lying around the head of Puget’s Sound and the adjacent inlets, who, for the purpose of this treaty, are to be regarded as one nation.” They had thronged the council session in part because the whites, by inviting them to parley, were acknowledging them as longtime possessors of the region. The Bostons, while still relatively few in number, had demonstrated great energy and resourcefulness that suggested their intention to become masters of the territory before long. The tribes thus felt compelled to assemble and hear what fate the whites’ regional headman had in mind for them – and to decide what, if anything, they could do about it.

Stevens arrived on Christmas Eve, heading a party of twenty whites that included Hazard, his twelve-year-old boy, excited about witnessing the historic pageant. As the Americans took their places on stools around the long table in front of their tent, there was little about Stevens’s appearance to stamp him as their leader. His outfit, as usual, was dictated by practical considerations; he wore a red flannel shirt, dark pants tucked into his old army boots, a long frock coat, and a wide-brimmed black felt hat with a clay pipe stuck in its band. He wore no sash, no saber, no medals, no epaulets, no plumed helmet, or any show of elegance or finery that the natives would have relished as enhancing the theatricality of the ceremonies and honoring their presence. Yet he spoke with a resounding voice as someone who had come not as a beneficent peacemaker eager to bargain in earnest but as the emissary of a conquering race, one who was short on diplomatic finesse and patience.






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Indeed, Stevens’s expectation, based on reports from Simmons and Shaw and a full measure of his own righteous conviction, was that the tribes’ acceptance of his treaty proposal would be a mere formality. Perhaps it was just a pose he struck, urged on him by Simmons and Gibbs, to convey an air of invincibility. His supreme confidence was manifested by the presence in his party of only a single soldier, U.S. Army Lieutenant William A. Slaughter, a popular young member of the small garrison at Fort Steilacoom. The governor’s group, moreover, made no show of firearms, probably to emphasize a peaceful intent. No doubt Stevens felt his was the whip hand, so he had no need to flaunt it in front of what he took for an impotent horde. Even so, he must be credited with considerable courage for coming among so large a gathering of natives – then routinely disparaged by many in the white world as “savages” – with such a small and powerless supporting cast yet risking a violent response to his bold proposal to them, one that amounted to an ultimatum. Perhaps his display of raw nerve was intended to awe the primitives. Curiously, several among the treaty commissioners who were on hand remarked that Stevens lacked his usual swagger and even revealed a hint of uncertainty – not surprising in view of all that depended on the outcome of the conclave. His hard-eyed bearing bespoke a man resolute to arrive at a modus vivendi without resort to violence.

After an evening of meet-and-greet feasting and interracial hobnobbing intended to ease the Indians’ anxieties, the formalities began on Christmas morning. Any attempt to reconstruct what actually occurred that day and the one following is fatally handicapped by a scarcity of documented or equally reliable evidence – and even the documents we have are questionable. A detailed report by treaty commission secretary Doty apparently accompanied the top copy of the treaty text that was transmitted to the Office of Indian Affairs for review and ratification by the Senate. But little remains of Doty’s account in the federal archives, only some sketchy minutes, which, other evidence suggests, were sanitized to give the appearance of a frictionless encounter at Medicine Creek. The only book dealing with the event written by a witness to it is Hazard Stevens’s adoring biography of his father – and the author, as noted, was only twelve when the treaty council was held. Frank Shaw, the official interpreter on the scene, delivered a spirited address to the Oregon Historical Society about the Medicine Creek proceedings, but it came forty-nine years after the fact, did not attempt to replay any exchanges that may have occurred between the parties, and did not acknowledge the least degree of abrasiveness or disagreement between the parties. Seven Indians who claimed to have been there offered at least fragmentary oral recollections of the council during interviews conducted nearly half a century after the event by Ezra Meeker for his valuable 1905 book, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound, and a companion account of Leschi’s activities at the treaty council and afterward. The only local news-paper to carry an account of the council meeting, Olympia’s weekly Pioneer and Democrat, ran just a brief notice that seems to have relied entirely on secondhand sources rather than firsthand reportage. Perhaps the most creditable report offered contemporaneously by a nonwitness came from William Tolmie, who wrote a letter touching on what he understood, from exchanges with a number of those in attendance, to have been the natives’ reaction to the treaty. We are left, then, with a collage of fragmentary evidence and can venture no more than a calculated guess about what really happened at Medicine Creek.






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How faithfully did – or could – Shaw translate the treaty from English into Chinook? And how closely did the treaty text he read aloud that day conform to the final version that Stevens transmitted for Senate ratification, especially with regard to the number, size, and specific locales of the reservations to be assigned to the gathered tribes? We have no copy of the original draft to help us determine what changes may have been made in the course of the proceedings. How much of the treaty’s meaning did – or could – the listening natives absorb, especially given the novelty of the transaction?

Shaw would later insist that the treaty “was explained slowly by paragraphs, and whenever there was any doubt as to the Indians’ understanding it, it was repeated until it was understood by them. It took nearly all day to read and interpret it.” But how could Shaw have known if or how well the Indians comprehended what they heard, no matter how many times the sophisticated concepts integral to treatymaking were explained in simple words? Did the Indians fully grasp that, all the other phraseology aside, they were being asked to assent to the surrender of their forefathers’ homelands forever? Hazard Stevens’s biography of his father claims that the treaty was “carefully explained to them . . . in simple and clear language . . . which nearly all the Indians understood. The Governor was extremely careful to make sure the Indians comprehended every sentence.” Hazard must indeed have been an extraordinarily perceptive lad of twelve if he could read the Indians’ minds. James Doty made a less sweeping claim in his minutes, reporting that the treaty was “read Section by Section and explained to the Indians by the Interpreter and every opportunity given them to discuss it.”

Whether the territorial officials played fair in explaining the treaty to the natives or, if so, the Indians really got it, there are grounds for skepticism based on later remarks by Frank Shaw. He told a historical symposium in Oregon in 1903 that it was really of no importance whether the tribesmen understood the consequence of the legalese being spoon-fed to them at Medicine Creek, because


there was not a man of note among all the Indians at that council who did not know that they had not a single right that could be maintained by either force of arms or by law. Every one of them recognized that there was no power that could protect them from the encroachment of the white settlers, save and except the Government of the United States . . . [which] had possession of the whole country and could do as they pleased with it.






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Shaw’s unvarnished words accurately reflected his countrymen’s prevailing disdain toward the natives as a breed, disposable at the whim of the superior race. But events would shortly show that, contrary to Shaw’s assertion, several men “of note” among his native listeners that Christmas Day believed they had both the right and the power to resist the white encroachment as spelled out in the Medicine Creek Treaty.

If Shaw rendered with proximate accuracy – and truly did his best to explain – the text of the treaty, assuming what he read them was virtually the same as the version later ratified, here is what the Indians would have been told:

First and foremost, the treaty was a land deal; there was nothing subtle about Article 1. The nine named tribes and bands were required to “cede, relinquish, and convey to the United States all their right, title, and interest in and to the lands and country occupied by them.” Thus, the rough maps of their homelands that the white officials had asked the Indians to draw up during the proceedings would have been little short of weapons for committing territorial suicide. If stated directly and not obfuscated, this demand by the white officials for the unconditional surrender of virtually all Indian Country in the region could not have been lost on Leschi, who, according to at least one native present, soon quit working on his map of the Nisqually lands as requested by the white officials at the outset of the council. The domain the tribes were being asked to abandon stretched from the crest of the Cascades to Puget Sound in a fan-shaped zone that enclosed the entire extent of the Nisqually, Puyallup, and White River basins, totaling – as later calculated by surveyors – some 2.5 million acres or a little under 4,000 square miles of forests, prairies, and rich bottomlands.

In return, Article 2 of the treaty as ratified assigned for “the present use” of the tribes, not in perpetuity, three reservations of equal size, each consisting of 1,280 acres or two square miles. Two of them were to be located atop bluffs fronting on the Sound: one for the Nisquallies on a rocky, heavily wooded tract about a mile west of the Nisqually River delta, and one for the Puyallups about twenty miles north and on a similarly timbered and inhospitable site on high ground by the mouth of the Puyallup River in modern-day Tacoma. Little Squaxin Island was designated as the third reservation for the small band of that name who lived there and on the adjacent mainland. For each one of the six square miles set apart for the Indians of the south Sound as their theoretically inviolable havens, they had to relinquish more than 660 square miles to the governor as official representative of the United States. And those six square miles (3,840 acres) assigned to the tribes for their occupancy just happened to be among the least desirable and usable land in the entire region.






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The tribes were given one year after Senate ratification to leave their old villages, lodges, and sacred burial grounds and transfer to the reservations. To assist them in paying for the move, the government would contribute a total of $3,250 (but nothing was to be paid for the settlements they were being forced to abandon). Even rendered in primitive Chinook, the appalling inequity of the proposition must have been apparent to the natives.

Stevens himself soon acknowledged that the tribes were evidently unhappy about the reservations as initially spelled out during the reading of the treaty. In a December 30, 1854, letter to George Manypenny at the Office of Indian Affairs, the governor reported a favorable outcome at Medicine Creek, particularly in view of what he termed certain “disputed points” (his letter did not elaborate on them) that were resolved after the tribes had “in the first instance desired more reserves and larger reserves.” This disclosure could have been a reference to hostile Indian response to an initial proposal – a trial balloon, in modern parlance – by the governor to shove all of the tribes onto tiny Squaxin Island, a place without easy access to freshwater fishing, without a prairie for pasturing or exercising their horses, and without open acreage for farming. Yet it is hard to believe that Stevens would have risked making such an extremely punitive proposal, stranding the affected tribes on a speck of an island in return for surrendering virtually all of their homelands to him, and thereby enraging the Indians the moment they heard it – or as soon as the governor’s meaning sank in.*


*A pair of diligent researchers recently suggested that the offer of acreage to the Indians on the first reading of the treaty might have been far stingier than in the final version. In an extensive 2005 article for the Oregon Historical Quarterly, SuAnn M. Reddick and Cary C. Collins speculate that little Squaxin Island, by itself, might have been the only site mentioned for a reservation when the text of the treaty was read aloud on Christmas Day. Reddick and Collins base their conjecture on several grounds, the key one being the notes for the December 10 treaty commissioners’ meeting in which Squaxin was mentioned as a possible site for a single, consolidated reservation for all the tribes to be affected by the first treaty. The commissioners’ – and Stevens’s – hope might have been that if the tribes of the south Sound could be persuaded to swallow such harshly restrictive confinement, they would set a pattern for passive compliance that would bode well for the governor’s treatymaking with the rest of the natives in his territory. But the mere mention two weeks before the Medicine Creek council session of the possibility of a single island reservation to be prescribed for all the tribes attending is not a sufficient basis for concluding that such a stringent proposal was in fact put forward at the event itself.






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We have considerable testimony (discussed below) that some of the listening natives, led by Leschi, did react angrily once the original words of the treaty, as read aloud to them, revealed the severity with which they were to be treated. Writing in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, moreover, SuAnn Reddick and Cary Collins have contended that after witnessing the Indians’ reaction, Stevens and his party repaired to their tent to reconsider overnight their offer of a solitary island reservation to accommodate all the tribes on hand. Rather than risking that his whole ambitious treatymaking campaign to pacify all the tribes of Washington Territory might blow up in his face at the very start, the governor probably chose – Reddick and Collins hypothesize  – to back off the next morning by offering the tribes three small reservations instead.

Perhaps so. There is no direct evidence, however, that the treaty language as read aloud at Medicine Creek called for restricting the tribes to Squaxin Island alone. Stevens’s admission of “disputed points” at the council session might be explained just as plausibly by the natives’ immediate rejection of the claustrophobic living conditions they would have had to endure even if Stevens had offered them the three small, shabby reservation sites from the start. Consider the fury that Quiemuth and Leschi would surely have felt upon hearing that their tribe was to be penned up on a stony, thickly forested rise overlooking the Sound close to the Nisqually delta and miles downriver from their homes. What would happen to the chiefs’ own large herd of horses, the main source of the family’s wealth? Or to their homes and farm? Or to their tribesmen living in the villages strung along the river basin? All their dwelling places would have to be abandoned. To relocate on the assigned reservation would mean taking down countless stout trees – and the land remaining was nearly unfarmable, as Stevens’s aides would soon discover. Exile to such a place was tantamount to a death sentence. Imposition of such straitened circumstances – whether one shared tiny island or a separate, equally noxious place for the Nisquallies alone – was a total subversion of the spirit of Stevens’s memo a few months earlier to the Office of Indian Affairs, proposing large enough reservations with good enough soil for the affected tribes to transform themselves from hunter-gatherers into stable farmers. Hadn’t encouragement of such an evolution been declared official U.S. policy?






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The governor may have felt that the impact from the drastic reduction in tribal living space he proposed at Medicine Creek would be cushioned in some degree by Article 3 of the treaty. This article, Gibbs’s brainstorm, allowed the signatory tribes to continue to “take fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations . . . in common with all citizens of the territory” as well as to enjoy “the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses on open and unclaimed lands.” Even though the Indians’ residential space was to be narrowly confined, they were to be free to move about as they had always done for the purpose of feeding themselves and caring for their livestock. Stevens might have hoped this liberating expedient would also serve to relieve the territorial and federal governments of the economic burden of saving the Indians from starvation.

Upon closer parsing of Gibbs’s legalese, though, the innocent-sounding conditional phrase tacked on at the end raises doubts. The Indians were free to leave the reservations for food-gathering and pasturing their animals as before – but only “on open and unclaimed lands.” Weren’t the shortly expected multitudes of new white settlers going to file claims to whatever open lands remained in the region? Wasn’t such a prize precisely why they were moving to Washington Territory and why the treaties were being drawn up – to get the Indians off their lands so that Americans could take their place? “Open and unclaimed lands” for tribal fishing, hunting, and pasturage would become a sharply diminishing commodity with each passing year unless the government were to set aside public fishing and hunting areas permanently closed to white settlements. No such provision was mentioned in the treaty, so as a practical matter exile of the Nisquallies to a barren and remote bluff along the Sound would cut them off from their normal, easy sources of nourishment, distance them from work sites where they could earn the white man’s welcome wages, and generally hasten the prospect of their decline.