The writings of  Richard Kluger

The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek

A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America


Excerpt (pages 57-67)



MANY AN AMERICAN schoolchild before the Space Age grew up hearing tales – gross distortions as often as not – about the native people who once ruled the unspoiled inner spaces of their continent. Their tribal names had a magical ring, otherworldly and not a little menacing: Iroquois, Algonquin, Narragansett, Mohawk, Shawnee, Winnebago, Chippewa, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole; the Sioux and the Cheyenne, the Ute, the Blackfoot; the Comanche, the Apache and Navajo, and in the Far West, the Nez Perce and the Spokane, the Yakima and the Walla Walla. Some of their legendary chiefs’ names have likewise been woven into the tapestry of American memory, usually because of their heroic but doomed defiance of the whites – iconic figures such as Tecumseh, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Cochise, Geronimo, and Chief Joseph. Among these faded native nations and martyred leaders few were less celebrated, or even less heard of beyond their hone precincts, than the Nisqually tribe and its last chief, Leschi.

The heart of the Nisquallies’ homeland lay near the southern end of Puget Sound scarcely a dozen miles from Governor Stevens’s headquarters in Olympia. Because it was the closest of the native nations within his jurisdiction, the Nisqually tribe was the principal object of the first of the treaties Stevens hoped to arrange with all the Indians in the territory. On the strength of the reports from his subordinates, he supposed that the Nisquallies were docile and would readily accept whatever terms the U.S. government offered them.

The Nisquallies had never been numerous, probably totaling at their peak in 1800 or so between 8oo and 1,200 members before the white man’s pestilence began to strike them. Except for the warm summer months when they camped away from home on food-gathering forays, the Nisquallies lived in thirteen or fourteen villages strung out along both banks of the river to which they gave their name, or close by its upstream tributaries. This decentralization helped fend off amphibious assaults – at first sight of an enemy, drums of alarm and fleet runners alerted the upriver settlements – and probably eased the spread of contagious disease so deadly in closely packed communities. The Nisqually River, the tribe’s binding life force, flowed for roughly eighty miles, running down from the glaciers on the slopes of Mount Rainier and following a serpentine northwesterly course until forking into a broad delta, known as the Nisqually Flats, on reaching Puget Sound, which the surrounding tribes called the Whulge. In its progress seaward, the river cuts through a broad plain of half a million acres once ideally suited to the growth of long bunchgrass that made rich fodder for horses and livestock. Freely roaming this broad, velvety prairie, the natives there were first known as the Squally-absch, meaning “people of the grass country” in their Salish dialect, which had a guttural cast that struck one white pioneer familiar with their tongue as “a compound of the grumblings of a pig and the clucking of a hen.” Modern tribal historians and elders say the name Nisqually also includes the meaning “people of the river,” though the double association seems curious. Whatever the precise derivation of their name, anthropologists testify that Nisquallies and their now nameless forebears had been living along their river basin for perhaps 10,000 years before the first white men appeared on their waterways.




The Nisquallies’ origins are misty. They may have trekked from Asia over the Siberian-Alaskan land bridge or come as other northwestern tribes did in ocean-going canoes that probably island-hopped along the Aleutian chain until they found a gentler climate, paddled up through Juan de Fuca Strait, and debarked at Puget Sound with its idyllic setting. Tribal lore conjectures as well that the broad-shouldered, short-legged Nisquallies may have originated in Central America, where intense and prolonged drought drove them north in search of more temperate weather and a lush landscape.

Theirs was a family- and village-centered culture. Each village consisted of two or three lodges or longhouses accommodating a few extended families, polygamous units in which the paterfamilias typically had two or three wives of descending seniority and children with each. The wives and offspring tended to be mutually supportive rather than competitive since the Nisqually family was as much an economic as a social unit. Polygamous marriages produced more hands per family to perform the labors essential for group survival.

Politically, each Nisqually village may have had a recognized “headman,” but he had little formal authority. The loosely confederated villages rarely appointed a formal tribal council or functioned under a hierarchal leadership. At times, a charismatic chief might emerge, but more often an oligarchy of the more influential village headmen held sway. The Nisquallies, then, were no fonder of autocracy than their neighboring tribes, with whom they regularly intermarried and lived at peace. The closest of them, the Puyallup (pronounced “Pew allup”), was grouped along the river bearing their name and running roughly parallel to the Nisqually about twenty miles to the northeast. Beyond them was a group of smaller, related bands that came to be known collectively as the Muckleshoots. Across the formidable barrier of the Cascades and southeast toward the Columbia River were the larger and more combative plains tribes, the Klickitats and their relatives, the Yakimas, who in turn were allied at times with the Cayuses, Walla Wallas, and Nez Perces to the east and southeast. Aside from occasional quarrels with the Yakimas, the Nisquallies enjoyed amicable dealings with them all. Periodically, though, a threat arose from the Snoqualmies well up the eastern shore of the Whulge or, far more dreaded, from the Haidas, who swept down the Sound in war canoes from the distant north in quest of slaves, usually women and children, snatched from the peaceable riverside tribes.




The Nisquallies fell roughly into two groups. Their “fish people” dwelled along the river and closer to the Sound and lived principally off salmon and shellfish. Their “horse people,” whose villages were in the uplands bordering the plains and forests, hunted and gathered as the seasons dictated, developing their equestrian skills. The two groups were bound by the river as well as by appearance, language, dress, domestic arrangements, and ceremonies like the potlatch feasts with gift-giving to all attendees and the solemn rite of thanksgiving to honor the arrival of the salmon, staple of the tribal diet, each spring. The nearness of untainted fresh water invited healthful habits, like frequent bathing at sites segregated by gender and washing of food in the preparation of meals. The women rarely cut their hair, typically letting it trail down their backs in two long braids. They often painted their faces, less for decoration than to protect them from the sun, and tattooed their bodies with the use of gooseberry thorns and charcoal. The women favored skirts of shredded cedar and deerskin blouses, except in warm weather, when they often went topless. The men generally cut their hair to shoulder length, did not decorate their bodies except for combat, and in mild seasons wore next to nothing.

The Nisqually conception of property allowed for the private ownership of slaves, horses, canoes, weaponry, housewares, and shell money, but items made for communal use like lodges, sweat houses for purification rites, and fishing traps were treated as shared holdings. Village land as well as surrounding and outlying territory, was not considered anybody’s private possession but rather a gift of the Great Spirit, like the waters, there to be shared and lived on lightly and respectfully, their natural products available for the personal use of whoever tended them. This is not to say that the Nisquallies were any more tolerant than other tribal groups of acts of trespass within their homeland or more kindly disposed to those who hunted or fished there without permission.

While hardly renowned as warriors, Nisqually tribe members were highly proficient fishermen, hunters, and carpenters. The abundance, pliability, and versatility of the red cedar in their region allowed them to master woodworking – a considerable achievement, considering that the only tools at their disposal were made of stone and bone. Although they did not craft totem poles to honor and propitiate their spirits, as did the tribes farther to the northwest, their canoes were often ornamentally carved, and anthropologists have pointed out the smooth joinery and well-designed interiors of their lodges and longhouses. Nisqually women produced subtly exquisite baskets, woven from coiled cedar thread, marsh reeds, and dried prairie grasses, that were especially treasured as items of trade by tribes east of the Cascades.




Nisquallies did not take their blessings for granted; they heeded and paid homage to the spirits, for the most part benevolent, who they believed were watching over nearly every aspect of their existence. The secret to prospering, not just surviving, in the Nisqually world was to be attuned to its ubiquitous spiritualism. And no member of the tribe had prospered more than Leschi, pride of the Nisquallies and, to whites who had dealt with him, a credit to his race.



WHAT WE KNOW about the life of Leschi is derived chiefly from the written testimony of a dozen or so English-speaking contemporaries, interviews with a handful of fellow natives who knew him, and the oral tradition of the Nisquallies, persisting into the twenty-first century.

There is no reliable graphic rendering done from life of Leschi’s appearance, only a few drawings of an indeterminate date by unknown artists, but several people acquainted with him described his looks. His younger tribal friend and later companion-in-arms, Wahelut (called “Yelm Jim” by the whites), told an interviewer in the 1890s that Leschi was tall, heavily built, and very strong. Tallness, though, is a relative quality, and since the Nisqually physique ran generally to squatness, we may guess that Leschi was of medium height by modern standards. Charles Grainger, a white man who saw him daily near the end of his life, said Leschi was about five-foot-six and had “a very high forehead for an Indian,” meaning it had probably not been flattened in infancy, as was often the case among tribes of the region. According to Grainger, Leschi had a strong, square jaw, an aquiline nose, and piercing dark brown eyes that “would look almost through you – a firm but not a savage look.” Benjamin Franklin (known as Frank) Shaw, a Washingtonterritorial official who had several extended discussions with him, wrote that the Nisqually stalwart was about six feet tall, 175 pounds, and “a true flathead.” According to late twentieth-century Nisqually tribal historian Cecilia Svinth Carpenter, Leschi had “a tall agile body, strong heavy shoulders,” and a face more slender than others in his village. But Carpenter could offer no verifiable authority for her description. Nor did regional historian Murray Morgan, whose engaging book Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Tacoma and the Southern Sound, states that Leschi was light-skinned and powerfully built, with a thin, straight mouth, short chin, heavy brows, and black hair parted a little to the left and cut straight below the ears. Leschi’s third and youngest wife, Mary, who married him when she was a teenager and outlived him by sixty-six years, gave an interview, unearthed by Washington state archivists eighty years after her death, in which she said that Leschi was light-skinned (“almost as white as a Boston man”), had a round face with cheeks often naturally flushed, and was strong with great powers of endurance.




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

According to Leschi’s tribal biographer, the star his people saw rising over the Nisqually Plain on the day of Leschi’s birth in early January, 18o8, was hailed as a portent that the new arrival was destined to become their warrior chief and savior. His native villageof Bashelabesh lay midway up the Nisqually basin, thirty miles or so below Puget Sound, on the Mashel River, a tributary that snaked east to west through a broad grassland prairie and provided ideal grazing for his family’s large herd of horses. Leschi’s father, Yanatco, was a Nisqually; his mother, a Klickitat closely related to Yakima chiefs and ranking braves of that formidable tribe on the far side of the Cascades. His mother’s name did not find its way into Nisqually oral history, only the report that she sang well, or at any rate a lot. Her Yakima genes were probably the reason Leschi stood taller than most Nisquallies.

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




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

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

Leschi’s generosity extended to his teenage wife, who recalled that “he was always giving me presents . . . and always let me have all the nice clothes I wanted.” He would periodically sell off one of his horses at Fort Nisqually and then “bring home a lot of things. We always lived well.” He occasionally took Mary on camping and hunting trips, but he was away from home a lot on his distant travels – a mounted wanderer who kept in touch with whites and native communities on both sides of the Cascades. He “never told me anything about his business,” said Mary. “I was young, [and] he was rich and had lots of horses, and like a fool I married him. He was old enough to be my father” – a thirty-one-year age gap that may explain why Leschi felt he could not confide in her. He had likely married Mary after his first wife died, and he already had a second wife, older than Mary by a good number of years, with whom he may have been more companionable. His teenage bride was probably the trophy wife of Leschi’s middle age, and there is contemporary testimony that he was intoxicated with her charms. By Mary’s account, he did not physically or verbally abuse her. She recalled, “I never saw him angry in my life and . . . he never spoke an angry word to me.”




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

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

When American settlers began to arrive in the south part of the Whulge in the mid-1840s, Leschi, along with Quiemuth, was as adept at dealing with them as with the Hudson’s Bay Company people and gaining their confidence as a “good Indian.” Tolmie would later recount, “From the early days the brothers were known for their readiness to assist the whites on all occasions.” This impression was reinforced by a less friendly observer, Hazard Stevens, who wrote in 1901that Leschi was “a chief of unusual intelligence and energy [who] had much to do with the Hudson’s Bay Company people at Fort Nisqually, by whom he was much trusted as a guide and hunter, and was supposed to be well affected toward the whites.” Prominent among the earliest American settlers in the region was George W. (for Washington) Bush, a half-black (his mother was Irish) former slave from Missouri who had joined a party of five families in an Oregon bound wagon train and wound up homesteading in the Nisquallies’ terrain. Bush recalled how Leschi brought urgently needed supplies on pack horses to help the settlers during their precarious first days and taught them how to enjoy the unfamiliar types of seafood in which the area abounded. “Leschi was as good a friend as we ever had,” Bush added. Another settler, Andrew Bradley, who reached the territory in 1854, never forgot how he tried to lead his cattle across the rushing Puyallup River, misjudged the force of the current, and suddenly found himself, his horse, and his herd all being swept downstream – until Leschi, fortunately nearby, rode to the rescue. It was a favor Bradley would repay a few years later.




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

Probably none of the early American settlers near the south end of the Sound was on closer terms with Leschi than the family of James McAllister, a lean, muscular six-footer with little learning and not much to say but viewed in the community as honest, industrious, and, like Leschi, highly skilled as a horseman and hunter. The McAllisters had been members of the same party with George Bush that arrived in 1846 and, according to an 1893 memoir by McAllister’s daughter, Sarah M. Hartman, was urged by Leschi to settle in the fertile bottomlands of the Nisqually basin, where the arriving families staked claims near one another about twenty miles below Fort Nisqually. Guided by Leschi, the McAllisters chose a farm site – with no legal title to it – at the convergence of two creeks close to the Nisqually River, where “everything we put in the ground grew,” including potatoes that weighed as much as ten pounds. Jim McAllister soon picked up the Nisqually dialect, and his wife, a southern woman “used to negro servants,” took in three Indian girls as housemaids. Once the Oregon Land Donation Act went into effect, McAllister filed a claim for 640 free acres, the maximum spread allowed, and proceeded to improve it without concern that the land had not been formally ceded to the U.S. government by Leschi’s people. If Jim’s Nisqually friend had raised no objection, why should he? McAllister deemed Leschi a worthy man and friend who frequently visited his home, bringing gifts of meat from his latest hunting trip, perhaps in thanks for McAllister’s tutelage on the best method for growing wheat, which Leschi and Quiemuth had begun to plant on the farm they shared a few miles away at Muck Creek.




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

Although tribal members often gained social standing when their daughters married whites, there is ample reason to suspect that Leschi, like other fathers (Indian or otherwise) in his predicament, felt demeaned – and his standing in the native community thus degraded – by Eaton’s failure to sanctify the relationship. In February 1854, Washington territorial law officers dragged Eaton into the U.S. District Court in Thurston County, his home jurisdiction, on an indictment that he “did live and cohabit in a state of fornication with an Indian woman, named Jenny, being then and there in an unmarried state, against the peace and dignity of the Territory of Washington.” The sole witness mentioned in the indictment was James McAllister, who may have been asked to testify by his friend Leschi, eager to have the white man’s government force his daughter’s lover to make her a respectable woman. No surviving record of the outcome of the case has been found in the Washington territorial court archives, but Eaton family records show that Charles and Jenny later moved east to Yakima Country and had two more children, evidence suggesting that the fornication charge was dropped after Eaton agreed to marry Jenny. But the underlying Eaton-Leschi tension was not resolved, as events in October 1855 would make clear.

Despite Leschi’s skills and accomplishments, he had not been embraced by his tribe as its foremost leader and formally designated chief of the Nisquallies. One likely reason is that the title did not carry the meaning, prestige, or authority among tribal members that were attributed to it by white society used to a hierarchal social structure. For another, the informal title of Nisqually chief did not become vacant until the death of Laghlet in 1849, when Leschi was forty-one. While it was not a hereditary title, one of Laghlet’s three sons would have been the most likely consensual choice by the headmen of the confederated Nisqually villages. Laghlet’s oldest son, the handsome Weymoch (“Fighting Man”), was unfortunately known to be more accomplished as a vagabond lover than a leader or fighter – or much of anything else – and his two brothers were nearly as disreputable. The tribe, evidently, had been getting along well enough without a reigning chief, as it had done for extended periods in the past, and Leschi, secure in his standing both within and outside the tribe, had no need to step forward and campaign for the honorific title. Instead, it would soon be pressed upon him.



©2017 Richard Kluger