Puget Sound War
The Puget Sound War was an armed conflict that took place in the Puget Sound area of the state of Washington in 1855–56, between the United States Military, local militias and members of the Native American tribes of the Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and Klickitat. Another component of the war, however, were raiders from the Haida and Tlingit who came into conflict with the United States Navy during contemporaneous raids on the native peoples of Puget Sound. Although limited in its magnitude, territorial impact and losses in terms of lives, the conflict is often remembered in connection to the 1856 Battle of Seattle and to the execution of a central figure of the war, Nisqually Chief Leschi. The contemporaneous Yakima War may have been responsible for some events of the Puget Sound War, such as the Battle of Seattle, and it is not clear that the people of the time made a strong distinction between the two conflicts.
The Puget Sound War began over land rights and ended in a cloud of controversy surrounding the hanging of Leschi.
The catalyst of the war was the Treaty of Medicine Creek of 1854. Negotiated by Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens, the treaty preserved Indian fishing rights, but took away prime Nisqually farm land. Leschi, chosen to negotiate the treaty with Stevens, was outraged and chose to fight rather than give up his land. The fighting commenced in October 1855, when “Eaton’s Rangers,” a citizen militia under Captain Charles Eaton, were involved in a clash with Nisqually tribesmen. Two militiamen, Joseph Miller and Abram Benton Moses, were killed. Upon hearing the news, Governor Stevens immediately dispatched a company to locate Leschi and “escort” him back to Olympia.
The war itself consisted of a series of short skirmishes with relatively few deaths on either side. Notable battles occurred in present-day Tacoma, Seattle, and even as far east as Walla Walla. In particular, on October 28, 1855, a party of Muckleshoot killed eight settlers in what was later called the White River Massacre. Three children fled on foot to Seattle, but one five-year old boy was kidnapped and held by the Muckleshoot for six months before being released.
Leschi was captured in November 1856 and was forced to stand trial for the murder of Abram Benton Moses. His first trial resulted in a hung jury because of the question of the legitimacy of murder during wartime; the jury of twelve voted ten in favor, two opposed to conviction. Leschi was tried again in 1857. Despite vague witness accounts and issues over whether Leschi was actually at the scene of the incident, he was found guilty of murder. Leschi was hanged on February 19, 1858.
On December 10, 2004 a Historical Court convened in Pierce County, Washington ruled “as a legal combatant of the Indian War… Leschi should not have been held accountable under law for the death of an enemy soldier,” thereby exonerating him of any wrongdoing. The ruling, while having no legal status, was considered a definitive trial in absentia that provided closure for the Nisqually people, who fought for years to clear the name of their legendary chief. Today, a Seattle neighborhood and a Puyallup school bear Leschi’s name.
- Washington History Online, "Leschi: Justice in our Time," <http://washingtonhistoryonline.org/leschi/index.htm> [23 January 2007].
- Janice E. Schuetz, Episodes in Rhetoric of Government-Indian Relations, (Westport: Praeger, 2002), 1-24.
- J.A. Eckrom, Remembered Drums: A History of the Puget Sound Indian War, (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press, 1989), 1-30.
- Majors, Harry M. (1975). Exploring Washington. Van Winkle Publishing Co. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-918664-00-6.
- Seattle, Washington, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11 December 2004.