A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 2005

The Treaty Wars Sesquicentennial

by Stan Flewelling

In the near future Seattle will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the ãBattle of Seattle.ä The January 26, 1856 event, so much acclaimed in local histories, was a skirmish between immigrant occupants of the fledgling town and Native Americans who no longer wanted them there. It was a brief episode among wider intercultural conflicts, traditionally called the Northwest Indian Wars, that determined the destiny of our region. Auburnâs esteemed Arthur C. Ballard (1876-1962) said he preferred the term ãTreaty Wars,ä since the strife was caused by ãthe haste with which the treaties were forced upon the Indians and the inadequacy of the reservations that were laid out.ä

Seattle is unlikely to remember that the shocking start of the conflicts in Western Washington took place three months earlier in the White River Valley.

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, allowing American citizens in the Oregon Territory to settle property for free. An 1853 amendment reduced the distribution from 320 to 160 acres per adult. Title to the land would become theirs if they would live on and cultivate it for at least four years. Virtually ignoring the resident Native population, the act became the single greatest incentive for emigration to the Pacific Northwest.

Map of Donation Land Claims

When Washington Territory was formed in 1853, and Isaac I. Stevens arrived as its new governor, he was fully aware of the land dilemma. In his first address to the Territorial Legislature (February 1854), Stevens expressed his concern that Indian title to the land had not been ãextinguished.ä His proposed solution was to negotiate a series of treaties to acquire land title from the tribes, except ãsuch portions as are indispensable to their comfort and subsistence.ä Soon he received specific guidelines from the Federal Office of Indian Affairs: treaty agreements should assure that scattered tribes and bands were united and ãconcentrated on a limited number of reservations . . . apart from the settlement of whites.ä

Before the end of the year, Governor Stevens launched an energetic campaign to accomplish this goal. In December 1854, he convened a remarkable council of Territorial officials and leaders from nine South Puget Sound tribes. They gathered at a known meeting place near the mouth of the Nisqually River, and Stevens, in a decidedly paternal fashion, dictated the terms of the Treaty of Medicine Creek÷transfer of and payment for land title, assignment of Indian reservation lands and rights, and so on. Speeches and comments were made in English, then translated into Chinook jargon (a 500 word trade language), then re-translated into various Whulshootseed dialects, and vice versa. Details were surely lost in the process. After a period of deliberation, 62 Native leaders acknowledged by Stevens signed the treaty, no doubt with considerable reluctance and bewilderment. Indian eyewitnesses later said that Nisqually leader Leschi was furious about the unjust arrangements, refused to sign, and tore up his credentials.

The next month, January 1855, the Governor gathered a new council of North and East Puget Sound tribes. This assembly was at Point Elliot (todayâs Mukilteo) and included such Native luminaries as Seattle and Patkanim, from the Duwamish and Snoqualmie tribes respectively. Provisions similar to those in the Treaty of Medicine Creek were presented, followed by speeches, deliberations, and signings affecting thousands of people. No expressed objections to the terms of the Treaty of Point Elliot were recorded. Although the people of the upper White River (ãSmalh-kamishä), Green River (ãSkope-ahmishä) lower White River (ãSt-kah-mishä), were all named in the treaty, no one representing them signed it. Following the formalities, Governor Stevens left in a productive rush to conduct three more successive treaty councils in Western Washington Territory, then crossed the Cascades to ãnegotiateä with inland tribal leaders.

Meanwhile, American immigrants continued to trickle into the Territory, laying claim to their promised lands. Between mid-1854 and early 1855, five bachelors (R.H. Beatty, Joseph Brannan, E. Cooper, J.A. Lake, and J.M. Thompson) and eight families (William & Elizabeth Brannan, W.A. Cox, Harvey Jones, G.E. King, M. Kirkland, D.A. Neely, S.W. Russell, and J.M. Thomas) filed for land tracts in the White River Valley where todayâs Auburn and Kent now lie. The property they called their own imposed on land used for centuries by Native peoples. The newcomers went about settling in at their new homesteads, trying to build adequate shelter and prepare the earth for crops. Indian neighbors, for the most part, were tolerated and often hired to help accomplish various tasks.

D. A. Neely

Although a mile or so separated each farm in the settlement, the pioneers began to build community. White River settlers petitioned the King County Commissioners for their own election precinct. It was granted in March 1855, and called ãPup Shulkä Precinct, after the Indian name for a prairie and small fishing village on the big ãoxbowä bend of the river÷and part of John and Nancy Thomasâ claim. Three bachelors (Porter, Corcoran, and Riley) who had previously settled on claims several miles up the White River (near todayâs Enumclaw), were included in the precinct rolls.

John M. Thomas

As the spring and summer of 1855 unfolded, the reality of what was happening in the Territory became more clear and foreboding. Away from the compelling sway of public oratory, Native Americans realized how much land they were giving up, how poor the land was that had been reserved for them, and how annihilated their way of life would certainly become. White and Green River Indians were more apt to be hunters than fishers, accustomed to traveling freely in the foothills, and related closely to inland tribes to the east side of the Cascades. Now they were expected to resettle on the coast far from their ancestral homes, adopt coastal fishing lifestyles, and commune with tribes that had often been antagonistic toward them.

White River settlers noticed the changing mood. On July 11, Pup Shulk Precinct voters gathered at the Thomas home for their first election. ãAllen Porter was there,ä remembered Nancy Thomas, ãand said the redskins were getting saucy; he believed there was going to be trouble. The men laughed at him, but it set me to thinking and watching.ä By then, white residents of the precinct numbered about 45, nearly as populous as Seattle, although far more spread out.

Allen Porterâs fear of a calamity loomed so great, in mid-July he began sleeping in the woods. His anxieties were magnified when word came that Indians east of the Cascades, enraged by current events, had decimated several small bands of gold prospectors. However, general opinion still held that the conflicts would not spread west of the mountains.

On the night of September 27, Porter heard a disturbance at his home and realized that it was surrounded by Indians calling for him. Creeping as quietly as possible to investigate, boots in hand, he was soon discovered. He fired once, dropped gun, boots, and hat in a panic, and fled through the wilderness. Porter somehow made his way to the homes of his nearest white neighbors, Corcoran and Riley, his body badly slashed and bloodied by the thick brambles, his clothes in shreds.

The men rode some 12 miles on horseback to William and Elizabeth Brannanâs place on the lower White River. They convinced them to join an escape to Seattle by canoe. En route, they alerted the other White River families, and most of the settlement made a frantic flight to town.

Joseph Brannan

Their story alarmed some of the cityâs residents, and work began on a blockhouse. But Allen Porter was a known eccentric, which raised some skepticism that his panic was valid. There were no other witnesses to the attack he described. According to his own crudely written testimony 32 years later:

The folks in town felt in no danger so they laffed at us for cowardice and Said So mutch Noncens . . . it vexes me to this day when I think of thes horrid times when it was Impposibel to make any body realise the danger they were in.

A commentary appeared in the Puget Sound Courier, dismissing Porter for his ãheated imagination,ä and then chastising Governor Stevens for his way of handling the treaties with Indians÷ãrobbingä them of their lands, creating discontent and hostility, and endangering the population of American settlers.

Stevens was far from home at the time, still finalizing treaties with Native American tribes in the Bitterroot Mountain area. Acting Governor Charles H. Mason accompanied a contingent of soldiers from Olympia to the upper White River to confer with Indian leaders. They appeared friendly and peaceful, and Mason continued down to Seattle to quell the rumors and encourage rural settlers to return to their farms. Most did.

Returning to Olympia, Mason soon received word that the Nisqually, Leschi, was trying to unite Indians west of the Cascades against the white population. Leschi himself appeared in Olympia on October 22 and told the acting governor that war might indeed come. Two days later, Mason sent a regiment of ãrangersä to patrol the mountain passes and detain Leschi, but he eluded them. On October 27th at Connellâs Prairie (across the White River from Muckleshoot Prairie), two members of the ranger party were shot down. War had erupted west of the Cascades.

The details of the tragic October 28 attack on the White River settlement have already appeared in this newsletter (my article of April 1999) and in several books. On Friday, the 26th, an Indian known to the settlers as Nelson made a cryptic attempt to warn Eliza Jane Jones and her family that conflicts were imminent. On the 28th, Nelson himself led a furious attack on several White River homes. At least nine settlers÷one-fifth of the Pup Shulk Precinct community÷were murdered: Harvey and Eliza Jones, George and Mary King and infant, William and Elizabeth Brannan and infant, and Enos Cooper. Four children were orphaned. Several Indian assailants also died in the melee.

Two more families (Kirklands and Coxes) were routed from their homes and escaped to Seattle. Joe Lake was with them, shot through the shoulder. The Russells, Thomases, and Neelys were already in town, having been warned of the dangers by Indian friends or by premonition. The next morning, the three Jones family orphans were safely delivered to Seattle by Tom Wiletchtid. (The remaining orphan was also kept safe by Puyallup Indians, and taken to Ft. Steilacoom in early February.) The settlement had been utterly devastated.

Native American life in the Valley was also devastated, and would never be the same. Knowing that retaliation was inevitable, many Native residents retreated to the upper reaches of the Green and White Rivers. Leschi was said to be furious about the attack on white civilians. Nelson, too, came to regret his actions. Years later, he told a Native American interviewer that he had believed ãit was to be a war of extermination and realizing that he would eventually be killed, set out to kill and do all the damage he could; he said that if an Indian was ever crazy, he was.ä

The White River Valley and prairies above the upper rivers continued to be the hub of the conflicts in Western Washington. One of the officers at Ft. Steilacoom was a 28-year-old West Point graduate named William Alloway Slaughter. On November 3rd, the young lieutenant led a militia of a hundred men out to quell Indian opposition in the upper river country. Over the next few days they engaged in skirmishes at a White River crossing, Muckleshoot Plateau, and South Prairie. Finding their efforts ineffective against guerilla warfare, the troops retreated with several casualties to Ft. Steilacoom.

Lt. and Mrs. William A. Slaughter, 1852
Lt. and Mrs. William A. Slaughter, 1852. Auburn was first named Slaughter
in honor of this young lieutenant.  WRVM # 584

Late in November, Lt. Slaughter led his troops to blockhouses on the Puyallup and Stuck Rivers. On December 4th, they marched north along the White River to rendezvous with Captain C. C. Hewittâs Seattle volunteer company. They met at the abandoned William Brannan homestead, approximately where Auburnâs Brannan Park is now located. The officers occupied a log building where they could discuss strategies. Dropping normal precautions, Slaughter allowed the camp to build fires and warm up, dry out, and cook meals.

As the officers conferred into the night, shots rang out. Lt. Slaughter, silhouetted in the doorway before a fire, was instantly killed. Two corporals were also killed, a private mortally wounded, and others injured as they snuffed out campfires and returned the gunfire. The victimsâ bodies were brought down-river to Seattle, and then by boat to Steilacoom. Lt. Slaughter had acquired some considerable admiration during his time in the territory, and his death disheartened the settlers.

Seattle was besieged on January 26th. Bolstered by the presence of the US Sloop-of-War Decatur, the town held its ground, and Native warriors retreated to the river valleys. Additional reinforcements arrived in the Territory to support the cause of the settlers, and in February and March, several battles in the upper river areas turned the tide of war against the Native Americans. Leschi, Nelson, and their allies further retreated east of the Cascade Mountains through Naches Pass. The war in Western Washington was essentially over. Bloodshed did not end÷awful atrocities flared on both sides for months.

Tragedy seemed to haunt many of the Treaty War participants beyond the end of the conflicts. Among the surviving settlers, Allen Porter had recurring mental problems for much of his life, as did young Joe Lake. Orphan George King grew up in Connecticut, married, then died of typhoid fever at age 25. Two orphaned Jones children both died of diphtheria a few years after being taken to Wisconsin to live with relatives. But their half brother, Johnny King, grew to maturity, became a doctor, and reestablished contact with their rescuer (Tom Wiletchtid) some 50 years later. Wiletchtid himself died in 1914, the last known survivor of the attack on the White River settlement.

Wiletchtid or "Indian Tom"
Wiletchtid or ãIndian Tomä saved three Caucasian
children during an October 1855 Treaty War skirmish.

Joseph Brannan, bitterly vengeful about the deaths of his brotherâs family, supposedly stalked and killed nine of twelve Indians he considered responsible. His fianc"e Sae Sarah, the daughter of an Army Captain, finally told him to end his vindictive obsession or end their relationship. Love won out, they married, and the Brannans raised a large family in the Valley.

Most Native American leaders of the war either died in battle or were murdered by vigilantes like Brannan while in custody. At Governor Stevensâ insistence, Nisqually leader Leschi was relentlessly pursued, arrested, convicted of murder, and hanged. Considered a martyr ever since, he was recently granted a symbolic exoneration by the Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice (December 2004).

White River leader Nelson was also on the governorâs target list (and Joe Brannanâs as well), but he somehow eluded arrest and conviction. He emerged from hiding a changed person, vowing never to take up arms again. By 1870 and until his death in 1890, Nelson was an acknowledged leader of the Muckleshoot Tribe. But before his own demise, he saw all of his thirteen children pass away.

Once the outcome of the Treaty Wars was virtually certain, Governor Stevens showed a new amenity to Native American needs. In 1856 he conferred with Indian leaders, then recommended an extensive revision of reservation boundaries set by the Treaty of Medicine Creek, and the ãestablishment of a new [reservation] location, Muckleshoot prairie, where there is a military station that is about to be abandoned.ä The proposal was immediately approved by the President, although it was 1874 before the legal boundaries of the Muckleshoot Reservation were determined by executive order. Stevens became a casualty of the American Civil War in 1862.

Besides the Brannans, three other pioneer families (Neelys, Russells, Thomases) returned to the Valley and helped build the thriving communities that now exist there. In honor of the fallen lieutenant, a voting precinct in the south part of the Valley was assigned the name ãSlaughter.ä The name was conferred to a newly incorporated Valley town in 1891. Two years later, the town was renamed Auburn.

A pair of fading granite monuments along Auburn Way North memorialize some of the Treaty War fatalities÷one names Lt. Slaughter and other soldiers, and the other, the civilians who died on October 28, 1855. In Auburnâs Indian Tom Park, a childrenâs playground, a pair of markers poignantly recall the good deeds of a kind man caught between two cultures.

by Stan Flewelling