The Puget Sound War (1855-1856)

Chief Leschi

Contrary to what you might think, the Puget Sound is not an audible noise – it’s a body of water located on the northwestern coast of Washington state. Dumb jokes aside, have you heard of the Puget Sound War? If you answered yes, color me impressed. If not, here’s a brief (read: not quite as brief as I originally intended) history of the conflict and its impending controversies:

As a precursor, the Native American tribes of the area consisted of the Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and the Klickitat peoples. The war itself was triggered by The Treaty of Medicine Creek, penned by Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens in 1854. The American-favored treaty granted about 2.24 million acres of land to the United States in exchange for the creation of three reservations, cash payments over twenty years, and “recognition” of traditional native fishing and hunting rights. Unfortunately, Nisqually farming land was taken as part of negotiations (Washington State Historical Society).

The Nisqually leader, Leschi, opposed these terms and chose to rise against the White settlers (Schuetz). As a response, a settler militia was formed under the command of Captain Charles Eaton, known as a “Eaton’s Rangers.” This militia had the support of the American military (Washington State Historical Society). The first battle was in October of 1855, when Nisqually tribesmen fought against the militia; in the fighting, two American militiamen, Joseph Miller and Abram Benton Moses, were killed in action.

On October 28, 1855, a party of Muckleshoot tribespeople arrived in White River, where eight settlers were murdered and the children were forced to flee the area, while one was kidnapped for months (Eckrom). The Americans dubbed it the “White River Massacre.” But that is simply one side of the story.

The other side of the story emphasizes that the Natives alerted the settlers ahead of time, that they “sent [the settlers] word not to be afraid – they would not harm [the settlers]” (Meeker). They travelled to White River as a form of protest against Governor Stevens and his treaty. Ultimately, a conflict arose and nine settlers were reported dead; the Native Warriors then delivered the children unharmed to Point Elliot (N.A. Netroots).

Since war constantly consists of actions and reactions (in terms of violence and egregious behavior), the Americans rounded up around 4000 unarmed and peaceful Natives from the area and moved them to Fox Island, so that they could be carefully observed. It was a form of a concentration camp recurrent in untold American history. Many of the captives of Fox Island died due to insufficient food, water, and shelter (Ruby and Brown).

Leschi moved to declare an all-out war, but he never amassed more than a few hundred soldiers. His coalition of tribes were in touch with other Southwestern Washington tribes, but most of these tribes were traders, never previously seeing any act of warfare (Eckrom). Yet, Americans feared that these tribes would rise up against the settlers; in further aggravation, the armed Americans marched into various villages and disarmed the Natives, while displacing most to reservations. Most of these people were held for around two years with inadequate resources to survive.

In 1856, Governor Stevens demanded the extermination of all “hostile” Natives. As expected, Leschi and his tribesmen responded to this abhorrent declaration with force. On January 26, 1856, the Battle of Seattle commenced (which was the original inspiration for this post). The battle only resulted in two deaths – both on the American side (Eckrom).

Answering their Governor’s heeding, a group of militiamen, known as the Washington Mounted Rifles, under H.J.G. Maxon, set out and slaughtered over thirty Native Americans fishing in the Nisqually River. Nearly all of these people were women and children (Wonacott). Other groups of Americans similarly attacked peaceful Native settlements.

Surprisingly, many of the white settlers began vocally opposing Governor Stevens’ actions. Those that went public were promptly jailed and silenced. At this point (of course), the Chief Justice of the Territory signed a writ for the Governor to let these settlers free. Instead, he employed martial law (Eckrom).

His hands tied, Leschi gave in, wanting to prevent any further Native deaths. He sent his brother Quiemuth as an emissary of peace, but was murdered in cold blood in the residence of the Governor (Eckrom). The murderer was subsequently arrested, but never charged. Ultimately, Leschi’s nephew betrayed him and sold Leschi’s location away in exchange for fifty blankets. Leschi was captured (Eckrom).

Leschi was tried. Even though some settlers stepped in as witnesses, claiming that Leschi was not responsible for the deaths of Joseph Miller and Abram Benton Moses, he was still found guilty of murder and was hanged in 1858 (Eckrom). Some of the previously acquired land was given back to the Natives imprisoned on Fox Island (Ruby and Brown).

Overall, the Americans claimed “victory” – they saw themselves superior militarily. The Natives of Washington, however, had a different reaction. In their cultures, an eye for an eye wasn’t a phrase used in dealing punishments. A murder in a family was a wound; homicides were to be matched with restitutions and payments. Their sense of justice was about healing, not about further bloodshed.

Oh yeah, Leschi was exonerated on December 10, 2004, where the United States claimed that because the American deaths were during a legal war, Leschi should not have been held responsible (The Associated Press). He is, to this very day, a legendary and honored tribal leader of the Nisqually.

This war is just another chapter out of the untold history of the Native Americans. For many years, our country reacted violently to the previous inhabitants of what many of us call our home. In my research on this topic, pages like Wikipedia conveniently leave out the entirety of the Native American perspective of the Puget Sound War. This constantly occurs throughout history; the dominant narrative always has the ability to forge what is and what isn’t told. The next time you read about a historical event, try and research the opposing views. That’s what I’ll always present in my posts!

I’ll also try to condense my writing in the future. Thanks for reading!

Works Cited:

Chief Leschi. Digital image. Chief Leschi Schools. Chief Leschi Schools, 2009. Web. <;

Eckrom, J. A. Remembered Drums: A History of the Puget Sound Indian War. Walla Walla, WA: Pioneer, 1989. Print.

Meeker, Ezra. Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound: The Tragedy of Leschi: An Account of the Coming of the First Americans and the Establishment of Their Institutions … Seattle, WA: Lowman & Hanford Stationery and Print., 1905. Print.

“Native American Netroots.” Native American Netroots. N.p., 3 July 2011. Web.

Ruby, Robert H., and John A. Brown. Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1981. Print.

Schuetz, Janice E. Episodes in the Rhetoric of Government-Indian Relations. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. Print.

The Associated Press. “Court Acquits Indian Chief Hanged in 1858.” N.p., 11 Dec. 2004. Web.

Washington State Historical Society. “”Leschi: Justice In Our Time”” “Leschi: Justice In Our Time”. Web.

Wonacott, Abbi. Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually: The Mashel Massacre of 1856. Spanaway, WA: Bellus Uccello Pub., 2008. Print.

One thought on “The Puget Sound War (1855-1856)

  1. Nicely done piece. My great-great grandfather fought in the Indian Wars according to family lore (and his tombstone), and due to that I found myself fascinated with that era in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t have any record of his being a part of any particular company such as Eaton’s Rangers, but I know that around that time his apparent occupation was leading settlers coming in on the Oregon Trail from The Dalles to Steilacoom. He is recorded in the 1860 census as living in Skamania, Washington, and a daughter was born in White Salmon. By 1870 he had relocated his family to the Key Peninsula, becoming the first white settlers of Lakebay and Bay Lake, having named both places (and very imaginative names, I might add!). His wife Sarah was the first schoolteacher on the Peninsula.


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