Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name: The Change of Worlds for the Native People and Settlers on Puget Sound
By David M. Buerge (Sasquatch Books, 2017)
It’s hard to fathom that there was a time in the recent past when the words of leaders went unrecorded, a time about which historians must grapple with a lack of resources to analyze rather than being challenged by endless mountains of material. The great challenge in writing the first full-length biography of Chief Seattle is that it depends in part on legend and filling in gaps of the historical record as well as understanding now-lost tribal languages.
There is much that is not known about the early life of the man for whom our city is named (Seattle, by the way, is the largest city in the world named after a Native American.) David Buerge spent some thirty years trying to piece together the events of our region before it became home to white settlers. In the early days of the nineteenth century, the Puget Sound area was populated by many different tribes that possessed varying degrees of friendliness toward one another and to the newcomers who began arriving after 1782 in tall ships bearing gifts of copper and molasses. It was a time of tribal skirmishes, celebrations and inter-tribal marriages. It was a world destined to be upended by the arrival of guns, diseases and greed.
Chief Seattle, or Sealth, was born in the 1780s, a descendant of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. A tall, strongly built man, he developed a reputation as a fierce warrior, suspicious and unwelcoming toward early traders and settlers. Living to age 80 or so, he was married four times (at least), confessed to murder, became a devout Catholic and was known for hosting celebrations at which he would shower his guests with gifts.
By the 1840s, Seattle became, perhaps by seeing the writing on the wall, a champion of sorts for the rapidly growing population of settlers, an invaluable ally because of his tribal status, a leader who believed the native peoples and newcomers could live together in harmony. He worked alongside the entrepreneurs and encouraged marriage between the two groups. In addition, for a while, it seemed his vision could take hold. But Seattle would be sorely disappointed by the broken promises and bad faith that came to dominate relations as the local natural resources began to be exploited and the push to create reservations took hold in the 1850s, feelings he expressed in his still poignant speech to Governor Isaac Stevens.
The early pages of this impressive book are slow going but it picks up speed as historical documents become more plentiful. In its pages, the readers meet Leschi, Yesler, Maynard, Denny and more, and are offered a gripping account of the Battle of Seattle. However, its great value lies in reminding us of the birth pains of this city, of the opportunity for good relations lost, and of the honor we owe to those who came before us. In the words of Chief Seattle:
“At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless.”