Leschi: A Nisqually Leader
How did the Leschi area get its name?
The Leschi neighborhood is named for Chief Leschi (1808–1858), a leader of the Nisqually people and a symbol of Native resistance to displacement from their homelands.
The Nisqually people lived for many thousands of years in the fertile, grassy valley west of Tacobet (Mount Rainier). They called the tall grasses in the valley “squally” and named the river that flowed from the mountain into the southern end of Whulge (Puget Sound) after the nearby grasses. They called themselves “squally-absch,” people of the grass country. The people—and the river they depended on for survival—eventually became known as the Nisqually.
Leschi was born in 1808, in a village about 60 miles southeast of Seattle, near the present-day town of Eatonville. Leschi’s village was next to a prairie where the family’s horses grazed. They dug camas on that prairie, gathered berries and hunted deer and elk in the woods, and fished for salmon—the staple of the Nisqually diet and the center of their way of life—in the river.
During Leschi’s lifetime, many British and American people began to settle in Nisqually territory. As settlers fenced off land and began large-scale fishing, farming, and logging projects, they damaged the ecosystems in the region and depleted the natural resources the Nisqually depended on.
In 1846, as part of a comprehensive settlement agreement (one that did not involve the Native nations whose homelands they were occupying), the United States and Britain decided that the land Leschi’s people had called home for thousands of years now belonged to the United States. Soon after, President Franklin Pierce appointed Isaac Stevens to be governor of the territory.
Governor Stevens’ first assignment was to remove the Native people in Washington territory from their homes to make room for more white settlers.
Nisqually Survival Threatened
Governor Stevens met with representatives from all the tribes in Washington territory and pressured them to sign treaties that traded away their ancestral homelands for blankets and other “gifts.”
In 1854, Governor Stevens met with the Nisqually people and their neighbors, the Puyallup and Squaxin Island tribes, at Medicine Creek. Stevens chose Leschi and his brother Quiemuth to represent the Nisqually.
The Treaty of Medicine Creek required the Nisqually to relinquish their ancestral lands to settlers and move a small reservation on a rocky cliff. This small piece of land could not accommodate the Nisqually people and was not near the river that had sustained them since time immemorial.
When Leschi resisted the terms of the treaty, Governor Stevens threatened that if the Nisqually people did not move to the reservation, he would send soldiers to force them from their land.
Leschi chose to fight back. Many Native warriors joined Leschi and his brother in their fight to hold on to their homelands and their way of life. This series of battles, which lasted about a year, became known as the Puget Sound Indian War.
The Native resisters were able to continue fighting for a long time because they understood the terrain much better than the settler soldiers. But as the fighting dragged on, they ran low on food and weapons.
Near the end of the war, a group of Native fighters attacked the small village of Seattle to try to get more ammunition. They camped on the shores of Lake Washington. Though it is not known if Leschi was with them, white settlers believed that Leschi was their leader.
The Native fighters lost the “Battle of Seattle” and, soon after, gave up their fight. Even though they didn’t win the war, Leschi and his followers won a victory for Native people.
After the fighting ended, Governor Stevens offered better reservations to several tribes, including the Nisqually. The new Nisqually reservation was larger than the one that the governor had originally proposed, and, importantly, it was next to the Nisqually River. [To be continued…]
Framing Chief Leschi, by Lisa Blee
Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies, by Cecelia Carpenter
Nisqually Indian Tribe, by Cecelia Carpenter
Tears of Internment, by Cecelia Carpenter
The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, by Richard Kluger