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Life and Times in Leschi

In my years in our neighborhood, I’ve been curious how it came to be named after Leschi, a leader among Indians of the upper Nisqually River Valley. The perimeter of Lake Washington was inhabited by the indigenous Hachoo-absch (People of the Large Lake), known to the white settlers as Lake Indians. They were considered to be a band of Duwamish.

The area around the future Leschi Park was known to the Lake Indians in the local Lushootseed language as hw-QWEE-yhaqw-eye-ahqs, translated as Saw-Grass Point. Here they gathered bulrushes for household mats. It was probably an area where Indians coming across Lake Washington to the future Seattle encamped en route to Elliott Bay, but it is not known as having been a village site. (See Site 25 on the Burke Museum map referenced at bottom.)

Leschi never lived in what is now Seattle, and he may or may not have ever set foot in it. But he was widely known in the region and east of the mountains, where his mother, a Yakama Indian, was from. He has been celebrated as an influential orator, respected among Indians as well as by numerous whites with whom he had good relations.

As I mentioned in a previous column, Leschi’s name was bestowed on the park in about 1891 by Frederick Grant, president of the private cable car company that developed and owned the park. (It became a city park in 1903.) Grant believed that Leschi was innocent of murder charges stemming from fighting in Pierce County, for which he was hung in 1858.

Neighborhood historian Wade Vaughn surmised that “strong feeling against the Indians, resulting from the Indian war, had moderated by this time.” In the late 19th century, there was a certain nostalgia on the part of old settlers who published wistful accounts of the pioneer days of life alongside the Indians­—a triumphalism of survival and pioneer grit.

Historian Lisa Blee observes that “Leschi Park shows how Seattleites built an urban identity untroubled by the violence of settler colonialism by driving Native inhabitants from their homelands and replacing them with symbols lament¬ing Indians’ unjust treatment.”

The Indian-settler battles of the mid-1850s were provoked by the efforts of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens to force the Native people into unlivable reservations and enable settlers to obtain title to Indian lands. Treaties such as Medicine Creek (December 1854), which covered the Nisqually and other south-Sound tribal territories, were foisted upon the Indians. Leschi, who by some accounts refused to sign, or signed under protest, or whose mark was forged, communicated to the whites that Indians were willing to give up land but only in exchange for enough space to live as accustomed.

Histories written by whites often refer to Leschi as a chief. But it should be noted here that “chief” and “tribe” were settler concepts imposed upon the native inhabitants. The invaders wanted to establish entities and individuals with whom they could negotiate treaties. Defined tribes, tribal leadership, and land ownership were mostly alien concepts to the native population.

As characterized in “The Bitter Wars of Medicine Creek,” Governor Stevens made his case against the Indians “in deep denial of his contribution to the hostilities. Stevens … became an out-of-control avenger … awash with distortions,” who “had allowed his pride, wounded by his own misjudgments, to turn him delusional, bordering on the pathological.” He was described by the U.S. Army regional commander as “anxious for a long and expensive war … to exterminate the Indians.”