In 1792 people living on the Salish Sea were astonished to see a floating island of the dead enter their waters. Lifeless trees towered up from the moving rock populated by pale faced ghosts.
Young men from the Squamish Nation canoed out to get a closer look. The ghostly visitors encouraged them to come closer. Eventually, the tribal members realized the apparitions were human after all — explorers aboard the HMS Discovery.
The ship carried English Captain George Vancouver and his expedition to the Northwest. When the explorers ventured further south they recorded the first contact between natives and whites in south Puget Sound. For Vancouver, the expedition was a search for the fabled Northwest Passage.
For local tribes it was the beginning of cultural changes that have continued to this day. And it set in to motion two centuries of clashes over sovereignty and resource rights.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of pioneer Job Carr establishing the spot where he would build his log cabin and become the first permanent white settler of Tacoma. While those are significant qualifiers he wasn’t the first person living along the shores on what settlers would call Commencement Bay.
“Our creation stories tells us we have been here since the beginning of time,” said Connie McCloud, the Puyallup Tribe’s culture director.
Capt. Vancouver encountered members of the Puyallup Tribe at today’s Browns Point, said Douglas Sackman, a history professor at the University of Puget Sound. Sackman’s specialty is western U.S. history, including Native Americans.
Both groups had a meal on the beach but Vancouver drew a line in the sand to separate his men from the Puyallups. It didn’t work, both groups quickly intermingled, communicating through hand gestures. At some point the Puyallups suspected the crewmen were eating human flesh and not venison, Sackman said.
Vancouver’s men “go to great pains to show them and eventually pull out the deer carcass from which their meat has derived,” Sackman said.
Vancouver asked the tribe what lay beyond Browns Point. The Puyallups indicated the rest of the sound but no passages inland. Vancouver thought they were lying until he explored further.
“Here’s an initial cultural encounter with confusion on both sides,” Sackman said.
In the years following Vancouver, other explorers, military personnel, missionaries and traders would visit the South Sound, which was co-occupied by the British and Americans from 1819. But it wasn’t until the Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Nisqually near the Nisqually River Delta in 1833 did whites become a permanent fixture in the area. The fort was a trading post for native-procured furs.
During that time good relations and cooperation with natives was crucial for whites in the area.
“Overall things are pretty amicable,” Sackman said of the early 1800s. “All the non-natives from before the 1850s were dependent upon positive interactions with natives. So people like (pioneer) Ezra Meeker were favorably disposed towards the Puyallups as neighbors and got along with them.”
The relationship might have been beneficial to settlers, but it wasn’t always the case in reverse.
“This was a time of great change. Early explorers came in and brought diseases that killed a lot of native people,” McCloud said.
The peaceful period between Vancouver’s expedition and Fort Nisqually would end with the arrival of Isaac Stevens, the first territorial governor of Washington, and the head of Indian Affairs.
“He saw his job as to extinguish native land claims in the entire region,” Sackman said. U.S. legal decisions had ruled that natives had claims to the land. But Stevens held treaty negotiations in 1854 and asked native groups to give up their claims in exchange for other rights. The negotiations, held near today’s I-5 and the Nisqually River Delta, became known as the Treaty of Medicine Creek.
For Native Americans in Puget Sound land was not something that could not be bought and sold. “Rather, land, and everything of which it was composed (animals, plants, rocks) were regarded as living beings, each with their own rights that people were bound to respect,” Sackman said. “That said, Native tribes or nations certainly had a sense of territoriality — a sense that a particular region was their rightful homeland, and not that of any other people.”
McCloud said her ancestors had a sense of tribal or family ownership based on countless generations of stewardship, use and tradition — not by individuals with deeds and property lines.
“You didn’t go into another territory unannounced or uninvited without making an effort for the people to know who you were or why you were there,” McCloud said. “You would not only know the people but know as many generations far back as possible. If you entered a village without permission to take something — that was almost an act of war.”
Different philosophies among whites and natives led to clashes.
“Conflict erupted between (Vancouver’s lieutenant) Peter Puget and Native Americans in southern Puget Sound when his men started fishing without making any offerings or payments at a place (natives) regarded as their own,” Sackman said.
The Puyallups might have viewed the water-driven sawmill Nicholas Delin built in 1852 near today’s Foss Waterway in Tacoma as using resources that belonged to them: timber and water.
Nineteenth-century historian Herbert Hunt said Puyallup tribal members would come to Delin’s mill just to watch the machinery at work, much like visitors to a modern day Boeing plant. “To Hunt they were being mesmerized by the mechanical world that had come in,” Sackman said. “The way I look at this is that the Puyallups were saying ‘What do we get from this? Let’s share’.”
The Medicine Creek Treaty, while restricting natives to reservations, did give them certain rights.
“An important one is the right to hunt and fish at their usual and customary places,” Sackman said. Those rights remained contested until the Boldt Decision in 1974.
In 1855 many natives were unhappy with the treaty which relegated the Puyallups and other tribes to small and often poorly situated reservations.
“They put people on reservations that weren’t going to support them,” McCloud said.
The tribes went to war with the U.S. until the native forces, led by Chief Leschi of the Nisquallys, were eventually defeated in 1856. Leschi was hanged.
Relocating native populations had long been U.S. policy in the 1800s but when the frontier reached the West reservations were established. In the Pacific Northwest the government wanted Americans on the land which strengthened the U.S.’s claim to the region over Great Britain’s.
Another aspect of U.S. policy toward native populations was the suppression of Indian culture.
“It was full scale assimilation under Richard Henry Pratt’s motto of, “Kill the Indian, save the man’,” Sackman said. Pratt was a white educator of Native Americans and the founder of the first of several now notorious Indian boarding schools. Parts of his philosophy included suppressing native language and religion and their very way of life. Natives were to be turned from hunters into farmers.
“It’s very clear that it was an attempt to destroy all evidence of our culture. Long houses were burned, canoes were burned. Our way of life became very different,” McCloud said. A boarding school was built at E. 29th street and Portland Avenue and a U.S. government building that housed Indian Agents was built where Emerald Queen Casino is today, she said.
While that area was a major village for the Puyallups it was just one of many. “We had villages up and down the Puyallup River and on Vashon Island, Wollochet Bay. We had a village where the Museum of Glass is,” McCloud said.
By the 1860s some 2,000 Puyallups had been relocated from outlying areas and on to their reservation. A water-orientated people, they were — and still are — skilled canoeists.
“The waterways are really important to our people. They traveled these waters by canoe from place to place, hundreds and hundreds of miles. For social reasons, for trade, at another time for war,” McCloud said.
“That is the only way to get around,” Sackman said. “In the 1860s and you were non-native you would hire natives to paddle you from place to place.”
But the attitude toward natives of newly arriving settlers would be different from the pioneers.
“There is a generation of people who come in the 1860s that (have the attitude), ‘We don’t need these people. Let’s wall them off and get rid of them,” Sackman said. Native Americans were increasingly marginalized by the swelling ranks of newcomers.
Though today the tribe represents less than one percent of the overall population in Pierce County, they still have a reservation, a treaty with the federal government, a thriving culture and a growing community that identifies as native and as Puyallups, McCloud said.
“We’ve been here thousands and thousands of years and there was a way of life here that had been long established before Vancouver, Hudson Bay Company and the treaty times,” McCloud said.
“We’re still here. The values and traditions and teaching have not changed.”