June 7

This Day in History

Old West

Jun 7, 1866:

Chief Seattle dies near the city named for him

Thirteen years after American settlers founded the city named for him, Chief Seattle dies in a nearby village of his people.

Born sometime around 1790, Seattle (Seathl) was a chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes who lived around the Pacific Coast bay that is today called Puget Sound. He was the son of a Suquamish father and a Duwamish mother, a lineage that allowed him to gain influence in both tribes.

By the early 1850s, small bands of Euro-Americans had begun establishing villages along the banks of Puget Sound. Chief Seattle apparently welcomed his new neighbors and seems to have treated them with kindness. In 1853, several settlers moved to a site on Elliott Bay to establish a permanent town--since Chief Seattle had proved so friendly and welcoming, the settlers named their tiny new settlement in his honor.

The Euro-American settlers picked the site because of the luxuriant forest on the bluff behind the new village. The Gold Rush in California had created a booming market for timber, and soon most of the villagers were at work cutting the trees and "skidding" them down a long chute to a newly constructed sawmill. The chute became known as "skid road," and in time, it became the main street in Seattle, though it kept its original name. When the Seattle business district later moved north, the area became a haven for drunks and derelicts. Consequently, "skid road" or "skid row" became lingo for the dilapidated area of any town.

Not all the Puget Sound Indians, however, were as friendly toward the white settlers as Chief Seattle. War broke out in 1855, and Indians from the White River Valley south of Seattle attacked the village. Although he believed the whites would eventually drive his people to extinction, Chief Seattle argued that resistance would merely anger the settlers and hasten the Indians' demise. By 1856, many of the hostile Indians had concluded that Chief Seattle was right and made peace.

Rather than fight, Seattle tried to learn white ways. Jesuit missionaries introduced him to Catholicism, and he became a devout believer. He observed morning and evening prayers throughout the rest of his life. The people of the new city of Seattle also paid some respect to the chief's traditional religion. The Suquamish believed the mention of a dead man's name disturbs his eternal rest. To provide Chief Seattle with a pre-payment for the difficulties he would face in the afterlife, the people of Seattle levied a small tax on themselves to use the chief's name. He died in 1866 at the approximate age of 77.

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