Stepping Back

A Hatful of Gold —The Medicine Creek Treaty


Runners spread throughout southern Puget Sound, inviting headmen from the villages on the Nisqually and Puyallup Rivers, the Key Peninsula and the southern inlets, during this rainy season 166 years ago.

The territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, assisted by George Gibbs, a lawyer and ethnologist, and Michael Simmons, the first American settler on Puget Sound and appointed Indian Agent, was under pressure from Congress to open up the lands of the Northwest to non-Indian settlement. But first he needed to make treaties with the present inhabitants.

Gibbs knew the highest political authority for Puget Sound Indians was the village headman, and that it was not possible to treat with every village headman. He solved the problem by lumping all villages on a river drainage into “tribes,” and designed all of the treaties on Puget Sound to be negotiated between these tribes and the federal government.

The first was the Medicine Creek Treaty. Native people were encouraged by the name of the creek, suggesting “power.” Six hundred Native people gathered at the Medicine Creek Treaty grounds near the Nisqually River between Dec. 24 and 26, 1854, lured by curiosity about what the “Great White Father,” as Gov. Stevens referred to the president in Washington, D.C., had to tell them, and by the promise of gifts. Some of those who came grumbled that it was “salmon time,” and they should be fishing. Others, like the S’Hotlemamish of Henderson Bay, did not come at all.

The treaty was first translated from English into Chinook, the trade language of a few hundred words, then into Lushootseed, the Native language of southern Puget Sound, a tedious process not conducive to understanding a complex document. Stevens was absent for part of the negotiations, allegedly drunk. Thus, many who were at the treaty grounds had varying degrees of understanding about what they were to give up and what that cost would be.

The children and grandchildren of those who attended the Medicine Creek Treaty conclave handed down their understanding. There was agreement that the trade-off of hundreds of thousands of acres of land was the right to fish, hunt and gather, and live with their families on small reservations of uncertain location. The final treaty bestowed additional power to the Americans, later described by an American official as “forced agreements which the stronger power can violate or reject at pleasure.”

Non-Indian recollection of the treaty negotiations is that the treaty was explained, each Indian placed an X at the end of the document, and presents were distributed. Years later, one Native man remembered receiving two fish hooks and one knife; a woman who went to the treaty grounds with her father treasured the piece of calico fabric she received to make a dress. One old man had a very large hat, which he expected to be filled with gold as payment for the surrender of their land and homes.

Leschi, the Nisqually subchief whose title was assigned to him by Stevens, and other upriver prairie headmen refused to sign and left the treaty grounds since their needs for grazing lands were ignored. It is safe to say that most of the Native people departed the treaty grounds not knowing this was the beginning of the loss of their village identities.

What followed were the Treaty Wars of Puget Sound, a series of skirmishes between the “hostiles” upriver and prairie groups and their Yakama relatives, and the U.S. Army and territorial volunteers.

Native people not involved in the war were confined to internment camps on North Bay, Nisqually, Fox Island, Gig Harbor and Vashon Island where Stevens believed they could be controlled and discouraged from joining the hostiles. The promises of feeding such large numbers of Indians were neglected and many starved. They recalled to their descendants the hardship of being fed rations consisting of molasses, and being forbidden to visit their traditional fishing places.

The Minter Bay people and those from the Wollochet Bay village were kept on Fox Island while others refused to go to the camps. Many melted into the woods behind their villages when soldiers came to escort them to the camps and some took refuge in safe places such as Filucy Bay. Although the Treaty Wars of Puget Sound were over by March 1856, many of those held on Squaxin Island were there for as long as two years, where many died.

Stevens acceded to the demands of what would become the Puyallup and Nisqually Tribes at the Fox Island Council in August 1856, granting them new reservations. Though the fighting was over and a treaty signed, there were still many Native people who had no intention of moving to reservations. The S’Hotlemamish of Henderson Bay followed the American surveyors assigned to survey the land around Henderson Bay, pulling up the “magic” stakes.

Most, though, found they had no choice but to move to the reservations once settlers began claiming their village sites and all of the improvements — the longhouses and potato patches — with no compensation to the former Indian occupants. Native people went to reservations where they had relatives and soon people were called Nisqually or Puyallup or Squaxin Island regardless of their village homes. Members of families might live on each of those reservations but — mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters — would all be defined by a different tribal identity.

Four of the 13 articles in the Medicine Creek Treaty that were specific guarantees to the Indigenous people were consistently violated: the rights of taking fish, pasturing animals on unclaimed lands, and hunting and gathering, were all restricted; the annuities due them were only occasionally paid; physicians and farmers were only sporadically provided; and promised compensation for removal was not paid in full, if at all.

Regardless of the broken promises, from the Native point of view, the treaties remain living things that will not die as long as the rivers flow, the sun sets and the moon rises.

Lynn Larson is an archaeologist and anthropologist who lives on Filucy Bay.