Today in Native History: Chief Seattle Walks On

Courtesy Museum of History and Industry Seattle/Wikipedia/The only known photograph of Chief Seattle was taken in 1864.

A great leader and orator, Chief Seattle even has a Northwest city named for him.

Chief Seattle is one of the most well known Native Americans in the Northwest, not only for leading in battle, but for working to coexist with the newcomers, his ability as an orator, and because the largest city in the Pacific Northwest carries his name. His name in the Lushootseed language, the language of his people, was Si?al, or Sealth. From that pronunciation the word “Seattle” came.

The precise date of his birth is unknown, but he was thought to be about 80 when he died on June 7, 1866, thus making his birth year around 1786. He was born near Blake Island close to where Seattle, Washington now stands. His father was a leader of the Suquamish Tribe, which inhabited the area across Puget Sound from today’s Seattle. His mother was Sholitza, a Duwamish tribal member.

He was large for a Native of the Puget Sound area, standing nearly six feet tall. White traders called him Le Gros, meaning Big One. Dr. Frasier Tolmie with the Hudson Bay Company described him in 1832 as “the handsomest Indian I have ever seen.” His other outstanding characteristic was his loud voice. He was an orator and could hold the attention of an audience. It was this combination for which he was known.

Historians talk of a speech Chief Seattle gave in 1854; a speech that made him famous. The precise words will never be known, as there were no recordings. He spoke in the Lushootseed language, that was translated into the Chinook language, and from there into English. Obviously his exact words were lost in the translation, but his ideas were clear.

Some of the phrases, as translators voiced them, are inspiring. “The rivers are our brothers. The air is precious for all things share the same breath. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. If we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. We may be brothers after all.”

iStock/This statue of Chief Seattle stands in his namesake city.

Chief Seattle’s speech was given at a meeting with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. Chief Seattle thanked the white people for their generosity, demanded a guarantee in any treaty that they would have access to Native burial grounds and contrasted the God of the whites with the God of the Natives. Those translated words have been repeated as an early meeting between industrial America and Native America showing conflicting values of cultures. Despite that, he worked to form a community with two cultures in harmony.

Doc Maynard arrived in the Northwest 1868 to make his fortune. He filed on a large plat of land and opened a trading post. He and Sealth became good friends and as Maynard’s business grew, it became a small city, which he named ‘Seattle” after his friend Sealth.

Thirteen years after the city was named for him, Chief Seattle, Sealth, passed away on June 7, 1866. He was buried in the Suquamish Tribal Cemetery, not far from Seattle, the city named for him. The marble headstone remains today, but the wooden structures around it need upkeep. Two 12-foot-tall cedar poles were erected in 2011 rising above the grave. The poles are carved and one shows him as a boy at the time Captain Vancouver’s ships were exploring Puget Sound. The other shows him as a warrior and later as an elder when he gave the famous speech.

Courtesy Findagrave.com/Jana Hawes Robinson/Chief Seattle’s gravestone.

His last descendent, his eldest daughter Angeline, so named by Maynard’s wife, continued to live in Seattle near what is now called Pike Place Market. She acquired the name “Princess Angeline” and became widely known and recognized on Seattle streets until her death in 1896.

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