A Brief History
On January 26, 1856, elements of the United States Marine Corps fought a battle against a most unlikely of opponents, Native American warriors of the tribes in the Washington Territory, a battle with the catchy sounding name, The Battle of Seattle. Like the vast majority of battles fought by the US Marine Corps, the result was a victory for the Devil Dogs, although this particular battle does not often come to mind when contemplating great USMC victories such as Iwo Jima, Belleau Wood, and Khe Sahn.
The Puget Sound War of 1855-1856 (sometimes called the Yakima War of 1855-1858), was a struggle by local Native American people to evict European settlers from settling the area that is now Seattle, Washington. Seattle got its name from the great chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes, Seattle. Native people involved in the War included Walla Walla, Yakima, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and Klickitat (among others), as well as Haida and Tlingit warriors that staged raids on White settlements not in conjunction with the other Native peoples.
After experiencing numerous raids and skirmishes between Native Americans and White settlers, the Governor of the Washington Territory, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, declared a “war of extermination” on the Native people in Washington.
The Seattle settlement was located on a small peninsula with marshy ground connecting it to the mainland. Defending the settlement were “… ninety-six men, eighteen marines, and five officers, leaving Gunner Stocking, Carpenter Miller, Clerks Francis and Ferguson, and fifteen men with Lieutenant Middleton, to guard the ship.” The ship mentioned was the USS Decatur, a sloop-of-war armed with 16 cannons, with which the sloop could support the ground action at and around the settlement. Decatur was anchored offshore in a position where her gunfire could best support the ground battle. The ship also provided 2 nine pounder cannons to the ground troops. The armed Marines employed in defense of Seattle were from the ship’s complement of Marines.
The Native attackers were led by Chief Leschi and perhaps also by Chief Owhi, with an unknown number of warriors taking part. Details of the Native forces and composition are not well documented, but it seems several area tribes chose not to participate in the attack on Seattle. Estimates of the size of the attacking Native American force vary from 200 to 500 men. The main chronicler of the battle, Thomas Stowell Phelps, an officer aboard the Decatur, claimed a Native force of 2000 warriors attacked Seattle on January 26, 1856. However many Natives involved, the attack came mid-morning with a small diversionary attack at a place called First Hill. A plan to attack pre-dawn, at 2 am, was contemplated and dismissed in favor of the later attack. Phelps later opined that the pre-dawn attack would quite possibly have been a success for the Native Americans as the Whites were totally unprepared for such a surprise attack.
When the attack came, the Native American tribes (or nations) were hampered by not having a common language, forcing the use of a sort of “trade language” among themselves called “Chinook jargon.” Fortunately for the settlers and Marines, the White people were also conversant in the Chinook jargon and were able to understand shouted orders and communications during the assault. Actions and orders the Native American attackers needed to be kept from the defenders were thus well understood by the Whites and appropriately countered. (Battles often seem to hinge on such mundane factors!) Also hindering Native American plans was a Native American that warned the settlers of the Native plans prior to the attack, which is why the Marines and defenses had been set up in anticipation of the attack. Women and children in the settlement were evacuated to the Decatur for safety during the upcoming battle.
The Native American attackers were faced with effective cannon fire with exploding shells spewing shrapnel. Though many of the settler volunteer defenders were less than enthusiastic about fighting, the Marines provided professional backbone to the defense and the attackers were repelled with heavy fire. Only 2 among the White defenders died during the battle, and another one of which may have died from non-battle related reasons. The number of wounded defenders is unknown. Details of Native American casualties is unreliable, though the best estimate seems to be 28 Natives killed and another 80 Natives wounded, numbers allegedly supplied by Native Americans after the battle. No Native bodies were recovered by White defenders.
The defeated Native warriors were ill-provisioned, as their plans had included looting White stores of food and other supplies from their “victory” when they would overrun the settlement. Forced to flee and forage for food, later threats of returning with “20,000 warriors” to evict the Whites went unfulfilled. Seattle was reinforced with additional blockhouse construction and the clearing of fields of fire in anticipation of further attacks. Additional cannons were stationed ashore to assist with the defense of the settlement. The second attack never came, and Governor Stevens offered a bounty on the scalps of Native Americans. The Governor also had 20 captured Native Americans tried by court martial for the attack, but those Natives were acquitted, the battle deemed to be legitimate warfare and not a crime.
Chief Leschi was later captured, tried and hanged in 1858, for the murder of a White Colonel Moses in 1855, which he denied. The Chief had been delivered to the White authorities by a traitor of his own tribe. Leschi had allegedly masterminded the attack on Seattle, although he denied involvement. A 2004 inquiry by the State of Washington into the Leschi trial and execution exonerated the Chief, and his name is remembered in several Seattle area streets, buildings and locations bear his name.
Questions for Students (and others): Have you ever been to Seattle? Have you heard of the Puget Sound War?
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For more information, please see…
Eckrom, JA. Remembered Drums: A History of the Puget Sound Indian War. Pioneer Pr Book, 1988.
Meeker, Ezra. Chief Leschi, War Chief of the Battle of Seattle and the Puget Sound War, 1855–56. Amazon Digital, 2015.
Miles, Jo. Kamiakin Country: Washington Territory in Turmoil 1855-1858. Caxton Press, 2017.
The featured image in this article, Battle of Seattle (before 1918) by Emily Inez Denny, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924. Emily Inez Denny was the eldest child of early settler David Denny and his wife, Louisa Boren Denny. She was born in 1853, two years after her parents landed at Alki. During her life, Denny painted and drew many scenes of Seattle’s early history. One of her many paintings showed the Battle of Seattle which took place on January 26, 1856. Emily Inez Denny’s painting shows Seattle’s white settlers running to safety in the city’s blockhouse. The ship Decatur sits offshore in Elliott Bay, helping to protect the settlers from a threatened Indian attack. Denny was only three years old at the time of the battle, and was carried into the fort in her mother’s arms.