A Change of Worlds

Coll Thrush’s “Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place” introduces readers to the Native American side of the largest city in Washington and the largest city in the United States named after an indigenous person. Seattle proudly boasts of their Native past with depictions of Native life everywhere, orca totems on manhole covers, cedar basket patterns on brick courtyards, bronze statues of chieftains on sidewalks, it’s even a place “where cellphone towers only recently outnumbered totem poles.” (4) The name of the city itself is after a Native American chief, Chief Seeathl, or Chief Seattle as he is more commonly known. However, even though the present-day inhabitants embrace this past, was that how the case always was?Chief SeeathlChief Seeathl

Chif Seeathl
Statue of Chief Seeathl in Tilikum Place Park in Seattle. Source

Many people who hear about the early days of the Seattle and Puget Sound don’t actually know what really happened. They rely on portrayals from artists like Lillian Smart who created a diorama on the first encounter between the Native Americans of the area and the first white settlers to reach there. The diorama depicts the twenty four settlers, including the founder of Seattle Arthur Denny, as they reached the shore after their journey from Portland on the “Exact.” It shows details like the women crying after seeing their surroundings and smelling the salty air. It also displays just a handful of Native Americans, including Chief Seeathl. Whereas, if you were to read the accounts of the actual encounter passed down to descendants of the Denny Party it comes across a little differently. According to the accounts the Native Americans numbered in the hundreds, even upwards of a thousand. The accounts also says that the two groups intermingled at their first encounter, with the Native Americans gathering around the settlers, seemingly

Denny Party Landing
Diorama of the Denny Party at the time of Seattle’s “founding.” Source

curious, but not afraid, showing they had probably encountered people like this before.

Throughout the next few decades the Indians and the Europeans lived in seemingly harmonious circumstances. In fact, many people from both groups had begun to intermingle and there were numerous multi-racial families. However, not everyone in the area was happy with these living standards and groups started to demand that whites that had settled down with Indians were being swayed in the wrong direction and the groups needed to become separate. They called for the dismissal of Native Americans from the city in whatever way possible. The two main problems at the time were disease and fire. Native Americans were more susceptible to disease and had lasted through multiple bouts of smallpox or “comes all over” as they called it. Many of the Europeans were just fine with the Natives dying on their own like this as long as they didn’t infect the Europeans. So, they would send the sick far away to isolated areas outside of the city. The Europeans were also afraid of the Native Americans causing a fire outbreak from an uncontrolled bonfire. This was another excuse to get them to leave the area in and around the city. This, although, never happened and the two big fires in Seattle’s history were caused by white-owned businesses or in the predominately white areas of town.

Nothing would keep all the Native Americans away from their Illahee, or country, their ancestors still resided there in the next life and their families, whether multi-racial or Native were there. Obviously, they lasted, as the city has a Native presence to this day, both in people, there are about 106,444 full or mixed blood Indians in the area (VIII), and in décor around the city, but how that played out over the years we will see in the next few readings.


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