Chief Seattle was an ancestral leader of the Suquamish Tribe born in 1786 at the Old-Man-House village in Suquamish. His father was Schweabe, a Suquamish Chief, and his was mother Scholitza, a Duwamish from a village near present Kent. Seattle was a six years old when Captain George Vancouver anchored in Suquamish waters off Bainbridge Island in 1792.
Seattle achieved his status as chief of the Suquamish and a confederation of Duwamish bands after he planned and executed an attack strategy that saved the Central Puget Sound people from a sneak attack from upriver tribal forces from present King County. Seattle, who was in his early twenties at the time, devised a plan calling for falling trees across the White (now Green) River above Renton that would capsize and disorient the raiding party allowing for Seattle’s forces to attack and capture them. The plan worked and the people were so impressed that he was promoted to Chief and the former leaders became his sub-chiefs.
Chief Seattle witnessed the transition of his people from their ancient aboriginal life ways to a new one brought by the arrival on non-natives and imposed on them by the United States Government. The Suquamish had to adapt their culture based on fishing, hunting, berry and root gathering and traveling by canoe to accept a new economy and lifestyle forced upon them by religious, social and political institutions. Missionaries, fur traders and finally, permanent settlers brought new technology, a currency system, disease and the concept of private property to the Puget Sound.
The change was destructive and disruptive. The United States had already freed land up for settlers by allowing non-natives to claim Indian lands under the Donation Land Claim Act, angering many of the Tribes. The United States wanted to clear the land of Indian title to allow for settlement via a new transcontinental railroad. The federal government accomplished this by signing Treaties with the Indian tribes. Fearing a military conflict that could not be won in the long term, Chief Seattle signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott with the U.S., agreeing to live on the Port Madison Indian Reservation and give up title to the remainder of Suquamish lands. The U.S., led by Governor Isaac Stevens, agreed to provide health care, education and recognize fishing and hunting rights.
Some of the Tribes, such as the Puyallup and Muckleshoot who signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek, were angered by the Treaty and their reservations, and took up arms against the settlers and the military. The Indian forces eventually attacked the settlement on Elliott Bay. Chief Seattle kept his forces out of the battle and remained at Suquamish. For this action, other acts of kindness and long friendships with early Seattle residents, the founders of the city named the settlement after Chief Seattle.
Seattle remained on the reservation but continued to travel to the City he was named for intertribal meetings and other business. It was in Seattle that he had his only known picture taken and he gave his famous speech. Chief Seattle died in 1866 in Suquamish.
Seattle died before the federal government enacted “Americanization” policies intended to assimilate the Suquamish into the larger society and eliminate tribal governance thereby relieving the U.S. of their treaty committments. These policies included: 1) allotment of Indian reservationi lands to individual families to scatter the Tribe away from their concentrated winter villages 2) forced attendance of Suquamish children at off-reservation boarding schools where use of tribal language and culture was prohibited and punished and 3) the federally sponsored sale of reservation lands to non-natives that has resulted in the loss of 14 miles of reservation waterfront and over 5,000 acres of Suquamish landholdings. The assimilation policy failed and Chief Seattle’s people, the Suquamish Tribe, continue to persevere by honoring their ancestral ways and preserving their culture.
A group of Seattle pioneers placed a marble headstone on his grave in 1890 in recognition of his legacy. The headstone has both of the popular spellings of Chief Seattle’s names; Seattle and Sealth. Sealth is an approximation of the native pronunciation of the Chief’s name. The Treaty of Point Elliott, recorded 35 years earlier, shows his name as Seattle. The Suquamish Tribe does not object to the use of either name.