Descendants of settlers and of the helpful Duwamish salute the founding of Seattle

Monday, November 13, 2000


On a dreary, rainy morning 149 years ago today, Ruth Foster Moore's great-grandparents, John and Lydia Low, were among a small group of families aboard the schooner Exact who landed near Alki Point, founding what would later become Seattle.

On shore with his people, watching the hapless band of settlers begin a struggle to survive, was Cecile Hansen's great-great-great uncle -- a generous Duwamish nation tyee, or chief, whose name those first immigrants came to pronounce, or mangle, as See-alth (ed.: Si-aA) or See-attle .

Yesterday, the spirit of that day was honored for the first time in decades by bringing together Hansen, Moore and other flesh-and-blood descendants of both the pioneer and Native American groups in a spot not far from where the settlers landed.

Together, they mutually honored a new exhibit at West Seattle's Log House Museum called "The Spirit Returns: a Duwamish and Pioneer Story."

The exhibit and the bringing together of the descendants was blessed during opening ceremonies by Vi Hilbert (ed.: TaUSeblu), a Skagit Nation elder, who called upon all to care and share in the land they do not really own, but inhabit.

The new exhibit recalls how the events of that fateful day alternately affected the fates of each people.

And for once, it offers a history that gets things right, said Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish tribe.

"I'm thrilled that they are beginning to tell the story and acknowledge the first people who were here. This exhibit is a good place to reflect upon that."

The Euro-American descendants of those first settlers are now a majority, and the city built on 55,000 acres in which the Duwamish tribe members once fished, hunted, lived and died is one of the nation's most prosperous.

By contrast, the descendants of Hansen's great-great uncle continue to fight a decades-old struggle simply to exist as a people.

The sons and daughters of both the Duwamish and the pioneers -- who might not be here had the Duwamish not helped their ancestors survive -- agree that the tribe deserves federal recognition and the aid that comes with it.

"I feel strongly that they ought to be recognized as a tribe," said Moore, who has led a fight over the years with other descendants of pioneers to help the Duwamish achieve that status.

"They were so good to the people who landed here and helped them survive, protecting them, feeding them, helping them get around in canoes," she said.

Pat Wright, whose great-great-grandfather Arthur Denny was in the boat with the Lows that day, agreed. She called the chance to meet the descendants of the Duwamish "wonderful."

On Nov. 13, 1851, the Dennys and Lows were accompanied by the Boren, Bell and Terry families. They had migrated from Illinois or New York, and came west on the Oregon Trail. They were drawn by the Donation Act of 1850, which parceled land in imaginary squares strange to Indians: acres.

The Duwamish called the place they landed Sqwadux. The first settlers, several from New York, called it New York Alki, adding an Indian word that translated roughly "New York Pretty Soon."

It wasn't until most of them had migrated across Elliott Bay to find a deeper, more protected harbor by 1853 that they renamed the town for Chief Seattle, the Duwamish tyee who knew his people's days were numbered.

But it first seemed that the landing party's days were numbered. The group was in great distress when it landed, hungry, cold and huddling in rain so incessant it collapsed the women's bonnets. The group learned that an anticipated shelter was unfinished. The late University of Washington historian Edmond Meany, recalling the women's plight, reportedly said, "The foundation of Seattle was laid on a mother's tears."

It was the Duwamish, however, who had more reason to cry. Ever-increasing waves of settlers displaced them and checkmated their culture.

Those who visit the exhibit will see Doc Maynard's medical kit and develop an appreciation of the initiative and hardships endured by the early settlers. But they'll also see the sacrifices, kindness and wisdom of the Duwamish.

The exhibit tells how their attempt to acquire a reservation along the now-extinct Black River that once flowed into Lake Washington met with pioneer protests.

It recalls that the Territorial Legislature passed a series of race-based laws amounting to apartheid, precluding Indians from seeking redress through the courts.

The Duwamish were forced between moving away altogether or assimilating either with whites or with other tribes, moving onto another reservation. Somehow, they remained true to their identity.

In 1927, the tribe sued the government for compensation for its lands that were taken under the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. In 1963, the government granted them 1,000 checks worth $62 apiece, an award based upon 1855 real estate prices of $1.05 an acre.

By 1988, the Pioneer Society of Washington rallied to the tribe's cause. The tribe now is claiming some turf in the city named for its chief, buying land near the Duwamish River, and looking for funds to build a Long House community center.

The tribe's persistence against all odds, and the story of two cultures coming together is important for mixed-blood people like Florence Smotherman, 88. She's descended from Duwamish people who moved to Vashon Island after leaving Seattle.

"I have lived most of my life in Seattle, but without thinking of my heritage," she said. "It wasn't until my daughter got involved with the Duwamish council that I realized how much I have missed. Heritage is important for everyone."