A recent essay on the ongoing demonstrations in Seattle and the summer of the Capitol Hill occupied protest attempted to frame the activism as microcosm of the upheaval seen this year across the county. It’s a good read:
It was a raw experience felt physically by those who attended the CHOP. This complicated blend of hope and despair, and the busy organizing that went into managing each, ended after shots rang out in the night, two were killed, and the SPD swept the protesters out.
But the essay also strings the physical core of Seattle’s protests — Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park — to a history of oppression and conquest:
In 1856, the USS Decatur fired uphill from Elliott Bay on Native Americans on Capitol Hill; a U.S. Navy map from the time describes Seattle as surrounded by “Hills and Woods Thronged with Indians.” Although courts eventually discharged 20 Native Americans for engaging in “legitimate warfare,” after this original Battle of Seattle Gov. Isaac Stevens and Snoqualmie Chief Patkanim set bounties for the heads of enemy tribal leaders at $80. Many Native Americans still visit Cal Anderson, including Nuu-chah-nulth artist Rick Williams, whose brother, John T. Williams, was killed by ex-SPD Officer Ian Birk. Rick set up a tent with a carving station at the CHOP, a somber presence around which swirled a fluid blend of anger and joy, resentment and release.
It’s a stark vision. And, like most history, probably mostly true.The U.S. Navy Sloop of War Decatur did, indeed, fire its “two nine-pounder cannon” into the forested hills above Seattle:
The guns of the Decatur fired solid shot, shells (which exploded after impact), grape shot, and canister into the trees sheltering the attackers (along where 3rd Avenue would later be built). Volunteers under militia Captain Christopher C. Hewitt contributed fire, but it was the range of the Decatur’s guns that kept the Indians at a distance. Sporadic exchanges of fire continued until 11:45 a.m. when the Indians apparently paused to eat. The settlers took advantage of the lull to evacuate women and children to the Decatur and another ship, the Brontes. Sawmill owner Henry Yesler prevailed upon his Duwamish consort, Susan (daughter of Curley), to take refuge with their infant daughter aboard the ship, despite her objections. When settlers attempted to retrieve arms and valuables from their abandoned homes, the Indians resumed firing. Desultory exchanges then resumed and continued all afternoon. When scouts reported that the Indians were preparing to light fire to settler dwellings, the Decatur shifted its fire to the homes, damaging several. By 10 p.m., all firing stopped.
The tragedies of what followed in Seattle for the tribes and First People continue until this day. We can add to those what is lost about the “Hills and Woods Thronged with Indians.” The hills you walk today were trails and pathways to hunting grounds and friends and family. Step back five years before the Decatur. “It was all timber, from the hills down to the water,” Duwamish Tribe chairperson Cecile Hansen told CHS when we asked about Seattle in 1851.
The Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, an “urban history” of indigenous Seattle, includes an atlas of the area’s features and resources, and the words the people living here used to describe their world. Here is a portion featuring some of the areas around Capitol Hill:
The names echo through the world we live in today. Some are a little sad. Some are pretty funny. Far from an untouched land, the words describe a very human environment.
“Capitol Hill,” of course, is a blank space on the anthropological and linguistic map filled with names like “trail to the beach” and “little crossing-over place.” Those pathways were clearly at the core of the identity of the area and the ridge we now call Capitol Hill. During the 1855 “Battle of Seattle,” the Navy’s commander described a wide lake trail that ran from present day downtown to Lake Washington that may have cut through the depression between Capitol Hill and First Hill. “Little Crossing-Over Place” and the rise to that ridge — Whulshootseed — became how many indigenous people referred to Seattle.
From the descriptions of the wooded forests, bluffs, and marshlands of 1856, it is almost impossible to comprehend what happened next. But it happened quickly. An image of the city’s waterfront only sixteen years later shows a landscape fully altered with streets, blocks of buildings, and a deforested treeline. Those woods were already memories by 1872. Thanks to the Decatur’s massive guns, there is, in 2020, a history of Cal Anderson as a battleground. But there is also the Whulshootseed to remember. Both memories could help in 2021.
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