North of the working-class bustle of Pier 90/91 and the hyperactivity of the Pier 86 grain terminal, we find Smith Cove Park. A quiet park belonging to the Port of Seattle, it overlooks the high-end Elliott Bay Marina.
The anchor marks a small but important piece of history. The cove is named for Dr. Henry Smith of Wooster, Ohio, one of the first whites to settle in the Seattle area in 1853.
HistoryLink tells his story:
"Dr. Smith traveled in a wagon train to the Oregon Territory from Wooster, Ohio, with his wife, his mother and his sister. He picked the cove for his claim and built a cabin there in the spring of 1853. He thought the spot was a good location for docks and that the flat area was a natural for a transcontinental railroad terminus. He and his family planted potatoes. His mother, Abigail Teaff Smith (b. 1792) staked out the next claim north. Smith cut a trail through the woods, three miles to Seattle as an alternative to the canoe route. Another settler, Edmund Carr, laid claim to the south side of Salmon Bay, having explored the north side of Queen Anne Hill and The Outlet, the creek connecting Lake Union and the salt water.
Many newcomers felt that Smith’s Cove was the logical site for a city on Elliott Bay. The ground there was level and the hills to each side were ideal as residential districts. More settlers arrived and filed claims. They made their livings farming and logging.
During the Indian War of 1855-1856, the settlers fled their claims for the safety of block houses in Seattle. When they returned after hostilities, they found their homes burned and their stock gone. Dr. Smith’s first cabin was spared, apparently a tribute to his good relations with his Native American neighbors. Smith would later be the source for a widely circulated account of the speech of Chief Seattle during an 1854 visit of Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862)."
We came for the history, but we ended up staying for the sunset.
As we searched the shoreline fruitlessly for a rumored otter family, the sun lit up the clouds behind the Magnolia Bridge. We stood and watched as blue gave way to pinks, then purples, then reds. And we thought about Dr. Smith.
As it turns out, the Smith Cove plaque doesn’t mention the war of 1855 at all. You don’t hear a lot about the Pacific Northwest Indian Wars, even though just about everything in the area still bears some form of the native name.
A brief glance at Wikipedia reminds you. First the explorers, a fascinating novelty. Then the settlers arriving from the east, first in trickles, then in multitudes. Claiming the land, like explorers on a distant planet. Building fences, introducing strange new plants and animals, changing everything. At first, uneasy coexistence and informal agreements. Then, the burdens of formality, and treaties signed in the face of overwhelming force. Might makes right. Ink that imposes harsh restrictions, flowing in only one direction. An ever-expanding settler population overflowing each boundary, invalidating each covenant. Nobody wants war, but the treaties exist only to occupy and enclose. And the gold lust is berserker fury, recognizing no authority but the gun.
The great father in Washington is powerful. The US Army is always out there somewhere , ready to engage when white interests are threatened. Citizen militias are well-armed, and suffer no restrictions. Merciless, they defend their own. There is no justice, because justice is a concept for the enfranchised. The red are outside the circle, another tribe entirely. Now they are aliens on their own soil, no more worthy of respect or survival then the bison, the wolves or the bears. They are simply the other, the enemy. Submit or die.
You read Chief Seattle‘s apocryphal speech and you wonder about the undercurrents. Henry Smith of Wooster, Ohio, imbuing his poet’s voice, with god knows what intent, into a mistranslated paraphrase of words spoken by a defeated Indian chief in occupied Seattle. Words that romanticize and absolve. Words that resonate with meaning, but which may never have been spoken at all.
The speech is a heartbreaking suicide note, an embodiment of genocidal depression, an utter denial of the possibility of co-existence. It is a handing-over-the-torch letter, a lie-down-and-die message, a resignation so pitiful it defies belief. The speech is like a white settler’s guilty dream; that great historical cycles explain what they did, instead of greed and manifest destiny; that the blood be washed from their hands by their victims themselves; that the populated land they came to conquer be somehow emptied before them; that the green valleys and fisheries be deemed virginal, not taken by force; that the history be a glorious account of heroes, not the victory of the more powerful and less scrupulous.
Chief Seattle’s people live on to this day. What began as an uneasy truce may have evolved into defeatist resignation, but it has now become a triumph of capitalism through selective deregulation: i.e. the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort.
And yet, the speech remains. Or rather, the account of it.
One civilization conquered another. A great nation was forged over the ashes of the old. A beautiful city was built, a natural paradise destroyed. This is war, as it always was, as it is today, as it will always be.
Ultimately, the past leaves us nothing but ideas, etched in stone and paper by someone with an axe to grind. And so for the defeated, what greater humiliation than the words of the great chief, twisted and rewritten as forked tongue apology? Thus is history ever written and rewritten. The house always wins, even in Suquamish.
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