History: Nisqually People Were ‘Widely Scattered’

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“Outside of the Ross graveyard there are 162 graves of Nisqually Indians remaining on the condemned allotments. Most of the livestock is gone and prairie fires will be an annual menace in the rank grass and will soon destroy the cemetery fences. Several generations of Nisquallies have been buried in the five Indian graveyards on the condemned part of their reservation.”  

Thus began a report from C.L. Ellis, special supervisor in the Department of Interior’s U.S. Indian Service. Ellis was writing from the Cushman School in Tacoma to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

It was October 1919. The war had been over for nearly a year. During World War I the portion of the Nisqually Reservation in Pierce County had been taken by the government for Camp Lewis. Ellis had been collecting information on the impact of the dispossession on 25 families who once lived there. His words clearly convey the sadness of this historical development.

Another of Ellis’ reports continued on this theme. “The Indians greatly cherish the memory of their dead, and usually take good care of their graves. Since their dispossession they cannot care for nor protect their graveyards, which are rapidly falling into disorder. The fences are down in many places, or gates open, thus exposing the graves to trespassing stock and miscreants.”

Those graves were now in Camp Lewis and out of bounds for their family and community. Through his interviews with the dispossessed and others in the area, in addition to an impressive search of the public record, Ellis’ reports provide an important written snapshot of the lives of the Nisqually and what the war had done to them.

The Nisqually Indian Reservation

C.L. Ellis, Nov. 1, 1919

“The Nisqually Indian Reservation contained originally 4,717 acres and was irregular in shape — 4 miles long by 2 3/4 miles wide at its widest part. The Nisqually River traversed the length of it for 4 miles, dividing it into two parts, one on the east in Pierce County containing 3,353 acres, and the other on the west in Thurston County containing 1,364 acres. The river discharges into Puget Sound 5 miles from the reservation. About one-third of the reservation is taken up by the river bottom and escarpments, the balance being level gravelly prairie — on the east side mostly treeless and on the west covered with second-growth timber.

“When the country was first settled most of the gravelly prairies were treeless, or trees stood in groves with wide parks between. The best part of the reservation was condemned and contained approximately 800 acres of Nisqually River bottom, 200 acres of escarpment, (tree clad), and 2,300 acres in prairie. … The prairie runs for miles eastward of the reservation and the view of Mount Tacoma and the Cascades is one of the finest about Tacoma. Most of the Nisquallies lived on the eastern part of the reservation, having homes along the edge of the prairie overlooking the river 150 feet below.

“There is hardly a hundred yards along this escarpment of 4 miles that does not have one or more living springs of excellent water, several of large volume. Several creeks in the bottom are fed by them. Some of the Indians had hydraulic rams to elevate the spring water for household use. Over 40 years ago the Indians fenced the outside of the reservation with the old-fashioned ‘stake and rider,’ or ‘worm’ rail fencing.

“A Nisqually family ate salmon every day and it was about all the meat they had during recent years. They had a way of drying the salmon in their smokehouses, which took a month to thoroughly cure them and then the dried fish would be dry and hard and keep for a long time.”

The River

Ellis added, “Each home had a smokehouse for drying fish,” noting that outsiders considered them simply “shacks.” This world however, was always subject to the vagaries of events. “During the three or four months of the fishing season the Indians used to come from the outside, as far as the Puyallup and Yakima reservations to catch and dry salmon at the Nisqually River. … In late years the salmon were not so plentiful and the Nisqually Indians used what they caught mostly for their own consumption.”

Ellis wrote that the prewar reservation was a comfortable place. It began with the remarkable view of Mount Tacoma and the Cascades. It was commercially viable with its “nearness to paved highways, large cities, and Puget Sound.” Similar to the utopia craze that had recently thrived in the Northwest, there was the “advantage of communal pasturing.” “Congenial neighbors” combined with “ties of birth and other intangible values” to maintain Nisqually society amid incredible change. There was one thing for certain in Nisqually life: “Their treaty right to take fish from the Nisqually River at any time for food.”

Then there was the Nisqually River. They refused to leave the river for the reservation on Johnson Point; they returned to the river after their internment on Fox Island. (Read Cecelia Svinth Carpenter’s compelling volume on this, “Tears of Interment: The Indian History of Fox Island and the Puget Sound Indian War.”) In Ellis’s view the river “was their inexhaustible storehouse from which could be drawn at will the principal necessity of life when others failed; and this store of available food has often been their insurance against suffering.”

A Nisqually family was connected to the river. Ellis noted the “more spry fished in the turbulent Nisqually.” While the gentler waters of sloughs and creeks allowed “even the toddling child or infirm elder to catch salmon.” It was like the river was “at the door of each house.” Fishing in the river Ellis was quick to point out was becoming more and more difficult for the Nisqually people. That issue would remain unresolved for another half century.

The Diaspora

The recent war had changed that world, according to Ellis.

“The dispossessed Nisquallies are widely scattered, and even if they could return to fish at their ancient stations on their former reservation they are likely to be molested by the authorities and other citizens, as has been the case on other reservations where the river was the boundary,” Ellis said. “Nor will they be able to enjoy the fishing privilege as they did when living there, with smokehouses and other necessary conveniences on their own land, and, being on the ground at all times, they were able to take advantage of the best fishing.”

In the sympathetic mind of Ellis the consequences of the dispossession of land was tied up in a continuing legal battle between the state and the Indians over treaty rights.

Ellis tracked down the scattered Nisqually in 1919 to take their testimony about what had happened to them since they lost their land. Torn from their community many found new connections with extended family at other reservations. Others moved to the remaining one-third of the reservation on the Thurston County side of the river. Some acquired non-reservation land.  

James Nimrod moved to the Skokomish where he grew tired of the regular flooding of the river. Ellis found Lizzie John at Puyallup. Dewy Leschi had moved to the Yakama Reservation while Paul Leschi stayed with his mother. The Laplets moved to the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham. Jack Slocum returned to his place on Totten Inlet. Mary Rice acquired a farm a little east of Roy.

Ellis interviewed Esther Millet at Willapa Bay. Florence Leroy now lived at the Cushman school in Tacoma. James Laplet headed north to the Tulalip Reservation. Ernest George Morrison settled into the urban world of Seattle. Willie Laplet and his mother Maria each bought a farm near Toledo in Lewis County.

Reservation neighbor Jack Skamink moved 10 miles away. Frank Ross moved to his wife’s allotment at the Yakama Reservation. Mary Longford headed south to Oakville as did Fred Bobb. Relatively close by were Harriet Bobb-Pete and Blizzie Moxlah, who found farms on the Chehalis Reservation (this is not a full listing the displaced).

Thurston County received the largest number of the displaced. George Bobb, John Stawa, Willie Frank, Alice James, Peter Kalama, Lizzie John, Sallie Jackson and Margret Iyall all found places near their fellow Nisquallies south of the river.

The Condemnation

The process of condemnation found no favor in Ellis’ mind or heart. It was simply an act “Inspired by the ambition of Tacoma to acquire one of the big Army posts, and the war necessity, caused Pierce County, Wash., in April, 1918, to condemn the best two-thirds of the Nisqually Reservation, being the part east (north) of the Nisqually where most of the Nisqually homes were.” The result: “The Indians were scattered to seek homes elsewhere. Such is the fate of the little band whose fathers fought against an unjust treaty to make secure their homes.”

Not only did Ellis record information about the lives of the displaced Nisquallies, but also collected information to create estimates of the true value of the property given up by the Indians. He was building a case against the government’s initial compensation package. That process was flawed. Ellis added his opinion: “I am certain that the Nisquallies would have gotten nearer the worth of their lands had normal times prevailed during the progress of condemnation. The county’s attorneys took fullest advantage of wartime conditions and influences.” (For a more complete account of the condemnation story go to “The Creation of Fort Lewis Prompted by World War I – ‘The Safety of Indians’ Used to Move Nisqually Tribe Indians.”)

The future of these men and women was not promising, according to Ellis; pessimism laced with wistfulness runs throughout his work. Yes, they have all found places to begin anew. However, “When the improvements planned are completed the dispossessed Nisquallies will be comfortably located, but will not have as much land nor be able to secure a living as easily and conveniently as they did in their old homes, where there was abundance of grazing for their livestock and of fish at their doors within the reservation. Some of them will now have to pay taxes for the first time.”

To Ellis the change was permanent and there was no going back. “Considering the matter as a whole, it is not necessary nor advisable to attempt to acquire the condemned Nisqually lands and return the Indians to their former homes.”

It was simply sad. “We cannot expect contentment in their new homes, especially among the older people, who will never cease to long for their old homes, around which center a lifetime of intimate memories and affections.”  

Ellis realized he could not turn back time, but he would try to make amends for the actual economic losses suffered by the families who had been “widely scattered.”

Editor’s Note: Ed Bergh is the longtime history teacher at Yelm High School and creator of the Yelm History Project found at www.yelmhistoryproject.com. Last year he was named history teacher of the year for Washington state.

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