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Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph: From Indians to Icons

Essay by David M. Buerge


Of all the Native Americans who lived or are living in the Pacific Northwest, two who enjoy the most recognition are Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph. Seattle was the Lushootseed leader after whom the city of Seattle was named, the largest city to be so honored. Joseph was chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce and a leader of the Nez Perce during their desperate, daring 1877 war with the United States. Both were noted orators.

The Pacific Northwest remains remote from the rest of the country, but here, as elsewhere, Native Americans figure prominently in its unfolding history. Coyote of Columbia River mythology still animates our folklore. The Spokane prophet Circling Raven announced the imminent arrival of a new people and leaders like the Nuu-chah-nulth headman Maquinna and one-eyed Concomly of the Chinooks impressed fur traders enough to earn prominence in early narrative histories of the region. In 1831, the Nez Perce were among the group making the portentious trip to St. Louis seeking information about the white man's religion. When trade and missionary work turned to conquest, the bravery and sagacity of Kamiakin of the Yakama, Moses of the Middle Columbia Salish, and Leschi of the Nisquallies commanded respect from friend and foe alike. The Wanapam prophet Smohalla kept religious traditions alive east of the Cascades while John and Mary Slocum inspired a religious fervor on upper Puget Sound that developed into the Indian Shaker Church. The creativity and strength needed to survive forced assimilation and racial bias continues to find expression in figures as diverse as the late Nisqually fishing rights activist Billy Frank, Sn. and Spokane/Coeur d'Alene writer and film director Sherman Alexie.

So Seattle and Joseph do not stand alone or even apart from other Northwestern native leaders who have defended and inspired a people sorely tested by history. That they are better known than the others has much to do with the sentiments they evoked from the Americans who invaded their lands.

Chief Seattle

Chief Seattle in drawing

When Seattle died on June 6, 1866, he was believed to be about 80 years old. He would, therefore, have been born around 1786, a full generation before Joseph. Because he had reached middle age before he appears in the historic record, information about his early years is fragmentary. He told settlers he was born on Blake Island in central Puget Sound. His father, Schweabe, was a noble from the main Suquamish village at Agate Pass and his mother, Sholitza, was Duwamish from the lower Green River. His birth occurred during an apocalyptic time in his peoples' history when epidemics inadvertently introduced by western traders decimated the native population, and the introduction of western trade goods and firearms added to the turmoil. Seattle claimed he was present when the British ship H.M.S. Discovery, captained by George Vancouver, anchored off Bainbridge Island on May 20, 1792, and the happy memories of the explorer's visit and his appreciation of the power and abilities of Westerners remained with him all his life. (See also: "Vancouver and the Indians of Puget Sound".)

Despite an attribution of slavery in his lineage, Seattle's noble status was affirmed by his reception of Thunderbird power from an important supernatural wealth-giver during a vision quest held sometime during his youth. He married well, taking wives from the important village of Tola'ltu on the western shore of Elliott Bay. His first wife died after bearing a daughter, but a second bore him sons and daughters, and he owned slaves, always a sign of wealth and status.

During the period when his famous uncle, Kitsap, led a coalition of Puget Sound forces against the powerful Cowichans of Vancouver Island, who had been sending raiders south, Seattle succeeded in ambushing and destroying a party of raiders coming down the Green River in canoes from their strongholds in the Cascade foothills. He also attacked the S'Klallam, a powerful people living on the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula, and claimed to have taken a length of shell money from one of their headmen. He may also have participated in raids on the upper Snoqualmie River. By the time he entered the historic record in 1833, when the Hudson's Bay Company founded Fort Nisqually near the head of the Sound, he enjoyed a reputation as an intelligent and formidable leader with a compelling voice. The nickname given him by Company personnel, 'Le Gros' (the big one), indicates he had a physique to match his personality.

The Chief Trader at Fort Nisqually, Francis Herron, considered Seattle important - and dangerous - enough to request his mark on a treaty foreswearing murder. His intimidating presence during frequent visits to the fort, however, kept officials on their guard, and the trouble he caused by murdering a Skykomish shaman in 1837 led Herron's replacement, William Kittson, to hope that the Suquamish would kill him. They, however, valued his leadership. In 1841 he led a crippling raid on the village Yila'lqo, at the confluence of the Green and upper White Rivers, to revenge a murdered kinsman, and six years later he helped lead the Suquamish in an attack upon the Chemakum stronghold of Tsetsibus, near Port Townsend, that effectively wiped out this rival group.

The death of one of his sons during this episode appears to have affected him deeply, for not long after that, Seattle sought and received baptism into the Catholic Church, taking the prophet Noah as his spiritual intersessor. (See also: "Christianity, a Matter of Choice".) He was probably baptised by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at their St. Joseph of Newmarket Mission, founded near the new American settlement of Olympia in 1848, and he appears as Noe Siattle in the Oblate Sacramental Register. His children were also baptized and raised in the faith, and his conversion marked the end of his fighting days and his emergence as a leader seeking cooperation with incoming American settlers.

These reached Puget Sound in 1846, and the warm welcome and aid Seattle gave those visiting his homeland earned him the reputation as a friend of the whites. His speech greeting Isaac N. Ebey and B. F. Shaw when they visited Elliott Bay in the summer of 1850, requesting that they settle among his people and trade, was recorded by Shaw. The glowing description of his country that Ebey published in the Oregon Spectator shortly afterwards encouraged settlement in the Duwamish River Valley.

Seattle actively sought out settlers with whom he could do business and trade, and he took up residence at Olympia to develop contacts. His first success came with Charles Fay, a San Francisco merchant, with whom he organized a fishery on Elliott Bay in the summer of 1851. When Fay departed in the fall, Seattle returned to Olympia and convinced David S. Maynard to take his place. In the spring of 1852, Seattle and Maynard organized another fishery at dzidzula'lich, a native village on the east shore of the bay. By the summer, the Americans who took claims near the village named the hybrid settlement Seattle after their patron and protector.

Seattle's efforts to participate meaningfully in the creation of the new community and blend his people's future with the settlers' fell victim, however, to land hunger and the desire of many influential whites to keep their people separate from the native population. This, however, did not lessen Seattle's friendship and loyalty. Notes from the translation of his speech greeting the prospect of treaty negotiations announced by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens during the latter's visit to Elliott Bay in January, 1854, were purportedly written down by Henry Smith, a recent arrival to the area. Stevens recognized Seattle's importance as a native leader, and because of his age and prestige, he served as native spokesman during the treaty council held at Point Elliott (Muckilteo), from December 27, 1854, to January 9, 1855. Despite voicing misgivings about his people receiving money for their land, he was the first to place his mark on the treaty document ceding title to some 2.5 million acres of land, retaining a reservation for his Suquamish but none for the Duwamish.

Unhappiness over the treaties and American arrogance caused many Duwamish to repudiate Seattle's leadership and led, ultimately, to the Yakima Indian War of 1855-57. Subsequent native accusations of his duplicity during that conflict suggest he tried to maintain contact with all native parties east and west of the mountains, but he remained a firm ally of the Americans, and his contacts provided them valuable intelligence.

After native forced were defeated, Seattle struggled to help his people, unsuccessfully seeking clemency for the war leader, Leschi, and petitioning the governor to hurry ratification of the treaty. On the Fort Kitsap (Port Madison) reservation he attempted to curtail the influence of whiskey sellers and prevent the ritual murder of slaves. He had freed his own slaves as required by the treaty. Off the reservation, he participated in meetings to resolve native disputes.

He retained his friendship with Maynard and cultivated new relationships with people such as William De Shaw, Indian Agent and owner of a trading post at Agate Pass, and sawmill owner George Meigs, whose teetotaling company town provided native workers a safe haven from predatory whiskey sellers. Seattle continued to befriend Americans; expressing pleasure at being invited to their gatherings, and suffering their slights and humiliations with stoic dignity.

Suquamish woman named Angeline,
daughter of Chief Seattle

He received the sacrament of Confirmation at Tulalip in 1864, reaffirming his commitment to his faith, but the leadership of the native Catholic community at Suquamish rested with another Suquamish leader, Jacob, who built the first church there. An 1865 ordinance enacted by the newly incorporated town of Seattle forbade permanent Indian houses within the city limits, forcing Seattle to vacate the place where he had greeted Shaw and Ebey and invited them to settle. He lived at his homes on the Port Madison Reservation, and probably north of the city limits where the daughter of his first wife, called Angeline by settlers, lived, but he was a common sight in town, visiting friends and caring for his people who worked there and continued to gather at temporary campsites on its waterfront. (See also: "Chief Seattle and Angeline".)

In that year he visited the photographic studio operated by E. M. Sammis at the corner of Front and Mill Streets (First and Yesler) and sat for a portrait.

He died on the reservation after a brief illness.

Chief Joseph

When Joseph was born in 1840 in a cave on Joseph Creek, a tributary of the Grand Ronde River, in the northeast corner of present-day Oregon, his people were already well known to Americans. His father, Tuekakas (one of many spellings), was the leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce and one of Henry and Eliza Spaulding's first Christian converts at the Lapwai mission, founded in 1836. His mother's name survives as Khap-khap-on-imi. Spaulding gave the Tuekakas the Christian name, Joseph, probably at his baptism in 1839. His young son, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, 'Thunder Rolling In The Mountains,' received the same name , probably in the early 1860s, and incoming white settlers distinguished father and son as Old Joseph and Young Joseph.

The Nez Perce, who had maintained good relations with the Americans for virtually the entire period from their encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, remained neutral during the Cayuse War of 1847-1850, and aided the Americans militarily during the Yakima War. By then, however, Old Joseph had begun to distance himself from Christianity and return to more traditional native beliefs and practices espoused by the Wanapam prophet, Smohalla, whose followers were called 'Dreamers' by whites. Two young sons, Ollokot and Young Joseph, followed their father's inclinations. Old Joseph signed the Treaty of Walla Walla engineered by Stevens in May/June 1855, but he had grown suspicious of American intentions and sincerity. (See also: "Indian Council at Walla Walla" and "Lawyer of the Nez Perces".)

His fears were substantiated when thousands of miners invaded Nez Percez lands after gold was discovered on them in 1860, and in 1863 when government commissioners ordered the Nez Perce reservation reduced from 5000 square miles to between 500 and 600 at a treaty council held at Lapwai. The Wallowa Valley was not included in the reduced reservation. The treaty demands split the Nez Perce into treaty and non-treaty factions, more or less along religious lines; the treaty faction being led by Christians and the non-treaty by those retaining traditional beliefs. Old Joseph numbered himself among the latter, tearing up his copy of the treaty and destroying the bible Spalding had given to him.

The Lapwai treaty, known by angry Nez Perce as the 'thief treaty,' left Old Joseph's people in an untenable position. Further treaty councils affirmed Nez Perce ownership of the Wallowa Valley, but in 1875, this decision was reversed, and more settlers entered the area. Made a trespasser in his own country, Old Joseph had few allies to help him resist white demands for his people's removal. Just before his father died in 1871, young Joseph recalled his plea. "My son never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."

In January, 1877, the Army demanded that all non-treaty Nez Perce remove themselves to the Lapwai Reservation. At stormy council meetings held in May, government officials backed by military force demanded that the Nez Perce leave the Wallowa Valley, and the chiefs consented grudgingly. General Oliver Howard gave them 30 days to make the move. Passions rose as the Nez Perce gathered their goods and stock, and in June, three young men, seeking to revenge a kinsman murdered earlier by a settler, killed and wounded several whites. Another group went on another rampage killing more people. The army intervened and in the early morning of June 17, attacked the Nez Perce in White Bird Canyon. (See also: "General Howard and the Nez Perce War of 1877" and "Nez Perce and their War".)

The army suffered a humiliating defeat in what became the opening battle of the Nez Perce War. During the next four months approximately 1000 Nez Perce men, women and children, of which somewhat less than a quarter were fighting men, encumbered by what goods they could carry and hundreds of horses, conducted an extraordinary retreat over 1700 miles of mountain and prairie, fighting several engagements against better armed and more numerous forces until they were eventually forced to surrender barely 40 miles from safe haven in Canada.

The national press covered the campaign closely, and identified Joseph as the primary war leader during most of it, but subsequent study places Looking Glass in that role after his group joined the retreat in July. Specifically, Joseph guarded the women and children, the people's hope and future, during the retreat, making him, in effect, the guardian of the people. (See also: "Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Warriors".)

His courage, intelligence and confident bearing, his empathy, tact and diplomatic skills inspired them to heroic efforts and impressed their white adversaries. After the Bear Paws battle, with most of the warriors and leading chiefs killed, it fell to him to surrender, and his speech, recorded at the site by Lieutenant C. E. S. Wood, and published in the November 17, 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly, made him the symbol of Nez Perce heroism and resistence. (See also: "Last Stand of the Nez Perces".)

Even in defeat Joseph did not lose heart, but continued to defend and support those entrusted to his care with every tool at his disposal. (See also: "Nez Perces in Exile".) During his people's fatal confinement at Fort Leavenworth and in Oklahoma, he appealed to military and civil officials, even President Rutherford B. Hayes for their return to their homeland, and he presented his case to the public at large, providing his account of Nez Perce history and their treatment at the hands of the Americans to the Reverend W. H. Hare in an interview published in North American Review in April, 1879. Eventually 268 Nez Perce of the non-treaty bands who survived captivity were permitted to return to the Northwest. About half went to Lapwai and in June 1885, Joseph led his remnant band to the Colville Reservation in Eastern Washington.

Nez Perce chief named Chief Joseph

There he sought to live in the tradition manner and follow his Dreamer beliefs. He also continued his efforts to return his people to the Wallowa Valley but without success. The photographs made of him from 1879 onward record the effect of this ordeal.

In 1899 officials allowed Joseph to return briefly to the Wallowa Valley, and a year later he visited his father's grave. By then it had been ransacked, and a local dentist exhibited Tuekakas' skull in his office as a curio. As the aged son confronted the desecrated grave in the midst of a plowed field, an observer recalled that he "melted and wept". Rebuffed in his efforts to purchase land for a reservation, he nevertheless continued to plead for his people's return to any sympathetic ear, and on visits to Washington. D.C., New York, Seattle and St. Louis, he continued to make his case publically. He returned from St. Louis for the annual July 4 celebration at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation, and on September 21, 1904, died alone in his lodge, sitting before his fire.


The transformation of Seattle and Joseph into popular folk heroes after their deaths has followed a convoluted trail. Joseph's national prominence rested initially upon the erroneous assumption that he masterminded the Nez Perce retreat, an error spread quickly and widely thanks to the telegraph and the emergence of a national media. The beauty and sadness of his surrender speech, his compelling argument on his peoples' behalf, and the sheer moral force of his presence won him admiration and even adulation among those disposed to be sympathetic toward his people. As a man of principle and courage defeated by a powerful and relentless foe, he became an attractive symbol to many.

Seattle's fame came more slowly. His death went unreported in the city named after him, and it was not until 1870, when the Seattle Weekly Intelligencer reprinted an Overland Monthly article describing his funeral, that any local attention was paid to him. But it was not until Henry Smith worked the notes he claimed to have taken of Seattle's 1854 remarks into a speech laden with prophetic irony that was printed in the Seattle Sunday Star on Oct. 29, 1887, that his status as a folk icon approached that of Joseph. Smith's reconstruction of the speech, one of eleven essays celebrating pioneer achievements, appeared at a highly charged moment in Seattle's social history, and was intended as an admonition to the emergent professional elites that were displacing the older pioneer proprietors. Like Joseph, Seattle became an attractive and compelling symbol.

Sympathy for Joseph and the cause of his people has never flagged, and today, although his role in the dramatic events of 1877 has been clarified, his dramatic appeal has not lessened, and his poignant efforts to sustain his peoples' hopes continues to haunt the popular mind. He remains an outstanding native leader and his appeal to both native and white audiences serves, as he had hoped it would, as a bridge of understanding between two races estranged and yet bound together by history.

Seattle's fame is such that many continue to attribute to him a speech presenting him as an environmental prophet, despite the fact that it has been shown to be entirely apocryphal, the innocent product of screen writer Ted Perry in 1970. But the dignity of Seattle's speech, as recalled by Smith, and of his person, attested by native and white contemporaries, resonates with Native American efforts to maintain pride in their heritage, just as our growing appreciation of his complex character and the role he played fostering cooperative development help reawaken our understanding of the native contributions to the history of the Pacific Northwest.


Bagley, Clarence. "Chief Seattle and Angeline." Washington Historical Quarterly, No. 22 (1931): 243-275.

Buerge, David M. "Chief Seattle: The Man, Not The Myth." Seattle Weekly, June 29, 1983, 24-28.

Buerge, David M. "The Man Who Invented Chief Seattle." Seattle Weekly, September 1, 1993, 18-28.

Carlson, Frank. "Chief Sealth." The Bulletin of the University of Washington, Series III, Number 2, December 1903.

Coombs, Samuel. "Good Chief Seattle." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sunday, May 26, 1893, 9.

Denny, Arthur A. Pioneer Days on Puget Sound. Seattle, W. T.: C.B. Bagley, Printer, 1888.

Denny, Emily Inez. Blazing the Way: True Stories, Songs And Sketches of Puget Sound And Other Pioneers. Seattle: Rainier Publishing Company, Inc., 1909, reprinted by the King County Museum of History and Industry, Dec. 1984.

Dickey, George, Ed. The Journal of Occurences At Fort Nisqually. Fort Nisqually Association, 1989.

Elmendorf, William W. Twana Narratives: Native Historical Accounts of a Coast Salish Culture. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Gibbs, George, M.D., "Tribes of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon." Contributions to the North American Ethnologist, Vol. 1, 1877, U.S. Govt. Printing Office.

Grant, Frederick James, Ed. History of Seattle, Washington. New York: American Publishing and Engraving Co., 1891.

Hanford, Cornelius H. Seattle and Environs 1852-1924, Chicago & Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924. p. 148.

Harrington, John Peabody. The Papers of John Peabody Harrington. Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Reel 015, Lummi-Duwamish.

Kaiser, Rudolph. "A Fifth Gospel, Almost" Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origin and European Reception." Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays, Feest, Christian F., Aachen: Heredot, Rader Verlag, 1987.

Leighton, Caroline C. West Coast Journeys 1865-1879. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1995.

Meany, Edmund. Vancouver's Discovery of Puget Sound. Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1957.

Metcalfe, James Vernon. The Life of Chief Seattle. Seattle: A Catholic Northwest Progress Publication, 1964. [In this work, however, Metcalf incorporates the erroneous assumption of Fr. Felix Verwilghen, that the headman known as Tsla-la-cum or Steilacoom was actually Seattle. The two were separate individuals. D. Buerge].

Prosch, Thomas W. David S. Maynard and Catherine T. Maynard. Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Stationery & Printing Co., 1906.

Sacramental Register. Olympia and Puget Sound. 1848 to 1860. Oblate Fathers, OMI. Volume I, Part II (available in Seattle Archdiocesan Archives).

Sacramental Register. Tulalip and Puget Sound. Oct. 15, 1857 to April, 1868, Vol. II

Snyder, Warren A. "Autobiography of Ameliz Snaetlum." in "Southern Puget Sound Salish: Texts, Place Names and Dictionary." Sacramento Anthropological Society Papers 9, Sacramento, CA. 1968. p. 131, number 12.

Starling, Edmund A. to Isaac Stevens, December 4, 1853. The Records Of The Superintendency of Indian Affairs, 1853-1874. Roll 1, (b), Copies and Drafts of Letters Sent, March 1853-March 31, 1856.

Scammon, C. M., "Old Seattle and his Tribe." The Overland Monthly, vol. 4, April, 1870, no. 4.

Smith, Henry A., "Early Reminiscences. Number Ten. Scraps From A Diary. Chief Seattle-A Gentleman by Instinct-His Native Eloquence. Etc., Etc." Seattle Sunday Star, October 29, 1887, vol. IV, no. 52, 3, c. 5-6.

Tolmie, William Fraser. The Journals of William Fraser Tolmie: Physician and Trader. Vancouver Canada: Mitchell Press, Limited, 1963.

Verwilghen, Fr. Felix, CICM. Chief Sealth, ca. 1786-1866, In The Letters Of The First Christian Missionaries Of The Puget Sound Area. Paper presented to the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington, 1964.

Ward, Dillis B. "From Salem, Oregon to Seattle, Washington, in 1859." Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 2, April, 1915, pp. 100-106.

Watt, Roberta Frye. 4 Wagons West. the story of Seattle. Portland, Ore.: Binfords & Mort Publishers, 1931.

For Chief Joseph

Beal, Merrill D. "I Will Fight No More Forever" Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963.

Gridley, M. Kopet: A Documentary Narrative of Chief Joseph's Last Years. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Joseph, Nez Perce Chief. Chief Joseph's Own Story. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1984.

Josephy, Alvin M. Jr., The Nez Perce Indians And The Opening Of the Northwest. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

McWhorter, L. V. Hear Me My Chiefs! Nez Perce Legend and History. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1986.

Taylor Marian W. Chief Joseph Nez Perce Leader. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.

Wilfong, Cheryl. Following the Nez Perce Trail. Oregon University Press, 1994.

Study Questions


  1. Why would we know more about Joseph's early life than Seattle's?
  2. What accomplishments and characteristics enabled Seattle to become a leader among his people? What can these things tell you about the world in which he lived?
  3. Why would Seattle have found it in his interest to develop positive ties with the Americans?
  4. Why did Joseph find it necessary to fight the Americans?
  5. What reasons would have impelled Seattle to become a Catholic convert?
  6. What reasons would have impelled Old Joseph and Young Joseph to renounce Christianity?
  7. Why would Seattle have signed and supported the Treaty of Point Elliott?
  8. In your opinion, is Seattle a suitable or unsuitable namesake for the city named after him? Substantiate your argument.
  9. What western places or objects are named after Old Joseph and Young Joseph or mark important events associated with then? Locate these on a map.
  10. Construct a timeline showing the major events in Nez Perce history from their earliest appearance in the historic record to the present day. What makes the events important enough to be included in the timeline?


  1. Compare Seattle's speeches as recorded by Shaw, Smith and Perry. What internal evidence exists to show that Perry's speech is apocryphal?
  2. Seattle's speech recorded by Smith and Joseph's surrender speech are among the best known examples of Native American oratory. Why would these speeches appeal to Americans of the late 19th century?
  3. Research the Dreamer beliefs propounded by Smohalla. Why would Joseph have found these appealing?
  4. How do present day Native Americans regard Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph? How has this view changed over time?
  5. Compare and contrast the figures of Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph. In what ways are they significantly alike and significantly different?
  6. Research the other Northwestern Native American figures mentioned at the beginning of the essay. How might their contributions be considered as significant as those of Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph?
  7. What factors prevented Chief Seattle and his people from participating in the development of the Puget Sound region in the same manner as the white settlers?
  8. What factors prevented Chief Joseph from succeeding in restoring his people to their homeland despite the favorable impressions he made on so many influential Americans?

About the Author

David M. Buerge was born in Oakland, California, in 1945. He has published several books and numerous articles dealing with the social and religious history of the Northwest in general and of Native Americans in the Seattle area in particular. He is currently writing a biography of Chief Seattle. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Mary Anne, and their children and teaches at a private school.

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