By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The American Civil War casts a long shadow across the mid-19th century. The period is typically defined by debates over slavery or freedom, secession or Union. But, let’s explore the meanings the Natives assigned to the years leading up to the war by taking a look at the fate of the Nisqually people.
Coined in 1845, the idea of Manifest Destiny held that the expansion of American empire was part of a providential mission in which civilization would triumph over savagery. If it was manifest or apparent that non-Natives were destined to lay claim to the entire North American continent, then Native people had an equal and opposite destiny to be absorbed to the point of vanishing.
Thus, westward expansion accelerated, and the U.S. territorial land base expanded by 67 percent. The discovery of gold and silver in California, Nevada, and Colorado during the 1840s and 1850s drew more people into Native homelands. And soon, overland trails were snaking across Indian Country, bringing miners, ranchers, homesteaders, missionaries, and traders.
During the 1840s—and especially the 1850s—treaty making with the Natives took place all across the Northern and Southern Plains, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Basin, the Southwest, and California.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Nisqually People
During the mid-19th century, the Puget Sound region of present-day Washington was filled with a multitude of linguistically and culturally distinct Indigenous nations. Among them were the Nisqually, a village oriented, Salish-speaking people in South Puget Sound who relied both on the rivers for fish and on the prairies for hunting and gathering.
Between 1854 and 1855, Washington’s Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens, conducted a barn-burning treaty-making campaign throughout the Pacific Northwest and Plateau. Thus, 11 treaties effectively ceded most of the land in the Pacific Northwest and Plateau to the United States. Along the banks of Medicine Creek, in the Washington Territory, on December 26, 1854, some 600 Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island Indians met with a treaty commission headed by Stevens.
An arrogant man who looked at the recognition of tribal sovereignty as beneath the dignity of the United States, Stevens adopted bullying command-and-obey tactics during the treaty negotiations.
Learn more about the struggles of the Plains Indians.
The Treaty of Medicine Creek
Making matters worse, misunderstandings abounded. Many of them were a product of the reliance on what’s called Chinook Jargon during council. Chinook Jargon is a 500-word trade language, and it was used during the negotiations despite the fact that it was far too rudimentary to convey the complex ideas being dealt with.
The hubris, bullying tactics, and inadequacy of Chinook Jargon combined to form a very dangerous situation for the Nisqually and the other tribes in attendance. Making matters worse, Stevens influenced the selection of who would represent them at the council and, it wasn’t at all clear whether they understood what they were agreeing to.
Nonetheless, through the Treaty of Medicine Creek, Native people lost approximately 2.2 million acres, including vitally important fishing sites and prairie lands. The Nisqually were left with only a small 1,280-acre reservation on thickly wooded land, with no access to fresh water or the prairies.
Leschi: The Nisqually Chief
Leschi, a respected Nisqually headman, initially followed the path of accommodating the presence of non-Native newcomers. And he was among the leaders chosen by Stevens to represent the Nisqually at the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Although there was an X on the treaty that purportedly indicates his assent, Nisqually oral tradition holds that Leschi didn’t sign it.
Indeed, he refused to acknowledge the terms of the treaty. What’s more, Leschi apparently threatened war if Stevens wouldn’t renegotiate, and he left the treaty grounds before the signing took place. The X, then, is suspected to have been forged.
Making matters worse, the Nisqually were also prevented from exercising terms of the treaty that had been agreed to, such as the right to hunt, gather, and take fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations in common with all Citizens of the Territory.
Learn more about Benjamin Franklin’s views toward American Indians.
Aftereffects of the Treaty of Medicine Creek
Conflict over these reserved rights, in fact, continued well into the 20th century. Tensions grew in the months after the parlay at Medicine Creek and erupted in war in late 1855 when a party of militiamen traveling through Nisqually land was ambushed, and two of them were killed. An eyewitness claimed Leschi took the life of one of them.
The fighting reached a climax in March 1856, leaving the Nisqually defeated. In the span of four days in November of that same year, Leschi was brought into custody, tried in a civilian court, and found guilty of murder. Despite his insistence that he wasn’t present at the skirmish that led to the death of the two militiamen the year before, Leschi was executed by hanging on February 19, 1858.
A Redress: Too Little, Too Late?
The Nisqually were not, however, completely without redress. Article 6 of the Medicine Creek Treaty allowed for a replacement reservation, which they secured in January 1857. It provided for some 4,700 acres straddling the Nisqually River, and it allowed them to continue a way of life that would otherwise have been virtually impossible. Then, in 2004, a Historical Court of Justice, a symbolic tribunal convened in Tacoma, Washington, reviewed the evidence used to convict Leschi and exonerated him.
The Nisqually provide a different perspective on the 1840s and 1850s, the antebellum years that are too often seen only through the lens of sectional crisis. The case study also demonstrates the consequences of the North and South’s shared vision of establishing American empire in the West.
Common Questions about Manifest Destiny, Natives, and the American Civil War
The Nisqually were Salish-speaking Natives who lived in South Puget Sound region of of present-day Washington.
Through the treaty of Medicine Creek, Native people lost approximately 2.2 million acres, including vitally important fishing sites and prairie lands.
The idea of Manifest Destiny held that the expansion of American empire was part of a providential mission in which civilization would triumph over savagery. If it was manifest or apparent that non-Natives were destined to lay claim to the entire North American continent, then Native people had an equal and opposite destiny to be absorbed to the point of vanishing.