One can say that the “Indian Wars” in the Pacific Northwest really started with the massive migration of people coming from the East to settle the West. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 promised 320 acres of free land in the Oregon Territory to every unmarried white male citizen over 18, who then lived on the land for four years and cultivated it. Married couples received 640 acres. After the 1850 deadline, the acreage would be reduced to 160 acres, and after 1854 the same 160 acres would cost $1.25 per acre. The dash for land ensued, and the rights of the native inhabitants were pushed aside.
Two Cultures Collide
Settler Phoebe Goodell Judson wrote of many encounters with Native Americans in her book, “A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home.” One entry about her home near Claquato illustrates some of the tension between cultures and their differing concepts of land ownership.
“Tribes of Indians often camped nearby for the purpose of gathering the camas roots. These nutritious bulbs were indigenous to the soil and grew abundantly in the river bottoms. So eager were they to gather these roots that we had to closely guard our enclosed fields to keep them from destroying the crops. It was hard for them to understand that the Boston man has any right to cut them off from their natural supplies of the spontaneous fruits of the earth that the Great Father had ordained for their support.”
It was not long before the new territorial government tried to organize reservations for local tribes through treaties.
Silas Heck, whose father Koolah Yuanan, a Chehalis tribesman who lived on Sidney Ford’s (the local Indian Agent) property in Centralia during the Indian Wars tells the story in Tove Hodge’s essay on “The Family of Sidney S. Ford, Senior.”
“It had really started with the Treaty of Medicine Creek, when Leschi, one of the prominent Nisqually chiefs, signed this treaty and deeded away the fertile land of his fathers on the Nisqually Prairie where he had raised good horses and lots of grain; where the trout ran thick in three or four creeks, and where the near-by prairies were the best kind of deer hunting ground. And for what? For land on the Sound (by New London) where not even a grasshopper could live. When he realized what he had done, he was so mad that he threw down his hat four times. He vowed revenge on the governor who had tricked him.”
Chief Leschi had attempted to form a confederation of tribes to go to war against Governor Stevens, but in the end Leschi and his men were on their own. In the area of Fort Lewis, Leschi gathered his warriors and built a fire against a tree to mold bullets through the night, dividing them in the morning. Leschi had declared war.
Heck goes on to explain, “Not against the white settlers, though, for he said to them, ‘I am not mad at you, but only Governor Stevens and his soldiers. I know all of this because Indian Luke who was one of Leschi’s warriors told my father and after the war he took him to that very tree. It still had fire marks upon it.”
Whether settlers knew of Leschi’s pledge or not, or whether it would have brought them any comfort is hard to say. Reports of attacks east of the mountains had long been circulated among the settlers and tales from those who passed through hostile lands left very little trust.
Judson wrote, “General alarm and consternation prevailed upon all the inhabitants of our once happy, but now distracted, country. Stockades were built as speedily as possible and their families gathered into them.”
However, many families stayed on their homesteads and even shunned building forts on the grounds that it was injurious to the goodwill between settlers and Native Americans. Yet for those families whose husbands and fathers volunteered for war, it was comforting to seek the safety of the forts.
Life in Fort Henness
As Art Dwelley explains in “Prairies and Quarries,” “The outbreak of hostilities caused panic among the settlers of the area, many of them isolated and without any close neighbors. Forts, stockades and blockhouses were built all over the area. The Tenino pioneers joined those of Grand Mound and erected Fort Henness, the largest of the Indian War stockades. Fort Henness was built of logs and measured 100 by 130 feet, with blockhouses on the northwest and southwest corners and gates at each end. Lining the walls inside the fort were tiny sheds where individual families took shelter. A guard house, barracks for single men and a school building were erected in the courtyard.”
By my estimation, most of the housing sheds would have been no more than 14 feet long and half as wide. The fort housed 224 men, women and children.
Judson, who stayed for a time at the Fort in Claquato, could best understand the life in a fort, but even she was impressed by crowded nature of Fort Henness.
“There were 30 families confined in Fort Henness, on Grand Mound, including my father. This being a central fort, all the families from the surrounding country flocked into it, and here they lived for 16 months, as thick as bees in a hive, and in perfect harmony, notwithstanding the fact that only a thin partition separated the families”
Judson’s friend Mrs. Biles lived at Fort Henness and explained that the harmony that existed there had more to do with the belief that they could soon meet their end. “A common danger levels all differences and brings humanity into that condition of mutual love where the dove of peace reigns supreme and pity ‘tis, ‘tis true that in this beautiful world we find that fear is most frequently the chief factor in subduing the human heart.”
While Judson admired these sentiments, she did harbor some reservation. “When I visited the fort and saw the number of children, of all ages, sizes and conditions, truly I marveled that such a reign of peace was possible.”
The families lived together at the fort from the winter of 1855 and most of 1856, but in some ways life and love marched on, as evidenced by the December 19, 1856, edition of the Pioneer and Democrat which announces “a marriage at Fort Henness, on the 14th inst…by Rev. J.F. Devore. Mr. WM. MARTIN and Miss ANN E. YANTIS, both of this county and Territory.”
Fort Henness was never attacked, and life was relatively peaceful in the South County. The fort was disbanded at the close of the hostilities, but for those who uprooted their lives the fort did offer an opportunity for families who lived scattered and remotely around South Thurston County to form a community for a season.