The exoneration of Chief Leschi

Chief LeschiChief Leschi, chief of the Nisqually Native American tribe, was hanged for murder in 1858 but exonerated 146 years later in 2004.

At the Medicine Creek Treaty council of December 26 1854, Leschi, negotiating on behalf of the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes, refused to give his consent to a land cession treaty that would have created a two-square-mile reservation in western Washington for the twelve Indian tribes in the region. He argued that the designated reservation near Johnson Point was a totally inadequate piece of high rocky ground unsuited to growing crops and without pasture for horses or direct access to the Nisqually River where the Indians fished for the wild Chinook salmon that provided the mainstay of their livelihood. But his objections were overruled. The following year, he traveled to the territorial capital at Olympia to protest the terms of the treaty, but no agreement was made and he returned home. Acting Governor Charles H. Mason ordered that Leschi and his brother Quiemuth be taken into “protective custody”. He ordered a detachment of volunteer militia, known as Eaton’s Rangers, to arrest the pair, thereby initiating the Puget Sound Indian War of 1855-56.

Shortly afterwards, on October 31 1855, a skirmish took place at Connell Prairie (near present-day Tacoma) between the Eaton’s Rangers and a roving band of Nisqually Indians. Volunteer militiaman Colonel Abrams Moses was shot and killed. To placate the infuriated territorial authorities, Governor Isaac Stevens promptly ordered Leschi’s arrest. The Nisqually chief evaded capture and, on April 2 1856, Stevens, believing that white settlers were cooperating with the Indians, declared martial law over Pierce County (Stevens was later charged with contempt of court in relation to this declaration – however, as governor, he pardoned himself!). On November 18 1856, Leschi’s brother Quiemuth was murdered by an unknown assailant in Governor Stevens’ office in Olympia, where he was being detained for the night. The back door had been left unlocked, allowing access from the alley outside. The murderer was never found or brought to trial. Leschi contacted the U.S. Army, seeking peace. He vowed he would cut off his right hand to show the Americans he would never fight them again. However, the commander at Fort Steilacoom, Colonel Casey, advised him to stay away as there was so much prejudice and ill-will against him. However, after obtaining assurances from the U.S. Army that he would not be prosecuted for acts committed by the Nisqually during the war, Leschi surrendered.

Governor Stevens refused to accept that the territorial government was bound by the Army’s assurances to Leschi and, on November 16 1856, the chief was put on trial for Moses’ “murder” in the federal territorial court. The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of one eyewitness, Antonio Rabbeson, who claimed Leschi had been present when Moses was shot. Leschi, whose counsel vigorously attacked Rabbeson’s credibility, denied this version of events. The jury was instructed by the judge to consider Leschi’s status as a combatant and the trial ended in a hung jury when two jurors held out for his acquittal on this basis. They maintained that Moses had been killed during warfare (in which there were casualties on both sides) and questioned the legality of trying his accused killer in a civilian court. One of the jurors, Ezra Meeker, stated that Rabbeson was “obviously lying.” A second trial was convened a few months later in March 1857. There is no record that the second jury took account of Leschi’s “enemy combatant” status and the court refused to consider new evidence – a map provided by the Army indicating that Leschi was miles away from the scene of Moses’ death. Through an interpreter, Leschi said: “I do not know anything about your laws. I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too. I went to war because I believed that the Indian had been wronged by the white men, and I did everything in my power to beat the Boston soldiers, but, for lack of numbers, supplies and ammunition, I have failed. I deny that I had any part in the killing. As God sees me, this is the truth.” He was convicted. In its decision, the Court recorded that Leschi was the “leader of the Indian forces that ‘cruelly waged’ war on settlers, ‘sacrificing citizens’ in the Puget Sound region.”

An appeal was turned down by the territorial supreme court and he was hanged on February 19 1858 outside of Fort Steilacoom while Indian drums echoed in the distance. The Army refused to participate in the execution on the grounds that Moses had been a casualty of war, and had not been murdered. Author and historian, Murray Morgan, writing for the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper, described the execution thus: “At the foot of the ladder, looking up to the rope which hung suspended, with its sliding noose, he hesitated for a moment; but instantly collecting himself, he ascended with a firm step, as if he desired to show the white men how fearlessly an Indian can meet death. He bowed to the spectators, prayed silently for several minutes, and spoke for the last time. He said he had made his peace with God and desired to live no longer. He bore no malice to no man save one, upon whom he invoked the vengeance of heaven.”

At the time, many people believed Leschi was innocent. Charles Grainger, his executioner, later said, “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man, and I believe it yet.”

Fast forward to the start of the 21st century. Members of the Nisqually Tribe, including some of Leschi’s descendants, began a concerted campaign to clear his name. Their efforts were rewarded in 2004 when the Washington Senate passed a resolution proclaiming Leschi’s conviction and execution as an injustice. The Senate declared him a “great and noble man” and endorsed a move to have his conviction overturned. On December 10 2004, a special historical court, consisting of seven present and former justices of the State Supreme Court, exonerated Chief Leschi of the charge of murder on the basis that both he and Moses had been legal combatants in a war. State Supreme Court justice Gerry Alexander stated: “Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder.”

The decision represented a victory in the efforts of the Nisqually tribe to exonerate the name of their legendary chief. Though it led to the Indian wars and, ultimately, his own death, Leschi’s refusal to accept the first reservation won his people an improved deal with a larger and better-situated reservation along with fishing and hunting rights enshrined in law (the new Nisqually Reservation now included Leschi’s village grounds at Muck Creek and land on both sides of the Nisqually River). Originally buried on Nisqually tribal property, his body was moved in 1895 to a site at Muck Creek where it rested until 1917 when that land became part of the Fort Lewis Military Reservation. He is now buried in the Cushman Indian Cemetery in Tacoma, Washington on the administrative grounds of the Puyallup Indian Reservation. His tombstone contains this inscription: “Judicially murdered, February 19, 1858, owing to misunderstanding of Treaty of 1854-55. Serving his people by his death. Sacrificed to a principle. A martyr to liberty, honor and the rights of people of his native land. Erected by those he died to serve.” Chief Leschi now has a school, a park and a Seattle neighbourhood named after him. At his exoneration, Dorian Sanchez, chairperson of the Nisqually Tribe, said, “Now the world can know him as we know him: ‘warrior, leader, hero and innocent’.”

More about Chief Leschi…



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