Story & Photos by Joseph Boyle
While looking around The City of Lakewood one day I found an amazing rock. I know I said rock, so I probably lost some of my readers, but stick with me if you can.
Make your way to 8103 Steilacoom Boulevard SW in Lakewood. This location is behind the Key Bank and in front of a private mail / package business called Mail Masters.
Stand in the parking lot in front of the Mail Masters and to your left near the huge oak tree you will find the rock. (See photos.)
The inscription on the front of the rock reads, “Leschi, Chief to the Nisquallies, Martyr To The Vengeance of the Unforgiving White Man, Was Hanged 300 Yards S.E. From Here, February 19, 1858.”
The Pierce County Pioneer & Historical Association erected this rock in 1963.
After finding the Chief Leschi rock, I wanted to know more. Here is what I learned from Wikipedia, The Associated Press, and The Washington State History Museum.
Chief Leschi (pronounced LESH-eye) was born near Eatonville, Washington in 1808. On December 26,1854 our first Washington Territorial Governor, Issac Stevens, appointed Leschi as Chief of the Nisqually and Puyallup Tribes.
While there is some dispute as to exactly what happened, it is told that Chief Leschi was forced to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty under protest or possibly his signature, which was the letter “X”, was forged on the document.
It is not disputed that Chief Leschi, wanting to protect his people, was not satisfied with the terms of the treaty. The tribe was giving vast amounts of land located in multiple counties inside the Washington Territory to the U.S. Government.
The tribes were being forced to move to Indian Reservation land located on high rocky forest ground, which was not suitable for providing sustenance to Chief Leschi’s people. Additionally, the tribe’s access to local rivers was being cut off, which meant their livelihood, tied to salmon runs, was going to disappear. In plain English this treaty meant Chief Leschi’s people would probably starve to death.
The treaty controversy led Acting Governor Mason to order Chief Leschi into protective custody. The Governor’s action was the flash point for what was to be known as the Puget Sound War of 1855 – 1856.
Chief Leschi, as a war chief, commanded 300 men. Ultimately he was blamed for the death of two Territorial militiamen.
Three trials followed this incident with the stated purpose of determining the innocence or guilt of Chief Leschi.
1st Trial – Mistrial: This trial ended with a hung jury. One of the jurors voting for acquittal was the well-known pioneer, Ezra Meeker.
2nd Trial – Guilty Verdict. Several issues support the position that this trial produced an unjust verdict. (1) The judge did not allow a jury instruction that had been given at the first trial. Had this instruction been given to the second jury, the jury would have been able to consider the alleged murders in light of the rules of war which conclude that killings between war time combatants are not punishable as a crime of murder. (2) The Army refused to execute Chief Leschi based on how they felt this incident fit into the rules of war. (3) The defense was not allowed to bring in a map as evidence that would have shown Chief Leschi to be miles away from the area when the killings took place. (4) The hangman is reported to have later said, “I felt than I was hanging an innocent man and I believe it yet.” (5) There was a strong allegation that Pierce County Sheriff, George Williams, orchestrated his own arrest by the Army to forestall the execution of Chief Leschi.
Chief Leschi was hung on February 19, 1858 in a small valley near Lake Steilacoom inside what is now Lakewood, Washington.
3rd Trial – Exonerated: On December 10, 2004 Chief Leschi was exonerated by a unanimous vote of the Historical Court of Inquiry following a definitive trial in abstentia.
Chief Leschi has not had his life and land restored, but the third trial did restore his innocence and reputation.
If you would like to learn more, The Washington State History Museum has an excellent website located at stories.washingtonhistory.org/leschi/.
This story has been told before, but I thought I would tell it again for those of you who missed this Lakewood history the first time.
Story & Photos by Joseph Boyle
Note: Material from Wikipedia, The Associated Press, and the Washington State Historical Museum has been used in this article.