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Sunday, May 27, 2001 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

'The settlers saw trees, endless trees. The natives saw the spaces between the trees.'

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This photo from the late 19th century depicts a Muckleshoot girl in traditional native garb, made mostly of woven cedar bark, similar to what the Duwamish wore when the Denny Party arrived in 1851.
Easy access to resources meant people had time to do more than find their next meal. Puget Sound Natives did not carve or display totem poles, but they wove cedar bark, mountain-goat wool and other materials into baskets, mats and garments with striking, abstract patterns that now lure three- and four-digit prices at auction.

No one knows how many people lived here when the Denny Party arrived. Historian Buerge estimates the population of Elliott Bay villages around 500, with another 500 living on Shilshole Bay and hundreds more in communities throughout the Duwamish River watershed. But that population already had been decimated by smallpox and other epidemics introduced by earlier explorers.

Duwamish territory - essentially present-day King County - was vast and strategic, making the people major players in intertribal trade and politics.

"They were very cosmopolitan," says Thrush. "Elite families would be multilingual because they were intermarrying with elite families from, say, the Yakamas or Snoqualmies. You had tons of people participating in trade networks up and down the coast."

Each village consisted of one or more longhouses, usually arranged end to end on a cleared ledge between shore and forest. Constructed of cedar planks, the longhouses were 30 to 50 feet wide and 50 to 100 feet long.

Each longhouse was partitioned to accommodate several related families. A gap in the roof allowed the smoke to escape, but the interiors smelled of smoke, cedar and drying fish. Blankets, weaved from mountain-goat wool or dog hair, and cattail mats cushioned the sleeping benches that lined the interior walls.

In spring, people left their winter villages for camps where families hunted or gathered food and other resources. Gaps in the forest were maintained to encourage game and food supplies. Such "prairies" were cultivated at what is now Belltown, the University District, South Lake Union and along Sand Point Way Northeast, and most likely at Alki Point.

In the summer, when the salmon converged on the rivers, people gathered on the riverbanks to catch, clean, smoke and dry the staple of their food supply.

Later in the year, extended families reunited in longhouses and villages for winter, the season for ceremonies, storytelling and crafting of goods ranging from blankets to canoes.

While the Denny Party surveyed their new neighbors with caution, the Duwamish greeted them with enthusiasm.

"They were invited here," Buerge says. "Chief Seattle was trying to lure as many Americans to his territory as he could. He wanted a trading presence to break the monopoly of the Hudson Bay Company."

James Rasmussen takes in the view of the Duwamish River valley from a sacred mound and strategic point where his Duwamish ancestors attacked raiding parties coming from the north.

Rasmussen agrees. The Duwamish felt they had nothing to fear. They vastly outnumbered the newcomers.

Besides, settlement was inevitable, Rasmussen adds. "They were probably thinking, `How are we going to work with these people? How can we it make it a profitable endeavor? How can we get more wealth and get to be more important?' "

Of course, the Duwamish didn't know that in a few short years, they would be vastly outnumbered - due to displacement, disease and white immigration. They could not have known they would be banned from owning land that had been theirs for centuries, that their longhouses would be burned, their villages wracked by epidemics and the survivors scattered.

Unlike neighboring tribes, the Duwamish would never get their own reservation. More than a century later, about 1,000 descendants were paid $64 each for 54,700 acres. "We are still here; we still exist," says Cecile Hansen, Duwamish tribal chairwoman for more than 20 years. "In the '60s, because they didn't give the Duwamish a reservation, they dropped 'em off the list (of recognized tribes)."

"The real story" of the Denny Party, she adds, is this: "If not for the Natives who met them here on Alki, they would not have survived that first winter."

But survive they did. From Alki, the pioneers moved across to Little Crossing Over Place. Soon there was a mill propped on the beach, with logs hurtling down Skid Road to the sawblades. By 1910, Seattle was a metropolis of 237,000 that had profoundly changed the landscape. Rivers were straightened or obliterated and mountains moved. Denny Hill was sluiced away, its dirt used to fill the mudflats.

For a very brief time, the Duwamish dream of a hybrid culture seemed a realistic possibility, Buerge says - especially because many early white immigrants had married Native women. But ultimately, Natives and nature got in the way of the white idea of progress and were moved.

Looking out - and back

Today, Rasmussen escorts a couple of journalists up the industrialized Duwamish, past the stadium, the mills and the office parks. He parks beside the river and leads the way up a footpath, past madroño trees and Scot's broom to the top of a knoll overlooking the river.

Here he surveys the historic Duwamish territory, north to Boeing Field to the orange monster cranes of the Port of Seattle and the distant Seattle skyline. Every few seconds, the silence is broken by gunshots from the Seattle police firing range at the base of the hill.

Rasmussen sees his own landmarks. Here the river resumes its historic winding course, doubling on itself as it snakes toward the Sound. Down there, next to Boeing, a rocky ridge crosses the river bottom - perfect for a fish trap.

According to tribal lore, this was a spiritual center and a strategic point from which to attack raiding parties from northern tribes in oceangoing canoes.

"This was an ideal defensive position," Rasmussen says. "From here, you could see the raiding parties coming and evacuate your families upriver. Here you would make your stand. You could stop anything from here."

Maybe not. The mound rests on private property. Its owners want to flatten the hill and develop the land.

The Duwamish tribe is resisting, and history marches onward.

Ross Anderson can be reached at 206-464-2061 or

Sara Jean Green can be reached at 206-515-5654 or

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