Skip to main content

Chief Leschi's name restored

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The dignified women stood and watched with tearful eyes as
their friend, leader and relation was hanged for a murder he did not
commit. They were brave to stand there as the massacre of 35 of their
children, aunties, grandmothers and sisters was still fresh in their
memories, having occurred less than a year before. However, they couldn't
let Leschi go on his long journey home with none of his beloved people

As they listened to his heartbreaking words, proclaiming his innocence and
his passionate pleas for his people to remember, they vowed in their hearts
to pass the truth down from generation to generation.

"Whatever the future holds, do not forget who you are. Teach your children,
teach your children's children, and then teach their children also. Teach
them the pride of a great people ... A time will come again when they will
celebrate together with joy. When that happens my spirit will be there with
you," said Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Tribe.

Chief Leschi was hanged Feb. 19, 1858 for the murder of militiaman A.B.
Moses, in Steilacoom, Wash. He was the first person to be charged with
murder in the Washington Territory.

Christmas Day 1854 sparked the horrific miscarriage of justice that echoed
through time. "Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens was
appointed by the U.S. government to negotiate for peace and goods in
exchange for the Indians' land and resources. Stevens drew up the Medicine
Creek Treaty that was the first treaty on the west side of the Cascades. He
offered the Nisquallys 1,230 acres of hillside, rocky terrain that could
not sustain the lives of the people and also added the provision that if
the whites needed the land more than the Indians, they could take it back.
The exchange was for a million-plus acres belonging to the Nisquallys,
Puyallup and Squaxin Island tribes," said Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr.

Stevens had heard of the benevolence of Leschi and his brother Quiemuth. He
appointed them to deal with negotiations. Puyallup tribal member Connie
McCloud said, "In order to stand as a chief, Leschi had to care for his own
family and his own people. The language of the Europeans speaks of him as
benevolent, which means he was able to take care of his people."

Leschi and Quiemuth refused to sign the treaty. There is speculation that
Stevens then forged the Xs that represented their signatures. It was the
first treaty and his reputation was at stake. To Stevens this refusal was
tantamount to treason and, therefore, deserving of execution. Nisqually
historian Cecilia Carpenter stated, "I have two written interviews with
people that were at the treaty signing that clearly state Leschi and
Quiemuth did not sign the treaty and were angry with the offer."

Word of Steven's hatred spread through his militia volunteers. They had
heard of the wealth of Leschi and Quiemuth and were jealous. Carpenter
said, "The white community was poor. Their best means of support was
killing Indians in the voluntary militia set up by Stevens and financed
through monies that were designated because the Medicine Creek Treaty had
been ratified."

These volunteers were wreaking havoc on the Indian communities. Indians
retaliated with an ambush and A.B. Moses was killed. Leschi and Quiemuth
were accused of the killings and indicted for murder. Quiemuth turned
himself in to Stevens at the Governor's mansion and was stabbed and shot
the same night as he lay sleeping. Leschi was caught Nov. 14, 1856, and
tried three days later. The indecisive jury caused a second trial to be
held in March 1857 where he was found guilty. "There was only one
prosecution witness, Antonio B. Rabbeson and he was also the foreman of the
jury," said professor of Indian Studies at the University of Washington
Alexandra Harmon.

Appeal and the U.S. Army prevented the hangings twice. Captain Eugene Ham
of the U.S. Army Judges Advocate Corps said the army never sanctioned the
hanging of Leschi and did what they could to stop it.

The army produced a survey map of Leschi's camp and the ambush site, which
showed that Leschi couldn't have been in the vicinity when the shooting
took place. It was not allowed into evidence in the second trial, nor were
the first trial's instructions given during the second trial concerning

Captain Paul Robson testified that the army always took the position that
this was a war and that you do not try legal combatants for battlefield
deaths. Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Charles Wilkerson
explained, "The Nisquallys possessed nationhood. Other Indian leaders in
these circumstances were not tried in this way. The territorial courts
should have dismissed the indictments as a matter of U.S. American Indian
Law, the law of nations and the law of war."

Over time, the Nisqually people would try to clear Leschi's name but to no
avail until the last living male descendant of Leschi, 69-year-old Sherman
Leschi met his relative Cynthia Iyall in 2001. "Sherman and I were sitting
quietly in his living room listening to the radio. We'd been discussing
Leschi's history and the wrongfulness of it all. He turned to me and he
said simply, 'I have a project for you. It should have been done a long
time ago.' He was talking about exonerating Leschi. People talked about
pardoning Leschi but he felt a pardon suggested Leschi was guilty and he
wanted none of that." Iyall said.

"That is where the seed of having Leschi exonerated today began. Sherman
was the only person who could say to do this because of who he was. Sherman
carried a certain dignity and he looked like Leschi. He didn't speak much,
so when he said something you took it seriously," Iyall said.

Sherman died Dec. 6, 2001 and was buried Dec. 10. Three years to the day,
Chief Leschi was exonerated. It wasn't planned. It just happened that way.

The court was convened at the Washington State Historical Museum with Chief
Justice of the State Supreme Court Gerry Alexander presiding. There were
nine witnesses for the defense and one hostile witness for the prosecution.
"The judges unanimously voted to clear the name of Chief Leschi and
apologize to him, his family, his tribe and their children, the other
tribal peoples, to the state of Washington, and ultimately to justice and
all the people," said Frank.

The other two convening courts were held under the auspices of the federal
government and therefore Alexander said the verdict could not be legally
erased. Carpenter commented, "The best they could do was convene a
historical court and offer an apology. I am in hopes that wounds will heal
and give us a brighter outlook for the future of our children."

Iyall recognizes that many people played a part to bring about the
exoneration. She said, "Lawyer and Chippewa Tina Kukkahn reminded us many
times that there is a difference between law and justice. Law is about what
you can prove and justice is about what is right."

The healing has truly begun as you listen to the Indian people and others
express their feelings about the exoneration.

Nisqually tribal Chairman Dorian Sanchez said, "Stories have been passed
from generation to generation of Leschi's bravery and leadership. The truth
as presented today will finally clear the record and allow our leader and
his people to rest."

Doctor Patricia Roundy, dean of Student Academic Success at Pacific
Lutheran University said, "The exoneration of Chief Leschi clears his name
and does so much more. The decision offers a significant apology,
acknowledges a deep injustice, honors his people and casts a beacon of
light and hope not only for today but also for future generations. The
historical court decision is only the tip of the iceberg uncovering real
wrongs for all to see."

Former Staff Director to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Alan
Parker said, "The hard work now begins of deconstructing historical myths
so that the story of Leschi is of a courageous leader who died defending
his tribe's rights. The Nisqually people have set an example for all of

Sherman Leschi felt that Leschi's last words were talking about today's
era. Sherman's last quoted words were: "I want the youth to bring back the
culture and be proud of who they are. I want them to remember and to tell
their children."