Historic Fort Steilacoom
June 26 - 28
July 4th Fort Open 1 - 4 pm
July 11th Fort Open 1 - 4 pm
July 18th Fort Open 1 - 4 pm
July 21st George Wilkinson, professional land surveyor, will locate historical roads in and around Steilacoom using an aerial map. He will explain historic legal facts, names and places. Displayed will be old survey and drafting instruments, and surveyor's notes and maps drafted before 1900 by local surveyors living in Steilacoom. (Lectures will be held at 7 p.m. at the Steilacoom Town Hall. There is no charge).
Fort Steilacoom was tremendously important in the history of early America and the Pacific Northwest.
A Short History of Fort Steilacoom
Fort Steilacoom played a significant, but little-known, role in the settling of Washington. Understanding the circumstances surrounding its formation in 1849 helps explain Fort Steilacoom's role in the migration of settlers to Washington, a wave that continues to this day. The fort was part claims validater, part civilizer and part protector. Its current role is that of reminder of our past.
Since British fur trading companies, like Hudson's Bay Co., were the first Europeans to call the Pacific Northwest home for any length of time and were reluctant to give up the land fertile land with both fur and flora. They came when the fur traders started forming trading posts around the Oregon territory between the 1820s and the 1840s.
Most notably of these posts where built in Vancouver, in 1824; in Langley British Columbia in 1825; and in Nisqually, in southern Pierce County in 1833. These post settlements were generally small satellite outposts, but they formed a trading network around the Pacific Northwest. American settlers at that time had largely settled south of the Columbia River. The settlers moved north as the availability of prime land in present-day Oregon shrank.
These newcomers moved and settled into areas largely without government other than that loyal to the British crown. But British law did not suffice for the settlers. Americans started murmuring about wanting their own government. That murmur became a cry to the U.S. Government after Indians attacked the Whitman mission in 1847, killing 15 people. The Whitmans were among the dead. The Americans wanted protection from such hostilities. An Indian attack on HBC's Fort Nisqually in May of 1847 struck at the heart of the rising tide of settlements along Puget Sound. Settler Leander Wallace was killed in the melee. The settlers formed a provisional government and gathered a militia the following year. Military forts sprang up around the Oregon territory that encompassed Washington, Idaho and Oregon. The first among them was Fort Steilacoom because of the large number of settlers already in the area as well as the practical point that the land had already been plowed and buildings were in place.
The U.S. Army founded Fort Steilacoom in late August of 1849. Capt. Bennett Hill's Company M of the First Artillery Regiment arrived at the nearby British trading post at Nisqually, on Puget Sound. A six-mile ride north of the HBC fort stood an English sheep farm, which had been abandoned six months earlier when its previous tenant, Joseph Heath, died of pneumonia. He worked the land under the Hudson Bay's subsidiary, the Puget Sound Agricultural Co. The U.S. government negotiated a lease from the HBC for the land at $50 a month.
Dr. William Tolmie, the factor of Fort Nisqually, wrote these lines in his "Journal of Occurrences at Fort Nisqually" on Aug. 24, 1849:
... Rode to Steilacoom this morning in company with Major Hatheway and Capt. Hill in order that they might judge for themselves as to whether Steilacoom or Sequalitchew would form the best winter quarters for the troops. Steilacoom received the preference on account of the number of buildings already erected there ..." Thus began the first solid American presence on Puget Sound. There had been others. The missionaries and settlers who came before, however, brought little but their hopes and dreams for better lives. The fort brought signs of stability, commerce and structure. More log buildings were quickly added to the fort at a cost of about $3,000. Besides marking the first permanent U.S. governmental presence on Puget Sound, it protected the American settlers and vice versa. But it did one other task as well. It and the other forts in the military web hardened the U.S. claims to the Pacific Northwest by providing settlers with the civilizing features of government, law and cash. Soldiers at the fort provided settlers with a flow of consumers for their locally produced goods and a steady stream of currency, two much-needed commodities for civilizing an area. The fort doctor also provided medical aid to the civilians. Fort Steilacoom holds the distinction of being the first military fort north of the Columbia River, although others quickly followed. Most of these forts were shabby at best, constructed of whatever materials were available in their locale. Mud huts, caves and tent villages circled around a flagpole were about all a soldier of the day could expect at many forts. Very few forts had much fortification. Fort Steilacoom was one of the better- defended forts with permanent buildings (albeit log-framed), sheep pens, and barns converted to military use.
Land developer Lafayette Balch saw the prospects of siting his land claim next to a military installation and formed Port Steilacoom in 1850. He joined his claim with one nearby two years later. This settlement later became the first incorporated town north of the Columbia River when it filed the proper paperwork in 1854. The area grew. The fort strengthened its connections with the settlers by developing a road system throughout the territory. Civilians and soldiers built roads that networked from Bellingham to Vancouver to Spokane and Walla Walla. All roads in Washington Territory eventually led to Fort Steilacoom.
These roads, including Old Military Road from Steilacoom to South Hill and the Byrd Mill road to Puyallup are still in use today. In the 1850s, these roads provided reliable routes for commerce and could provide quick supply routes to battlefields if war with the Indians ever came. On October 29, 1855, Indians attacked several white settlers in response to the lopsided treaty of Medicine Creek signed the previous year. During the "Indian War" of 1855-56, the fort served as headquarters for the 9th Infantry Regiment. About 80 settlers stampeded from around the Sound to the fort for safety. A friendly Indian by the name of Abram Salitat had tipped off local settlers to a pending attack. The some 80 settlers fled their farms and headed toward the fort or other safe locations in the dark of night with whatever they could carry. The handful of log buildings and a flagpole at the fort provided more security than their lonely farm houses that were scattered around the prairie. One settler wrote:
"As we approached the fort, each converging road was lined with loaded wagons carrying all sorts of plunder hastily gathered together. Some had come with but little, not even waiting to bring bedding, while others had been less heedless and broad a great share of their goods. Others it would seem had left nothing behind, even bringing the chicken coop, cats, dogs, pigs and all, and many were driving their cattle before them. 'But what shall we do?' was the question. There was no room at the fort." Rev. John Devore fled to Olympia at the start of the war and sent a letter to his Oregon counterparts describing the situation:
"We hear nothing but the clangor of arms and the war whoop. We lie down at night after bidding each other farewell and resign ourselves into the hands of the God of battles, not knowing that we shall ever behold the light of another day." The fort was only attacked once. No one on either side was confirmed killed. A sentry spotted something moving in the shadows during the night of December 28, 1855 and fired into the darkness. He reported later that he observed figures dragging away a wounded person. A patrol the following morning found a small trail of blood, but no body. (Eckrom)
The rest of the war was relatively quiet for the fort. The only other fights experienced by soldiers at the fort occurred away from their military campaigns, but these fights nonetheless led to bloodshed. Col. Silas Casey arrived with 200 soldiers on January 30, 1856. This experienced Indian fighter took charge of Fort Steilacoom and immediately clashed with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens on how to conduct the war. Casey wanted to wait out the winter. Stevens, and Army officer himself, wanted to strike before the Indians could organize. Both fought over who would control the soldiers. Stevens wanted command of the federal troops. Casey refused, citing his boss was the president, not a lowly territorial governor.
Casey and Stevens also bickered about how to handle white settlers who aided the Indians. Stevens, for example, arrested five white settlers who were friendly to the Indians. He wanted them charged with treason. The territory had no jail in the area, however, so he wanted them sent to Fort Steilacoom until their trial. Casey refused the command. The settlers were civilians, after all. Their confinement in the military jail at Fort Steilacoom would be highly illegal, Casey argued. Casey gave in under protest. He held and jailed the settlers at Fort Steilacoom. Wartime attorneys defended the settlers and fought to gain their release by order of a district judge. Stevens cut those plans down by shutting down all government offices with a declaration of martial law. Stevens sent his militia volunteers to seize the prisoners from Fort Steilacoom and transfer them to the militia's Fort Montgomery in present day Spanaway. Court convened in Steilacoom in early May of 1856 as scheduled and found Stevens' militia armed and determined to stop any court action. The air turned thick with tension.
Judge Edward M. Lander (1816-1907) postponed court for two days and ordered men of the county to come to the courthouse as deputized federal marshals. A band of 30 farmers quickly became armed guards. These federal guards stared eye to eye with Stevens' hired militia. The judge ended the standoff by surrendering to the state forces and went to Thurston County to face down Stevens. The whole matter settled down when judge cited Stevens for contempt of court for not releasing the prisoners. Stevens later pardoned himself. He and his friends paid his court costs. The territorial legislature later censured him.
The Indian War wound down in late 1856, but Fort Steilacoom still had a role to play. Stevens brought Chief Leschi, leader of the Nisquallies, to trial for the death of Volunteer Col. Abram Benton Moses during a skirmish at Connell's Prairie on October 31, 1855. Stevens claimed Leschi was a murderer. Casey and others held that Leschi wasn't even at the site of the killing, and even if he was, war was war. Indians can't be held on murder charges for acts committed during a recognized act of war. A jury couldn't decide the issue. Leschi was retried. Another jury sentenced Leschi to death. He would be hanged. Although Leschi was held at Fort Steilacoom during the trials, Casey refused to allow the hangman onto the fort. The gallows were built just east of the fort. And Leschi was hanged on February 19, 1858, after he climbed the scaffold and made the sign of the cross over his chest. The converted Christian Indian leader of the Nisquallies became a martyr of the drive for the settlers to punish someone for the bloodshed of the war. He died despite much evidence that he was innocent of the crime, if it was a crime at all to kill one's enemies during a time of war. A marker along Steilacoom Boulevard commemorates the solemn event.
Fort Steilacoom underwent a growth spurt around the Indian War years. Lt. August V. Kautz supervised construction of new buildings during 1857 and 1858. The Fraser River Gold rush of 1858 hampered a frustrating construction project by tapping an already small work force. The remaining carpenters even demanded an outrageous sum of $6 a day to work on the buildings. But the work got done. In 1861, the Civil War changed everything. Regular Army officers stationed at the fort chose their sides and some tendered their resignations to join seceding states. Fort Steilacoom was left to the territorial militia in 1861, while blue fought gray during the next four years in the east.
Fort Steilacoom was abandoned as a military post in 1868. The buildings and grounds shifted hands yet again. The Washington Territory received the 640-acre fort and farm, this time for use as an insane asylum, which opened in 1871. The military barracks housed mental patients and hospital staff. The hospital is the second oldest set of governmental facilities in the state and predates statehood by almost a generation. The buildings were used, remodeled and mostly abandoned or removed as the hospital grew. The Historic Fort Steilacoom Association formed in the 1970s to save the remaining buildings from the wrecker as the hospital sought ways to expand.
The Fort Steilacoom Historical District, with four renovated buildings, survives as an interpretative center and museum, is located on the grounds of Western State Hospital, 9601 Steilacoom Blvd S. W., in Lakewood.