Book Review: The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek

Years before his fateful encounter with Nisqually tribe members at Medicine Creek, Isaac I. Stevens was valedictorian of the 1839 class at West Point, at a time when the United States Military Academy excelled in training army engineers. From early on, he was brilliant, self-assured, fierce in defending his positions and mightily ambitious. Working his political connections in 1853, Stevens successfully campaigned to be appointed the first governor of the newly created Washington Territory, setting the stage for the tragic clash that Richard Kluger (Pulitzer winner for Ashes to Ashes) recounts in this powerful, disturbing and heartrending history of Stevens's program to commandeer Indian lands in the Territory for white settlers.

"His purpose in coming to Washington Territory had been to accumulate political credit and advance his aspiration for ever higher posts of command and access to the levers of power," Kluger notes as he shows Stevens's initial strengths of drive and organization devolving into fatal flaws of being blind to the opinions of others and using deadly force if necessary when his will was opposed. Serious opposition to Stevens's plan to seize Indian lands began in December 1854 when the Medicine Creek Treaty was "presented" to members of the Nisqually tribe, including Leschi, its co-chief. The treaty asked the tribe to cede all title to its land--2.4 million acres--in exchange for a very small (and undesirable) reservation.

Kluger raises a series of key questions in a cogent review of the treaty (and subsequent charges leveled against Leschi): Did the Nisqually understand the terms of the treaty? Why would they agree to such a treaty? Did they actually sign it? Kluger finds that the terms of the complex treaty were "explained" to the Nisqually in Chinook, a language of limited use for delineating legal agreements (also, Salish, not Chinook, was the language of the Nisqually). Based on later attempts to discuss reservation assignments, it also appears that the Nisqually did not comprehend what they were being asked to trade in December 1854, and some sources stated that Leschi left the meeting without making his mark on the treaty, though the treaty forwarded to the U.S. Senate showed the "mark of Leschi." Was forgery involved? Was anything clean and straightforward in Stevens's drive to make Washington a preserve for white settlers?

From that starting point, one tragedy followed another, culminating in two highly compromised murder trials that ended up ordering Leschi's summary execution. Kluger stops short of actually asking, "How do we make this right?" but every thoughtful reader will be profoundly challenged to answer that question for himself.--John McFarland

Shelf Talker: A powerful, disturbing history of government-sanctioned monomania and land grabbing in the Washington Territory of the 1850s that has left us as a nation with an unspeakable legacy of injustice and shame.


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