A Matter of Justice and Honor: The Execution of Chief Leschi

Los Angeles Times
December 28, 2004
By Alex Tizon

On a winter’s morning 146 years ago, a posse of lawmen brought a squarely built, dark-skinned man in his late 40s to a spot on the prairie that formed a natural bowl. The sides had filled with spectators, nearly all white. At the bottom was a crude gallows.

The man was led up the ladder. He bowed, then recited a prayer in a language few in the crowd understood. According to one translation, he said he’d made peace with God and no longer wanted to live. He thanked his jailer for his kindness.

At 11:35, the man, who had spent his last two years in prison, was hanged. His name was Leschi (pronounced lesh-eye), the last chief of the Nisqually tribe and the first man to be legally executed in the territory that would become Washington state.

He had been convicted of murdering a white militiaman. Leschi denied any involvement in the killing. A number of people, including high-ranking Army officers who refused to execute him, and even, in the end, his executioner, believed Leschi was railroaded.

The execution, on Feb. 19, 1858, was the finishing blow in the subjugation of Indian tribes in the Puget Sound. The Nisqually Indians, who had lived in the region for thousands of years, lost their land, much of their freedom and their leader. The last humiliation was that Leschi, who tried to protect his people, would go down in state records as a convicted murderer.

“That would make us the descendants of a murderer,” said Cynthia Iyall, whose lineage traces back six generations to Leschi’s sister. The tribe, with roughly 500 members, occupies a small, forested reservation east of Tacoma.

“So many generations of Nisqually people have had to live with this,” said Iyall (pronounced eye-yal). She is 43, small and trim, with brown hair and light blue eyes inherited from her non-Indian mother. “For the older people, it was hard to even talk about. You could see the pain in their faces. You could see the anger.”

Iyall had grown up, in nearby Tumwater, hearing Leschi’s story. Her grandfather used to take her to places in the hills where Leschi used to camp. But it wasn’t until Iyall moved onto the reservation as an adult that she began to take a deep interest.

She devoured every account of the story, and the more she learned of Leschi — that he was an orator rather than a warrior, that he helped the area’s first white settlers and tried twice to make peace with the Army — the deeper she felt the wound. After her grandfather died, Iyall became close with another elder, Sherman Leschi.

Sherman was the last living male descendant with the Leschi name. He lived alone all his life, never had children, never married. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Chief Leschi, whose image was captured by an artist’s sketch. Iyall said visitors familiar with the sketch would see Sherman and gasp, “Leschi!”

One Sunday morning in June 2000, Iyall and Sherman, 68, sat in his living room. Sherman was consumed by the Leschi story. It came up in every conversation. But he was more pensive this time.

“I have something I want you to do,” Iyall recalled him saying.

She looked closer into his face.

“I want you to clear Leschi’s name.”

Six months later, Sherman fell ill and died.

*

On the day Leschi was hanged, Indian drums from several tribes could be heard in the distance, sounding their protest. Talk of reversing the injustice “began the day after he was executed,” said Larry Seaberg, 65, a direct descendant.

But the Nisqually tribe, besieged by hardship for most of the previous 1 1/2 centuries, was too busy trying to survive to put any serious effort into legally clearing Leschi’s name.

Iyall recalled leaving Sherman’s home dazed that Sunday morning. She held a full-time job as a development planner for the tribe and had few connections outside of Indian Country. She wanted to honor Sherman’s wish. It was her wish, too, but she was afraid — until one spring morning.

Four months after Sherman’s death, Iyall was walking on a trail in the woods when an owl landed on a branch just above her face. She stopped in her tracks. The owl stared. She walked farther, and the owl flew past and again landed above her and looked into her eyes.

“We must have stared at each other for two minutes,” Iyall said.

She ran home, shaken, told others about it and, despite a lifelong aversion to superstition, came to believe the owl carried a message from Sherman and other Nisqually ancestors, perhaps Leschi himself. The message:

“You’ve been given something to do. Do it. We will be with you.”

Over many months, Iyall reached out to various people. Two years later, she was leading a core group of three women of Indian ancestry, ages 40 to 80: a tribal historian, a museum curator and a lawyer.

There were so many avenues to investigate. About the time Iyall and her three allies began meeting in earnest, in 2002, the state of Massachusetts exonerated five women convicted of witchcraft and put to death by colonial authorities three centuries earlier.

Nothing like that had ever happened in Indian Country, but the word “exoneration” resonated. Iyall’s group named itself the Committee to Exonerate Chief Leschi. They wanted something amounting to more than just a clique of Indians sounding yet more drums. But they needed help from the outside.

*

An accidental meeting brought the group in contact with John Ladenburg, the Pierce County executive. With Ladenburg’s help, the group recruited a couple of state lawmakers, and in March, the Legislature passed a resolution asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Leschi’s conviction and “right a gross injustice.”

There was one problem: The high court could not do it. Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said no one would have legal standing to petition the court on behalf of a man dead for nearly 150 years. He also said a state court did not have jurisdiction to overturn a ruling by a Territorial Supreme Court, which was a federal entity and the region’s highest court in the days before statehood.

But Alexander came up with an idea: How about convening a one-time “historical court” that would reexamine Leschi’s case? A panel of the state’s highest-ranking judges would, as in any trial, hear both sides and come up with a verdict.

At least one member of Iyall’s group, the lone Nisqually elder, Cecilia Svinth Carpenter, 80, was against the idea. “What if they convict him again?” she asked.

Carpenter wanted a guaranteed outcome. Alexander refused, insisting the court had to be “straight-up.”

The Nisqually tribe and Iyall’s group agreed, with trepidation, and the court date was set for Dec. 10 in the auditorium of the Washington State History Museum. The judges would include two state Supreme Court justices, two appellate judges, two county judges and one tribal judge, all of whom would review in advance what records existed of the case.

Leschi’s defense would be argued by Ladenburg and a tribal attorney. The government’s case would be made by two Pierce County prosecutors. Leschi was jailed and initially tried in Pierce County, which encompasses Tacoma and the Nisqually Reservation.

It would be called a Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice. The verdict would not be legally binding but would carry the moral weight of the state’s highest arbiters of law.

On court day, about 200 people filled the auditorium, which was shaped like a partial bowl, with sloping sides and a small stage area at the lowest point. Many spectators, from local tribes, wore colorful coats and beads. Near the front, Iyall and friends nervously held hands and awaited the start. A gavel fell. “All rise,” the bailiff said.

*

Eleven witnesses testified. They were historians, tribal elders and experts in military and Indian law. Two witnesses, both Leschi descendants, broke down crying. Some in the audience also wept. Attorneys on both sides questioned the witnesses, who, one by one, pieced together a picture of life in the Puget Sound in the mid-1850s.

In those years, a stump-sized, single-minded dynamo, Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, working on behalf of the U.S. government, negotiated treaties with the region’s Indians, ostensibly to keep the peace between Indians and white settlers who were arriving in great numbers. The underlying objective was to separate the Indians from their land.

Through six treaties in two years, the Indians lost nearly all of what is now Washington. The Nisqually, who had lived in villages along 78 miles of the Nisqually River, were consigned to 1,280 acres of rocky bluff far from the river.

“We are a salmon people, a fishing people,” testified elder Billy Frank. Without access to the river, the tribe was doomed.

The two tribal leaders of the time, Leschi and his brother, Quiemuth (pronounced kway-mooth), led a resistance. There were raids and counterraids, with killings on both sides. A climate of fear and hatred permeated the region.

Stevens formed a territorial militia to help the Army. He sent a detachment of militiamen to capture Leschi and his brother.

One day in October 1855, members of that detachment were ambushed along a trail that threaded through Connell’s Prairie, near what is now Bonney Lake. A militia colonel named A. Benton Moses was shot in the back and killed. A soldier identified Leschi as the shooter.

Army officers who knew Leschi promised him amnesty to end the war. The chief was turned in by one of his nephews. Quiemuth turned himself in, and was stabbed to death in the governor’s office. No charges were filed in Quiemuth’s murder.

Betraying the Army’s promise, Leschi was tried twice for Moses’ killing. The first trial ended in a hung jury, with one of the hold-out jurors, Ezra Meeker, eventually writing an account of the case. Leschi was tried a second time, convicted by a jury of 12 white men, and sentenced to death. The Territorial Supreme Court upheld the decision.

These were the facts, not disputed by either side of Chief Justice Alexander’s court.

The government’s case, argued by prosecutors Carl Hultman and Mary Robnett, took a couple of approaches. Robnett argued that Leschi’s trials followed the laws of the day, and there was no evidence to show the verdict was motivated by politics or race. In fact, she suggested, the current hearing was more politically motivated than Leschi’s trials. Hultman said the Territorial Supreme Court had reviewed the verdict and decided there was “sufficient evidence” to support it.

“How can we go against that decision?” Hultman said, explaining the scant, handwritten records that survive. “We know less than they do.”

The attorneys for Leschi said the chief was tried under an undeveloped judicial system, and the verdict came in a racially charged atmosphere.

Testimony brought up some little-known facts:

The sole witness in both trials, militiaman A.B. Rabbeson, was part of the grand jury that indicted the chief. Rabbeson was also the jury foreman in the second trial. The judges in both trials were members of the Territorial Supreme Court, which, in effect, meant they reviewed their own decisions and decided to uphold the verdict.

Evidence that Rabbeson mistook another Indian for Leschi, and an Army report that showed Leschi was not at Connell’s Prairie that day, were never presented at trial. Perhaps the most significant omission was that the judge in the second trial, unlike the first, did not instruct the jury to consider Leschi, as the Army did, an “enemy combatant.”

Telling testimony came from the witness most sympathetic to Gov. Stevens, retired history professor Kent Richards, author of a Stevens biography.

“Stevens believed that executing Leschi would bring closure to the war,” Richards said. At the end of every war, “someone must be held accountable, and in the Indian wars of the 1850s in western Washington, Leschi was held accountable.”

Testimony in Alexander’s court lasted 4 1/2 hours. The judges deliberated for half an hour. As they reentered the auditorium, Iyall sat up in her chair and reached over to grasp Billy Frank’s hand.

The verdict was unanimous. In the summation, Alexander said a state of war existed between the U.S. Army and the region’s Indians, and as a legal combatant, “Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder.”

Alexander declared Leschi exonerated.

The crowd erupted in applause. Even the prosecutors applauded. Iyall stood and hugged friends and family members, some weeping with joy. But Carpenter, the elder, sat in her chair expressionless. This was the outcome she had wanted, but a part of her seemed unwilling to be appeased.

“It doesn’t change the legal record,” she said. “This was really a way for white people, for the state of Washington, to say, ‘We’re sorry.’ And I accept it. It’s the best we can do.”

On a cold morning, a few days after the exoneration, Iyall got in her pickup and drove the 10 or so miles to the place where Leschi was hanged. The bowl in the prairie had long been filled in and forgotten. In the parking lot of a strip mall in what is now the working-class town of Lakewood, a boulder sits under a leafless oak tree. An inscription on it says the last chief of the Nisqually tribe was hanged 300 yards southeast of that spot.

As Iyall stood, hands in her coat pocket, scanning the words, an elderly woman with a cane strolled by and stopped. She read the inscription, too.

“They cleared him, you know,” the woman said. “I walk past this every day, and it always hurt. I was so happy when I heard.”

“Me, too,” Iyall said.

Iyall had come here once with Sherman Leschi, shortly before his death. More than four years had passed since their conversation in his living room. She left his house in a daze that day, and was now in a different kind of fog, the kind that came after chasing something for so long and finally catching it, but then having no energy left to celebrate. She hoped the ancestors were happy though, that drums of celebration were beating somewhere.