Prologue Magazine

Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of An Undocumented Speech

Spring 1985, Vol. 18, No. 1

By Jerry L. Clark


Did Millard Fillmore install the first bathtub in the White House? Did Betsy Ross make the first American flag at the request of George Washington? Did Pocahontas save the life of Capt. John Smith? Most Americans, whose knowledge of the history of their native land is sometimes sketchy, would answer yes to the above questions. The historian would answer definitely not, probably not, and maybe, respectively. The journalist H. L. Mencken concocted the Millard Fillmore tale during a slow newsday during the 1920s; the Betsy Ross story rests on dubious evidence; and Pocahontas was only eleven years old at the time that Captain Smith (not always known for his veracity) claimed she rescued him from the headman's axe.

While this article has nothing whatever to do with Millard Fillmore, Betsy Ross, or Pocahontas, it is concerned with a somewhat similar episode which remains present in the American mythology. The following oration, supposedly spoken by an Indian chieftain in 1855, has surfaced in today's world and has been used to justify and fortify current attitudes regarding the treatment of the first Americans and the natural environment in the United States. Since these words have been used for propagandistic and polemic purposes, a closer examination of the historical and literary origins of old Chief Seattle's catechism of woes and wrongs done to the American Indian and his world is in order.

Such an analysis must begin with consideration of the oration allegedly spoken by Chief Seattle,1 patriarch of the Duwamish and Suquamish Indians of Puget Sound, to Isaac Ingalls Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, in the year 1854 or 1855, at the site of the present metropolis of Seattle:

Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon our fathers for centuries untold. . . . The son of the White Chief says his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will. This is kind of him, for we know he has little need of our friendship in return because his people are many. They are like the grass that covers the vast prairies, while my people are few: they resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. . . . There was a time when our people covered the whole land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea covers its shell-paved floor, but that time has long since passed away with the greatness of tribes almost forgotten. . . . When the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your childrens' children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. . . . The White Men will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless—Dead—I say? There is no death. Only a change of worlds.2

In addition, Chief Seattle allegedly wrote the following letter to President Franklin Pierce in 1855:

The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. . . . But we will consider your offer, for we know if we do not . . . the white man may come with guns and take our lands. . . . How can you buy or sell the sky— the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. . . . Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. . . . When the buffaloes are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the views of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.3

But were these words actually articulated by an otherwise obscure Indian more than a century ago? Old Seattle's sonorous and evocative phrases still reverberate today. This is in interim report on a search for their origins.

The sentiments expressed in the speech attributed to the old chieftain are consonant with those held by persons disturbed by the destruction of the Indian world by the development of the American frontier. The attitudes reflected in the letter ascribed to Seattle are in harmony with those professed by individuals upset at the damage to the natural environment perpetrated by our industrial society. The words of this Indian spokesman have been frequently quoted to a wide audience via the newspaper and television media. 4 The Smithsonian's "Nation of Nations" exhibit includes a portion of Seattle's supposed speech for the benefit of the thousands of tourists who visit our nation's capital each year. Despite its popularity, this affirmation of Indian eloquence may not be founded in historical reality.

The National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress each year receive numerous requests for the original text of the statements attributed to the old chief. The United States Information Agency has received similar inquiries from persons and institutions in many foreign lands. Unfortunately, no one has been able to locate either the letter or a reliable text of the speech.

The purported letter by Chief Seattle to President Pierce is very likely spurious. Among other charges, it denounces the White Man's propensity for shooting buffaloes from the windows of the "Iron Horse"—a remarkable observation by Seattle, who never in his lifetime left the land west of the Cascade Mountains and thus never saw a railroad and may never have seen a buffalo, either. A letter from an Indian in 1855 concerning Indian policy and directed to the President would have required the usual nineteenth-century red tape. It would have to pass through the hands of the local Indian agent, Col. M. T. Simmons; to the superintendent of Indian affairs, Gov. Isaac Stevens, to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; to the Office of the Secretary of the Interior; and eventually to the President.

A search of the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior in the National Archives and the presidential papers of Franklin Pierce in the Library of Congress has not uncovered even a trace of such a letter. It has not been found among the private papers of Pierce in the New Hampshire Historical Society. It is known that Seattle was non-literate,5 so yet another person must have written the alleged message—yet no source for the text of the 1855 letter has ever been discovered. Thus this widely distributed document can safely be considered an unhistorical artifact of someone's fertile literary imagination.

The historical Chief Seattle was the head man of the Duwamish and several other related small bands of Indians inhabiting the shores of Puget Sound. In 1852, a tiny American settlement was established near Alki Point ("By and By" in the Duwamish language), and the settlers named their village Seattle after its Indian patriarch.6 In March of 1853 the territory of Washington was carved out of the Oregon country, but it was not until October of that year that the new territorial governor, thirty-five year old Isaac Ingalls Stevens, arrived in Olympia, the capital city.

Stevens was anxious to survey a northern route for the proposed transcontinental railroad through the trackless wilderness of his new domain. He also had instructions to negotiate land cessions from the numerous Indian tribes. Therefore, Governor Stevens spent much of his time in explorations and in attending treaty councils throughout the Pacific northwest area.7 A knowledge of his travels is required in order to determine the occasion at which Seattle's alleged discourse might have been given.

The text of Chief Seattle's monologue has frequently appeared in anthologies of American Indian literature and oratory, but most do not identify its source. The main source for the speech is, apparently, a 1932 pamphlet by John M. Rich, copies of which are at the Seattle Historical Society and at the Library of Congress.8 Mr. Rich, in turn, cites an article in a Seattle newspaper from 1887 in which a Dr. Henry A. Smith reconstructed a speech by the Duwamish Chief on the occasion "When Governor Stevens first arrived in Seattle and told the natives that he had been appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory," an event dated by Rich as December 1854.9

According to several local historians of Seattle, Dr. Smith was fluent in the Duwamish tongue and thus was able to transcribe Seattle's words verbatim. Dr. Smith came from Ohio and homesteaded in "Smith's Cove" near Seattle early in 1853. He served as the superintendent of the local schools and in the territorial legislature. A biographer proclaimed him an "able medicine man and a poet of no ordinary talent, a rare scholar and a good writer."10 This man with his bilingual talents would surely have proven most useful to Governor Stevens in his dealings with the Indians, of Puget Sound.

There apparently were only three occasions between 1853 and 1856 when Isaac Stevens visited the Seattle area and could have witnessed the speech of Seattle reported by Dr. Smith. Nothing much is known about Stevens's initial visit in January 1854; it is listed, as a brief stop during a sailing tour of Puget Sound.11 Two months later, Stevens rushed to the area at the head of a detachment of troops in search of Indians who had murdered a settler. During a tense meeting with Seattle and Chief Patkanan of the Snoqualmies, Stevens introduced himself and explained the purpose of his visit. Surveyor George Gibbs later recalled that "Seattle made a great speech, declaring his good disposition toward the whites."12 Was this the oration recorded by Dr. Smith? Apparently not, because another local citizen, Luther Collins, served as a translator into Chinook, the trade language of the Puget Sound tribes, and an Indian in turn translated into the local tongue. Obviously, Dr. Smith and his language skills could not have been available to Stevens during this important confrontation. In fact, Dr. Smith is not listed among those present at this council.13

In March of 1854, Governor Stevens departed for an extended sojourn to Washington, D.C., where he became embroiled in a dispute with Secretary of War Jefferson Davis over the route of the proposed transcontinental railroad. The governor did not return to Olympia and Washington Territory until early December of 1854. He addressed the legislative assembly and attended a treaty council at Medicine Creek with the Nisqually and Puyallup Indians, December 25–27, 1854.14

He arrived at Muleteo, or Point Elliott, just south of Seattle, on January 21, 1855, to meet the assembled Duwamish, Snoqualmies, and Skagit tribes. Many books which cite Dr. Smith's version place the oration of Seattle at the Point Elliott treaty council, although Smith's 1887 report does not specifically give a date for it, Smith does state Seattle's reaction to a proposed agreement involving a reservation for the Duwamish tribe (which was part of the proposed Point Elliott treaty).15

The "Record of Proceedings" of this council is among the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the National Archives. It contains the following statements by Chief Seattle:

I look upon you as my father, I and the rest regard you as such. All of the Indians have the same good feeling toward you and will send it on paper to the Great Father. All of the men, old men, women and children rejoice that he has sent you to take care of them. My mind is like yours, I don't want to say more. My heart is very good towards Dr. Maynard [a physician who was present]. I want always to get medicine from him.

Now by this we make friends and put away all bad feelings if we ever had any. We are the friends of the Americans. All the Indians are of the same mind. We look upon you as our Father. We will never change our minds, but since you have been to see us we will be always the same. Now! Now, do you send this paper.16

These are the only words of Chief Seattle recorded in the official record.

The name of Dr. Smith does not appear among those listed as witnessing the Point Elliott discussions. The widow of Dr. David S. Maynard [the doctor mentioned by Seattle] did not recall anything like Smith's version when interviewed by a biographer of Chief Seattle in 1903.17 The official interpreter, Col. B. F. Shaw, also survived into the twentieth century and failed to mention the remarkable oration.18 Another witness was Hazard Stevens, son of the governor, but he was only twelve years old in 1855. In addition, an old Indian later recalled that during the preceding treaty council at Medicine Creek, he and Hazard Stevens "were having a good time eating black strap and playing Jews-harps while the men were talking. We didn't know what they were talking about."19

Ezra Meeker, a severe critic of Governor Stevens's Indian policies, accused Stevens of being drunk at the councils and of having suppressed a speech of opposition by Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Indians in the official record. Surely Meeker, himself an early pioneer of Washington Territory, would have used the polemic words attributed to Seattle against Stevens if they had been known to him. Meeker interviewed Colonel Shaw, the interpreter at the Point Elliott council, so he should have been aware of the speech if it actually occurred.20

The absence of any contemporary evidence (the territorial newspaper at Olympia is silent about any dramatic statement by Chief Seattle in 1855), the lack of a Duwimish-language text of the speech, the absence of notes by Dr. Smith, the silence on the part of persons known to have been present during meetings between Stevens and Seattle, and the failure of the speech to appear in the official treaty proceedings create grave doubts about the accuracy of the reminiscences of Dr. Smith in 1887, some thirty-two years after the alleged episode. Thus it is impossible (unless new evidence is forthcoming) to either confirm or deny the validity of this powerful and persuasive message placed in the mouth of an Indian sachem. As of now, the verdict must be that of the ancient Scottish jurisprudence: "Not proven."

Perhaps Dr. Smith mistranslated Seattle's phrases; perhaps he mis-remembered the events of 1855; perhaps he combined several speakers' efforts into a coherent form and added the Victorian rhetorical flourishes; or perhaps it was the invention of his own literary muse. Perhaps Clio, the muse of history, cannot now challenge the "Funeral Oration of the Great Indian Race,"21 for it may already have become transmuted into a mythical realm beyond the reach of the skeptical historian.

Does it really make any difference today whether the oration in question actually originated with Chief Seattle in 1855 or with Dr. Smith in 1887?  Of course it matters, because this memorable statement loses its moral force and validity if it is the literary creation of a frontier physician rather than the thinking of an articulate and wise Indian leader.  Noble thoughts based on a lie lose their nobility.  The dubious and murky origins of Chief Seattle's alleged "Unanswered Challenge" renders it useless as supporting evidence.  The historical record suggests that the compliant and passive individual named Seattle is not recognizable in the image of the defiant and angry man whose words reverberate in our time.

Jerry L. Clark was on the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration in 1985 and is now retired.


1. Properly spelled Sealth, but he was better known by the spelling used by his namesake city, Seattle. Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., "Seattle," Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (1913).

2. Quoted in T. C. McLuhan, Touch The Earth, A Self Portrait of Indian Existence (1971). There are also versions, with variant texts, in Virginia I. Armstrong, I Have Spoken (1971), and W. C. Vanderwerth, Indian Oratory (1971). None of these anthologies provide a documented source for the speech.

3. Quoted in "Letters to the Editors," Washington Star and Daily News (May 28, 1973). A version of Seattle's letter inspired a future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to a life-long crusade for environmental causes (William O. Douglas, Go East, Young Man [1983]).

4. There are versions of Seattle's "talk" quoted in the Wildlife Omnibus (Nov. 15, 1973), which took it from the Environmental Action (Nov. 11, 1972), which obtained it from the Seattle Friends of the Earth, who saw it in the Seattle Public Library, who now know nothing of such a document.  A television documentary film used a "translation" by a noted Latinist, William Arrowsmith, who now admits only to polishing the literary style of a nineteenth-century source.  These versions were traced by Janice Drammayr, " 'The Earth is Our Mother,' Who Really Said That?" Seattle Sunday Times (Jan. 5, 1975).

5. Clarence B. Bagley, "Chief Seattle and Angeline," The Washington Historical Quarterly, 22 (Oct. 1931): 251, Angeline was a daughter of the chief.

6. Hodge, Handbook of American Indians, p. 493. The chief levied a small annual tribute from the settlers of his namesake town for the privilege of using his name.

7. Hazard Stevens, Life of Isaac Stevens (1900), 455–465.

8. John M. Rich, Chief Seattle's Unanswered Challenge (1932).

9. Ibid., p.31. Dr. Smith's article was in the Seattle Sunday Star (Oct. 20, 1887).

10. Frederick James Grant, ed., "Dr. Henry A. Smith," (1891). History of Seattle, Washington (1891). See also Archie Binns, Northwest Gateway, The Story of the Port of Seattle (1941).

11. Stevens, Isaac Stevens, pp. 317–417.

12. Records of the Washington Superintencency, 1853–74, NARA Microfilm Publication M5, roll 23.

13. Ibid.

14. Stevens, Isaac Stevens,, p. 417.

15. Dr. Henry A. Smith, Seattle Sunday Times (1887). On his deathbed, Smith reaffirmed the speech's authenticity to Vivian M. Carkeek, who, on his deathbed, told Clark B. Belknap, who in turn told John M. Rich. Rich, Seattle's Unanswered Challenge, p. 45.

16. Documents Relating to the Negotiation of Ratified and Unratified Treaties With Various Indian Tribes, 1801–69, NARA Microfilm Publication T495, roll 5.

17. Frank Carlson, "Chief Seattle," Bulletin of the University of Washington, Vol. 3 (1909)

18. Ezra Meeker, Frontier Reminiscences of the Puget Sound (1905).

19. Ibid, p. 240.

20 Ibid, p. 234.

21. Rich, Seattle's Unanswered Challenge, p. 12. Rich is apparently the author of the memorable closing phrase of the speech: "Dead—I Say? There is no death. Only a change of worlds." These words do not appear in Dr. Smith's 1887 account.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.