Cover image for Messages from Frank's Landing : a story of salmon, treaties, and the Indian way
Messages from Frank's Landing : a story of salmon, treaties, and the Indian way
Wilkinson, Charles F., 1941-
Publication Information:
Seattle : University of Washington Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
vii, 118 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Format :


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E99.N74 W55 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In 1974 Federal Judge George H. Boldt issued one of the most sweeping rulings in the history of the Pacific Northwest, affirming the treaty rights of Northwest tribal fishermen and allocating to them 50 percent of the harvestable catch of salmon and steelhead. Among the Indians testifying in Judge Boldt's courtroom were Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank, Jr., and his 95-year-old father, whose six acres along the Nisqually River, known as Frank's Landing, had been targeted for years by state game wardens in the so-called Fish Wars.

By the 1960s the Landing had become a focal point for the assertion of tribal treaty rights in the Northwest. It also lay at the moral center of the tribal sovereignty movement nationally. The confrontations at the Landing hit the news and caught the conscience of many. Like the schoolhouse steps at Little Rock, or the bridge at Selma, Frank's Landing came to signify a threshold for change, and Billy Frank, Jr., became a leading architect of consensus, a role he continues today as one of the most colorful and accomplished figures in the modern history of the Pacific Northwest.

In Messages from Frank's Landing , Charles Wilkinson explores the broad historical, legal, and social context of Indian fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest, providing a dramatic account of the people and issues involved. He draws on his own decades of experience as a lawyer working with Indian people, and focuses throughout on Billy Frank and the river flowing past Frank's Landing. In all aspects of Frank's life as an activist, from legal settlements negotiated over salmon habitats destroyed by hydroelectric plants, to successful negotiations with the U.S. Army for environmental protection of tribal lands, Wilkinson points up the significance of the traditional Indian world view - the powerful and direct legacy of Frank's father, conveyed through generations of Indian people who have crafted a practical working philosophy and a way of life. Drawing on many hours spent talking and laughing with Billy Frank while canoeing the Nisqually watershed, Wilkinson conveys words of respect and responsibility for the earth we inhabit and for the diverse communities the world encompasses. These are the messages from Frank's Landing. Wilkinson brings welcome clarity to complex legal issues, deepening our insight into a turbulent period in the political and environmental history of the Northwest.

Author Notes

Charles Wilkinson is Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

More than a quarter of a century ago, a federal judge, George H. Boldt, affirmed the tribal fishing rights of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, granting them 50 percent of the harvestable salmon and steelhead catch. One of the key players in the controversy surrounding that decision was Billy Frank, a Nisqually tribal leader and outspoken champion of Indian rights. Frank's Landing, where Billy Frank and his 95-year-old father lived, became the center of a battle (the famous "Fish Wars") that captivated the entire country. This account of the events leading up to Judge Boldt's decision is remarkably broad in scope, given its length (the 128 pages include 52 photographs and three maps). The authors have written a history not only of a single event but also of the fight for Native American rights in America. The combination of legal analysis and oral history (some fascinating people tell their stories) produces a balanced, thoughtful look at a subject that is as timely and important now as it was 25 years ago. --David Pitt



Chapter One MUCK CREEK Billy's dad was born in 1879. A half-century of non-Indian occupation had wrought many changes to the Nisqually village on the southern edge of the Muck Creek prairie. To enhance the fur trade, in 1833 the Hudson's Bay Company founded Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound near the mouth of the Nisqually River. The Methodists established a mission in 1839, followed promptly by the Catholics, who would be the most successful Christian proselytizers. Each year, a few farm families arrived on the Overland Trail or by ship. The small settlement of Tumwater started up in 1845.     By the early 1850s the policy of Manifest Destiny began to make its mark. An 1818 treaty between England and the United States had left the Pacific Northwest to the joint occupancy of the two nations, but an understanding evolved that the Americans would stay below the Columbia River. In 1846 the nations settled their claims, with the Americans taking control over what is now Washington and Oregon. As a result, the numbers of Americans in the southern Puget Sound area steadily increased. The town of Olympia, founded ten miles west of the Nisqually River, became a magnet for shipping and agriculture. The United States established Fort Steilacoom several miles north of the river. The Donation Land Act of 1850, the precursor of the general homestead policy, drew still more arrivals with its promise of free land in the Oregon Territory, which at that time included Washington. Although these developments assured good farmland and bustling communities to the Americans, they brought mostly woe to the Nisqually people.     As was true among all the tribes, European diseases cut a broad swath. Epidemics struck soon after the creation of Fort Nisqually. While wars and random violence would kill off some of the Nisqually, smallpox, measles, ague, and tuberculosis played far the greater role in the precipitous drop in Nisqually tribal population from about 2,000 in 1800 to fewer than 700 by the 1880s. And so, the deep changes worked by the new arrivals were both point-of-the-rifle and circuitous, at once engineered and random: "My dad always told me that the white man came over the mountain with a Bible in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other."     Federal officials and the churches, partners in assimilationist policy, joined in a determined effort to stamp out the Nisqually world view. "These people tried to teach us that our way of life was no good. Our way of talking was bad. Our way of thinking about life was bad. Our smokehouses were bad. Taking only what we needed was bad. Our offering back to the deer and the bear was bad. Our religion was bad." Their very names were bad. Billy's grandfather, Klucket-suh, shod horses for a farmer named Frank. The Indian agent, in the common administrative convenience of the time, renamed him "Frank's Indian." Billy's dad, Qui-Lash-Kut, became "William Frank."     The defining moments for the world Billy's dad was born into had come in the tumultuous mid-1850s, with the Nisqually--United States treaty and its aftermath. The treaties were a critical part of federal policy. Although the United States had obtained land title as against England and the European nations by means of international treaties, the tribes' land title remained in place. As Chief Justice John Marshall put it in the leading case, the tribes were "the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just title to retain possession of it." Only the United States could obtain the tribes' land title from them. This meant that homesteading could not legally proceed on Indian lands until the tribe transferred title to the United States. The treaties also had the advantage, from the United States' side, of confining Indian people to much smaller parcels of land. Creation of the reservations made the assimilation -- that is, the eradication of Indian tribes as discrete societies and cultures -- far more efficient.     Treaty time came for the Nisqually Tribe in late 1854. The driving force behind it was Isaac Stevens, President Pierce's appointment in 1853 as governor of the new and sprawling Territory of Washington, which stretched to northern Idaho and western Montana. Stevens also served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. By 1854 Stevens, then thirty-six-years old, energetic and ambitious in the extreme, took on the task of negotiating treaties with the tribes of the whole territory. In less than a year he had negotiated eleven major treaties, most involving several tribes. From one standpoint his mission was a success, for after his non-stop caravan had done its work with the Flathead and Blackfeet tribes in Montana, Stevens had acquired most tribal lands in the Northwest in the name of the United States     But his bullying tactics got him into trouble, causing resentment among the tribal peoples, which in several instances welled up into bloody rebellion. Stevens, who had graduated first in his class at West Point, saw treaty-making as a command-and-obey process, not a negotiation. He knew what he wanted going in and did not plan on departing from his course. The first of the Stevens treaties, at Medicine Creek with the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island tribes, was the start of it.     Stevens announced a treaty council for December 24, 1854, at Medicine Creek, a small stream the Nisqually called She-Na-Num, just to the west of the Nisqually River. The principal negotiators for the Nisqually would be Quiemuth and his brother, Leschi. Stevens had drawn up the treaty in advance.     The three tribes, while they never thought of land as a commodity that could be owned or sold, knew that Stevens' council would be a monumental event. George Gibbs, a member of Stevens' party, reported that the delegations of Indians, six to seven hundred in number, arrived over land and in cedar canoes and that they wore "all kinds of fantastic dresses." The talks took place out on marshy ground, the big firs and cedars on the sloping banks serving as backdrop. It rained most of the three days. The "treaty tree," a live fir then, a snag now, still stands as remembrance.     The Indian people, who spoke Salish, knew virtually no English. Stevens had an interpreter who was fluent in Salish, but the governor insisted that these discussions of transcendent matters be conducted in the 500 words of the Chinook jargon. Like pidgin English, the Chinook jargon was a rudimentary device for trade, a patchwork of English, French, and various tribal languages. How could it possibly speak to sovereignty, land ownership, fishing rights, assimilation, freedom, or the futures of societies?     In one sense, the inadequacy of the Chinook jargon mattered little. Stevens had his script and he meant to keep to it. The Nisqually leader Leschi -- proud, fiery, and defiant -- presented the main obstacle. He refused Stevens' request to draw a map of aboriginal Nisqually territory. He tore apart a document identifying him as a Nisqually subchief. He may have refused to sign the treaty altogether. Some witnesses said he did sign. Others said that the "X" beside his name was forged.     Leschi was incensed by the reservation assigned to the Nisqually. It was small -- only two sections, just 1,280 acres or two square miles. And it lay up on the bluff to the west of the Nisqually River. The thickly wooded land gave no access to the river for fishing and took in none of the broad, sweeping prairies that characterized the watershed and that the Nisqually people loved. Squally means "prairie grass waving in the wind." The Tribe's name for itself, Squally-absch (changed to Nisqually by the whites), means "the people of the grass country."     But Stevens got his treaty signed, as originally written, by leaders of the three tribes. After the Senate confirmed it, the United States owned most of the southern Puget Sound and areas beyond -- 2.5 million acres in all -- free and clear.     Stevens included in Article Three a clause securing to the tribes the right to take fish "at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, ... in common with all citizens of the Territory." He knew the tribes would never sign without it. He also had his own reasons: fishing would feed the Indians, thereby reducing the federal government's responsibility for them; furthermore, during the presumably brief interlude that the tribes would continue to exist as discrete cultures, the incoming white farmers would want Indians available to harvest and trade salmon.     What Isaac Stevens could never have foreseen is that, more than a century later, courts would be confronted with vibrant Indian societies and his opaque phraseology about Indian fishing rights. Those judges would carefully note that Stevens had controlled the negotiations, had conducted them in the Chinook jargon rather than in tribal languages, and had written down the promises in English. The judges would further reason that, because the tribes had the right to fish before the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, and because the United States had a trustee's duty to protect the tribes, any relinquishment of their rights would require circumstances far more convincing of tribal intent than those orchestrated by Stevens.     The treaty definitely signaled an ending. It also marked a beginning. As Billy puts it, "They tried to move us off our river, off our plains. That's where our food was, our living was -- all of our summer lodges, our winter lodges. Our salmon came back here. Basically, Leschi just said, `We're not moving.' That's when the war started."     Leschi had a strong following among the Nisqually. He was a powerful orator with a commanding presence: he carried himself well -- accounts typically emphasize his penetrating gaze. He was fair-minded: the Nisqually looked to him to judge disputes among tribal members. And there was another reason why the Nisqually followed Leschi in rebelling against the events at Medicine Creek. He was rock-solid right about the treaty. Leave aside that it was a dictated set of words that rightly wounded the Nisqually pride. Beyond that, the treaty was wrong in substance, draconian in its implications. Forcing the Nisqually -- a salmon and prairie people -- onto two square miles atop a wooded bluff was mean-spirited, despicable. It was bad tribal policy, bad federal policy. What kind of leader, what kind of people, would let that stand?     The Nisqually clearly were digging in. Although Leschi had been well regarded by the settlers, rumblings among the white people began to target him as a troublemaker. Tensions moved to a new level after Stevens finished his treaty-making with the Yakama in June 1855. The Nisqually and the Yakama had close relations, and the horseback messages from one side of the Cascades to the other steeled the resolve of both tribes. The Indian agent to the Yakama was killed, presumably by tribal members. By late summer and early fall, Leschi was meeting with white people -- both territorial officials and settlers -- trying to understand the full context and forestall violence. But Leschi was not going to let his people be moved to Stevens' reservation.     Like so many Indian wars, the Nisqually--United States firestorm was ignited by the confusions and miscalculations stemming from the gulf between such disparate cultures. On October 22, 1855, Acting Governor Charles Mason (Stevens was out in Montana negotiating the Blackfeet treaty) met with Leschi. Both men were firm in their positions. Mason was spurred on by a letter from James McAllister, a farmer since 1844 on the Nisqually Delta whose name would later be given to Medicine Creek, claiming that Leschi "has been doing all that he could possibly do to unite the Indians to raise against the whites in a hostile manner." Two days after his meeting with Leschi, Mason sent out nineteen members of Eaton's Rangers, a detachment of volunteers, to bring in Leschi and Quiemuth, probably reasoning that protective custody would work as a cooling-off period. The soldiers headed off toward the Cascade foothills to track down the two men.     The Nisqually immediately learned of this march on their leaders and saw it as an act of aggression. On October 27, the Rangers received word that McAllister and another volunteer, who had been sent ahead as scouts, had been shot and killed. This incident seems to have been based on a misunderstanding: the volunteers apparently wanted only to talk to the Nisqually but a tribal lookout interpreted their actions as threatening. Later that day, a group of Nisqually approached the soldiers' camp. Although the soldiers had orders not to fire first, Andrew Laws had trigger itch. He shot down one of the Nisqually men, and the war was on. As Cecilia Svinth Carpenter, Nisqually tribal historian, wrote, "Indian drums sounded throughout the foothills and not a canoe was seen in the river."     The conflict -- pitched battles followed by interludes where the Nisqually, who knew the terrain better, hid out in the deep woods--went on for more than eight months. Leschi, who probably never had more than 300 troops, developed a disciplined military force. Billy's dad was born a generation after the war, but Billy's grandfather, while too young to fight, remembered the time well, and the memories have been passed down to Billy with precision.     "Leschi trained his troops up on the Muck Creek prairie. My grandfather used to watch the soldiers disciplining their horses with a maneuver they called `the wheel.'" The horsemen, about twenty in number, would line up in a straight row. Half of the horsemen -- those on the right -- would be facing north, the other half facing south. Then they would march their horses, always holding their line, like a long, single-bladed propeller. This training maneuver, of course, was never used in combat, but Leschi made regular and good use of it to create readiness.     Lives were lost on both sides during the many skirmishes. The greatest tragedy took place upriver, where Ohop Creek and the Mashel River join with the Nisqually River. Several families -- people who were not warriors, people who wanted to stay away from the conflict -- had retreated to the area, which was near Leschi's native village. Except for the few open prairies, it is steep, choppy country, the rugged foothills building up to Mount Rainer, thick with blackberry bushes and vine maple, good country to hide out in, but difficult to escape in if caught by surprise. In April 1856, Captain Hamilton J. C. Maxon and his troops came upon a small Nisqually encampment near Ohop Creek and killed everyone in it. Then Maxon and his men discovered a larger group of several families in a fishing camp near the confluence of the Mashel and the Nisqually rivers. Most of the people were women and children; a witness, Robert Thompson, counted only two men. Maxon ordered his soldiers to charge the defenseless Nisqually families. They slaughtered some seventeen Nisqually and wounded many more. Billy's dad heard many accounts of Maxon's Massacre and recounted them during a taped interview.     "Those Indians at the massacre, they were ... up on the hill looking down at the place where the Mashel runs into the Nisqually. They said the soldiers came on them and the Indians all ran down the hill and swam across the [Nisqually] and ran up the other side. And the soldiers were shooting them from the top of the hill. There was a woman carrying a baby on her back and they shot her. She and the baby fell into the river and floated down.... Some of the young got away--climbed up the hill on the other side of the river. I don't know how many they killed, but there were a lot of them."     The territorial authorities finally took custody of Leschi in November 1856. His nephew Sluggia, who knew of Leschi's desire for peace, had been offered a reward for Leschi's capture. Taking his people's chief by surprise, Sluggia captured him and took him to Steilacoom, where Leschi was arrested. Sluggia's breach of family and nationhood soon was avenged by Wa He Lut, one of Leschi's most able lieutenants. Wa He Lut killed Sluggia for his treason.     Three days after Leschi's arrest, the Territory tried him for the murder of Colonel A. Benton Moses, an American soldier. Leschi's lawyers argued -- in addition to the fact that he had not committed the act -- that this was done in war and should not be punished in civilian courts. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. After a re-trial of one day, a jury of local non-Indians found him guilty. On appeal, Leschi spoke to the Supreme Court of the Territory through an interpreter.     "I do not know anything about your laws. I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too....     "I went to war because I believed that the Indian had been wronged by the white men, and I did everything in my power to beat the Boston soldiers, but, for lack of numbers, supplies and ammunition, I have failed.     "I deny that I had any part in the killing.... As God sees me, this is the truth."     Leschi's nobility carried through to the end. On February 19, 1858, three hundred people gathered around an outdoor gallows erected on a prairie near Fort Steilacoom and watched the condemned prisoner ride in on horseback. A few Nisqually stood at the edges of the crowd. The steady pounding of the old drums out in the distance, though, showed that all the people knew. The Nisqually leader's hangman, Charles Grainger, had his own vivid recollections.     "Leschi was a square-built man, and I should judge would weigh about 170 pounds. He was about five feet six inches tall. He had a very strong, square jaw and very piercing, dark brown eyes. He would look almost through you, a firm but not a savage look. His lower jaw and eyes denoted firmness of character....     "He did not seem to be the least bit excited at all -- nothing of the kind, and that is more than I could say for myself. In fact Leschi seemed to be the coolest of any on the scaffold. He was in good flesh and had a firm step and mounted the scaffold without assistance, and as well as I did myself. I felt then I was hanging an innocent man, and I believe it yet."     Some history blows away like ashes in the wind. Other history lives on as coals that smolder hot, that never go out. Once I asked Billy what he thinks of when he hears the phrase "the war." Billy answered without a pause: "The Leschi War." This is history that smolders on yet. (Continues...)

Table of Contents

Introduction: 1945p. 3
Chapter 1 Muck Creekp. 8
Chapter 2 Nisqually Riverp. 29
Chapter 3 George Hugo Boldtp. 49
Chapter 4 Fort Lewisp. 66
Chapter 5 Wa He Lutp. 88
Afterwordp. 103
Acknowledgmentsp. 105
Bibliographyp. 109
Creditsp. 117