Seeking justice for the chief: 150 years later, Leschi will get a retrial

PUYALLUP — The celebrated life of Chief Leschi ended with his body swinging from the gallows one wintry day in 1858.

Leschi — whose name is on a stylish Seattle neighborhood and lakefront park, schools in Seattle and Puyallup, and a Fort Lewis combat-training center — was found guilty of murdering a soldier in the Washington Territorial Militia during an ambush. He became the first person in the new Washington Territory to be executed.

But the conviction has long been controversial, with many arguing the Nisqually tribal chief was a victim of racial prejudice and scapegoating.

This week, nearly a century and a half after his death, Leschi will get a retrial.

On Friday, several retired and sitting judges, including two current state Supreme Court justices, will revisit Leschi's conviction in an effort prompted by the tribe to place a postscript to their chief's story: not guilty.

"For generations, our elders, my grandparents, my great-uncle have talked about how this needs to be corrected," said Cynthia Iyall, a descendant of Leschi's sister.

"We've been living with history and this is the time to correct it right now."

Nisqually leaders, along with historians, academics and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, will argue that Leschi was wrongfully convicted. The case, explained tribal attorney Bill Tobin, will be based primarily on the fact that Leschi, as leader of a sovereign nation, was a lawful combatant and therefore could not be charged with murder during a time of war.

The Pierce County Prosecutor's Office will represent the prosecution.

The judgment will have no legal standing, so the proceedings are more akin to an historical inquiry.

But next week will be more than just a symbolic act for the Nisqually, who opted against seeking a pardon from the governor for Leschi. A pardon would have acknowledged Leschi's guilt, and many Indians believe the chief was nowhere near where the slaying of A. Benton Moses, the militiaman, occurred.

"He is our historical icon," said Iyall as she stood at Leschi's grave, a stone's throw from the Emerald Queen Casino on the nearby Puyallup reservation. "We feel a lot of pride in him and we don't want him portrayed as a murderer."

It is Iyall, the tribe's economic-development specialist, who is largely responsible for next week's judicial review. Like all Nisquallies, she grew up hearing stories of the tall, broad-shouldered man. His people say he can still be occasionally seen riding his horse across the plains.

A history buff since her youth, Iyall became good friends with Sherman Leschi, the last male Leschi descendant, who died three years ago.

"He just said, 'Get it done. This was wrong.' " she recalled.

Standing up for his tribe

In the 19th century, the Nisquallies lived in 13 villages along freshwater streams and saltwater beaches from Mt. Rainier to Puget Sound. They were fishermen and horsemen. They didn't have a chief until Isaac Stevens, governor of the new territory of Washington, sought to negotiate land and fishing treaties with the Indians. Stevens appointed Leschi and his brother Quiemuth as Nisqually chiefs.

Leschi was a superb orator and was often called upon to settle disagreements within the tribe, according to Nisqually historian Cecelia Svinth Carpenter. It surprised no one that Leschi assumed a leadership role: His people believed a star rose over the Nisqually Plains on the day he was born in 1808, predestining him to become a war chief.

As Nisqually elders tell it, Leschi always had a good relationship with the white settlers. He donated horses to pioneers and acted as an interpreter. But when Gov. Stevens presented Leschi with a proposal to resettle the tribe on high, forested land, away from a river, Leschi refused to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty.

An X appears before his name on the treaty, but many Indians doubt it came from Leschi.

Hostility between the Indians and Stevens, who secured a volunteer militia, erupted into the Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1854-55.

Calling a peace council, Stevens eventually changed the location of a future Nisqually reservation to a more attractive site. But he still regarded Leschi and his brother as enemies.

Leschi was captured, imprisoned at Fort Steilacoom and charged with killing Moses during an ambush at Connell's Prairie in Pierce County. Quiemuth turned himself in and was later murdered on the way to jail.

Leschi's first trial, held in Pierce County, ended with a hung jury. A second trial, moved to Thurston County, ended with a conviction and death sentence.

A scapegoat for war?

From the onset, according to several historical accounts, some believed Stevens used Leschi as a scapegoat for the war. The U.S. Army, which had considered Leschi a prisoner of war and not a criminal, refused to allow the hanging to take place at Fort Steilacoom. A scaffold was subsequently erected about a mile east.

Ezra Meeker, a pioneer and member of the first jury, wrote an account insisting Leschi should not have been convicted.

Ladenburg, the Pierce County executive and former prosecutor, took an interest in Leschi's story. He read Meeker's book and the appellate ruling upholding the conviction, noting some racially prejudiced language.

And he tried to understand the contradiction of a historical figure who was both popular local namesake and convicted murderer.

He met with Iyall and other Nisqually Indians, suggesting they didn't want a pardon but some sort of retrial that might rule Leschi shouldn't have been convicted in the first place.

"His good name should be restored," Ladenburg said.

Ladenburg joined Iyall and her Committee to Exonerate Chief Leschi, as well as the Washington State Historical Society, in lobbying for passage of state and house resolutions calling Leschi a benevolent and humane man who had been the victim of discrimination. The jury in the second trial, the resolutions noted, was not instructed to regard Leschi as a combatant, as the jury had done in the first trial.

In resolutions passed this spring, legislators recommended the Washington Supreme Court "right a gross injustice" and annul the conviction.

The court cannot set aside such a conviction because Leschi is no longer living, said Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. Moreover, the judicial body at the time was a federal territorial court and not a state court. Washington didn't become a state until 1889.

So Alexander suggested an historical court in which there could still be a quasi-adversarial process. The tribe agreed, hoping a favorable judgment might subsequently get noted in museum displays or in school textbooks.

"So grossly wrong"

Carl Hultman and a colleague in the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office will represent the prosecution. Hultman volunteered when he saw an e-mail request sent by his boss.

"I like reading the law, and ... I wanted to see what the first cases were in the first [law] volumes," Hultman said, referring to Washington territorial law. "The first criminal case reported was for the conviction and affirmation of the death sentence for Leschi. I was stunned. I had lived in the Leschi neighborhood. There's a school, a lot of places that bear his name. It was kind of a shock to not have known."

Hultman said he, too, was struck by an anti-Indian tone in the court ruling upholding the conviction:

The prisoner has occupied a position of influence, as one of a band of Indians, who, in connection with other tribes, sacrificed the lives of so many of our citizens, in the war so cruelly waged against our people on the waters of Puget Sound, the ruling begins.

Too many Indians have been burdened by such rhetoric and racial prejudice, Iyall said.. At least now, she said, a more impartial panel will assess history.

"Here we are, 150 years after the treaty. Perfect timing," said Iyall, who plans to distribute Leschi medallions to hundreds expected for Friday's event. She is certain of victory.

"It's just exciting to finally correct something so grossly wrong."

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Cynthia Iyall, a descendant of Chief Leschi's sister, visits the chief's grave near the Emerald Queen Casino in Puyallup. (ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Case of Chief Leschi

A "Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice" will reassess the 1858 murder conviction of Chief Leschi. The court includes seven judges, some sitting and some retired. They include two state Supreme Court justices, two state Court of Appeals justices, two superior court judges and one tribal court judge. The panel will convene at 1 p.m. on Friday at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Tickets are no longer available, but the trial can be seen in the Puget Sound area on TVW, cable channel 23, at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13.