SkEba’kst: The Lake People and Seward Park

Evidence of human habitation in western Washington extends back at least 10,000 years. Archaeological excavations at West Point in Discovery Park confirm that the Seattle area has been inhabited by humans for at least four thousand years and probably much longer. The early inhabitants of this area settled predominantly along the sound, rivers, and lakes, which were important both for food and for transportation. These early inhabitants of Puget Sound and their descendents have been known in historic times as the Coast Salish or Puget Sound Salish. Their language is Lushootseed.

The written record of the Puget Sound Salish begins in 1792 with the voyage of George Vancouver. At that time, Vancouver observed evidence that smallpox was “common” and had probably decimated the native populations. Thus the Salish populations encountered by the first Euro-American settlers 60 years after Vancouver were probably only a fraction of those present a few generations previously. One of those who survived this period was Chief Seattle, who recalled Vancouver’s visit when he was a small boy. Seattle, whose father was Suquamish and whose mother was Duwamish, is thought to have spent his youth on the Duwamish and White Rivers south of Lake Washington. Seattle’s daughter Kick-is-om-lo, later called Angeline, was said to have been born on Lake Washington near the present Atlantic City Park, which was then a marsh called Tuxwoo’kwib, or “place of loon”.

SkEba’kst and Cka’lapsEb

The indigenous people who lived on Lake Washington at the time of Euro-American settlement referred to the lake as xachu and called themselves the xachua’bsh (hah-chu-AHBSH), or “lake people”. The lake drained out the Black River in what is now Renton. The Black River joined the Cedar and White (now Green) Rivers to become the Duwamish River, which emptied into Elliot Bay.

The xachua’bsh called the peninsula that now forms Seward Park skEba’kst (skuh-BAHKST), from the word for “nose”. They referred to the isthmus as cqa’lapsEb (TSKAH-lap-suhb), from the word for “neck”. The isthmus was only a few hundred feet wide at the time and became flooded seasonally, turning the peninsula into an island. A large marsh occupied the area to the north of the modern park entrance circle, draining into what is now Andrews Bay. The natural resources of the lake, bay, and peninsula were probably important to the xachua’bsh from an early date.

Longhouses and Villages

The xachua’bsh are thought to have had two longhouses near Seward Park, perhaps on Brighton Beach at a place called xaxao’Ltc (ha-HAO-hlch), the “sacred or taboo place”. Additional longhouses were found on the southwest shore at SExti’tcb or “by means of swiming” (Bryn Mawr), at TL’Ltcus (TLEELH-chus) or “little island” (Pritchard’s Island), and to the north at Leschi Park, called Fleaburg by the Euro-American settlers.

On the east shore, villages were found at sa’tsakaL, or “water at head of a bay” (Mercer Slough) and cbaltu, or “place where things are dried” (May Creek). Several additional villages were located at Union Bay and further north on the lake.

Major settlements were found south of the lake in the Renton area. Several villages were located along the Black, Cedar, and Duwamish Rivers. These people were called txwduwa’bsh or “inside people”, which became anglicized as “Duwamish” or similar variants. The name referred to those who lived on the duw (“inside” or “inland”) river. The name was transferred by Euro-American settlers to the river, to the lake, to their fledgling city on Elliott Bay (known first as Duwamps before it was renamed Seattle), and eventually to all the native people of the Seattle area.

The Seasonal Cycle

The longhouses and villages were used primarily in the winter months (November to March). Longhouses were made of split cedar planks and lined with cattail mats. Each longhouse held multiple families. Each village had a few to several longhouses, usually including a potlatch house. Winters were spent singing the songs of the spirit helpers that gave each person power, holding potlatch ceremonies, and doing other rituals.

In the spring, families dispersed to take advantage of various food resources. They traveled about, living in temporary shelters until the salmon season ended in the fall.During spring on skEba’kst (the peninsula), women probably gathered salmonberry shoots and bracken fern fiddleheads, while men hunted deer or elk grazing on the skunk cabbage. Women would have gathered important wetland plants from the marshy cqa’lapsEb (isthmus), such as cattails for mats and wapato (“Indian potatoes”) for food. In late spring families would gather shellfish from the sound. Crayfish and freshwater mussels were available in the lake.

Women would also have gathered or traded for camas from nearby prairies. These open areas were regularly burned to eliminate encroaching trees and shrubs. This helped encourage certain berries, fern roots, bulbs and other useful plants. A cleared area may have been maintained around the longhouses at Brighton Beach by such intentional burning. Garry oaks, whose thick bark helps them survive fires, are typically associated with prairies, and their presence at Seward and Martha Washington Parks suggests that a prairie extended between these parks. The oaks may have been planted by the xachua’bsh for their acorns, which were eaten. In the summers, xachua’bsh women turned to gathering berries. Seward Park has thimbleberries, salal, black cap raspberries, salmonberries, trailing blackberries, serviceberries, strawberries, huckleberries, and others. The berries were eaten fresh, or dried and formed into cakes to preserve them for winter.

In midsummer the men became busy with the fishing season, which lasted through November. Silver salmon entered Wetmore Slough (now Genesee Park) to spawn in sqa’ts1d, or “blocked mouth” (Genessee Creek, which formerly drained Rainier Valley). Possibly the name of the creek indicates that a fishing weir blocked the mouth of the stream. Such weirs were made from the willows that occur abundantly along the lakeshore. Fish were dried on racks to preserve them for the winter months. During the long wet winter, the diet of dried fish and berries was supplemented by hunting ducks, beaver, muskrat, raccon, otter, and bear.

On the east shore, villages were found at sa’tsakal, or “water at head of a bay” (Mercer Slough) and šbal’t, or “place where things are dried” (May Creek). Additional villages were located at the north end of the lake.

Major settlements were found south of the lake in the Renton area. Several villages were located along the Black, Cedar, and Duwamish Rivers, including one called txwduwa’bš or “inside people”, which became anglicized as “Duwamish” or similar variants. The name referred specifically to this village, but it was also a general term for those who lived on the duw (“inside”or “inland”) river. The name was transferred by white settlers to the river, the lake, their fledgling city on Elliott Bay (known as Duwamps before it was renamed Seattle), and eventually to all the native people of the Seattle area.

Lake Spirits

Besides providing food, the lake was home to powerful spirits. The previously mentioned “taboo place” xaxao’lc at Brighton Beach south of the peninsula derives its name from the fact that a supernatural spirit was said to live in the lake there. The unusual sound of the babbling waters at this place indicated its presence.

Near Colman Park lived an ?ya’hos, a horned spirit that was associated with landslides and earthquakes. Remarkably, this is the approximate location of the Seattle Fault, which moved more than 20 feet vertically about 1100 years ago. This quake caused a landslide at South Point on Mercer Island, sending a large section of forest into the lake. Little earth beings were said to inhabit the tree stumps there and drove insane a man trying to harvest the bark from the stumps.

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The Duwamish Tribe Today

In 1854 and 1855 Governor Isaac Stevens succeeded in getting representatives of the Puget Sound Salish to sign treaties in which they agreed to move onto reservations in exchange for certain rights and guarantees. Discontent over the terms of the treaties led to the Indian war of 1856, which included an Indian attack that failed to take the town of Seattle. The lake and river people who became known as the Duwamish were ordered to go to the reservation at Port Madison, but most refused to go. Proposals to grant a reservation in the Black River (Renton) area were opposed by Euro-American settlers, and the Duwamish were never granted a reservation or other treaty rights.

Today most Duwamish still live in Seattle and King County. They have fought for decades to gain federal recognition as a tribe with treaty rights. In the last days of the Clinton administration, they were finally granted official recognition, but this decision was voided by the Bush administration. They continue to seek federal recognition, and to maintain and adapt their traditions in the modern world. They are currently working to build a longhouse to act as a tribal and cultural center. Duwamish tribe website

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Clark’s Prairie: Pioneers and Natives
on Southwest Lake Washington 1852-1860

The peninsula that comprises Seward Park was one of the first locations claimed by white settlers in the Seattle area. Who were these pioneering settlers and what did they do here?

Xacu and Lake Geneva

In 1850 Col. Isaac Ebey of Olympia set out to explore Puget Sound in a canoe, probably with hired Lushootseed guides. He traveled up the Duwamish and Black Rivers, and became the first white settler to see the lake that his guides called xacu (hah-chu) in Lushootseed or hyas chuck in the Chinook jargon. Ebey called it Lake Geneva. Ebey presumably saw the Seward Park peninsula, but he did not mention it in the report he made of his trip. Nevertheless, his favorable report on the region soon attracted other settlers.

John Harvey and Edward Clark

The first white settlers on Lake Washington were John Harvey and Edward A. Clark. John Harvey, an Englishman, went to sea at an early age and eventually came to California in 1849, where he worked in the gold mines. There he met Edward. A. Clark, a former clergyman from Pennsylvania. Clark had married Susannah Crist in 1847, but he left her and a son behind in Pennsylvania when he went to California in 1850, probably to hunt gold. Disenchanted with the gold rush, Harvey and Clark, both age 24, took a ship north, entering Oregon Territory on March 17, 1852. They arrived at Alki on Puget Sound by early April, when Harvey (and probably also Clark) worked for John Low of the Denny party under a contract to get pilings.

After completing the contract, Harvey and Clark staked adjoining claims on Lake Washington in the Seward Park-Brighton Beach area on April 10, 1852, about the same time that the Denny party was moving from Alki to Pioneer Square. They shared a cabin that spanned the common boundary of their claims so that each could live on his claim but not be alone in the wilderness. The use of the name “Clark’s Prairie” suggests that they chose their claims on an area previously maintained as a clearing by the Lake Indians (xacuabš), near a sacred Taboo Place on Brighton Beach.

Like most other pioneer men, John Harvey worked for Henry Yesler’s sawmill in the early years, logging the Hanford and Holgate claims that ran from Elliot Bay up Beacon Hill. He invested his earnings in his claim, making over $2000 of improvements. According to a somewhat fictionalized account of Clark’s life by pioneer Cornelius Hanford, Clark worked for George McClellan preparing the report of the transcontinental railroad survey of 1853.

In the fall of 1853, settlers in Renton built a mill and a dam on the Black River, which raised the lake by six feet in six weeks and blocked the free passage of canoes. This probably turned the peninsula on Harvey and Clark’s doorstep into an island, since the peninsula is not mentioned in the description of their claim boundaries recorded for King County during this period. The lake remained at this level until the dam and mill were burned during the Indian war of 1855-56.

By 1854, E. A. Clark owned “a pretentious two-story frame building” near Yesler’s sawmill, which he called his “What-Cheer-House”. The house was located on the southwest corner of what is currently First Avenue South and Yesler Way. Although settlers were required to live on their claims for four years in order to receive title to them, many settlers whose claims were outside the growing village of Seattle maintained a second residence in town. With his new location in town, Clark became the county auditor and a justice of the peace in 1855. Harvey remained on his farm on Clark’s Prairie, and Harvey family tradition suggests that he may have taken an Indian wife during this period. This was a common practice among Euro-American pioneer men, who outnumbered Euro-American women by about tenfold.


A traveler, James McCormick, was murdered on Lake Union in July, 1853, but the murder was not discovered until the following spring of 1854. Two Indians were lynched for the murder, and Clark led an angry mob that hoped to hang a third young Indian accused (and later acquitted) of being involved in the murder. Sheriff Carson Boren prevented the lynching. The young Indian who escaped Clark’s noose was later known as Cheshiahud or “Lake John”. He became a friend of David Denny and lived for many years on Portage Bay.The Battle of Seattle and Its Aftermath

In the fall and winter of 1855-1856, hostilities broke out between some Indians and the Euro-American settlers, primarily over discontent with the treaties enacted by Governor Isaac Stevens in 1854-1855. Harvey moved off his claim for ten months during this war, and it is likely that Clark did the same. These hostilities climaxed in the “Battle of Seattle” in January of 1856. Hostile Indians includingYakamas and Klickiats from east of the mountains assembled on Lake Washington to stage an attack on Seattle. Many friendly Indians took refuge in Seattle, including Cheshiahud.

The settlers retreated to a blockhouse on Eliott Bay at the end of Cherry St. Although the battle lasted only one day and had only two known fatalities, nearly every building in King County outside the village of Seattle was burned, including the cabin and outbuildings of Harvey and Clark and the dam on the Black River that had raised the lake.

After the war, Harvey relocated, eventually becoming one of the founding citizens of Snohomish, where his descendents run the Harvey Airfield. Clark presumably continued to live in his What-Cheer-House and became Seattle’s third schoolteacher, where he made such a lasting impression on young Cornelius Hanford that Hanford later wrote a fictionalized biography of his teacher. Clark sold his claim to the succeeding teacher David Graham on December 28, 1858 for $1600. A week later on January 6, 1859, Harvey also sold his claim to David Graham.

Clark became Seattle’s first photographer and opened a studio, probably in the What-Cheer-House. It was in front of this house that Clark took his two surviving photos, both of Henry and Sara Yesler’s home across the street. Clark died from unknown causes in 1860 at the age of 32. Although his wife and son knew of Clark’s claim on Lake Washington, they apparently never came to Seattle and were unaware that it had been sold to David Graham until years after Clark’s death.

Cheshiahud became a friend of David Denny and was sometimes known as Denny John. He had two wives; first Sbeilsdot or Lucy Annie and then Tleboletsa or Madeline. He appears to have lived at sa’tsakaL, or Mercer Slough, in the 1870s, where his daughter Jennie Davis grew up. He is thought to have lived on land on the southwest lakeshore near at SExt3i’tc1b (Bryn Mawr) until about 1880, when he sold it and bought land from David Denny at the foot of Shelby Street on Portage Bay. Sbeilsdot died about 1885, but Cheshiahud lived for many years on Portage Bay with Tleboletsa. His final years were spent at the Port Madison Reservation. In 1927, his daughter Jennie Davis provided a list of the villages along Lake Washington that is a primary source of current knowledge of the village locations.

Andrews’ Peninsula and Graham’s Peninsula 1861-1889

The Grahams and the Mercers

David Graham and his older brother Walter were from Putnam, New York. Walter left New York in March 1853 at the age of 24 for Aurora, Illinois, where he stayed only briefly before setting out for California to find gold. He soon made his way to Seattle in the fall of 1853. He worked in Yesler’s mill initially, then bought a farm on the Duwamish River in 1854 including what is now Allentown and Duwamish Riverbend Hill Park.

During the Battle of Seattle in 1856, he was famed for leaving the blockhouse and making his way to Thomas Mercer’s house to bake biscuits so the children would have something to eat. The smoke of his fire caught the attention of the Indians, who fired on him, and he fled from the house with the baked biscuits to the blockhouse, providing the only food of the day. His farm on the Duwamish was burned in the war. Later that year he married Elizabeth Ann (Eliza) Mercer, age 15, daughter of Thomas Mercer. They were married by E. A. Clark. Mercer Girls:

David Graham followed his brother west, arriving in Seattle in April 1857. He worked as a surveyor’s helper and then succeeded E. A. Clark as the schoolteacher. He bought Harvey’s and Clark’s claims probably with the intention of working the farm started by Harvey. Donation land claims in south Seattle were surveyed by the 1861 cadastral survey. The boundaries of Harvey’s and Clark’s claims were affected by the change in lake level after the Black River dam was burned in 1856. Perhaps to ensure that the claims were the legal size, the boudaries were re-assigned along the survey transects, so that David Graham’s property now included the isthmus of the peninsula as well as the adjacent “mainland”. The 1861 survey notes refer to the peninsula as “Andrews’ peninsula” and the bay as “Andrews’ Bay”, but no Andrews is known to have lived in the vicinity and it remains a mystery for whom the bay is named.

In 1861, David married Suzanna Mercer, the sister of Eliza. Suzanna hated farming, so they lived in Seattle rather than on the lake. Her sister Eliza bore Walter two children before she died in October of 1862 from an infection resulting from a riding accident. In 1863 David and Suzanna traded their claims on Lake Washington for Walter’s farm on the Duwamish. David convinced Suzanna to move to the farm for one season, and they ended up staying 12 years. Eventually they became the first white citizens in Washington Territory to adopt children.

In 1863 Walter bought an additional lot on the west side of Andrews Bay, north of Harvey’s claim. Together with Harvey’s and Clark’s old claims, he owned 334 acres along a mile of lakeshore between the present day streets of Hudson and Myrtle, including the isthmus of the peninsula. Walter never owned the main part of the peninsula, but later it was nevertheless referred to as “Graham’s peninsula” in the journal of Clara Collman, as the Grahams were the nearest residents. Walter made his home in Brighton Beach, near Eddy St. and 57th Ave. It seems likely that this was previously the site of Harvey’s and Clark’s cabin. He planted an apple orchard along the lakeshore just south of the present Graham Street.

In May of 1864, Eliza’s and Suzanna’s uncle Asa Mercer brought to Seattle the first set of “Mercer girls” from the East, intended to be brides for Seattle pioneers. One of the new arrivals was Catherine Adams Stickney. Catherine Adams of Townsend, Massachusetts had married her neighbor Alvah Stickney in 1858, but divorced him soon afterwards. Within two months of her arrival in Seattle, she married Walter Graham and became the first white woman to live in the Seward Park area.

Walter sold 100 acres of his land south of Graham Street to Asa Mercer in 1865. Asa in turn gave this land to John and Zipporah Wilson in 1869 to repay a $1500 loan after Asa went bankrupt during his second expedition for brides. The Wilsons made their home on the present site of Martha Washington Park. The same year Catherine Stickney died. Walter soon returned to New York and brought back his childhood friend Elizabeth Crommon to be his third wife. She bore him two more children. In 1874 they sold 40 acres of their land on Graham Hill between Juneau and Graham Streets to Roswell and Mary Scott, and moved temporarily to Paso Robles, California. In 1882 the Grahams sold their land north of Juneau Street, including the north side of the isthmus, to B. W. Johns, retaining only 65 acres adjacent to the south side of the isthmus.

B. W. Johns sold half of the land to Judge Cornelius H. Hanford (E. A. Clark’s biographer) the following year, and they platted the property as B. W. John’s and C. Hanford’s 5- Acre Tracts in 1887. Ownership of Graham Hill returned to the Grahams in 1885, but. in 1889 the Grahams sold the remainder of their property to John W. Edwards, a lumber mill manager and real estate investor. Edwards sold it the same day to Joshua M. Sears of Boston, who placed it in a trust for his wife Sarah Choate Sears.

Joshua Sears was the richest man in Boston. His wife Sarah was an artist who used her family wealth to help promote other artists. A portrait of her was painted by John Singer Sargent.

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The Bailey Peninsula

Philip Ritz and John S. Maggs

Except for the northern tip, all of the peninsula to the east of Graham’s property was bought from the government by Philip Ritz in September 1868 for $1.25/acre. The northernmost 12.75 acre lot on the peninsula was bought two months later by John S. Maggs for $15.94. Philip Ritz was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1827, and went to California in 1850 for the gold rush. He quickly decided that the gold rush wasn’t for him, and made his way to Corvalis, Oregon where he became an orchardist and nurseryman. He was sufficiently successful that when he sold his business to move to Walla Walla in 1863, it was valued at $10,000 and carried over 1,000 kinds of plants. His Columbia Valley Nursery in Walla Walla prospered for decades.

In 1867 he became involved in lobbying efforts promoting the Northern Pacific Railroad. When visiting Commencement Bay in 1868 to assess it as a terminus for the railroad, he suggested that Commencement City change its name to Tacoma, the Lushootseed name for nearby Mount Rainier. Around the same time he began investing in land in King County and in several other counties in Washington. In September of 1868 he paid $188.44 for 151 acres of the Seward Park peninsula. In 1878 his involvement with railroad construction led him to spend a few years in Adams County, where the town of Ritzville grew from his settlement there. He died in Walla Walla in 1889.

John S. Maggs was an employee of Henry Webster of Port Townsend, who had an Indian trading post in Neah Bay. Maggs’ purchase of the tip of the Seward Park peninsula was one of several waterfront purchases he made: he also bought Evergreen Point in Medina, Webster Point in Laurelhurst (later sold to Webster), part of Sand Point and part of Smith’s Cove. He sold the tip of the Seward Park peninsula to Webster in 1883. Webster died the same year, leaving the land to his widow Mary. In the 1890s, Maggs became President of the Seattle Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. In 1899 the John S. Maggs Water Company was started from a spring on the west side of Lake Union between Galer and Garfield. The company supplied water to the region south of Lake Union until 1950. John Maggs at Point No Point lighthouse

The Bailey Peninsula

William E. Bailey was a Pennsylvania investor and the son of the successful iron manufacturer Charles L. Bailey of Harrisburg. William came to Puget Sound in 1888 and settled in Seattle in March of 1889. In late March and early April he bought the main part of the Seward Park peninsula from the recently widowed Catherine Ritz and her daughters, the tip of the peninsula from Mary Webster, and two six-acre lots on the isthmus of the peninsula from Cornelius Hanford. He owned all of the peninsula except the south part of the isthmus, which was bought by Joshua Sears in early April of the same year. John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears

Bailey was quick to capitalize on business opportunities in the wake of the June 1889 fire, and acquired significant properties downtown as well as numerous other properties. He was president or vice-president of two or three investment firms. He bought the Seattle Press in 1890 and the Times in 1891, and convinced his friend Erastus Brainerd to run the combined Press-Times. The paper did poorly and Bailey sold it in 1895. He was appointed one of three Parks Commissioners from 1890-1896, but he moved to Philadelphia before his term was completed.<

In 1892 during Bailey’s tenure as Parks Commissioner, the prominent landscape architect E. O. Schwagerl proposed acquiring the “Bailey Peninsula” as part of his masterplan for the new park system, begun when David Denny donated the present Denny Park to the city in the 1880s. Schwagerl was hired as Seattle’s second Parks Superintendent the following year to put his plan of parks and connecting boulevards into motion. Clearly Bailey must have known of Schwagerl’s plan shortly after he bought the peninsula. In 1900 George F. Cotterill organized volunteers to build 25 miles of bicycle trails that became the foundation of the boulevard system.

In 1903, the city hired the Olmsted Brothers to develop a city-wide plan for parks. The Olmsteds expanded on Schwagerl’s plans and Cotterill’s bike paths, and hoped to make the Bailey peninsula the most important acquisition of the park system. The Bailey family was aware of this proposal but refused to set a price for years. Finally in 1908 they offered to sell for $2000/acre. The city thought this was exorbitant, and after passing a park bond in 1910 proceeded with condemnation, eventually paying a fair-market value of $1500/acre. The peninsula sold for a total of $322,020.

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Seward Park

In the aftermath of the successful Alaska-Yukon Exposition of 1909, the new park was named after William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State who arranged for the purchase of Alaska.

In the first few years trails and a picnic area were built in the park. Lake Washington Boulevard was extended from Mt. Baker to Seward Park in 1913. The Rainier Valley Fiesta in 1915 drew thousands of people to the new park on what was now called the “Scenic Peninsula”.

by Paul Talbert