A requiem for Chief Leschi
OLYMPIA, Wash. - For nearly the past century and a half the state of
Washington and the Nisqually tribe have held differing views of Chief
Leschi. To the state, then a U.S. territory, Chief Leschi (pronounced
Lesh-ai) was a convicted murderer who was hanged for his crime.
However, to the Nisqually, Chief Leschi is a tribal and regional icon, a
symbol of resistance against European invaders who the tribe feels was
unjustly accused of the crime for which he was sentenced to death.
Now, at the behest of the Nisqually tribe and Chief Leschi's descendants,
the erstwhile Nisqually chief will receive a posthumous trial to determine
whether the original 1858 trial correctly judged Chief Leschi's death.
On Nov. 8 the Washington state Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice
agreed to hear the case next month to revisit the original case and decide
whether a just decision was made.
"The effort is an attempt to correct the historical record for a historical
injustice," said Nisqually tribal attorney Bill Tobin, who will be one of
the lawyers for the defense.
Basic details of the case are that Chief Leschi was accused of the murder
of a Washington territorial militiaman named A.B. Moses. Since that time it
has passed into Nisqually and local lore that Chief Leschi was not the
killer and that the territorial militia had used him as a scapegoat. A
tribal press release described the actions taken against Chief Leschi as
the first such action taken in what is now Washington state.
The story behind the case is as strange and mesmerizing as almost any
celebrated murder trial since then. Perhaps one of the most interesting
facets about the case is that the defense admits that it is unknown whether
Chief Leschi actually fired the fatal shot, though Tobin claims that the
evidence against him was very flimsy and most likely would have been thrown
out in a modern court.
The case has its roots in the disputed Treaty of Medicine Creek which was
signed in the mid-1850s and involved the Nisqually as well as some other
Puget Sound area tribes. The tribe was moved from their fertile homelands
to a rocky and forested area overlooking Puget Sound. There was also some
dispute at the time over whether the "X" signed on the treaty was indeed
Chief Leschi's or if it had been forged.
Whatever the case, warfare broke out between the territorial militia and
the Nisqually tribe that culminated in a skirmish in which the unlucky Mr.
Moses met his fate. His was the only fatality on either side.
Leschi and other tribal members fled over the Cascade Mountains and
eventually surrendered in the eastern part of Washington state. Though the
tribe thought they had immunity because of their surrender, Leschi was
taken into custody and was given what proved to be the first of two trials.
In the first trial, the jury was instructed to regard Chief Leschi's
actions as if he was a combatant in a war. This first trial ended in a hung
There was much agitation from the local white populace and there was a
vigilante movement and militia uprisings. The trial was moved one county
south to the emerging territorial and current state capitol of Olympia.
This time the jury was not instructed on military action justification and
after widespread public agitation it was not the jury that was hung but
Chief Leschi, who was executed at Fort Steilacoom where he was being held.
It is also interesting to note that the U.S. military refused to get
involved in the case.
One of the jurors who voted for acquittal was famous Pacific Northwest
American pioneer Ezra Meeker. Meeker eventually wrote a book called "The
Tragedy of Chief Leschi" in 1905, over half a century after the event that
detailed the flimsiness of the case against Chief Leschi. Apparently his
anger over the decision had not faded in the half century interval and the
book detailed how the prosecution relied on the testimony of one witness
who could not have possibly been in a position to see whether Chief Leschi
had fired the fatal shot.
Ultimately, since the decision obviously can not reverse the original
punishment, the tribe sees this as more a symbolic exoneration of one of
their ancestors and iconic characters. In fact, Chief Leschi ranks only
second to the celebrated Chief Seattle as an Indian historical figure in
the Pacific Northwest, which is one of the reasons that the tribe and local
officials felt it so important to have a retrial.
This is only the second time that such a trial has been held in Washington
state. A few years ago, the entire Washington state Supreme Court held a
re-trial to reinstate to the bar a Japanese-American law student who had
been unjustly denied the bar.
This trial will differ from the first historical retrial in certain
respects. For instance, this trial will only feature two presiding jurists
from the Washington state Supreme Court and will include other jurists from
lower courts and even a tribal court judge from the Lummi tribe.
Joining Tobin among the team of lawyers representing the defense will be
Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. Ladenburg was formerly a county
prosecutor for 14 years and said he became interested in the fate of Chief
Leschi during that time and said he was shocked at the level of racism in
the original court records.
Ladenburg contends that a retrial is necessary not only for the tribe to
have piece of mind but also for the people of western Washington state.
Chief Leschi's name adorns streets, schools and developments in the region
and because of the prevalence of his name it is necessary to try and clear
him of any wrongdoing.
"It's important to correct the historical record so that some individual in
later years won't look back at Chief Leschi and think that he was a
murderer," said Ladenburg.