Until my daughter, Amy Royce and her family moved to the Seattle area last year, it never occurred to me to wonder how Seattle might have received its name. It had always been Seattle. It seemed like an interesting name, but that was really all it was to me. Nevertheless, whether you know the story or not, the name is not simply interesting. Seattle was actually named after an Indian chief named Seathl. He was the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes who lived around the Pacific Coast bay that is called the Puget Sound today. He was born about 1780 or 1790, the son of a Suquamish father and a Duwamish mother, a lineage that gave him influence in both tribes.
In the early 1850s, there were small groups of Euro-Americans who started settling along the banks of the Puget Sound. Chief Seathl welcomed these new neighbors, and was known to treat them with kindness. In 1853, the settlers moved to a site on Elliot Bay and established a permanent town there. Since Chief Seathl had been so nice to them, they named the town after him. I can’t say why the different in the spelling, but to this day it is called Seattle. The site was picked because of the beautiful forest on the bluff behind the new village.
When the California Gold Rush hit, there came with it, a huge need for timber, and soon most of the villagers were at work cutting the trees and “skidding” them down a long chute to a newly constructed sawmill. The chute became known as “skid road.” Eventually, it became the main street in Seattle…and it kept its original name. When the Seattle business district later moved north, the area became a haven for drunks and derelicts. Consequently, “skid road” or “skid row” became lingo for the dilapidated area of any town. In fact, I don’t know of a big city that doesn’t have a “skid row” somewhere in it.
Many of the Indians in the area were hostile toward the settlers, and war broke out in 1855, but Chief Seathl argued that resistance to the settlers would only get more people killed. After a time, the other Indians agreed, and the war ended in 1856. Chief Seathl tried to learn the ways of the white man, rather than fight them. Jesuit missionaries introduced him to Catholicism, and he became a devout believer. Many of the people of Seattle respected Chief Seathl and his religion, and they became Catholics too. Then, just thirteen years after the settlers founded the city of Seattle, Chief Seathl died in on June 7, 1866 at the age of 77 or 86 depending on the year of birth that people accept as correct. In a strange tradition, to provide Chief Seattle with a pre-payment for the difficulties he would face in the afterlife, the people of Seattle levied a small tax on themselves to use the chief’s name.