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The People of Portage Bay & Environs Before The Denny Party

It might be hard to imagine that one day not too long ago Native Americans were the only people living in and around the land we now know as Seattle. But evidence of human inhabitation in Puget Sound dates back at least 10,000 years — meaning Anglo-Europeans have only been part of the human story in these parts for the last 1% of the timeline.

This photo dating back to the 1890s shows Duwamish Indians (Cheshiahud working on a canoe while Tleebuleetsa cooks) outside of their home in Portage Bay as bustling white Seattle grows up around them.

Of course, that 1% (the most recent century and a half) has been a real doozy for the tribes that used to call the lands and waters in and around Seattle their home. The first waves of explorers, hunters, trappers and settlers brought smallpox and other diseases which native peoples had no immune defenses built up against. This silent and insidious threat must be one of the first manifestations of biological warfare, unintentional as it may have been.

Beyond disease, white settlers felt entitled to take over whatever lands they saw fit in this new “empty” landscape regardless of prior use by Native Americans for millennia. While white settlers’ appropriations of land and resources that was not theirs to take were egregious by any measure, their simultaneous respect for their predecessors shows up in the very naming of the city that was to come to be. After all, Seattle is one of the few major U.S. cities to bear a Native American name, mangled from the original native dialect of Lushootseed as it may be. Indeed, this great West Coast city was named after an Indian, Chief Sealth, who welcomed the Denny Party, the first party of white settlers to the region, on the shores of Alki Beach when they landed in 1851.

Back in those days, the land we now know as a major metropolitan area bisected by roadways and filled up with buildings was a wild and wooly heaven on earth rich in natural resources — and the people here stewarded the land and water and its bounty for generation after generation of their progeny to enjoy. But that all started to change with the landing of the Denny Party.

While the story of white settlement in the region by no means ended well for local tribes, some modern-day Seattleites are working hard to make sure the Native impact and influence on the region remains alive now and well into the future.

A paddle tour around Seattle’s inland waterways is a great way to find out more about Native inhabitation and lifestyles around Portage Bay, Lake Washington and Lake Union — or as native Lushootseed speakers called them Skhwacugwit (“Canoe Carry”), Hah-choo (“Large Lake”) and Ha-ah-chu (“Littlest Lake”).

In fact, your launch spot off the docks at Agua Verde Paddle Club, formerly the site of a small creek draining the hillside rising above it to the north — now UW’s sloping campus — was known for millennia by its Lushootseed name of as WaQwaQab  (“Doing Like A Frog” or “Croaking”). Whether this spot got its name due to the actual presence of frogs that used to be much more common around here or because the gurgling creek water sounded like an amphibious chorus, we’ll never know for sure. Regardless, Native Americans living around these parts considered Frog a minor spirit power that “helped even the most common folk sing during winter ceremonies” and as such likely attributed special significance to this once-quiet backwater setting that nowadays teems more with motorized boat traffic than wildlife.

Before the completion of the Montlake Cut, local Natives (like Cheshiahud pictured here) could access waterways unavailable to larger settler vessels, traveling far inland up into the region’s salmon-rich river systems.

Another reason why this part of Portage Bay’s shoreline is especially significant in tribal history is that it was the terminus of an ancient Indian footpath (the modern-day Burke-Gilman Trail follows along part of its course) that connected Portage Bay to Lake Washington about a mile to the east via an overland route. A Native shaman named Dzakwoos lived hereabouts for many decades into the 1880s at which point he was squeezed out by encroaching white settlement. Like so many local Indians before him, he moved east into the Cascade foothills into a community that eventually coalesced into the modern-day Snoqualmie Tribe.

A little further east where Portage Bay meets Lake Union was the site of a prairie, Bahquahb, where local tribe women cultivated herbs, roots and other agricultural delicacies that helped Indians stave off starvation over the long dark and rainy winters here. They used occasional prescribed burns to add nutrients to the soil and stimulate the growth of various plants. Historians believe that the rights to dig and burn here belonged to women from the two nearby Indian villages of Shulshool (“Tucked Away Inside” AKA Salmon Bay) and Shloowheel (“Little Canoe Channel”).

Paddle by some of Seattle’s busiest boatyards, keeping an eye out for passing commercial and recreational boat traffic, and within about a half mile Gasworks Park, a former coal gasification plants turned city park, will come up on your right. The native name for this protrusion is Stacheech, which translates as “extended from the ridge” and Indian lore describes it as “prop holding up a house” referring to the point’s bolstering of the Wallingford neighborhood above it.

Turning the corner and heading west toward the Fremont canal, you’ll be heading toward the ocean and surrounded by some of the more industrial businesses along Seattle’s inland waterways, with tugboats coming and going and huge ships dry-docked for repair all around you. Somewhere underneath all this shoreline concrete, metal and wood is a drain pipe that channels a former teeming salmon stream that ran uphill into what is now the Fremont neighborhood. For thousands of years up until white settlement, this was a favorite fishing spot for Indians where they would thrash the water with sticks and herd salmon into the stream mouth where it was easy to scoop them up. A little further west and across the other side of the opening of the Fremont Canal is another favorite Native fishing spot of days gone by, Gwaxwap, (meaning “outlet” or “leak at bottom end”).

Continuing south along the western shore of Lake Union, you’ll pass some of the grandest floating homes and houseboats around Seattle’s inland waterways — including the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat of movie fame. But before the multi-million dollar floating palaces were here, Indians called this relatively deepwater stretch of shoreline, well-known for its fishing, Tlupeelweehl (“deep for canoes”). Further south, where Lake Union Park now sits as a waterfront access spot and recreation mecca for the tech workers of Amazonia and other modern-day Seattleites was the site of Schakwshud (“foot end of the trail to the beach”), the terminus of a trail that led past the spot that would become Yesler’s sawmill to one of the more productive prairies in the region just to the south. Circling around to the east side of Lake Union, around the spot of present-day Terry Pettus Park where Newton Street bottoms out, is what local Indians used to call SaxWababatS (“jumping over driftwood”) because the lakeshore was thick with logs plied off the shore.

After tooling around Lake Union, work your way back under the I-5 and University bridges and follow along the north side of Portage Bay. Nowadays you’ll encounter some 50+ floating homes and houseboats taking up every square inch and then some of the shoreline. But 150 years ago this now oh-so-civilized littoral stretch of shoreline was more of a marsh where Indians hunted waterfowl that dabbled and dove for prey in the soupy vegetative water. Cheshiahud, AKA “Lake Union John” lived above the marsh with his wife Tleebuleetsa. He made a living crafting traditional canoes and also serving as a canoe guide for non-native settlers, including his friend David Denny (“Debadidi”), one of the original settlers on the beach at Alki in 1851.

Cheshiahud (“Lake Union John”) and his wife Tleebuleetsa (“Madeleine”). Denny, Orion O. General Indian Collection no. 564.

Cheshiahud and Tleebuleetsa — some of Seattle’s first celebrities — were known as the “Last of the Lake Union Indians” given they were the final Natives to maintain a residence along the lakeshore as the busy city grew up around them. Their land at the foot of modern-day Shelby Street had been given to them by David Denny himself. They lived there for many years, but following Tleebuleetsa’s death, Cheshiahud sold the land and moved to the Suquamish Reservation in Port Madison across Puget Sound where his daughter and other relatives lived.

If you want more native history, set a course for the Montlake Cut. Paddling from Portage Bay to Lake Washington is a lot easier these days than it used to be before construction of the man-made “cut” in 1909. Before then, portaging was the only way to get a canoe through, and thus Indians called this isthmus of land s-hwah-tsahd-weethl (“Carry-a-Canoe”). 

Of course, paddling through the Montlake Cut isn’t necessarily a piece if the wind is up or there’s a lot of boat traffic, so stay alert and keep your arms moving as the paddle blades hitting the water is one of the elements keeping you out of trouble as the swells off boat wakes play games with your balance.

When you do make it through, head north and follow the shoreline along the University of Washington’s waterfront marina with unusual close-up perspectives on Husky Stadium from the waterside. Keep going and soon you’ll pass the shell house and launch docks for the UW crew team, one of the top teams in that sport in the country. While this might make for some interesting scenery, keep moving because in just a few more paddle strokes you’ll be surrounded by reeds and other native plants while waterfowl bobs and river otters frolic on the edge. Welcome to Union Bay.

These days this “natural area” features walking trails and is a great place to get away from the hubbub of the nearby city and watch for birds and other wildlife. But before 1909 when the Montlake Cut was dynamited into existence, the walkways that are here now were under water, part of a larger shallow, boggy bay that served as the mouth of Ravenna Creek draining from the north. Just up from this verdant marsh, on the present site of one of Seattle’s biggest shopping malls (University Village) was another big Native village, S-thloo-weethl (“Little Canoe Channel”). This important Indian settlement included at least five cedar-plank longhouses and a large fishing weir at the mouth of Ravenna Creek to catch the abundant salmon heading upstream to their natal waters. Local natives also hunted ducks and other waterfowl in the marshes with spears and big nets.

Looking (or paddling) south from here you’ll see Foster Island, a green thumb sticking out along the shoreline. Nowadays this island is part of the city of Seattle’s park system, and is accessible to walkers via a footbridge from the “mainland” near the Arboretum. But for millennia before and still into the early days of white settlement, Foster Island was a sacred tribal burial ground called Stitici. Tribal leaders reminded planners of this ancient usage of the land during the planning of the expansion of State Route 520 which crosses directly over Foster Island.

Of course, these Native sites are within an easy paddle of Agua Verde’s docks; touring them makes for a nice two-hour paddle. That said, there’s always lots more to explore when it comes to Native histories and influence around these waterways. And learning about Native uses of the land and how a light touch can keep salmon running, roots growing and ecosystems more or less in equilibrium can teach us lots about how we should be taking care of our region, our home, as we face down the 22nd century.