Early Whidbey History

Whidbey Island

Doqebuth's Children The myth and the history

Tschakolecy Whidbey as the Indians knew it

The Skagit Creation/Flood Myth


Vancouver's Discovery of Puget Sound
by Edmund S. Meany

Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific
cover

The Journals of Captain Cook
(Penguin Classics, abridged)
by J. C. Beaglehole
cover

Captain James Cook
by Richard Hough

cover

biography of the great explorer who first visited the northwest

Journal of the Voyages of the Hms Discovery and Chatham

Whidbey History  

Before the white man came, Whidbey was the home to Native Americans. The Whidbey Island Skagits, also called the Lower Skagits, lived in central and north Whidbey Island. Their lands included over 50,000 acres on Whidbey and another 6,000 triangular area along Skagit Bay on the mainland (the mouth of the Skagit River).

In 1792 George Vancouver mapped the Puget Sound and Joseph Whidbey set foot on the island. He extolled its beauty and the friendliness of the natives.

Ships from England, Spain, Russia and America plied the waters of the Pacific Coast from 1792 onward and traded with the natives. In 1808, the Northwest Company (later the Hudson's Bay Company) traveled the waters of Puget Sound and traded furs with Puget Sound natives. Local natives traded at Fort Langley, Fort Nisqually, and Fort Victoria and had regular contact with whites. [Hudson's Bay trader John Work came to Whidbey in 1824, and described the Whidbey natives who he called the "Scaadchet Indians" (Irish for Skagit) as a good-looking people, whose heads were not flattened like the Chinooks. They were dressed in blankets and fur and feather cloaks.] 20 years later Charles Wilkes commented that beneath the blanket, they were naked.

The Whidbey Skagits were in conflict with northern British Columbia tribes who raided the island and took the Skagits as slaves and the Clallams on the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca who encroached on their lands.

The Whidbey Skagits did not sign the Elliot Point Treaty, which moved all Puget Sound natives to reservations, because they were not invited to the meeting.

The Catholics came to Whidbey and began ministering to the Skagits in the 1840s. They were at first suspicious of the whites, but usually did not feel threatened by them. White settlers continued to come to the island, but the Skagits had a great Chief in S'neet-lum who kept them strong until he died in 1853. They then lost much of their prestige.

The Whidbey Skagits quickly lost control of the most fertile of their lands, the bottomlands of the Skagit River on the mainland. Encroachment by white settlers on Whidbey continued.

But events were moving quickly in western Washington (the Washington territory). Isaac Stevens, the governor (also surveyer and indian supervisor), began to deal with the "Indian problem" by aggressively making treaties with the natives to allow room for peaceful white settlement. He summoned the tribes to a great meeting. Understanding that there would be more and more whites coming to their lands, and that they did not have the power to resist, the Upper Skagits came to the meeting along with many other tribes.

The meeting was held in 1855 at Elliot Point, now Mukilteo. This great council lasted only one day. There were no real negotiations. The treaty had already been written and it was read aloud to the tribes. They were asked to sign it if they agreed. There was a substantial military presence to remind the natives of the power of the white men.

The treaty ordered that the Puget Sound Indians were to be removed to as few reservations as possible to simplify government administration. The difficulties that would arise from putting different tribes together were not considered. In exchange for the ceded lands, the natives would receive goods and services, such as instruction in agriculture and mechanics, but no money. The Chiefs would receive an annuity and they would receive fishing rights. There would be no tribal warfare or slavery.

The process was conducted in a jargon that had emerged as a common communication tool. It was most like the Chinook language, and so was called the Chinook jargon, but it was very simplified and not well suited to complex negotiations. The government negotiators spoke, their words were translated into jargon, and then translated into the many different languages represented there. The natives' words then had to follow the reverse process, finally being translated into English. Because of this poor process, It is not clear how well the tribes understood the details of the agreement. However, they all agreed to sign.

Chief Sealth (Seattle) of the Duwamish tribe presented a white flag to Stevens and said:

Now, by this we make friends and put away all bad feelings, if we ever had any. We are the friends of the Americans. All of the indians are of the same mind. We look upon you as our father; we will never change our minds. As you have seen us, we will always be the same. Now! now! do you send this paper of our hearts to the Great Chief. That is all I have to say.

Two of the Upper Skagit chiefs, Patkanin and Goliah, signed the Point Elliot Treaty which ordered their removal to the Swinomish Reservation.

At that time, there were around 300 Whidbey Skagits. Their numbers had once been greater, but like all the tribes, they suffered losses from small pox and other diseases for which they had little immunity. They did not send a representative because they were not invited to the meeting. Stevens did not understand until later that the Whidbey Skagits were a different tribe from the mainland (Upper) Skagits. When he discovered the error, Stevens sent a representative to Whidbey to find a native to sign the paper. Someone signed. Not understanding the intent of the paper, and having had no discussion in the tribe, the Whidbey Skagits argued with the government for years with no success. Since they had been given no reservation of their own, they were transferred to the Swinomish Reservation. Their descendants are a part of the Swinomish Tribal Community.

Because of the haste of the treaty process, there were many misunderstandings. Some natives, such as on Whidbey, who signed had no authority to do so. Some tribes, such as the Nooksack near Lynden, never signed a treaty because they had been overlooked just as the Whidbey Skagits had been. Those tribes were very vulnerable, losing their lands to white settlers, with no treaty to offer them any protection. It was not until 1958 that, though landless, the Nooksacks received compensation for the loss of their lands (valued as of 1858).

The Whidbey Skagits had some protection living in the Swinomish Reservation, but they continued to have problems with the white settlers in the fertile Skagit lowlands. They lost some of the reservation land through encroachments that nearly led to war. The government redrew the northern boundary of the reservation. Then the railroad crossed their lands, bringing further encroachment. There continued to be problems with white settlers destroying burial grounds. In the mid-1980s whites burned a village of 6 cedar longhouses.

There were a few natives who stayed on Whidbey, but in time the Indians gradually disappeared.