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A rare move by Chief Seattle changed the future of the city

Julia Yesler, pictured, is the offspring of a Duwamish woman and white settler Henry Yesler.
Courtesy of Kathie Zetterberg
Julia Yesler, pictured, is the offspring of a Duwamish woman and white settler Henry Yesler.

Chief Seattle was the leader of the Duwamish tribe in the days when white settlers were entering the region that would eventually bear his name.

The chief had an unusual way of brokering peace: encouraging his family members to marry the settlers.

Tribes had been intermarrying for a long time. Historian David Buerge said this was a way of promoting “kin etiquette. “

“You sing, you dance together and eventually develop amicable relations,” he said.

But it was rare for a chief to be so enthusiastic about intermarrying with settlers. Chief Seattle even offered his own granddaughter to an entrepreneur from Olympia who ended up opening the first general store in Seattle.

“The rigor with which he invited Americans in and sought to make them part of his people — to intermarry —  that was unique, and that was innovative,” Buerge said. “No other native leader employed such energy to do this as Seattle did.”

But it wasn’t just Chief Seattle. His brother Chief Curley was close to Henry Yesler, who ran the town’s first sawmill and still has streets and buildings named for him today.

Curley’s daughter was joined with Yesler, though not legally.

“It was some sort of union," said Kathie Zetterberg, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Chief Curley. "Of course it couldn't have been a real marriage because he was already married.” 

“Yesler was kind of a different type of thinker. I think he was kind of open to free love at the time,” Zetterberg said.

Yesler’s first wife, Sarah Yesler, apparently was too. According to Zetterberg, she “formed a passionate attachment to at least one other woman.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Closeup of Chief Seattle's tombstone in Suquamish, Washington.", "fid": "141249", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/seattletombstone-Wiki.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Wikipedia Photo/Daniel M. Short/"}]]Zetterberg said Sarah Yesler was back at home in Ohio when Henry Yesler was with his Duwamish partner. By the time Sarah Yesler moved to Seattle, Henry Yesler and his Duwamish partner had a daughter named Julia – Zetterberg’s great grandmother.

“The way I like to interpret it is that she was a well-known secret,” Zetterberg said.

Zetterberg said Henry Yesler took care of Julia and put her through school once Sarah Yesler arrived. But Julia didn’t show up as Yesler’s daughter on the census. Instead she was labeled as a “house servant.” 

“That kind of gave me a little bit of a queasy feeling,” Zetterberg said.

Zetterberg said that in another census, Julia was listed as "HB," meaning “half breed.”

“There was definitely a racial thing going on,” she said.

Despite some of those tensions, historian Buerge said the city wouldn’t be what it is today without those intermarriages.

“I see Seattle as a cultural leader as well as a historical leader,” he said. “It's more than tolerance — it was a genuine embrace of newness and difference and I think that's about as good a model as any city could have.”