More about the area's Native-American heritage--Chemakums/Chimacums

Tom Camfield
Posted 12/25/12

Continuing periodic postings here of 19th-century Olympic Peninsula Native Indian history--a slightly-longer version of this particular brief account was included in my second volume of Port Townsend …

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More about the area's Native-American heritage--Chemakums/Chimacums


Continuing periodic postings here of 19th-century Olympic Peninsula Native Indian history--a slightly-longer version of this particular brief account was included in my second volume of Port Townsend history published in 2002.

Spelling of tribal names in the following is unchanged from that used by early historical writers. "Clallam" rather than "S'Klallam" was used in many cases, for instance.

Those who can boast Chimacum Indian blood in their veins are rare. And even those have it in diluted form. The Chimacums as a tribe disappeared more than a century ago.

By the early 1850s, having experienced the ravages of war and pestilence, the Chemakums' numbers were described as 90. Not long thereafter, continued assaults by the enemy Snohomish had all but eliminated the tribe.

By 1889, a historian(1) wrote that they originally were a war-like tribe, not very numerous but strong and brave . . . George Gibbs (a geologist, ethnologist and writer who contributed to the study of the indigenous peoples of Washington Territory) in 1852 wrote that "their number is ninety, but they are now virtually extinct, there being only ten left who are not legally married to white men or into other tribes. Of these then there is only one complete family, four in number. With the exception of two or three very old persons, they now mainly speak the Klallam language. They say that their diminuation was caused by small-pox, but probably war had something to do with it."(1) According to various accounts, over time the Chemakums had engaged in wars with the Makah, Klallam, Twana (which tribe included the Quilcene and Skokomish bands), Snohomish and Duwamish tribes.

Their interloper status at some early point may have had something to do with their unpopularity among other tribes of Puget Sound, although Eells wrote that the Chemakums had a village at the head of Port Townsend Bay that was a "kind of capital for nearly all the tribes of the Sound, where they occasionally collected."

According to various legends, the Chemakum/Chimacum tribe originated as an offshoot of the Quilleutes/Kwilleuts, whose home territory was on the Pacific Coast south of Cape Flattery. In the 1850s, it was described as "long ago" when a very high and sudden tide occurred and took four days to ebb--after which a portion of the Kwilleuts made their way to the vicinity of present-day Port Townsend. This apparently was some time prior to the visit to Puget Sound by Capt. George Vancouver in 1792.

A modern article based on the journal of Vancouver's companion officer Peter Puget and other sources(2) describes the Chimacums of that year as "the only non-Salsih-speaking people encountered on Puget Sound." The Salish were described as the coastal division (Clallam, Twana, southeast Vancouver Island and Strait of Georgia) and the Nisqually dialect group, which included almost all of the Puget Sound Indians.

The article described an Indian custom deplored by earliest whites in the area, the beheading of captives taken in war and the displaying of the heads in front of villages as trophies (although, at the time, the heads of criminals executed in "civilized" London also were displayed in similar fashion). Puget wrote that at Port Townsend were found "two upright poles set in the ground, about fifteen feet high, and rudely carved. On the top of each was stuck a human head, recently placed there. The hair and flesh were nearly perfect and the heads appeared to carry the evidence of fury or revenge, as in driving the stakes through the throat to the cranium, the sagittal, with part of the scalp, was borne on their points some inches above the rest of the skull."

These were the Chimacums, who then occupied present-day Port Townsend. They were constantly at war but ever suffering due to their out-manned "underdog" status. They were eventually displaced by the Clallams or S'Klallams, whose vast territory originally extended down the length of the Strait of Juan de Fuca only as far as Discovery Bay. One can only speculate that perhaps the original Chimacums were squatters on little-used territory claimed by the Clallams.

Puget wrote of the Chimacums: The people in their persons were low and ill made, with broad faces and small eyes. Their foreheads appear to be deformed or out of shape comparatively speaking with those of Europeans. The head has something of a conical shape. They wear the hair long with quantities of red ochre intermixed with whale oil or some other greasy substance that has a . . . disagreeable smell. Only one man had a thick beard, the others wore a small tuft of hair on the point of the chin and on the upper lip like mustaches; on other parts of the body they suffered Nature to have its course, which was as well supplied as in the common run of men except the breast, which was totally destitute of hair. Square pieces of ear shells were hung to small perforations in the ear with small rolls of copper(3). Necklaces of the same materials as the latter were used, also around the ankles and wrists. Their garments consisted of the skin of an animal tied at the two corners over one shoulder, the upper edge coming under the opposite arm, by which both hands were free. The rest of the body was perfectly naked. They had no other arms than bows and arrows pointed with barbed flints and long spears in their canoes. These consisted only of a log hollowed out, sharp at both ends and tolerably well constructed for paddling. The paddles were short and pointed at the ends.

Various historical accounts leave it unclear just when the Chimacums gave way to the Clallams at Port Townsend, but it was some time before the settling of the first whites in 1850-52.

On March 4, 1854--in a report under that date connected with Northern Pacific Railroad exploration--George Gibbs(2) described the "Chimakum Indians" as "formerly one of the most powerful tribes of the Sound, but which, a few years since, is said to have been nearly destroyed at a blow by an attack of the Snoqualmoos." This reference to a "few years" prior to 1854 probably should have described not the Snoqualmies but the Snohomish, who continued their sorties against the Chimacums' settlement near the mouth of Chimacum Creek until the latter almost completely ceased to exist by about 1857.

The report of Indian agent Thomas Hanna dated July 1, 1857, said the "Chemicums" at that time numbered, in all 95 persons. "they being the remnant of a tribe once large and formidable. They have since been reduced by war with their neighbors, and appear to be somewhat in a deplorable condition at the present time. The Snohomish tribe is at war with them now, and is using all efforts to exterminate them." On that same date, Puget Sound District Indian agent described the "Clamakums" as having been "reduced by war, pestilence and famine to a small band, consisting principally of old squaws and young children . . . being in constant dread of the Snohomish tribe, with whom they are at feud . . ."

The extermination by the Snohomish apparently came to pass that year. Immigrant ancestor of the Bishop family, William Bishop, in 1858 married a member of the Snohomish tribe--Sally/Sarah, daughter of sub-chief S'Hoots-hoot or S-Hoot-soot. Legend in this family dates the final Chimacum massacre as the spring of 1857. (This seems a bit late in time, as Whites had begun settling the nearby area in 1851.)

There are many other legends of major massacres and other attacks against the Chemakums/Chimacums during the early and mid-1800s. One involves northern Indians from Queen Charlotte Island about 1823 and has been dramatized in many accounts. This coincides with an attack described by early writer J. A. Costello(4) who described an attack that occurred when Chetzemoka of the Clallams was about 14 years old (which would have been ca. 1822-23). The attack by Indians from the north came across the spit at Hadlock, killing some 600 of the tribe that he perhaps erroneously described as Clallams. Costello also wrote of the Chetzemoka-led Clallams later having enlisted the aid of the Skagits (Whidbey Island) "in massacring the invading Quillaytes who had settled in the Chimacum Creek area."

The various accounts remain difficult to reconcile with accurate detail these many years later--from basically the stuff of legend.

(1)Eells, Rev. Myron, The Twana, Chemakum and Klallam Indians of Washington Territory, 1889.

(2) Delbert J. McBride in Columbia, the Magazine of Northwest History, Washington State Historical Society, summer 1990.

(3) Indicating some previous with early explorers such as the Spanish.

(4) The Siwash, Their Life Legends and Tales, 1895.


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