Hidden among the green, cropped grass of the Port Townsend Golf Course is a remnant of the natural prairieland that once covered the entirety of the valley in Port Townsend.
The 1.4-acre qátay prairie was preserved by the Olympic Peninsula Chapter of the Native Plant Society in 1987. In the spring, the prairie blooms bright with blue camas and spring gold flowers. They offer an insight into the life and the diet of the S’Klallam people. Camas was harvested, and the non-poisonous blue bulbs were roasted and ground into a starch that could be stored for winter. White, or “death camas” are poisonous. Periodic controlled burns of prairies were a regular practice of the S’Klallam, which encouraged new growth from the safely burned roots.
On a spring day, when the wind whistles through the blue camas covering the prairie, it is the picture of peace. But at one time, Chief Chetzemoka sat near this exact spot in the midst of war.
After the signing of the Point No Point Treaty in 1855, in which tribes ceded their rights to nearly 440,000 acres of land, tensions were rising between Native American tribes all along the Puget Sound and the white settlers.
It was clear to the S’Klallam that there had been some misunderstandings, and the federal government was failing to follow through on its funding promises. Tribes from across Washington rose up against what they saw as illegal seizure and occupation of their ancestral lands.
In 1857, many S’Klallam discussed joining these efforts. James G. McCurdy records in his book “By Juan de Fuca’s Strait,” many of those who lived on the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca assembled at North Beach, and planned to rid Port Townsend of the new white settlers.
Chetzemoka, who had cemented his peaceful friendship with the white settlers during the signing of the Point No Point treaty sought out Loren B. Hastings and Francis W. Pettygrove, two white settlers in Port Townsend, to warn them of the rising danger.
“Each morning I will sit on top of the big rock on the east side of qátay Valley. If you are still in danger I will keep my blanket over my head and then you will know that you must have your guns handy and place your women and children where they will be safe, for they are apt to be captured and held as slaves. If the danger passes I will stand up, throw off my blanket and give a great shout. Then you will know that you are safe.”
After nine days of watching and signalling danger to the white settlers from the rock on top of the valley, Chetzemoka gave the signal for safety.
It was this action that immortalized Chetzemoka as “the white man’s friend” in history. But who can really know why he chose to warn the white people?
Before the treaty had been signed, Hastings and Pettygrove had arranged for Chetzemoka to visit San Francisco in 1851. In San Francisco, James G. Swan took Chetzemoka all over the city, showing him the large numbers of people and the boats in the shipping harbor.
“When he visited San Francisco and saw the boats in the harbor there, he understood that they were coming north,” said Marlin Holden, who is the great, great grandson of Chetzemoka.
In the book, “Told By The Pioneers,” which has interviews and manuscripts from early settlers, Swan recalled in an interview that “upon his return, (Chetzemoka) was quietly informed that all of the people of San Francisco, and all of the vessels he had seen there in the harbor and at sea, were manned by ‘brothers’ of the Port Townsend settlers who, in case of any trouble, would all come in a body to aid, or if necessary, to avenge their Port Townsend kin.”
Could this trip have informed Chetzemoka’s decision, six years later, to sit on what is now known as Sentinel Rock and warn the white settlers of danger? Did he seek peace, or did he know his people would be overwhelmed by the numbers of white settlers?
“I believe in what he did,” said Loni Grinnell-Greninger, who is a descendant of Chetzemoka and Deputy Director of Social and Community Services for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
Grinnell-Greninger’s family comes from the third child of David Prince, who was Chetzemoka’s grandson. “There were two pieces to his decision making; the first was a matter of survival,” she said. “He saw that his tribal citizens were outnumbered by the new settlers. The second was that I believe he truly wanted success for his people, and the settlers. We are greater when we work together. When we combine our resources, skills, and values, we are able to take care of one another. Those philosophies of inclusiveness and partnership with all peoples flows through my veins.”
The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe believes that Chetzemoka’s decision had to do with inclusiveness and respectful hospitality, said Jamestown Chairman, Ron Allen.
“He realized the community was changing with the arrival of the non-Indian settlers in Port Townsend and northwest,” Allen said. “Even though the S’Klallam people were strong and defended their territory from other indigenous people, he realized that inclusiveness and respectful hospitality was the right course for future generations.”
Chetzemoka’s intervention between the white settlers and his fellow S’Klallam tribesmen is credited with single-handedly protecting Port Townsend settlers from massacre during the Indian Wars of the 1850s, writes Peter Simpson in the book, “Shadows of Our Ancestors.”
“As a result, the white victors in the struggles of nearly a century and a half ago, and their succeeding generations, have kept his name in the forefront,” Simpson writes. “Had the result of the conquest been different, had those small bands of resisting Indians in the 1850s prevailed, Chetzemoka’s name likely would not have been revered; indeed, he might well have been considered a traitor. But such speculation is hypothetical. The fact is that he possessed great insight, made a courageous decision, acted upon it, and then clung to it through a series of trials that ended in the dimuniton of his own people.”
In 1937, a bronze plaque was installed near Sentinel Rock by the Lucinda Hastings Parlor No. 1 of the Native Daughters of Washington. In 1996, the city installed a sculpture of Chetzemoka by Dick Brown, depicting him throwing off his blanket to indicate that the danger had passed.
When the statue was installed, a photo of Grinnell-Greninger hugging Chetzemoka’s leg was printed in the paper. This photo, she said, represents how Chetzemoka’s values carried on through generations.
“This old photo of me hugging his leg, it was obviously a foreshadowing,” she said. “I am proud of my lineage and what he did for the sake of his people, but also for the greater non-native community surrounding him. As I serve my Tribe, in whatever capacities, I will continue to walk out these values he set in place.”
Today, both the qátay prairie and Sentinel Rock are stops along the new Chetzemoka Trail.
The prairie, where native flowers bloom each spring, and the rock, where Chetzemoka’s sculpture stands tall, are the perfect place to take a moment, sit, and reflect on the qátay valley, what it once was, what it could have been, and what it is today.