A Closer Look at the Trial of Chief Leschi and the Puget Sound Wars of 1855-56

Speakers Bureau’s Michael Schien discusses his presentation Bones Beneath Our Feet: The Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1855-56, including the bloody conflict that led up to the trial, and ultimate execution, of Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe.

A Vermont native, Michael Schein relocated to the Pacific Northwest for college, then went on to a teach legal history for 15 years at the University of Puget Sound and Seattle University. However, his move wasn’t purely professional.

Besides a decision to attend Portland, Oregon’s Reed College, Schein cites “the spiritual kinship between Cascadia and Vermont” as one of the draws of the region.

It was that kinship that drew him to the life of Chief Leschi, the leader of the Nisqually tribe who was executed in 1858 for allegedly killing two militiamen in the Puget Sound War of 1855-56. Leschi was later exonerated in 2004 from the conviction, inspiring Schein to research and retell Leschi’s story to include the historical revision.

The Puget Sound War pitted white settlers and members of the U.S. Military against Salish peoples primarily from tribes in the Puget Sound region, including the Nisqually, Muckleshoot and Puyallup.

Schein’s book, Bones Beneath Our Feet, addresses the real circumstances surrounding the Puget Sound War, including the cultural misunderstandings responsible for the conflict and injustice that occurred. Schein speaks on the topic in his Speakers Bureau presentation, which includes conversations about the events that led to Leschi’s death, the probable reasons for how and why it happened and the past mentalities that are mirrored in our modern beliefs.


What: Speakers Bureau’s Michael Schein, Bones Beneath Our Feet: The Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1855-56

Humanities Washington: What led you to write a historical novel about this particular event?

Michael Schein: I’d written a historical novel set in Virginia – a place I’d never lived – and decided I wanted to set a story closer to home. Like many of us, I have a visceral connection to the Pacific Northwest; I feel this land in my marrow. I had heard about Chief Leschi from a student paper when I was teaching American Legal History at Seattle University, but the full scope of the story really hit me in 2004, as I watched the proceedings of a special historical court of inquiry that was set up to re-examine Leschi’s murder conviction. After that, I was granted an interview with Nisqually tribal officials, including Leschi’s nearest living descendent, Cynthia Iyall. Once I had her statement and copies of the court records, I felt I held a public trust to give this story a fresh telling.


Schein’s Bones Beneath Our Feet

HW: Who claimed victory in the Puget Sound War, and what was the outcome?

Schein: The war was triggered by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens’ insistence that the Nisqually reservation, created by the Treaty of Medicine Creek, would be on a small wooded bluff, without access to the Nisqually River or Puget Sound.

I think it is obvious that the “Boston Tribe” – that’s the name given to Americans by the Salish peoples – was victorious in a military sense. The Bostons had several key technological advantages, and the Salish people were already devastated by disease.

The outcome was enforcement of the reservation system established by the treaties negotiated by Governor Stevens. However, due to the unfair treatment of the Nisquallies and agitation by sympathetic Bostons, at the end of the war the Nisqually Tribe was granted a much larger reservation with access to the Nisqually River. In this sense, Chief Leschi achieved a major victory for his people, though he never lived to enjoy the fruits of that victory.

HW: In your discussion, you draw parallels from that 19th century war to this generation’s War on Terror. What has changed over nearly 200 years in the way humans incite and handle these kinds of conflicts?

Schein: Nothing of significance. The names of the feared “other” change, but the terrible consequences remain the same. Whether it is “witches,” “redskins,” “niggers,” “commies” or “terrorists,” fear begets violence, and the innocent suffer.


Chief Leschi, the leader of the Nisqually tribe who was executed in 1858 for allegedly killing two militiamen in the Puget Sound War of 1855-56. Leschi was later exonerated in 2004 from the conviction, inspiring Schein to research and retell Leschi’s story.

HW: I believe I saw on your website that you may be at work on a third book right now. Is this a historical novel, as well?

Schein: Actually, (I’m working on my) fourth book. After writing two historical novels, I took a break from research to write a hysterical novel under a pseudonym – The Killer Poet’s Guide to Immortality by “A.B. Bard.” Killer Poet’s Guide is a dark parody about a frustrated poet who becomes a serial killer to get read.

Now I am working on a narrative non-fiction – what used to be called “popular history” – about John H. Surratt, a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination who may have gotten away with the most notorious murder of the 19th century.

HW: Do you write full-time, or is there other work that you’re involved in these days?

Schein: I write briefs from time to time, wearing my lawyer hat. Sometimes I go to court for an “argument.” Whenever I do, I think of (that quote from) Monty Python – “Sorry, this is abuse. Arguments are just down the hall.” I also teach online courses on legal history and what used to be called “legal ethics,” but what is now known as “professional responsibility.” Perhaps the oxymoron was too stark.

I run an annual poets’ workshop called LiTFUSE, which has morphed into a year-round job. I write a lot of poetry, and wander around reading it to whomever will listen. I’ve formed and perform with The Killer Poet Jazz Band.

As most writers will tell you, even “full-time writers” do not write full time – there’s editing, selling, marketing, grant-writing, schmoozing – all the treacle that adheres to other jobs. I do that stuff, too. But I’m happiest writing, and I’m still trying to wean myself off other work.

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