Within recent years there died south of Steilacoom an Indian called "Chief Steilacoom," whose real name seems to have been Tailcoom. He was about one hundred years of age. It too often has been taken for granted that Lake Steilacoom, Fort Steilacoom, the town of Steilacoom and Steilacoom River were named in his honor. In times past many literary tributes have been paid to this Indian by persons who apparently did not inquire into the merits of his case. He was an honorable sensible man but not an important tribal leader.
His name appears many times on the books of the Hudson's Bay Company by which he was employed. When Captain Wilkes visited the Sound in 1841, he reported, a rich Englishman named Heath was growing sheep on "Steilacoom farm" near Fort Nisqually. The old Indian was called "the last of the Steilacooms." Several intelligent Indians lately interviewed refused to give to this Indian the distinctions which the whites have paid to him. It is denied that he was a chief and it is said that he allowed himself to be clothed with honors to which he was not entitled, a frailty not by any means confined to the aborigines.
The Puyallup Indians now have no chief, according to the old custom but they recognize the leadership of "head men." In charge of their cemetery which is the only common property remaining among the Indians are Henry Sicade, James Goudy, James Brewer, John Meeker, John Hote, Charles Soticum and James Swayall, and their counsels usually are followed in all matters.
The Puyallup chiefs from Squatahan's time-in the '50's-were "Tyee Dick," whose Indian name was Sinawah, then Sitwell, whose correct name was Sitwulch and who had great influence, the fourth was Tom Thompson, whose Indian name was Za-qua-la-co. Sitwell then served for another period as leader of the tribe, being followed by Quayupyet, generally known as Tommy Lane, an able man highly thought of. He was a half-brother of the famous chief Kitsap and was the last chief of the Puyallup tribe.
"Tyee Dick" actually had the leadership of both the Nisquallies and the Puyallups for some time soon after the Indian war, Squatahan having passed away. Lane was made chief by the younger element composed chiefly of Indians who had been away to school where they teamed some of the arts of politics and of representative government. Lane was respected by the elders but as long as Sitwell lived they regarded him as their chief.
In the early days of the town of Steilacoom a large Indian weighing more than 200 pounds, lived humbly amid the logs and stones in the neighborhood of the mouth of Steilacoom (Chambers) Creek. He, too, by some was called "Chief Steilacoom" and at least one contemporary writer gave to him the honor of having left his name to creek, town, lake, fort, and almost to the county. For it was the plan in the first place to call this county "Steilacoom."
Admirers of President Pierce happened at the moment to be numerically stronger than the friends of the lndian Steilacoom.
This Indian, known to his white employers as "Steilacoom John," had a small shack of cedar bark and mats. Whatever rights he had as chief, and, whatever dominion he exercised among his people, the sway of his scepter was impotent in his own home. In truth he was a much henpecked person. His klootchman ridiculed and reviled him, especially when whites were within hearing distance.
Mrs. Steilacoom despised with savage refinement the whites and all their ways. She urged her spouse to take up arms and drive the intruders out. She did not share with her husband his gratitude to the Caucasians for bringing potatoes to this country. The chief, on the other hand, believed that this fact alone compensated for whatever offenses the whites might commit against the country. For he loved potatoes.
He was a pronounced flathead, as were all the Indians, (except the slaves) in this country before General Milroy put a stop to it. He was once a witness in the trial of a man accused of selling whiskey to the Indians, and he was asked if it was difficult for Indians to buy liquor.
"It's no trouble to get whiskey," he replied. "The trouble is to get money to buy the whiskey with."
At the same trial an Indian woman was asked: "Was he a white man?" "No, he was an Irishman," was the reply.
"Steilacoom John" worked for Pincus & Packscher for some twenty years. This firm in the early days had a monopoly of the hoop pole business in this section and Steilacoom John furnishedthousands of them as well as many shipknees, which were shipped in great quantities in the early days to San Francisco.
On one occasion, after the firm had bought the old Byrd mill at Custer, high water was washing around one end of the dam which was about to be carried away and the Indian was sent to assist in saving it. He spent almost an entire day in the icy water up to his chin, laboring to check the flood. He was six feet in height, stood straight, and was a dependable man.
The Indian Smoot-tas, whom his people called Steilacoom, was the only one of the number mentioned who ever was a chief. The others were counterfeit. Sn-ioot-tas or Tsla-lakum' as Father DeMers called him, seems in every way to have been entitled to the distinction given to him.