This January afternoon of 1855, the old Chief’s careful direction would be guiding his people, like or not, to a destination of peaceful reconciliation with those who were to come. Big changes were in the wind, and Chief Seattle knew this. The ancient ways were being compacted to legend by these whitish immigrants with their steam-breathing machines. In the face of narrowing options the Duwamish peoples had no simple, and no welcome, adjustments to make.
Chief Seattle was getting up in years. His footsteps along the mountain trail were not swift, nor as eager, as when he had first trod them as a young Suquamish. As the ancient path turned his party into a high clearing on the ridge, between tall evergreens, Seattle’s sight was filled with magnificence of the Great River and wide bay below– what the whites were now calling Elliot Bay. At that moment the clouds parted; a rare burst of winter sunshine splashed its welcome brilliance through cold, silvery afternoon. He paused to appreciate the scene, then raised his right arm and placed it on a familiar spruce tree, resting. The sunshine warmed the old man’s face, and raised a smile upon his wisdom lips.
Down on the bay shore, Henry Yesler had been operating his sawmill since about two years ago. He had shut the machine off for the day, for this was a day like no other. He would soon join a few others of his American associates, to sign a treaty with the natives whose ancient lands were all around. Chief Seattle would arrive to represent the Duwamish and Salish peoples; he was known among the new settlers as a reasonable man, a leader who understood the tectonics of this moment’s history.
By the next summer, the high spruce upon which Chief Seattle had leaned was cut down by hordes of Scandinavian lumberjacks who had immigrated across an ocean and an entire continent. The woodsmen were busily thrusting their cut logs down a skid road to the Yesler sawmill at the waterfront. There would be many a skid road in the Northwest and beyond before this fierce harvesting was all over with.
By 1893, the Great Northern Railway had been completed. Its trestled tracks twisted through the Cascades and over the Rockies, all the from St. Paul, Minnesota and beyond. Men with names like Washington, Smith, Stevens, Schwabacher, Nordstrom would soon carve a Pacific Northwest 20th-century culture out of the wild Washington woods.
The next hundred years tumbled an avalanche of civilized chaos and semi-organized caterwaullin’ enterprises across that Duwamish River, and out the Puget waterway to the wide Pacific and beyond: hauling millions of felled timbers on rails and ships and, with every imaginable sort of huffing puffing machine, slurry of mined minerals, casting Klondyke gold, picks and axes, bootstraps, neckties, highfalutin’ starched shirts, hopes and dreams, mice and men, with newspapers, rumor mills, steam-driven capitalism and a whole lotta just plain old hard work, driven by a slue of Swedes, Finns, English, Italians, Africans, Asians, Irish and generally all those Americanizing yankee types whose enterprised fervor propelled an expansion unprecedented in the history of the whole dammed world with all the blood, and toil and sweat that have ever and always dropped our tears along the holy terrible trail of human progress.
By late 20th, a slab or two of Seattle spruce had been railed across the prairies and the heartlands, and delivered to a shop in St. Louis, where a selected piece was seasoned, sawn thin and stretched across a resonant box with a hole cut out and a fretted neck with six steely bronzed strings stretched across it. And there from that sound-hole rolls out a reflected resonance of the sunshine and the spruce upon which old Chief Seattle had paused and contemplated, before he was to meet his Maker, all that was to later happen.
CR, with new novel, Smoke, in progress