PORT TOWNSEND — Clapboard houses and visiting RVs overlook a driftwood-speckled beach on Hudson Street. Today, the waterfront perch is a quiet place to contemplate Admiralty Inlet within walking distance of downtown Port Townsend. But 150-odd years ago, high drama between the S’Klallam and the “Bostons” — as the S’Klallam called the white settlers of the Northwest — played out on these sandy shores.
In 1856, two soldiers stationed at Fort Townsend were late reporting to the garrison after a night of carousing at taverns in town. In an ill-fated attempt to hurry back, the pair stole a canoe from the S’Klallam village at Point Hudson and drowned when their boat tipped in a squall.
A S’Klallam youth named Tommy Shapkin found a body washed ashore and took the soldier’s cap and jacket. He was subsequently accused of murdering the missing soldier and jailed. As the boy was set to be hanged, the S’Klallam chief čičməhán (Cheech-ma-han, known in English as Chetzemoka), addressed the Bostons.
“We have been friends. Let us remain friends,” he allegedly said, cutting the noose rope. “If this unwise act which you were about to commit is what you call civilization, then give us back our way of life. Oh, white people, our brothers under the skin, do not let this happen again.”
Since June 2019, this story and 17 others have been on permanent display in Port Townsend as markers along the čičməhán Trail, an interpretive route that chronicles the history of the S’Klallam people and Euro-American settlers as they worked to coexist. Over 21-plus miles designed to be traveled in 3-mile, 6-mile or 12-mile loops — on foot, by bike or in your car — the new trail more fully fleshes out the historical narrative of Port Townsend, a popular tourism destination for its reputation as a Victorian seaport first known as qatáy to the S’Klallam people.
But in an era of increasing interest in reconciliation by telling more complete stories about U.S. history — not just the stories of Euro-American settlers — the trail project captured hearts and minds in Port Townsend. First conceived in 2017, the town and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, one of three bands of S’Klallam people who live on the west side of Puget Sound, inaugurated the trail just two years later on June 29, 2019, a remarkably quick gestation for a public works project.
“Why didn’t we do this decades ago?” said Lys Burden, a Port Townsend resident who lent her career’s worth of experience in trail planning to the effort. “It was a project whose time had come.”
The čičməhán Trail is one of the more tangible impacts of an ongoing effort by the Unitarian Universalist Church to engage with and learn from the original inhabitants of the lands where Unitarian fellowships now call home. In Port Townsend, the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship formed a committee called the Native Connections Action Group in 2014. Over the last several years, the group has read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” and studied the doctrine of discovery, which provided a theological and legal justification for colonization of the so-called New World.
“It was all the things we didn’t learn in school,” said Barbara Jo Blair, a retired education sales consultant who chairs the committee. She grew up along the Columbia River in Vancouver and is an enrolled member of the Chinook Indian Nation, which is not recognized by the federal government.
The group also discussed “Shadows of Our Ancestors: Readings in the History of Klallam-White Relations,” edited by Jerry Gorsline, one of the few works of local Indigenous history. That book highlighted the three public acknowledgments of the S’Klallam that already existed in Port Townsend.
First, there are four Romanesque columns flanking the entrance to the post office, which was built in 1893. Carvings on the capitals atop the columns honor čičməhán, his two wives and his brother.
Second, the city named its first public park after Chetzemoka in 1904 on a parcel of land overlooking the water north of downtown.
Finally, a 1937 plaque and 1996 statue of čičməhán mark Sentinel Rock. At this high point on the bluff, the S’Klallam debated whether to join an uprising against the Washington territorial government following the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point.
Under the treaty, which čičməhán helped negotiate, the S’Klallam, Chimakum and Skokomish tribes ceded land in exchange for small reservations and hunting and fishing rights. In the aftermath of the treaty, čičməhán gave sage counsel and advocated for peace.
With war potentially on the horizon, čičməhán allegedly told the white settlers of Port Townsend that “each morning I will sit on top of the big rock on the east side of the qatáy 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.”
On the 10th day of deliberations, čičməhán threw off his blanket. The S’Klallam had declined to join the fight.
“All this history is right here,” Blair said, recalling the Native Connections Action Group’s prevailing attitude as they dug deeper. “What can we do?”
At their meetings, group members would toss out ideas, and a loose concept — to approach the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe about telling their story in Port Townsend — floated to the top of the list. Burden, who moved to Port Townsend in 2010, honed in on the idea of a trail. She had already served on the city of Port Townsend’s Non-Motorized Transportation Advisory Board and had an impressive trail-building pedigree: She and her husband Dan Burden plotted the TransAmerica Trail that saw 4,000 cyclists ride coast to coast during the “Bikecentennial” in 1976. (An idea the couple hatched on an attempted first-ever bike trip the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.)
With the trail idea percolating within the committee, supporting Indigenous issues took on more urgency after the groundswell of protest by the Standing Rock Sioux over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which lasted from spring 2016 to early winter 2017. One member of the group traveled to South Dakota to join the protest and the committee raised money to support the Standing Rock cause.
“Standing Rock activated us,” Blair said. “We were educating ourselves and our community, then Standing Rock catapulted us into action.”
In early 2017, the group met with Jamestown S’Klallam tribal elder Celeste Kardonsky Dybeck (also a member of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship) and pitched the idea of a trail telling the story of the S’Klallam people in Port Townsend. She offered to take the proposal to tribal leadership. When she walked into the office of tribal chair W. Ron Allen, two men were leaving. After she explained the fellowship’s idea, Allen revealed that his previous meeting was with representatives of the Northwest Maritime Center, which occupies prime real estate in downtown Port Townsend, about a similar goal.
“The Northwest Maritime Center was fascinated with our carvings and looking for ways we could become engaged,” Allen said. Those conversations resulted in a gift from the tribe of a 26-foot totem pole, now installed on Water Street directly outside the maritime center, that acknowledges the shared seafaring passion of both the S’Klallam and the more recent settlers of Port Townsend. From top to bottom, the totem pole depicts the Supernatural Carpenter, the Spirit of the Cedar Tree and čičməhán with his arms in the welcoming posture atop Sentinel Rock.
The freshly painted totem pole beckons with warm red and sharp black accents set against a montage of teal faces and tan bodies. But even before a carver peeled the first wood shaving off the 900-year-old western red cedar that became the totem pole, the notion that it would eventually anchor the čičməhán Trail was still coalescing.
Allen directed a committee of tribal members and employees to research the history of the S’Klallam in Port Townsend and come up with a list of locations that could serve as sites along the trail. They pored over tribal history as well as archival records from the Jefferson County Historical Society and the now-threatened National Archives in Seattle.
“We learned almost as much about what’s not true as what was true,” said tribal historic preservation officer David Brownell. “Quite a few histories of Port Townsend have a chapter on the S’Klallam, and while the writers all go on vociferously about how close friends the tribe and the settlers were, the writers also have these embellished, mythological stories about dragons and the like that perpetuate the stereotype of the ‘noble savage.’”
The historical research committee also uncovered a bombshell: an 1867 ordinance prohibiting Indigenous dwellings. The law, which technically remained on the books, had served as a pretext for the Superintendent of Indian Affairs to order the destruction of the last remaining S’Klallam village in 1871.
“There are also stories that are intentionally malicious, racist and dehumanizing,” Brownell said. “These attitudes resulted in the forced exodus of S’Klallam people from qatáy.”
The tribe eventually settled on 18 sites for the čičməhán Trail, drafted 150 words for each sign, and built out an online museum exhibit that goes into further detail. In spring 2018, Dybeck volunteered full time for nine months to convince the constellation of public and private landowners at the various sites to agree to host trail signs, from local government to the port to the school district to Fort Worden Historical State Park. Meanwhile, the Native Connections Action Group fundraised about $75,000 by recruiting sponsors to fund each of the signs.
At the same time, S’Klallam carvers were working on the totem pole and a dugout canoe for the Northwest Maritime Center. From February to November 2019, the Jefferson County Historical Society hosted monthly First Friday lectures featuring Indigenous speakers. The turnout was so robust the event had to be moved to the maritime center.
“The trail fit within a broader context over the last three to four years of interest from the Port Townsend community in trying to reestablish some sort of connection with the Native tribes of that area,” said Brownell, who gave one of the historical society lectures.
That interest reached a crescendo on June 29, 2019, when more than 1,000 people filled the seats at Memorial Athletic Field in downtown Port Townsend for a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by the three S’Klallam tribes: Jamestown, Port Gamble and Lower Elwah. Nearby, the totem pole was also dedicated. And the city of Port Townsend formally rescinded its 1867 anti-Native ordinance.
For Dybeck, who grew up in Sequim, the outpouring of public recognition for Port Townsend’s S’Klallam history was vindication. “Growing up it was not cool to be Indian. You did not want people to know,” she said, citing a family history of housing discrimination and bullying at school. “I knew there was more history, but I knew the white people wanted it brushed under the rug, and it was something you didn’t talk about.”
Now the tables have turned, at least in Jefferson County.
Land acknowledgments before public events, prepared in consultation with the S’Klallam, are increasingly the norm. “It’s very meaningful,” Dybeck said. The čičməhán Trail is a hit with visitors and locals alike. In October, the trail committee installed benches at Laurel Grove Cemetery where čičməhán, his first wife and his grandson are buried, as well as at Four Points, a promontory with views on a clear day of Mount Baker (swáʔləx), Mount Rainier (təqwuʔmaʔ), the Olympic Mountains (sxwƛ’ayəm’áɬ) and Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, as well as Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula. The Native Connections Action Group now dreams of renaming some streets in Port Townsend in a further effort to “decolonize the map,” as Blair called it.
The Jamestown S’Klallam, meanwhile, hope that the trail will help elevate čičməhán’s profile as compared to a certain more famous contemporary. “We look at him the same way the Suquamish and Duwamish think of Chief Seattle,” said Allen. “He was the prime negotiator of the Point No Point Treaty. We have great reverence for him and who he was.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Barbara Jo Blair grew up in Vancouver, B.C. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington.