TIME WAS, a round-numbered anniversary was a straightforward occasion to celebrate. No longer, in the case of our city’s birth. Today we can witness a more complex — and richer — commemoration.
This month’s round number is 170, the number of years from Nov. 13, 1851, the cold and rainy day when the so-called Denny Party famously landed at Alki Beach after traveling west from Illinois and sailing north from Portland to establish a new home. It’s the date carved into the “Birthplace of Seattle” obelisk that has stood at Alki since 1905.
Of course, complications arise from long-repeated references to that simplified tale:
● The 22 who landed on Nov. 13 were not the first Euro-American settlers who arrived in what became known as Seattle.
● Besides Dennys, other families were in the Nov. 13 group, with the familiar names of Boren, Bell, Terry and Low, calling into question the “Denny Party” designation. (All except the Lows later were rewarded with Seattle street names.)
● The obelisk identified the married women in the group merely as “and wife.”
● The 1851 landing does not denote Seattle’s official birth. The city was incorporated in 1865 and, after its charter was voided, was reincorporated in 1869.
The most egregious error, however, lies in the story’s neglect for the presence of Native Americans for thousands of years before the landing. The obelisk’s “birthplace” reference thus reflected solely the perception of immigrants, many who forcefully dismissed (and later eradicated) the lives and culture that existed before their arrival.
On Nov. 13, 2000, the Southwest Seattle Historical Society began correcting the course, launching “The Spirit Returns,” an exhibit telling the Duwamish and settler stories at the organization’s Log House Museum at Alki.
One year later, it unveiled new plaques on the beach monument. The plaques recast the settlers as the Alki Landing Party, added the wives’ names and honored the generosity of city namesake Chief Seattle and his Duwamish and Suquamish tribes.
This fall, the historical society and the Duwamish Tribe have teamed to go further, mounting a thorough follow-up: “The Spirit Returns 2.0: A Duwamish and Settler Story.” This venture is hosted at two West Seattle sites: the historical society’s 1904-vintage museum and the Duwamish Longhouse, which opened in 2009 on West Marginal Way.
In conversations that shaped their displays, the organizations decided to focus on differing aspects but also to weave a common thread — the early acts of friendship between the Natives and settlers. The quest, as the historical society says, is to “uncover a new way to think about Seattle history.”