Off the Beaten Track: Native Americans and the Queen Anne District

Published 1993 by Queen Anne Historical Society, edited by Kay Reinartz

Chapter Two
“Off the Beaten Track:  Native Americans and the Queen Anne District”
by Erin Younger and Edward Liebow PhD

In the late twentieth century there is evidence of neither native village sites in the vicinity of Queen Anne nor the large native population that once lived on Elliott Bay.  However, a lengthy tradition of native settlement, predating those in almost every other corner of North America, has its roots on the shores of Puget Sound.  A 1991 archaeological excavation at West Point below Magnolia Bluff has revealed artifacts 2,500 to 3,000 years old.  Some contend that the area could have been inhabited 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.  Because of the damp climate and acidic soils, few remains have been preserved or recovered, and there is much to be learned.
When the first settlers arrived, in 1851, there were several village sites clearly visible along the shores of Elliott Bay.  These included the mouth of the Duwamish River southeast of Pioneer Square, the foot of what is now Bell Street, and Salmon Bay, in the vicinity of the Hiram Chittenden Locks.
From available information it appears that Queen Anne Hill was never a central location for Native American life or activities.  It has, however, played a consistent role on the periphery.  Its upper hillsides were used as hunting grounds and the meadows near its base were a traditional ceremonial and social gathering place for native people from around Puget Sound.


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the greater Puget Sound region was home to many different peoples whom anthropologists have come to call the Puget Sound Salish, referring to their related languages.  Tribal names such as Duwamish, Suquamish, and Snoqualmie are used to refer to larger groupings of different local bands.  Aboriginally, the Puget Sound Salish identified themselves by family or household name and the village or location where they lived.  For example, the Shilshole lived just outside of what is now Salmon Bay in a protected area called hil-hole-ootseed, in reference to the narrow entrance to the bay.  Duwamish refers to the Native Americans living in the greater Seattle-King County area along the Duwamish river and its many tributaries.
As the various tribes lived intimately with the land, they named hundreds, if not thousands, of land forms and locations — beaches, trails, campgrounds, landmarks, and sites of mythological importance.  In the Queen Anne area, Fourmile Rock, the large boulder at the foot of Magnolia Bluff, is said to be related to the mythic hero Sta’kub, who could take a gigantic dragnet made of cedar and hazel branches and throw it over the rock while standing on a distant beach.


As winter turned to spring, hunters began leaving the tribal villages to follow elk, deer and smaller game.  When the salmon arrived in the bays and inlets around June to start their upstream journey, the winter villages broke up and temporary camps were established where the fish were most plentiful.  Family groups continued to move through the season, following the ripening plants and berries, fishing, and gathering shellfish along the saltwater shore.  As the fish were caught, women cleaned and cured them, drying them on racks or smoking them in small smokehouses.
The camps themselves consisted of simple, temporary structures of poles and mats that provided shelter from the elements and room for storage.  The shores of Elliott Bay at night were dotted with fires of the many camps.
Summer was also a time for socializing and feasting.  One of the most important social institutions was the potlatch, which was a great feast bringing together many people and requiring the preparation of great quantities of food.  It also called for the accumulation and distribution of great quantities of gifts, including blankets, tools, cloth, pets, carvings and jewelry.  Gift recipients were expected to return the favor, thus establishing a complex system of social interaction and redistribution of food and wealth.  Special events and rites of passage were occasions for potlatches, such as the conferring of a new name on a youth, the death of an elder, the return of the salmon to the rivers, or a successful hunt.

When the settlers came to Queen Anne there were no permanent native villages on the hill, but seasonal camps abounded along its perimeter.  The sandspit in the tidelands between Queen Anne and Magnolia, later Smith Cove, was a traditional Native American campground where various groups fished and gathered shellfish, which were smoked for winter consumption.  Other seasonal food-gathering camps were located near the intersection of what is now West Thomas Street and Elliott West in Belltown, near First Avenue and Battery Street, and at West Point in Discovery Park.
The Native Americans often went to the hill to hunt.  As recently as the 1980s, hunting artifacts have been unearthed in hill dwellers’ backyards.  The intersections of Tenth and Eleventh Avenue West and McGraw Street were also found to contain ancient shell middens — the equivalent of a prehistoric garbage dump — by geologist Harlan Bretz in 1913.
A very popular Native American camp was located on the shores of Lake Union in the vicinity of Westlake Avenue.  A major focus of tribal activities during their stays at this camp was duck hunting.  A favorite technique was to paddle out on the lake with burning torches.  On signal the hunters would startle the ducks by shouting, banging, and waving the flaming torches.  The frightened ducks left the lake by flying low along a natural, open, marshy area leading to Puget Sound and directly into nets stretched across this “flyway” by the hunters.  Entangled in the nets, the ducks were easily killed.  According to anthropologist Thomas Talbot  Waterman, “astonishing numbers” of ducks were caught this way, especially when the Duwamish were preparing for a potlatch.


The place that has become Seattle Center was a traditional gathering place of the Duwamish.  Formed by a glacier, the flat meadow was kept clear of brush by periodic burnings by the natives.  The Duwamish called the area Baba’kwob (prairies).  Because the tribal festivals were held there, the pioneers called the area Potlatch Meadows.
In 1966 local tribes held their first large-scale powwow in a century on the traditional Baba’kwob grounds.  The event was the War Dance, sponsored by the American Indian Women’s Service League and the Seattle Indian Center.  After performing the War Dance to large crowds at the Seattle Center Arena, the troupe of seven dancers went on a three-month invitational tour of western Europe.  The War Dance continued to be held at the Seattle Center annually for nearly a decade.  The traditions were revived in 1986 with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation’s Powwow, observed annually during Seafair Indian Days.  The powwow is now held at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center at Magnolia’s Discovery Park.

 On the south slope of Queen Anne Hill a cedar tree began to grow about the time of Marco Polo’s first journey to China.  Throughout the Crusades, the Black Death, and the discovery of North America, the tree continued to grow.  Surviving the occasional forest fire that swept the region, the cedar became a true giant of the forest.  It took ten men, standing with arms outstretched, to encircle it.  Its noble head towered above all of its younger neighbors.
Native tribes recognized the significance of this ancient tree and revered it as sacred.  They established the tradition of holding inter-tribal chiefs’ councils beneath its graceful branches.  Here disputes between the nearby Shilshole community on Salmon Bay and others were deliberated and problems of mutual concern were resolved.  Native tribes called it the Powwow Tree.
Early explorers entering the Puget Sound named the tree, which could be seen for miles from the water, the Landmark Cedar and used it as a navigation point, as did all ships entering Elliott Bay for nearly two centuries.  It also became known to sailors as the Lookout Tree.
In 1891 the ancient landmark cedar was felled by Rudolf Ankeny to make way for a house being built for his daughter.  This action was not taken without the Duwamish vigorously protesting the cutting of the sacred tree.  Some members of the white community also supported the tribe’s point of view.  Before Ankeny destroyed the tree, the natives held a ceremony at the site and tribal tradition records that a curse was placed where the tree once stood.  Located at 912 Second Avenue West, the Ankeny House is an example of late Queen Anne style architecture and a registered Historic Landmark.

* from HistoryLink: Seattle Neighborhoods: Queen Anne Hill — Thumbnail History:
“Native Americans of the Shilshole, Duwamish, and Suquamish tribes camped around the base of the hill to gather fish and shellfish, and to hunt.  When settlers from the United States arrived on Puget Sound, the Duwamish lived in permanent settlements of cedar long houses south of the hill at what became downtown Seattle.  The Shilshole lived on the north side of Salmon Bay.  A meadow south of the hill was called baba’kwob or prairies.  It stretched between Lake Union and Elliott Bay and the tribes trapped ducks flying between Lake Union and Elliott Bay in nets.”
*Note:  The work of 1962 Seattle World’s Fair principal architect Paul Thiry acknowledges the native past of Potlach Meadows.