The Potlatch Decade

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If any decade qualifies as the one in which Seattle first arrived as a city, it’s surely the 1910s. That decade began and ended with two major events which each brought Seattle to the world’s attention: the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the 1919 Seattle General Strike. Between these two events, a certain lesser-known yet equally important event also helped define Seattle as a city where radical leftism has constantly been at odds with reactionary conservative politics. That event was the Potlatch Riot of 1913.

As the 1910s began, Seattle had positioned itself as the foremost city of the Pacific Northwest, partly as a consequence of the wealth brought into the city by the Klondike Gold Rush. Having caught an early glimpse of world-class glory, the city decided to stage a world’s fair. At the time, a succession of world’s fairs had already taken place in the United States following the popularity of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893. Local civic boosters thus developed plans for such a fair in Seattle.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE) was organized to promote the Puget Sound region’s economic and cultural ties to Alaska, Canada, and the Pacific Rim. The exposition opened on the University of Washington campus on June 1, 1909. The opening day was declared a city holiday, and 79,976 visitors attended. Attendance was even higher on “Seattle Day” on September 6, with 117,013 visitors. By the time the fair closed on October 16, more than 3.7 million people had visited Seattle to participate in the fair.

Prior to the AYPE, the UW campus was still a small, sparse landscape with very few buildings. The fair transformed the campus in ways that are still visible today, creating Rainier Vista and Drumheller Fountain, among other local historical landmarks. Landscaping for the fair was done by the famous East Coast firm of Olmsted Brothers, whose plan would influence all later designs for the campus. (Olmsted Brothers also designed the majority of Seattle’s early park system, beginning in 1903 and culminating in the Washington Park Arboretum, which was established in 1934.)

The AYPE was indeed Seattle’s first glimpse of world-class glory. Yet for all of its benevolent civic intentions, the AYPE was profoundly Eurocentric, and the depiction of indigenous peoples — both local and global — in its exhibits was profoundly troublesome. Among other examples, Eskimo and Igorot (Filipino) people were part of the exhibits, on display for attendees to ogle — some of them in cages. Historian Coll Thrush, in Native Seattle, articulated the utopian contradictions:

“Virtually every exhibit included some sort of ethnographic display, and the message was clear: these Indians were our people — not in the sense of being us, of course, but in the sense of being ours. Like other world’s fairs, the AYPE was intensely didactic, brazenly ambitious, and thoroughly racist.”

The irony is only now obvious. Seattle then sought to be a world-class city of the future, only to reveal inadvertently that its collective civic thinking was still stuck in the Eurocentric past. It would not be the first time that Seattle’s civic leaders would make such a gaffe in pursuit of world-class status.

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Equally important among events in Seattle during the 1910s was the Potlatch Riot. The story of the Potlatch Riot began on July 17, 1913, during the Potlatch Days festival, a precursor to the modern-day Seafair named after a traditional Pacific Northwest indigenous tribal ceremony. On that evening, during the opening day of the Potlatch, a street-corner fistfight and an allegedly provocative public speech combined to produce a major outbreak of violence in downtown Seattle — as well as an ugly glimpse of the early Red Scare that would engulf Seattle and the nation a few short years later. This event would also demonstrate the potential destructive consequences of irresponsible journalism, as it was ultimately provoked by an inflammatory news article on the front page of The Seattle Daily Times.

The political context of the Potlatch Riot is vastly important for understanding why the riot occurred. Despite its modern reputation as one of America’s most liberal cities, Seattle has in fact always been ideologically complex. This was especially so in the year 1913, when the city had several daily newspapers, each one serving a different point of view on the ideological spectrum, from the pro-labor Seattle Union Record to the pro-business Seattle Daily Times.

The various accounts of the Potlatch Riot that appeared in local newspapers differed significantly from one another, creating a daunting “Rashomon effect” for anyone attempting to construct a definitive historical account. Nevertheless, the disparities among the reports from the different papers vividly illustrate the wide range of political opinion in the Seattle of 1913.

The fistfight in question began when three U.S. Army soldiers and two U.S. Navy sailors in town for the Potlatch Days festival heckled Mrs. Annie Miller, a suffragist speaking to a small crowd in Pioneer Square near the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a.k.a. “the Wobblies”), near the corner of South Washington Street and Occidental Avenue South. When one soldier threatened to strike Mrs. Miller, a well-dressed and very muscular man in the crowd objected — “You would strike a woman!” — and a fist-fueled mêlée quickly erupted.

Meanwhile, at the prestigious Rainier Club a few blocks away, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels gave a patriotic speech for local movers and shakers as part of the Potlatch festivities. These two events, seemingly unrelated, would together set the stage for the Potlatch Riot.

The following day, The Seattle Daily Times disingenuously linked the fistfight and the speech in a front-page article titled “I.W.W. Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors.” The article, uncredited in the paper but in fact written by Times reporter M. M. Mattison, alleged that Daniels had denounced Seattle Mayor George Cotterill in his speech for the latter’s tolerance of local leftists. (The IWW and anarchist groups had already begun to flourish here by 1913.) Times publisher Alden J. Blethen had previously been publicly critical of Cotterill for the latter’s failure to crack down on Seattle’s “radical elements.”

(Cotterill, though hardly “radical,” was definitely one of Seattle’s more progressive mayors. Among other causes, he fought for public ownership of Seattle’s utilities — another reason why the profoundly capitalist Blethen intensely abhorred him.)

The article also crucially alleged that Mrs. Miller was an IWW member and that several Wobblies among her audience had attacked the soldiers and sailors without provocation. The Times also reported that Miller had “insulted [the servicemen's] uniforms.”

Given historical hindsight, the article was also clearly based on fabrication. Eyewitness testimonies gathered by Seattle police and later published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer showed that no Wobblies or anarchists had been present during the fistfight in Pioneer Square, and that the soldiers and sailors had in fact instigated the mêlée. Secretary Josephus, meanwhile, denied having said any unkind words about Cotterill or the IWW that evening.

The inflammatory tone of the article — clearly critical of the IWW — led many local soldiers and pro-military citizens to seek retaliation for the previous night’s apocryphal “attack” in Pioneer Square. Thus, on the evening of July 18, a large crowd of soldiers and sailors, numbering at least a thousand, drunkenly descended upon downtown Seattle and ransacked the IWW and Socialist Party offices located there — all in plain sight of festival-goers who were there to watch the Potlatch Days parade, scheduled that night.

The rioters began their assault while police were busy managing the Potlatch parade crowd. The headquarters of the Socialists at Fifth Avenue and Virginia Street and those of the IWW at South Washington Street and Occidental Avenue South were both ransacked. The rioters also began to trash a Pioneer Square mission in the mistaken belief that it was an IWW office. The mob entered the mission on Occidental Avenue South and began to ransack it until someone realized it was not IWW-affiliated and called off the attack.

While no one was gravely harmed that night, the political aftermath for local leftists would be damaging indeed, as anti-IWW and pro-war sentiment would only increase in Seattle’s mainstream media and politics over the next several years — especially during the First World War.

The morning of July 19 found Seattle under martial law. Meanwhile, a different kind of conflict escalated between Blethen and Cotterill. During the following week, the front pages of the Times would be filled with inflammatory headlines denouncing both Cotterill and the IWW. It was merely the latest episode of a long-running animosity between these two titans of Seattle city politics.

Adding fuel to Blethen’s fire, Cotterill had attempted to stop the Times from publishing during the remainder of Potlatch Days in order to prevent any further riots that might be provoked by the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Seattleites had long come to expect on its front pages. In response, the Times repeatedly and flamboyantly attacked Cotterill — one exemplary headline read, “Mayor Cotterill Attempts the Role of Czar.”

While the conflict between the Times and Cotterill would eventually cool down, the Times would continue to misrepresent the politics of Seattle for many years afterwards. The Potlatch Days festival, stained by the memory of the 1913 riot, would be discontinued after 1914. It would then be revived in 1934, cancelled again in 1941, and eventually replaced by the annual Seafair festival, which was launched in 1950 and continues to the present day.

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Among truly significant events in Seattle history, the Seattle General Strike of 1919 still ranks indisputably near the top of the city’s history list. The first general strike in United States history may have been a short-term failure, yet it would ultimately leave an impact on Seattle city politics and government that would last for many decades afterwards.

The strike was a five-day general work stoppage by more than 60,000 workers that lasted from February 6 to February 11 of that year. It began in the shipyards on the Seattle waterfront, which had expanded rapidly with war production contracts during World War One. After the war ended in November 1918, 35,000 shipyard workers expected a post-war pay hike to make amends for the strict wage controls imposed by the federal government during the war. After nearly two years without a pay hike, dissatisfied workers in several unions began the shipyard strike on January 21 to demand higher wages.

The shipyard strike was joined in solidarity by members of other local unions, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), thus becoming a general strike, led by the Seattle Central Labor Council. The general strike soon became headline news around the world.

Two key players in the political drama surrounding the strike were Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) and Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970). Hansen was elected on March 5, 1918, with strong support from organized labor. Ironically, he would become a major antagonist of organized labor during the strike. He would later become famous for claiming that he broke the strike, even though the fact was that conservative national labor leaders pressured the Seattle unions into ending the strike, and Hanson’s intervention mattered little.

An undeniable icon in Seattle’s radical history, as well as that of the nation, Anna Louise Strong was born on November 24, 1885, in the uncannily-named Friend, Nebraska. She acquired many distinctions during her long life as a social justice activist, among them a Ph.D. in philosophy earned at the age, still precocious today, of twenty-three.

Strong first arrived in Seattle in May 1914, when she brought to the city a national touring exhibit she’d organized to advocate for child welfare. She returned to take residence the following year, and in 1916 she ran for, and was easily elected to, the Seattle School Board. When the board’s bureaucracy stifled her wishes to make the city’s public schools into venues for social service programs for underprivileged children, as well as neighborhood community centers, she soon turned to journalism as a source of personal and political fulfillment. Her experience covering the Everett Massacre for the New York Evening Post in November 1916 served as a catalyst for her transformation from a privileged young liberal to a passionate thirty-something radical.

Strong was also a very public opponent of the United States’ entry into World War One in 1917, a stance that led to the loss of her school board seat in a recall election organized by the all-male remainder of the board. After the dual experience of her witness to the Everett Massacre and her ousting from the Seattle School Board, she became a prominent public advocate for workers’ rights, especially during the Seattle General Strike. Her coverage of the strike was arguably the greatest source of her fame, especially her editorial published in the Seattle Union Record on February 4, 1919, two days before the beginning of the strike. There she famously proclaimed:

“We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead — NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”

The strike began on the morning of February 6, when Seattle, then a city of 315,000 people, abruptly stopped working. In addition to the 60,000 union members actively participating in the strike, much of the city’s remaining work force was idled as stores closed and streetcars stopped running. The 300-member General Strike Committee, comprising delegates from the key striking unions, worked to coordinate vital services and negotiate with city officials. Certain services were exempted from the strike to maintain public safety, including garbage collection, hospital laundry, and firefighting. Despite the potential for chaos, the city remained surprisingly peaceful, leading U.S. Army Major General John F. Morrison, then stationed in Seattle, to later declare that he had never seen “a city so quiet and orderly.”

Ultimately, the strike was ended not by pressure from Mayor Hanson, but rather by pressure from within organized labor in the form of the conservative national and international officials of the AFL unions. With the rank-and-file still overwhelmingly wishing to continue the strike, the General Strike Committee voted to end the strike on Tuesday, February 11, at noon. Meanwhile, the shipyard strike, in support of which the general strike had been called, continued.

Ironically, the public figure who would best articulate what was perhaps the Seattle General Strike’s greatest victory was Ole Hanson, the strike’s key antagonist. In Hanson’s view, the fact that the strike was peaceful belied its revolutionary nature and intent. He would later write:

“The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact… The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere… True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community… That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt — no matter how achieved.”

Ole Hanson resigned as Seattle mayor on August 28, 1919, due in part to the complicated political aftermath of the Seattle General Strike. He would then pursue further fame denouncing revolutionary leftism on the national lecture circuit, and in 1925 would found the California city of San Clemente. Unlike Anna Louise Strong, Hanson’s long-term influence on Seattle city politics and government would eventually prove to be minimal.

Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.


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