The Potlatch Decade


When exactly did Seattle arrive as a city?

If any specific decade qualifies for that crucial historical honor, surely it’s 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 (AYPE) and the 1919 Seattle General Strike. Between these two events, certain lesser-known yet equally important events also helped define Seattle as a city where radical leftism has constantly clashed with reactionary conservative politics. Those events crucially include the 1913 Potlatch Riot, the 1916 Everett Massacre, and the 1917 sedition trial of Louise Olivereau.

When the 1910s began, Seattle had positioned itself as the foremost city of the Pacific Northwest, mostly as a consequence of the wealth brought into the city by the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99. Having thus 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 municipal boosters thus developed plans for a similar fair in Seattle.

The AYPE was organized to promote the Puget Sound region’s economic and cultural connections 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 on that day. Attendance was even greater on “Seattle Day” on September 6, with 117,013 visitors. By the time the fair concluded 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 remain visible today, creating Rainier Vista and Drumheller Fountain, among other celebrated local historical landmarks. Landscaping for the fair was designed by the famous East Coast firm of Olmsted Brothers, whose plan would influence many 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 major foray in search of world-class glory. Yet despite all of its benevolent civic intentions, the AYPE was nevertheless profoundly Eurocentric, and the depiction of indigenous peoples — both local and global — in its various exhibits was thus profoundly problematic. 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 his 2007 book Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, deftly articulated the fair’s 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 fully 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. This would not be the first time that Seattle’s civic leaders would make such a drastic gaffe in pursuit of the municipal chimera of world-class status.


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 dedicated to preserving ancestral stories through songs, dances, and ritual gifting. On that fateful night, 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 United States a few short years later. This event would also demonstrate the potential destructive consequences of irresponsible journalism, as it was ultimately provoked by a deceptive and 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 fiercely 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-management Seattle Daily Times. The various accounts of the Potlatch Riot that appeared in those 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 now vividly illustrate the wide range of political opinion within the Seattle of 1913.

The fistfight in question began at about 9:30 p.m. 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 who was speaking on a stand 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 intersection 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 melee 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 F. Cotterill (1865-1958) in his speech for the latter’s tolerance of local leftists. (The IWW and anarchist groups had already begun to flourish in Seattle by 1913.) Times publisher Alden J. Blethen (1845-1915) had previously been publicly critical of Cotterill for the latter’s alleged failure to crack down on Seattle’s “radical elements.”

(Cotterill, although hardly “radical,” was definitely one of Seattle’s more genuinely 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 (and subsequently in the Congressional Record) 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 melee. 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, sailors, and civilians to seek retaliation for the previous night’s apocryphal attack in Pioneer Square. Thus, on the evening of July 18, a large crowd of apoplectic revelers, numbering at least a thousand, drunkenly descended upon downtown Seattle and vandalized the IWW and Socialist Party offices located there — all in plain sight of the many festival-goers who were there to watch the Potlatch Days parade, scheduled that night.

The rioters began their assault while the 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 vandalized. 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 vandalize 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 within Seattle’s mainstream media and politics over the next several years — especially during World War I.

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 have been provoked by the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Seattleites had then long come to expect on its front pages. In response, the Times repeatedly and flamboyantly attacked Cotterill — one exemplary headline on July 20 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 decades 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, canceled again in 1941, and eventually replaced by the annual Seafair festival, which was launched in 1950 and continues to the present day.

The local labor cataclysm known as the Everett Massacre may have been sudden and swift, but its legal and political aftermath certainly wasn’t so. The drama that began on November 5, 1916, stretched out over six long months and reached its crescendo with a nationally-noted legal trial that began in King County Superior Court in Seattle on March 5, 1917.

The Everett Massacre occurred when some 300 IWW members boarded a pair of chartered ships in Seattle and headed north towards Everett, where they had planned a public demonstration that afternoon in support of striking shingle mill workers. When they arrived, they were met by a large group of some 200 hostile local police and citizen deputies. A spontaneous gunfire melee soon erupted, leaving at least seven dead and 50 wounded from among both Wobblies and deputies. The instigator of the melee — whether Wobbly or deputy — was never officially identified.

The resulting trial concerned the culpability of 74 Wobblies who had been arrested upon their return to Seattle from the scene of the massacre, incarcerated in the Snohomish County Jail in Everett, and charged with the murders of Jefferson Beard and Charles Curtis, two citizen deputies who had been killed in the melee. The first of the Wobblies to be tried was Thomas Tracy, a prominent IWW leader at the time.

Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970), already known locally as a newspaper reporter with progressive sympathies, covered the trial for the New York Evening Post. Her experience hearing the story of the massacre during the trial’s course would be a crucial catalyst in her personal transformation from a respectable member of Seattle society into a lifelong radical rabble-rouser. Strong would write later, in her 1935 autobiography I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American:

“The news [concerning the events that instigated the massacre] was that at every stage the Everett police and private lumber guards took the initiative in beating and shooting workers for speaking in their streets. The lumber guards on the dock had begun the shooting and continued firing as the Verona [one of the two IWW-chartered ships] pulled away; yet none of them were arrested. The men on trial for murder were not individually shown to have even possessed a gun; it was enough that someone on their ship, a comrade or an agent provocateur, had fired.”

The IWW benefited greatly from a national defense fund campaign they had launched soon after the arrests of the 74 Wobblies. Using the funds raised, they retained Los Angeles attorney Fred H. Moore and former King County deputy prosecutor George F. Vanderveer, both of whom proved highly effective in the defense. In one intriguing twist at one point during the trial, forensic evidence indicated that Curtis was most likely killed by one of his fellow deputies, and so that charge was thus quietly dropped. Another contributing factor explaining the length and complexity of the trial was the IWW’s collective perception of it as a microcosm of the class struggle they were then passionately committed to winning.

Tracy was finally acquitted on May 5, 1917. Shortly thereafter, all charges were dropped against the remaining 73 defendants. There was no appeal — nor were charges ever filed against any of the citizen deputies who may have murdered the five Wobblies who also died in the massacre.

During World War I, pro-war conformism was at fever pitch nationwide, and anti-sedition laws aimed at silencing antiwar activists were passed by Congress. In Seattle, the schism between the city’s respective progressive and reactionary populations reared its ugly head publicly on November 30, 1917, when antiwar activist Louise Olivereau (1884-1963) was convicted of sedition.

Olivereau, a schoolteacher, poet, and self-described anarchist born and raised in Douglas, Wyoming, first became involved in Seattle’s political left in 1915, when she moved to Seattle and began working as a stenographer for the IWW’s Seattle offices. The events that led to her arrest and conviction began in August 1917, when she printed and mailed out literature addressed to young men in the Pacific Northwest encouraging them to become conscientious objectors to avoid military service in the war, which the United States had joined in April of that year. Her activity violated the Espionage Act, passed by Congress that June, which made it a crime to cause insubordination in the U.S. Armed Forces, to obstruct the recruitment of soldiers, and/or to use the U.S. Postal Service to do so.

At the trial, Olivereau conducted her own defense. No other IWW members attended, and her only support came from Anna Louise Strong, who sat in the front row during the trial. The IWW apparently chose to distance itself from Olivereau due to her anarchist identity, which was considered dangerous even among the radical left during the politically charged 1910s. In her defense, Olivereau recounted her version of the events that had led to her arrest, provided the jury with an explanation of her political views, and argued her case for the ultimate injustice of the war in Europe.

On December 3, 1917, Olivereau was sentenced to ten years in prison. She served 28 months in the state penitentiary in CaƱon City, Colorado, before being paroled. After her release from prison, she worked at various clerical and sales jobs in Oregon and California. She settled in San Francisco in 1929 and worked there as a stenographer until her death on March 11, 1963.


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 U.S. 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 involving 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 I. After the war ended on November 11, 1918, 35,000 Seattle 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 local 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 IWW, thus becoming a general strike, led by the Seattle Central Labor Council. The general strike soon became headline news around the world.

Three key players in the political drama surrounding the strike were Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940), Emergency Fleet Corporation Vice President and General Manager Charles Piez (1866-1933), and the aforementioned Anna Louise Strong. Hanson was elected mayor 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 ultimately mattered very little.

An undeniable icon in Seattle’s radical history, as well as that of the United States, 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 academically precocious today, of twenty-three.

Strong first arrived in Seattle in May 1914, when she brought to the city a national touring exhibit she had 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 transform 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 into a passionate thirtysomething radical.

Strong was also a very public opponent of the United States’ entry into World War I 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 as a reporter for the Seattle Union Record was arguably the greatest source of her fame — especially her editorial published 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 workforce 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 in order 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 as part of the federal government’s response to the strike, 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 on February 10 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.

Although the strike was nonviolent and lasted less than a week, government officials, the mainstream press, and much of the general public viewed the strike as a radical attempt to subvert American institutions. Ironically, the particular 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 mayor of Seattle on August 28, 1919, due in large part to the complicated political aftermath of the Seattle General Strike. He would then pursue further political fame denouncing revolutionary leftism on the national lecture circuit, and in 1925 would found the California city of San Clemente (later the retirement home of Richard Nixon). Unlike Anna Louise Strong’s brazen legacy, Hanson’s long-term influence on Seattle city politics and government would ultimately prove to be minimal.

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