City of Tribes


We begin with identity.

Among the myriad misconceptions long surrounding Seattle, our city has acquired an unfortunate reputation as a strictly white city — in other words, one where European Americans dominate the demographic milieu. While it’s true that white people have long defined the city’s character superficially, Seattle is in fact an ethnically and linguistically complex metropolis — and has been so since its founding.

When the Denny Party landed at Alki Point on November 13, 1851 — the standard historical date of Seattle’s municipal birth — they were immediately greeted by a multitude of Duwamish persons, all representing the indigenous population of the Salish Sea region. Rather than running from the pale new strangers in their midst, the Duwamish people quickly integrated themselves into the new society established by the Midwestern settlers. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, while the majority of Seattle’s citizenry remained ethnically European, any quick study of the list of distinct ethnicities who then resided within the Seattle city limits would reveal a dazzling ethnic multiplicity, regardless of demographic percentages.

Such was the case on October 4, 1998, when The Seattle Times published a feature-length Sunday front-page article titled “Anyone Speak Amharic?” The article reported how public school teachers in Seattle and Washington state had recently been overwhelmed with new students whose home languages — such as Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia — were unfamiliar to the teachers, making everyday classroom instruction a profound challenge.

Seattle’s ethnic diversity is best defined beyond the deceptive appearance of its alleged whiteness. In 2010, the Rainier Valley district, located in southeast Seattle and a longtime ethnic cornucopia, was declared America’s most diverse ZIP code — namely, 98118 — by the United States Census Bureau, based mainly on the number of distinct ethnicities who then resided there. While the designation may have been arguable compared with other ZIP codes in other major American cities, it still holds true that Rainier Valley’s authentic ethnic diversity contradicts the facile urban myth of Seattle’s apocryphal whiteness. East Asian and other Pacific Rim peoples — especially Filipino/Filipinas — have long predominated that district demographically, followed by African Americans, European Americans, and Latino/Latina peoples. Historically, Rainier Valley during the early twentieth century was a strong Irish-American and Italian-American enclave — a demographic rarity among American West Coast cities. Linguistically, Rainier Valley’s mixed population of global immigrants comprises the speakers of at least 59 different languages, including Amharic, Chinese, Khmer, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

Seattle’s infamously reserved social climate — sometimes referred to derisively as “The Seattle Freeze” — can be partially attributed to the two broad ethnic groups who have long predominated the city and its environs demographically: namely, Scandinavians and East Asians. Within the longtime social cultures of both of these ethnicities, being reserved is understood as a positive personality trait rather than a social liability. While Seattle’s ethnic diversity has grown kaleidoscopically since the late 1980s, the deep cultural influence of the historically stoic character of these two ethnic groups upon Seattle’s longtime social climate should never be underestimated.

Let us never forget the people — and the peoples — who resided in the Salish Sea region for centuries prior to the Denny Party’s arrival at Alki Point. While Seattle’s indigenous population in the twenty-first century might seem invisible, during the first decades after the young town’s founding, the Duwamish tribe played a profound role in determining the future city’s ultimate historical character.

Seattle is inevitably a city of tribes — both indigenous and immigrant. The major tribes of local indigenous peoples in the modern Salish Sea region include the Duwamish, Makah, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, and Tulalip tribes. The language spoken by the majority of these tribes historically — and thus the indigenous language of Seattle and its environs — was Lushootseed, a Salishan language. The linguistic gap between the Duwamish tribe and Seattle’s first white settlers was bridged by Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trade language developed mutually by the two ethnic communities.

The city of Seattle was of course named after Sealth (Lushootseed: /siʔaɬ/, c. 1786 – June 7, 1866), the leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes at the time of the Denny Party landing. Sealth was intrigued by Europeans and their culture, and as the new village developed, he pursued a path of accommodation rather than antagonism towards the white settlers, forming in particular a strong personal relationship with David Swinson “Doc” Maynard (1808-1873), the progressive, hard-drinking entrepreneur who more than anyone else helped establish the town of Seattle.

Reciprocating Sealth’s friendship, Maynard would become a staunch defender of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Puget Sound region, even when they were otherwise betrayed by other white government leaders during Seattle’s early municipal growth. When the first plats for the new village were filed on May 23, 1853, due to Maynard’s insistence — and against the evident wishes of the town’s emerging political establishment — it was designated as the “Town of Seattle.”

Not all was copacetic between the Europeans and the indigenous tribes of Puget Sound during Seattle’s early years, as evidenced by the Puget Sound War of 1855-56, which was instigated by a dispute over land rights, and which culminated in the Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856.

The dispute was provoked by the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, a treaty between the U.S. federal government and the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other Puget Sound tribes imposed by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862). The treaty removed prime farm land from tribal control while granting 2.24 million acres of that land to the United States in exchange for the establishment of three tribal reservations, cash payments over a period of twenty years, and federal recognition of traditional native fishing and hunting rights. The original Nisqually reservation granted by the treaty was located in rocky terrain and was therefore unacceptable to the Nisqually, who were a riverside fishing people. Anticipating a militant reaction by the Nisqually, Governor Stevens mobilized local militias, and fighting began in October 1855 with several skirmishes, the first of which occurred on October 28, 1855.

The Battle of Seattle began with a coordinated attack on the town involving several hundred members of the tribes who were outraged at the terms of the Medicine Creek treaty. Adding fuel to the fire, just five days before the attack, Governor Stevens had declared a “war of extermination” upon the tribes in response to the earlier skirmishes. Among the leaders of the attack was Leschi (Lushootseed: /ˈlɛʃaɪ/, 1808 – 1858), chief of the Nisqually tribe. Leschi rejected the treaty and joined an alliance of Klickitat, Spokane, Yakima, and other tribes who also rejected the treaty.

The night before the Battle of Seattle, Leschi and Owhi, chief of the Yakima tribe, snuck into the town to conduct a reconnaissance. The attack was launched early in the morning, and the battle raged through the day until 10 p.m. that night, when the tribes finally withdrew. No more attacks on Seattle would occur after that fateful date, but it would take several years for white settlement on Puget Sound to resume.

Leschi was later captured, and as punishment for his role in the attack and the alleged murders of two Territorial militiamen, he was hanged on February 19, 1858, sparking much long-lingering controversy concerning the question of his guilt. He was finally exonerated by the Washington State Supreme Court on December 10, 2004, on the grounds that he was in fact a lawful combatant in a war. Justice Gerry Alexander announced the decision, stating, “Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder.”


Apparently, Scandinavians go where the fisheries are.

Many people have remarked how Seattle has long been predominated by Scandinavian peoples and culture. When one learns the history of Scandinavian immigration to America, this quirk should make perfect sense. Emigrants from the Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — settled in great numbers during the nineteenth century in those regions of the United States whose landscapes were familiar to them: places filled with fjords, forests, and mountains that reminded them of home.

While the Great Lakes region first welcomed Nordic peoples to America, the Pacific Northwest quickly followed as a transatlantic Scandinavian mecca, receiving a multitude of first-generation immigrants and, later, Scandinavian-American transplants from the Upper Midwest. Most of the emigration from the Nordic countries to America took place during the period from 1840 to 1920. A major influx occurred in the Pacific Northwest between 1890 and 1910, when close to 150,000 Scandinavians settled here, thus making them the largest foreign-born ethnic group in Washington state, comprising more than 30 percent of the state’s foreign-born population, mostly centered in the Puget Sound region.

Scandinavians determined Seattle’s politics as well as its dominant social culture quite early. Nationally, the Scandinavian tradition of collective action led many Nordic immigrants to pursue active roles in American social reform movements. From the 1840s onward, Scandinavians were well represented in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and when the American Civil War began in 1861, they volunteered in great numbers to fight for the Union.

Many Scandinavians also played an active role in the burgeoning American labor movement during the 1890-1920 Progressive Era — especially in Washington state, where the degree of progressivism and radical leftism at the time would eventually lead to the state’s infamous red-baiting denigration by U.S. Postmaster General James Farley in 1936 as “the Soviet of Washington.” Seattle would naturally become the urban locus of this explosion of statewide progressive activism as it emerged to become the foremost city of the Pacific Northwest during the 1910s.

There was in fact a Scandinavian presence in Seattle as early as the mid-1870s, as evidenced by the Scandinavian Immigration and Aid Society, founded in Seattle in 1876, whose purpose was to encourage immigration to Seattle from Scandinavia. The society’s efforts achieved ethnic fruition when Scandinavian immigration to Seattle began to surge circa 1890. Like many immigrants of that place and time, Scandinavians first settled in the Skid Road area surrounding the future Yesler Way between Sixth Avenue and the city’s waterfront. As their fortunes improved, most Scandinavian Seattleites left Skid Road and moved north to the emerging town of Ballard, where familiar employment could be found in its lumber and shingle mills, as well as with its fishing fleet.

Prior to its annexation by Seattle in 1907, Ballard was a thriving sawmill town, where the Stimson Mill Company had operated since January 1890. The annexation added 17,000 persons to Seattle’s population — as well as a significant component to its internal ethnic chemistry. Ballard soon became known among Seattleites as “Swedetown” — even though Norwegians actually outnumbered Swedes there, as their descendants do today. Salmon Bay on Ballard’s southern shore soon became the home of the majority of the city’s fishing fleet, thus fully integrating Scandinavians into Seattle’s economic infrastructure.

During the twentieth century, the Scandinavian influence within Seattle would fully blossom, leaving many enduring local icons in its wake, from the zany folksinger and seafood restaurateur Ivar Haglund (1905-1985) to the Nordstrom family’s nationwide retail empire to Washington state’s powerful U.S. senators Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), who for decades used their clout in The Other Washington to secure federal funding for the bills that supported many of Seattle’s mid-century civic improvement projects.


Along with Scandinavians, the other broad ethnic group that would determine Seattle’s notedly stoic social culture was East Asians.

Seattle is of course a Pacific Rim city, and East Asians would inevitably migrate to and settle in Seattle as a result of the city’s early economic expansion. Chinese migrants provided cheap labor for the transcontinental railroads that were built across the United States during the late nineteenth century, and many of those workers naturally remained in the cities that attracted the railroads after their construction was completed — including and especially Seattle.

Unfortunately, when the Chinese were no longer useful to the railroad companies, they were suddenly subject to a labor surplus, as well as the Chinese Expulsion Act of 1882, which outlawed further Chinese immigration to the United States. Combined with rampant xenophobia, this situation led to the anti-Chinese riots of 1885-86, which occurred throughout the western United States, sparked by intense labor competition. The Seattle riots of 1886 occurred from February 6 to February 9 of that year. The first riot began when a mob affiliated with a local Knights of Labor chapter began a campaign to carry out a forcible expulsion of all Chinese persons from the city. To quell the rioting, U.S. President Grover Cleveland ordered in federal troops, leading to a clash between the rioters and the troops. This episode resulted in the removal of more than 200 Chinese persons from Seattle and left two militiamen and three rioters seriously injured.

After the Chinese Expulsion Act was passed, a wave of Japanese immigration began that brought an abrupt influx of Japanese persons to Seattle. The Japanese quickly became the most numerous among the city’s non-whites, and they would perform much of the menial work that the displaced Chinese had previously done. Both the Japanese and the remaining Chinese largely settled in what is now known as the Chinatown-International District, which became an official city district in 1910 and would eventually include residents of Filipino and Vietnamese origin.

Seattle’s “new Chinatown” was born when Goon Dip (c. 1862-1933), a prominent Pacific Northwest businessman born in Guangdong Province, China, organized a group of Chinese Americans to found the Kong Yick Investment Company, a mutual benefit society. Their money and efforts would soon lead to the construction of two crucial buildings intended to serve together as the commercial anchor of the new neighborhood: the East Kong Yick Building and the West Kong Yick Building.

Meanwhile, Filipino immigrants would settle in some of the new neighborhood’s hotels and boarding houses, attracted by opportunities to work as contract laborers in agriculture and Alaskan salmon canneries. Among them was Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956), who would later describe his formative local experiences in his now-classic 1946 memoir America Is in the Heart.

Other ethnicities will always exist among those who dominate and/or predominate within any given global city. While African Americans have always been marginalized within the stoic Scandinasian paradigm of sociocultural Seattle, our city’s most globally famous municipal native musician remains today James Marshall Hendrix (1942-1970). Scion of sorts of a working-class black family residing in the Central Area during World War II, Jimi Hendrix of course achieved international fame during his brief life by revolutionizing the language of the electric guitar.

Among the persistent misconceptions regarding the life and work of Jimi Hendrix remains his identity as a hometown hero. Make no mistake: Seattle for Jimi Hendrix was always a place from which to escape, not a legendary destination for fulfilling creative ambition. Circa 1966 — one hundred years after the death of Chief Sealth — that city was London, not Seattle.

The most recent significant wave of foreign immigration to Seattle occurred during the 1990s, when refugees from violent conflicts in both East Africa and Eastern Europe came to the Puget Sound region almost simultaneously, further distancing the city from its monochromatic past both ethnically and culturally. This wave was yet another step in Seattle’s gradual transformation from an isolated and provincial city into one that is now genuinely and profoundly cosmopolitan, multicultural, and — urban mythology notwithstanding — multiethnic.

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