Accessibility links

150 Years After His Execution, Justice for an Indian Chief

  • Austin Jenkins

A special Historical Court in Tacoma, Washington, has exonerated a prominent Nisqually Indian chief in a unanimous decision that came a century and a half after he was hanged for the murder of a U.S. soldier. The descendents of Chief Leschi have long mourned the execution, calling it a miscarriage of justice. The soldier was shot in 1855 during the era of the so-called "Indian Wars" in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon.

In mid-December, the bailiff gaveled Washington's first-ever Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice into session at the State History Museum. On the bench were seven judges in black robes. Before them were a panel of attorneys and an audience of nearly 200 -- mostly tribal representatives from across the state, some in colorful shawls and traditional beaded headdresses.

"Leschi is not here to enjoy the fruits of the acquittal he deserved," said lead defense counsel and Nisqually Tribal Attorney Bill Tobin in his opening statement. "But the court can take a step toward providing justice, by entering a judgment of exoneration and removing the burden of guilt from Leschi's name."

On the stand, Nisqually tribal member and prominent Northwest Indian leader Bill Frank Junior spoke passionately about why clearing Chief Leschi's name remained so important. "We teach our young people about this hanging and it's not a very good story," he told the court. "So if we could tell the truth about this hanging and get to our young people and tell them the truth is now being told after 150 years, then we'll have a new beginning."

In 1858, Chief Leschi was hanged after being tried and convicted of shooting to death territorial militia member A.B. Moses in what was the state's first recorded murder. Questions linger as to whether Chief Leschi was even at the scene of the shooting. But that was not the argument made in the special court. The chief's modern-day defenders maintained that, even if he did pull the trigger, he never should have been charged with murder because the killing occurred during a time of war.

Not so, responded lead prosecutor Carl Hultman of the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's office, suggesting that it was the shooting itself that started the Indian War. "The war began after the A.B. Moses killing," he argued. "That's the beginning of the war. I don't think you could come in and have done whatever sets off the war and then claim that I did it at a time of war, perhaps."

During the four-hour trial, Chief Leschi was described as someone who simply wanted to stop the relocation of his people from the banks of the Nisqually River to the prairie. Historical experts suggested that he was the victim of discriminatory justice at the hands of an all-white jury. In closing arguments for the defense, John Ladenburg, a former prosecutor, said the trial was about "the future, not the past…about humanity, not history." He called it "a rare opportunity for the people of Washington, both Indian and non-Indian, to come together to heal old wounds and create a road towards understanding and respect."

After a short deliberation, the court returned its verdict. To sustained applause, Gary Alexander, Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, announced that the death of A.B. Moses happened during a time of war, and that "the historical court would exonerate Chief Leschi."

As the crowd milled about the museum's lobby after the court adjourned, Jennifer Mansfield, a direct descendent of Chief Leschi, said she was relieved. "It's like the injustice is finally done, it's over, everything's clear, his name's good," she said. "We can start a new beginning."

The exoneration does not have the force of law. But members of the Nisqually tribe say the new verdict will allow them to correct their history…and that is what matters.