Pedaling on Stolen Ground: The Cheshiahud Loop Trail
Oct. 11 is Indigenous Peoples' Day, a holiday that offers us the opportunity to explore the history of Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe, commemorate its last Lake Union chief, and create your own land acknowledgement.
Photo: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division
Editor’s note: This is a re-edited version of a story that first ran in November 2020. We use multiple spellings of Chief Chesheeahud’s name to reflect the numerous variations in the historical record.
I pedal from my home on the shore of Lake Union in Seattle and begin my search for the story of Cheshiahud, “the last of the Lake Union Indians,” a Duwamish chief who fished and farmed these lands and waters more than a century ago.
As a Seattle bicyclist, I ride on stolen ground. Most of us do, no matter where we live. This is why Cascade Bicycle Club begins staff meetings and events with a land acknowledgement: "We acknowledge the land we sit on and occupy today as the traditional home of the Duwamish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot, and Suquamish tribal nations. Without them we would not have access to this environment. We take the opportunity to thank the original caretakers of this land who are still here."
Land acknowledgements are an important way for organizations to prevent “the erasure of Indigenous histories,” says the Duwamish Tribe’s land acknowledgement page. Cascade encourages its members to learn the history of their region’s Indigenous peoples, and to create their own acknowledgements.
For me, that means learning about Cheshiahud, on whose lands I reside. Monday, Oct. 11, is Indigenous Peoples' Day. To commemorate the holiday, I will bike the Cheshiahud Loop Trail, which circumnavigates Lake Union, and explore my neighborhood to find traces of Cheshiahud’s history.
The first stop on my ride is only a few hundred yards from my house in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood, where a metal plaque adorns a concrete wall at the bottom of Shelby Street near water’s edge.
“A Native American canoe carver named John ‘Indian John’ Shiahud and his wife, Madiline, lived near this site during the late 1800s,” reads the plaque, which depicts one of the many anglicized spellings of his and his wife’s names.
“Chesheeahud was a renowned Duwamish chief and travel guide to Lake Union, Lake Washington, and Lake Sammamish in the days before roads were built in the City of Seattle,” says the Duwamish Tribe. He lived in a cabin and farmed a potato patch at the end of Shelby Street into the early 1900s.
Standing on this site today, it is difficult to imagine the horror and change Chesheeahud saw in his lifetime as white settlers moved in, beginning with the arrival of the Denny party, which claimed Lake Union in 1853.
Duwamish villages persisted along the lake for another 25 years or so, according to written accounts, which say that Chesheeahud was among the last of the Duwamish to reside on Lake Union. Other accounts say he narrowly avoided being lynched by white settlers. Native Americans were forbidden from living in Seattle, so Chesheeahud’s ability to remain shows his acumen in communicating with white settlers and his ability to persevere.
Historic photo with circle showing approximate location of Chesheeahud's home. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division.
Chesheeahud was also called “Lake Union John,” and according to his Wikipedia entry, “his family were among the few of the Duwamish people who did not move from Seattle to the Port Madison Reservation or other reservations.”
According to another online history, Chesheeahud lived for a time in the area now known as Mercer Slough in Bellevue. He then was given or purchased a plot of land from David Denny on Portage Bay. He had a first wife who died, a son named Steve, and a daughter named Jennie.
The next stop on my bike tour is a waterfront park on Portage Bay, where a sign describing a habitat restoration project includes a poem honoring the Duwamish chief and his wife:
What we forget
Wind and water
Whisper the names
Cheshiahud and Tieboletsa were here
This park would have been a thriving wetland filled with fish and waterfowl in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the couple was here. Late in his life, Chesheeahud told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper that the once-abundant trout he fished had disappeared, an early sign of Lake Union's decline. Last fall, my wife and I harvested huckleberries on this site, imagining that Cheshiahud and Tieboletsa had perhaps foraged berries here. On the ground amidst the huckleberry bushes and native plants are stones inscribed with their names. As with her husband, Tieboletsa’s name is spelled many ways.
The Cheshiahud Loop Trail passes through Gas Works Park and Lake Union Park and connects dozens of small “pocket parks” around Lake Union. It is among Seattle’s most beautiful heritage trails. I joined the loop on my bike near the University Bridge and followed the trail signs past South Passage Point Park and along Fairview Avenue, a low-car waterfront street that is safe to ride.
Proceeding south along Fairview Avenue through the Eastlake neighborhood, I admire the view from Fairview Park, where a P-Patch community garden covers a terraced hillside. I proceed south on Fairview, following the Cheshiahud Loop signs past the Roanoke Street Mini Park, Terry Petus Park, and arrive at Lake Union Park.
A Haida canoe is sometimes on display in Lake Union Park near the Center for Wooden Boats. Carved from a 700-year-old cedar log donated by Alaska’s Haida people, the massive wooden boat is a work of art and a testament to the craftsmanship of the Northwest’s coastal tribes. Cheshiahud carved and used similar canoes during his lifetime. In 2008, one of his historic canoes was displayed in the Seattle Art Museum.
“A family could pack all necessary gear for a journey of several months in such a vessel, and two adults could handle the loaded craft with paddles or, when the wind was favorable, under sail,” according to the Duwamish Tribe. “Knowledge of tides, major river currents, snags and logjams, and canoe repair were fundamental elements of a traditional education for uncounted generations of Duwamish people in their ancestral homeland.”
Chesheeahud in canoe, circa 1885. Museum of History and Industry.
Back on the trail, I pass a tall carved and painted totem pole and a wooden carving of an eagle.
Carving at Center for Wooden Boats.
Lake Union's industrial development is hard to reconcile with the vision of the lake as it existed during Cheshiahud’s lifetime. Formed by the retreating Vashon glacier 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, Lake Union was known as “Tenas Chuck,” or Little Water, in Chinook, an intertribal trading language. In Lushootseed, the primary Duwamish language, Lake Union was Ha-AH-Chu (“littlest lake”), according to a history of the Cheshiahud Loop Trail and the Lake Union Virtual Museum.
The Duwamish lived in villages and longhouses along the lake’s southern and southwestern shores, where they fished and captured waterfowl with nets, navigating Lake Union in canoes carved from Western red cedar.
Turning northward, the Cheshiahood Loop Trail follows the Westlake bike path, passing beneath the Aurora Bridge, whose traffic thunders overhead, and crossing over the Lake Union Ship Canal on the Fremont Bridge. In Fremont, the Cheshiahud Loop joins with the Burke-Gilman Trail, passing through Gas Works Park, with its vistas of the Seattle skyline, and skirting past the Sunnyvale Boat Ramp, where dragon boat teams launch their crafts in sunnier times.
The Cheshiahud Loop continues past Peace Park, near the north side of the University Bridge, where a bronze statue of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes commemorates a Japanese girl who died of radiation poisoning following the Hiroshima bombing. To this day, schoolchildren hang paper cranes from the statue, a sign of hope for a more peaceful future.
“Chesheeahud and Tleebooleetsa were referred to as ‘the last of the Lake Union Indians,’ since they were in fact the last Duwamish family to maintain residence on the lake as the city grew up around it,” according to the Duwamish Tribe's website. Chesheeahud is believed to have lived on his land at the foot of Shelby Street, not far from where I write these words, until as late as 1909.
After “Madeline” died, he sold his land on Lake Union and moved to the Suquamish Reservation across Puget Sound. He died in 1910 and is buried in Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery in North Seattle. Cemeteries were segregated in that era, so his burial here, marked by a stone bearing his name, reflects Cheshiahud’s notoriety.
I encourage people to join me in bicycling the Cheshiahud Loop Trail on Indigenous Peoples' Day. Explore links to Duwamish history and Indigenous history within your own neighborhoods. And create a land acknowledgment. All of us but for the Duwamish peoples pedal on stolen ground when we ride our bikes in Seattle.
“I acknowledge that I live and ride my bike on the lands of the Duwamish people, and specifically the lands once occupied by the Lake Union Duwamish Chief Chesheeahud and his wife, Tleebooleetsa, whose history and memories I pledge to learn and share.”