Pedaling on Stolen Ground: The Cheshiahud Loop Trail
Nov. 27 is Native American Heritage Day, an 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: 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. My awareness of this theft has deepened since taking a job with Cascade Bicycle Club, which begins staff meetings and events with a land acknowledgement that states, in part:
“We acknowledge that we are on the unceded land of the first people of Seattle, the Coast Salish Peoples, specifically the Duwamish Tribe, who are still here honoring their ancient heritage today.”
Land acknowledgements are an increasingly important way for organizations to prevent “the erasure of Indigenous histories,” says the Duwamish Tribe’s land acknowledgement page. Supporters of land acknowledgements encourage individuals 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.
Friday, Nov. 27, is Native American Heritage Day. To commemorate the holiday, I embark on a bike tour of the Cheshiahud Loop Trail, which circumnavigates Lake Union, and explore my neighborhood to find traces of Cheshiahud’s history.
There is controversy over the selection of the day after Thanksgiving to honor America’s Indigenous peoples, but it is with an open heart that I mark the occasion, mindful that every day should commemorate Indigenous history in a city named for Chief Si'ahl.
The first stop on my ride is only a few hundred yards from my house on Portage Bay in the 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’s website, which notes that 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, beginning the theft of these unceded lands.
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 desire to persevere.
Historic photo 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, 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 small waterfront park on Portage Bay in Montlake, 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 likely 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 as well. 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” and public waterfront access points to the lake. It is among Seattle’s most beautiful heritage trails. I joined the loop on my bike near the University Bridge and followed the trail past South Passage Point Park, which lies in the shadow of the colossal concrete columns of the Interstate 5 overpass.
Proceeding south along Fairview Avenue through the Eastlake neighborhood, I admire the view from Fairview Park, where a P-Patch community garden spills up the terraced hillside. I proceed south on Fairview, following the Cheshiahud Loop signs past the Roanoke Street Mini Park, Terry Petus Park, and arriving in the South Lake Union neighborhood, where Lake Union Park juts into the lake.
Lake Union Park is the site of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and the Center for Wooden Boats, where a Haida canoe is on display. Carved from a 700-year-old cedar log donated by Alaska’s Haida people, the massive wooden boat is both a work of art and testament to the craftsmanship of the Northwest’s coastal tribes. Cheshiahud carved and used similar canoes during his lifetime. In 2008, according to one account, 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. “Successful navigation of rivers and open water was as much due to the skills of Indian people as to the quality of the vessels themselves. 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, as well as a wooden carving of an eagle. Nearby, a young girl is learning to ride her bike, joy on her face.
Behind the MOHAI building along the docks, massive boats bob in the water, including the historic Fireboat Duwamish. The area’s industrial development is hard to reconcile with the vision of Lake Union as it existed during Cheshiahud’s lifetime.
Carving at Center for Wooden Boats.
Carved 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 website.
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 logs.
Turning northward, I follow the Westlake bike path along the waterfront, 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 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 Seattle’s community of bicyclists to ride the Cheshiahud Loop Trail on Native American Heritage Day, and to explore the links to Duwamish history within their own neighborhoods, and to create their own land acknowledgments.
Aside from the Duwamish peoples, we all pedal on stolen ground when we ride our bikes in Seattle.
“I acknowledge that I live and ride my bike on the unceded land of the first people of Seattle, the Duwamish Tribe, 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.”