“You know, putting aside for a moment the atrocities of battle, you have to admit we live in a pretty hilarious time!” – Lieutenant William Gilliam, as he led his troops against the Walla-Walla, at the Battle of Seattle.
There are few things in history cooler than a sloop-of-war, and in the mid-nineteenth century, when it came to sloops, few were as “of war” as the Decatur, which on this particular day in 1856 was anchored in Elliott Bay. However, what could have been simply a “cool” battle turned into one of history’s most absurd stories. (Note: I’m not making any of these names up. Seriously.)
The Decatur had been sent to the Washington territory for a number of superficially comical reasons. First, the natives there had formed an alliance with the nearby Tongass Indians, who despite appearing very stern always elicited childish giggles from white settlers whenever they announced themselves. Assigned to the solemn task of negotiating with the natives was the ridiculously named Guert Gansevoort, who was instructed to pursue intelligence with a friendly chief named Sucquardle. I know, I know—just let me finish. Anyway, Sucquardle knew that the Americans were under threat by the Klickitat, who were also joined by the Nisqually and the Puyallup.
When the marines from the Decatur arrived, they were soon joined by a detachment of Seattle settlers, who were led by, among others, the esteemed William Gilliam. William Gilliam was a reckless man, fearless in battle and as mean as a snake—perhaps one of the most feared white men in the territory. He was, however, as so many fierce warriors are, also quite partial to the whimsicalities of the English language, perhaps because of his own reduplicative name, and as such found himself perfectly suited to partake in the Battle of Seattle. His above declaration came shortly after his good friend John Swan was gravely wounded in battle after a native stabbed him in the arm, rupturing his brachial artery and producing so prolific a flow of blood that Gilliam himself, standing nearby, was nearly covered in it. John Swan’s attacker was now poised above him, and crouched down to grasp him by the hair in preparation for the brutal scalping ritual that would soon transpire. As Swan stared into the soulless eyes of death, thinking of his family, he wondered if perhaps it was a mistake to continue the pattern by naming his son Don. But before the native could lower his knife, William Gilliam’s friend and fellow officer Sergeant Carbine shot and killed the assailant with, well, his carbine, saving the life of John Swan. The battle was nearly lost and Gilliam nearly killed as he chuckled for a solid five minutes, shaking his head back and forth and grinning as a number of natives took aim at him. With no time for a pow-wow, the Walla-Walla charged helter-skelter, but they were soon sent pell-mell from the midst of the hurly-burly by William Gilliam and his rag-tag crew.
The Battle of Seattle was won on that day, but not without a price. Eventually the natives were driven out, and the territory became overwhelmingly populated by whites, resulting in the considerable loss of humorous names and outlandish phonetics.
History may repeat itself, but that doesn’t mean I have to, although I did say that last week. Tune in next week for an all-new “This Day in Revisionist History!”