Clues for Sustainability: Three Ancient Creeks into Lake Washington


Those who have read Dr. Henry Smith’s supposed transcription of Chief Seattle’s famous speech will recall the line: “At night when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.” 

Natives’ love of the land included concern for its well-being because life depended on caring for its resources.  Hunting, gathering, and especially fishing, were obviously necessary to native people. Encroaching Americans enforced the right to continue doing so in treaties Natives were forced to sign.  

Americans regarded Seattle’s tribes as primitive takers, scratching a living from nature, unlike settlers farming profitably on privately owned land.  They did not understand that Seattle’s Duwamish people had learned to manage the land and successfully protect its resources. 

Forests were managed by being burned regularly to keep trees spaced apart so that sunlight could nourish a thick herbaceous understory.  In turn, this attracted large game herds and abundant crops of roots and berries dried and stored for later winter use.   Repeated burning eliminated deadwood, reduced insect and fungal blight, and prevented catastrophic fires.  Modern research estimates that 60 percent of lowland forests in the Puget Sound region were regularly burned, creating a lush, healthy matrix.  Burning open lands after harvest controlled invasive species and nourished the soil.  Likewise native people managed fisheries with equal success for millennia. 

It took Americans only three generations to level lowland forests and ransack the fisheries.  Modern clues to how the Duwamish and their neighbors succeeded may be found in three watersheds I want to examine: Thornton Creek in north Seattle, and McAleer and Lyons Creeks in Lake Forest Park. 

From late May to early June, 1859, surveyor William Carlton assembled the first detailed maps of the Seattle area meant to facilitate American settlement.  These maps depicted townships: squares of land six miles on a side divided into 36 mile-square sections. Each section was numbered, starting with 1 at the northeast corner and continuing west, then east, bustrophedon-style (Greek for “as the ox plows”) back and forth until ending at section 36 in the southeast corner.  Surveying east from the intersection of sections 27, 28, 33, and 34, between sections 27 and 34, Carlton wrote in his record book: “19.92  A stream 15 lks wide running S. and Indian trail and fish trap.” 

Translation: 19.92 is the number of 66-foot steel chain-lengths he was from the stake marking the intersection (80 chains are a mile, and 19.92 chains equal 1,314 feet).  Today 105th Street NE crosses NE 35th Avenue at the site of the four sections’ intersection.  Walk 1,314 feet east on 105th from there, and you will be standing where Indians built the fish trap. Alongside the susurrant creek, you can imagine hearing ancient people talking, laughing, and fishing. 

A chain consisted of 100 steel links, each with an internal long diameter of 7.92 inches.  “15 lks”—15 links — measured the creek’s width at that point: almost 12 feet.  Today, 106thAvenue NE follows the former trail’s steep route up and over a hill to the lake. 

The people who fished there belonged to a Duwamish group called the Khah chu AHBSH, Lake People.  Over millennia, groups in the Duwamish River basin adapted to marine, riverine, lake, and inland environments. They developed technologies for each environment and organized their societies accordingly. Khah chu AHBSH lived at Lakes Union, Washington, and Sammamish.  On Lake Washington (KHAH chu, the big lake), they inhabited 14 village sites. 

Early 20th century Duwamish provided ethnographers names of places around Lake Washington’s shore.  The mouth of Thornton Creek, flowing southeast from Shoreline to Lake Washington at Matthews Beach Park, was Tu KHU beed, “silent place,” and those living there were Tu khu beed AHBSH, the “Tu khu beed people. 

Taking their name from their house site, the Tu khu beed AHBSH were a winter village community.  For nine months of the year winter-village families assiduously collected from the forest and streams to supply needs during winter weather in their longhouses.  If an outsider wanted to share those resources, they married into families that labored to maintain their abundance. 

Winter villagers had their own burial ground.  When a person born at the village died, even if they had married out and lived distantly, their soul traveled the spectral road from their birth village to the land of the dead, and their bones would be boxed in trees at the village cemetery.  Tu KHU beed had only one longhouse, but others had more, such as the people at Union Bay near the University of Washington, which had five. 

A list of Lake Washington villages submitted as evidence during a 1927 lawsuit by Duwamish and other tribes against the United States in the U. S. Court of Claims identifies Dua-hoabun as a single, medium-sized longhouse measuring about 60 by 100 feet.  This was Tu KHU beed.   

A house of that size would shelter three to five closely-related biological families, each numbering perhaps four to eight individuals — totaling perhaps 25 to 35 as an ancient hunter-gatherer band under one roof.   True to their origins, they were an independent, self-sufficient commune marrying into others to expand their economic and genetic base.  The welfare of the group was paramount, and within the longhouse, all shared what was collected and produced.  Their fishing weir barred the main channel of Thornton Creek below its branching tributaries.  One village, one weir. 

A trail to Lake Washington from the weir site tells us that rank growth, detritus, and blowdowns likely blocked the lower creek to canoe traffic.  Hauling fish in burden baskets, the weight distributed to the carrier’s forehead by a tumpline, over the hill to the lake and ferrying them via canoe to the longhouse required less time and trouble than clearing the channel. The arrangement allowed a complex ecosystem to develop on lower creek channels for purposes we can only surmise. 

Fish made it through regardless, and once caught were gutted and filleted at an adjacent camp and hung on racks to dry in the sun or over low fires.  A run typically lasted many days, and people stayed in simple mat lodges with cooking hearths near the entrance.  Once dried, basket-loads of salmon were carried to the lake.  Hung from longhouse rafters, curing continued over hearth fires.  Dried salmon could last for years. 

Fishing camps were hives of activity, but Carlton’s failure to mention this suggests that summer chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon had yet to appear.   The people may have been off fishing or digging camas bulbs elsewhere.  

The fish trap would have been a funnel tube or a screen that blocked fish from spawning upstream. Logs laid angling from the banks funneled fish into a tubular basket woven of cedar branches and withes tied at the far end.  Once full it was upended, spilling fish on the bank.  Fish milling about before a screen were dip-netted.  Another type of weir featured smaller screens arranged in a maze that slowed fishes’ passage enough to be speared.  

Because weirs blocked salmon from spawning, baskets and screens were left in the water for only short periods, allowing the majority of spawning fish to pass.  Yearly runs varied enough to convince fishers to take only what was needed, lest the fish decide to withhold their robes of flesh from humans who did not respect them.  This was especially true on rivers where downstream weirs could threaten upstream villages. River Duwamish people built large weirs supported by heavy log tripods able to catch every fish heading upstream, but their purpose was only to catch enough. 

Larger rivers typically had several winter villages along their banks.  Early artist sketches show tripod weirs spanning entire channels.  At the southern outlet of Lake Washington, settler children on the south bank attended school on the north (because they walked from the south bank to the north bank at that spot) bank by crossing the weir. Americans called the lake outlet the Black River.  The Cedar River flowed into the outlet at Renton, but the the Duwamish, the Cedar, Black, and Duwamish were all one, the Duw, “Inside.” (Owing to their differing concepts of hydrology, Americans felt it necessary to give the three parts separate names). 

The heavy tripods were left in place after screens were removed, but when in place, the strict protocols governing how and when they would be operated were maintained through intermarriage. This fostered a deep sense of identity captured in the phrase, “Every river has its people.” 

But weirs on Lake Washington tributaries (excepting the Sammamish River at the far north end) were operated on creeks that had no winter villages upstream.  These weirs were fragile compared to tripod weirs, and were rebuilt yearly, so river protocols were not needed.  However, concerns about use and sustainability remained pressing.  Winter village groups prided themselves on their autonomy and success and strove to be admired and even envied by others, helping to attract marriage partners with preferred skills. 

Further north on Lake Washington, longhouses sheltered residents at McAleer Creek and Lyon Creek in Lake Forest Park.  This was in the same township Carlton surveyed. Heading north between sections 9 and 10, he noted two creeks flowing southeast: one, 10 links wide — 6.58 feet, McAleer Creek — and the second, 8 links wide — 5.28 feet, Lyon Creek.  On his map he shows them joining east of the section boundary and entering the lake as one stream. 

A 1902 map shows them flowing separately to the lake, and later native informants recalled place names at their mouths. The mouth of McAleer Creek was SAH tsu tseed,SAH tsu mouth,” SAH tsu, “face,” being the name of today’s Lake Ballinger.  A name at the mouth of Lyon Creek, Sts KUL “a small bird,” may identify Bewicks wren, Thryomanes bewickii.  Most village names on the court list can be located by comparing them with place names, but oddly spelled endings make some identifications on the list problematic. 

For example, Sazo-Chagin, one of the problematic village names on the list with one longhouse may be Waterman’s place-name, SAH tsu tseed.  If the last syllable, oulsh, of another problematic village name, Se-kal-oulsh, is AHtkhw, “house,” a linguistically reconstructed name, so Sek AHL ahltkhw, could identify Waterman’s Sts KUL as “Wren’s house,” a village of two longhouse near the mouth of Lyon Creek. In 1903 three or four native houses were recalled standing behind a marsh between the mouths of McAleer and Lyon Creek under what is now the intersection of N. E. Ballinger Way (State Route 104) and Bothell Way (State Route 522), making my speculation plausible.  But who fished where? Mysterious, indeed! 

Neighboring streams that combine, and divide repeatedly are not uncommon in the unstable Puget lowland, but the shifts surely complicated the lives of winter villagers dependent on fisheries.  Would adjoining villagers build a single weir above the single mouth and share the catch, or separate weirs on streams above the confluence whose resources they had identified earlier as theirs? Archeology may provide clues about Lake Washington’s winter village society. 

The Seattle Public School District’s agreement to allow archaeological survey work at the John Rogers Elementary School expansion at Thornton Creek could provide information about that weir site.  Likewise future construction of a traffic roundabout at the intersection of Ballinger Way NE and NE 40th Place in Lake Forest Park may provide insights there, but a century of development reduces the odds for locating a winter village weir.   

Creek weirs were not constructed to survive fall and spring floods, but the base of support poles driven into creek beds may survive in these conditions as would other organic remains such as mats, nets, and cutting tools. 

When sea level stabilized about 5,000 years ago and anadromous fish migrated en masse upstream to spawn, microliths appear in the archaeological record.  Microliths are razor-sharp blades chipped from opal, petrified wood, and obsidian traded from east of the Cascades, each about an inch long.  They were fitted into simple wood or bone handles and secured with sinew or cordage — early examples of mass production and interchangeable parts.  If a blade dulled, it could be removed and re-chipped, or replaced quickly with another.  These would be important finds. 

Microliths cut large fish thin enough so that they dried more quickly, preserving more flesh during short-lived migration peaks.  This practice taxed runs less and allowed groups to exploit separate resources simultaneously without vitiating the sources.  Families collected not just enough to live on but a surplus that sustained them through approaching winter, a time of feasting, gift-giving, and ceremony.  

The spectacular appearance of food sources evoked a religious response among the people.  In Latin, religio, “to bind together,” aptly describes the emotional and social bonds uniting family and kin in communal efforts to sustain life and renew the world.  The bond was extended to the resource itself, to berries, salmon, and deer who sacrificed themselves to the people.  Offerings were made before hunts and placed in berry fields before harvest.  At the first salmon ceremony, everyone ate a morsel of the honored and immortal fish in a sacramental meal. 

Personalizing resources and according them the status of kin gave rise to a powerful ethic not to take more than needed, to express gratitude for what was offered, to celebrate communal meals, and to make sure that nothing went to waste. That same etiquette ordered life in the longhouse.  This religious impulse of projecting need and ethical familiarity onto the cosmos was an important tool enabling all our human ancestors to flourish. 

The modern commoditization of resources and profiting from their exploitation to their point of collapse has resulted in modern social and environmental decay.  Learning how “primitive takers” developed resource strategies far more successful and sustainable than ours may help correct mistakes.  The creeks may provide answers if archaeological work happens and if society is serious enough to take notice and act. 

Lake people were closely related to River groups on other watersheds like the powerful Snohomish and Snoqualmie.  Lake identity, less exigent and formalized than river folk, did not withstand the trauma of conquest and settlement, and merged with stronger groups, many on reservations.  They last appear as a named group in 1864, when a number were removed to the Suquamish Reservation on the western Sound. Saltwater and River Duwamish, from whose homeland Americans thought too valuable to subtract a reservation, made the existential choice of remaining where they lived.   

What we do know is that decisions native groups made over thousands of years produced a human environment so beautiful and bountiful as to stun first observers. It was not a wilderness, but a garden. 

The Kah chu AHBSH are one of the least known groups in the Puget Sound area, and archaeology might be able to provide understanding of how they and others succeeded.  We know that beginning in late February, families began leaving the longhouse on short forays, gathering green shoots and uncoiling fern fiddle heads after months living on dried fish.  Longfin smelt and steelhead salmon in the lake and creeks provided fresh fish, as famished elk and deer crashing through swamps in search of the brilliant yellow spathes of skunk cabbage provided fresh meat.  When the dogwood bloomed it was time to dig clams.  When a bee buzzed around a woman’s face, it was telling her it was time to collect the inner bark of cedar trees to make baskets.  Until late November, each family followed its own itinerary going to places where resources appeared, collecting and bringing it back to share with the group. 

All this happened on a daily basis: planning, consensus building, deciding, organizing and working together to produce results.  We can see something of this at the three creeks.   

People lived at that location as long as fish migrated up the creek — at least 5,000 years. During that long period, they and their ancestors profoundly altered the land.  Forests were burned every two to five years.  In pioneer times, summers were so smoky that ship crews had to use compasses to navigate the Sound.

In spring, people collected leafy sprouts and fern fiddleheads for salads sauced with fresh red and blue elderberries. Shrubs later produced abundant berries and nuts dried and stored for winter use.  After harvest, gardens were fired to keep out invasive growth and improve next year’s yield.  Off-shore gardens of SPAY qwots, Sagittaria latifolia, produced nutritious leaves in summer and carbohydrate-rich corms in winter, collected by doughty women who waded deep and wriggled them up from the mud with their toes.  Cattail, giant horsetail, and bracken fern provided starchy rhizomes, cattail leaves for mats and its thick, female stem for durable, springy mattresses. Fishing employed the most sophisticated technological, logistical and ecological strategies. 

These days I make my living in part by speaking about the Duwamish Tribe and their use of an environment that became metropolitan Seattle. Seattle’s downtown, presently beleaguered, is surrounded by hilly neighborhoods stair-stepped with elegant trees and fine houses aglow in a late-afternoon sun. The land has fine bones, and over time multiple streams added creases of character to its lineaments.   This relationship between the land and its creeks evokes ghostly memories of a people who, for millennia, called this home.    

Gaze on the city’s ridgelines, and they will form a pattern: high in the north end and sloping gradually southward.  They are drumlins — long hills — the work of the last ice sheet to sculpt the land.  From above they form a great corrugated fan, their parallel alignment marking icy passage.   

Many of Seattle’s smaller lakes and ponds — equally ancient glacial kettles — occupy low ground between the ridges defining stream direction.  The drumlins surface a larger topography of highlands and deep lows occupied by Puget Sound, Lake Washington and river valleys.  The combined pattern directs creeks in long, diagonals to deeper water.   

Such are the clues from Seattle’s Thornton Creek, entering Lake Washington at Matthews Beach Park, that reveal native people’s wise thinking about resource use and how society could sustain this bounty.   


  1. I found this well-researched and beautifully-written piece utterly absorbing ….I grew up near Thornton Creek, which runs through and near Nathan Hale High School fields. As teenagers, we knew nothing, were taught nothing about the tribal use of this important waterway. According to King County data, salmonid species in the creek include Chinook salmon, coho salmon, coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead, and rainbow trout. I’ve always wondered why more attention wasn’t paid to this important area….and thanks to David Buerge, a clearer picture emerges. I deeply appreciate this, and am sharing it.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Buerge, for this elegant article. It will be interesting to follow the details of the archaeological work to be done at John Rogers and the Ballinger Way roundabout.
    On the subject of names, how Thornton Creek came to be called Thornton has been determined a mystery at least for now. The name appears on early maps before the two previously suggested namesakes are documented here. An article for another day?

  3. “When a person born at the village died, even if they had married out and lived distantly, their soul traveled the spectral road from their birth village to the land of the dead, and their bones would be boxed in trees at the village cemetery. ” — Just a pull quote so that I can say, again, how beautifully written this piece is.

  4. This was a beautifully written, informative, thought-provoking article. I found myself particularly ruminating on the concept of religion as “to bind together”. How different the communal aspect of the Natives’ life choices were compared to the control, coersion, and corruption exercised by even originally pure concepts of faith once those concepts became codified into organized religion in Western Cultures.


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