When Settlers Burned Herring’s House, an Ancient Duwamish Settlement


When the month of March began in 1893, Duwamish tribal members owned eight houses near the mouth of the Duwamish River in West Seattle.  The site was known as Herring’s House, a name inspired by the invasion of hordes of herring that spawned there each year. 

Less than a week into March, in the space of a few hours, Herring’s House lost its eight dwellings and all their residents.  They found a new home on an island of rocks in Elliott Bay.

Duwamish had lived for centuries in Herring’s House.  Archaeologists believe it to have been the longest continually inhabited native village in North America — since the Sixth Century, A.D. Though the style of its structures had changed since the Denny Party arrived in 1851, the native village had even survived four decades of white settlement.  Then, in a few minutes during March of 1893, Herring’s House fell to an arsonist’s torch, and 1,300 years of history went up in smoke.

The Duwamish tribe’s hold on the site had been tenuous since the coming of the whites in the 1850s, more so since land developers from San Francisco now owned the land under the Duwamish houses. Their company, the West Seattle Land and Improvement Company, had been in Seattle for a mere five years. However, they held legal title to Herring’s House, ignoring the fact that Duwamish had occupied the site since Muhammad walked the Arabian Peninsula.

The company was anxious to carry out its plan to transform West Seattle from a rural outpost of several hundred residents into a bustling suburb complete with ferries to Seattle, cable cars, and a water and electric company. Only four decades had passed since the Duwamish and their leader, Chief Seattle, had befriended the Denny party, Seattle’s first pioneers, who landed three miles from Herring’s House.  Now, though, the Duwamish were inconvenient. 

Company Superintendent James Watson initiated the next step in that plan.  West Seattle Charlie later described it to a reporter: “Watson mamook fire copa nika house,” (Watson burned my house!) 

Watson’s company, a creation of San Francisco capitalists, planned to transform West Seattle from farmland to suburb.  The West Seattle Land and Improvement Company had an elaborate and well-financed plan for the rural area. The Californians had created the company in 1888 to take advantage of the tremendous population boom in Seattle.  They established a ferry run between Seattle and West Seattle, built a cable car line in West Seattle, and began buying and clearing land and laying out streets and sidewalks.  The West Seattle company did not consider Indian shacks good for business. 

The reporter, who wrote for The Seattle Press-Times, a forerunner of today’s Seattle Times, found out about the burning of the Duwamish houses when he noticed a population explosion on Ballast Island. He noted that ten large ocean-going canoes and “a flotilla” of small Indian craft, all overflowing with household belongings, had recently landed at this pile of rocks at the water’s edge of Washington Street.  What had happened, the reporter wondered, to cause so many Indians to come to Ballast Island in March? 

Had it been September, no one would have noticed.  Indians from near and far arrived at Ballast Island in the fall on their way to work the hops harvest in the Puyallup River Valley.  The “island,” Indians knew, was one of a diminishing number of places they could occupy with little risk of harassment from Seattle Whites.

Ballast Island served as the dumping ground for sailing ships that traveled empty to Seattle, but left full of lumber, canned salmon, or some other Seattle resource.  To travel safely to Seattle, the ships loaded their holds with ballast:  rocks or bricks to keep them lower in the water as they sailed.  Before loading their holds with cargo, they dumped their ballast, and had gradually created an island of bricks and rocks just offshore from Washington Street in what is now the Pioneer Square area.   Seattle Whites, who had banned Indians from residing within the city limits decades before, usually left the natives alone on the island.

The curious Press-Times reporter began interviewing these newly arrived residents of Ballast Island. Most of the men seemed to bear the name “West Seattle,” marking them as refugees from the torching at Herring’s House. West Seattle Charlie spoke Chinook as he identified the arsonist as Superintendent Watson. West Seattle Jack and West Seattle Joe lamented the loss of their houses.  

West Seattle Peter listened as West Seattle Jim described his torched house as “real comfortable.” A second West Seattle Jim seemed to be the arson victim most distraught over the loss of his dwelling.  This Jim was an old man, bent with his years, who had lived in West Seattle for decades.  He sold clams for a living.

Port Madison John served as the interpreter as they told their story to the reporter. Other Ballast Island refugees used their native names when interviewed by the reporter. An ancient and very sick woman told her interviewer that her name was Totakha.  She sat uncomfortably in a beached canoe, unable to stand.  Indian Nawa, too, had suffered eviction from her West Seattle home.  

The Indians had been away from their homes at the time of the arson.  Watson had taken advantage of their absence. Fire was not an uncommon weapon for settlers who had designs on Indian land. Indeed, the burning of the Herring’s House community continued a series of White dispossessions of the Duwamish, including a prior arson at Herring’s House.  Years before Watson’s torching, a huge potlatch house stood at Herring’s house.  It had taken 20 skilled builders two summers to construct it.  The destruction of the potlatch house by West Seattle pioneers took only minutes.  

Where would they go, the reporter wondered? To the lighthouse, they told him, referring to the beacon at West Point, in what is now Magnolia in Seattle.  An Indian squatters’ colony had arisen there at the site of another traditional Indian village. 

At West Point, they hoped to again live unmolested. Perhaps they were able to, at least for a while.  However, Seattle doubled in population during the 1890s and the new inhabitants pushed the city outward in every direction.  The Great Northern Railroad built its western terminus in Magnolia and the army began construction on Fort Lawton, now Discovery Park, around the time of the arson at Herring’s House. The period of peace for the dispossessed of Herring’s House probably did not last long.

The West Seattle Land and Improvement Company was a huge presence in West Seattle for many years. It is gone now. The Duwamish, however, are back.  In 2009, the tribe built their Longhouse and Cultural Center adjacent to Herring’s House Park, named for the village where their ancestors had been made homeless by fire 116 years before.       

There is also an Indian presence again in Magnolia.  The Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center was established at the Fort Lawton site in 1972 after an occupation led by Bernie Whitebear. The Duwamish are still without a reservation, however.  

Sourcing: The primary source of this story is the Seattle Press-Times story of March 7, 1893.  Additional material came from “Native Seattle” by Coll Thrush and David Buerge’s “Chief Seattle.”  Watson’s connection with the West Seattle Land and Improvement Company, long noted in Duwamish oral history, is confirmed by the 1892-1893 City Directory for Seattle. The destruction of the Herring’s House potlatch house was recounted by Sam Tecumseh, a member of a prominent upriver Duwamish family, in testimony in a 1927 lawsuit, Duwamish, et al. vs. United States of America.

John Brockhaus
John Brockhaus
John Brockhaus taught in South Seattle for 20 years. He also spent a dozen years as a commercial fisherman in Puget Sound and Alaska.  He recently read his stories at the FisherPoets Festival in Astoria.  He is writing a collection of stories about Washington state Natives and their encounters with whites.


  1. Another wonderful but tragic story, John. Makes my blood boil, and reminds me of a different, contemporary group of settlers 7,000 miles away

      • Yes, also settler-colonialism – though earlier. And unlike the Zionists, not even an ancient, Biblical claim not those islands.

  2. It’s time for our Congressional delegation and the Port of Seattle Commissioners to push for Federal recognition of the Duwamish tribe. I haven’t heard anything from them regarding this continuing injustice.

  3. The incident described here hangs heavy on my heart. I have taken my grandchildren to the Duwamish Cultural Center and I have read extensively on the treachery that white settlers perpetrated against the native citizens. It causes me nightmares and disrupts my sleep but I have found a small way, to redress the injury done here. I am speaking about Real Rent Duwamish where anyone can commit to a monthly donation of any amount for the use of their ancestral land. Please check out: realrentduwamish.org.


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