Volume 1
An Online Literary Magazine
July 25, 2008

 

God’s Judgment

Fiction

Peter Donahue

 


 

February 1901.

 

“In a pioneer community like Seattle nobody knew what to do with an insane pauper.”

—from Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, by Murray Morgan

 

 

This shall be the testimony of my coming into this ancient new land. It shall be my witness to the establishment of this settlement within the vast territory of peaks and valleys, lakes and inland seas, forests and swales. I do not purport to represent the land, nor to speak for the township. Such duty exceeds my commission, and ability. I speak for myself alone, and in as much as I remain the Lord’s instrument, I forthwith set forth this history of my initial days in Duwamps.

 

I was cast out by the men who deem themselves the purveyors and pontificators—nay, rulers—of this land. That is, our beloved pioneers. Gentlemen they believe themselves to be, down to the very last graybeard. Seattle’s proud and brave forefathers. Advancers of the sole Christian foothold in this dark and heathen-ridden land. Yet what they fancy themselves—and what others in this present-day metropolis upon the heralding of the new century have come to extol them as—outstrips the evidence of their deeds.

 

 


Artist's depiction of settlers seeking shelter in the Seattle blockhouse, 1856 Painting by Emily Inez Denny. Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry.

I first took clear measure of my pioneer brethren on the day of January 26, 1856, a Saturday, when the Flatheads, led by Chief Leschi, took upon themselves to drive the Bostons from their shores by ambushing the settlement, firing their houses and frightening the families into fleeing. It was a terror-stricken day. Men raced into town from their outlying homesteads armed with farm implements and flintrock muskets. Women and children scurried within the fortified walls of the Fort Decatur blockhouses, while the men, volunteers and regulars alike, marshaled themselves into loose battalions. Hostile Klickitats and Yakimas (“horse Indians,” we called the tribes east of the Cascade Mountains) allied with Muckleshoots, Puyallups, and the few renegade Duwamish (“canoe Indians,” as the coastal tribes were known), along with other bands of Puget Country Indians—as many as a thousand, it was later rumored—thronged the lakeshores, hillsides and forest depths. Their hoot owl calls could be heard relaying their hostile intent through the untamed acreage surrounding the village. By midday, they sent out war cries from a near-distance, as if to forewarn the settlers, but remained out of sight and advanced along settlement edges stealthily until they could more accurately discharge their firearms at a house or cabin and send incendiary scouts forward to set fire to these and any other outlying buildings.

 

The settlers had already felt the fierce bite of the Indians in the massacre at White River and the murderous killing of Lieutenant Slaughter in December. Except for allowing the most passive and sycophant natives into their midst, the settlers did not trust the natives on any terms—which accounts to this day for the continued effort to keep their kind corralled on distant reserves—and on this particular cold and overcast morning in late January, the hostiles indulged the settlers’ distrust to its fullest. My own plat—which was deemed, in subsequent judicial proceedings before the circuit magistrate, no legal plat at all, but a squatter’s shack, on property purloined from the original and rightful owner, one of our righteous pioneers, the same who serves as Grand Marshall in the city’s annual Potlatch Parade—was situated at the far north end of the settlement. It did not even appear on the Plan of Seattle as drawn up then. Hardly was I any more acknowledged by my fellow townsmen at the time than I was by the Siwashes so fiercely scorned for their ignorance and nakedness. My hutch, such as it was, stood halfway between Smith’s Cove and the Methodist Church, at the time the only church in the settlement, the disciples of John Wesley having been the first, aside from a few French papists, to send missionaries into the Territory. And in that day there were no trolleys, as there are today, running between the two points. The near-two miles stretch of land was thick with stands of alder, vine maple, and hemlock, thickets of salmonberry and devil’s club, and in the lower sections, sedge grass, bull thistle, and yellow skunk cabbage, making arduous any traverse that did not faithfully adhere to the deer trails.

 

I had built the hutch myself, with help only from Klakum Joe, a Duwamish who spoke Lushootseed, his people’s tongue, as well as the Chinook jargon, of which I had a fair grasp, and a smattering of American. It was a simple structure constructed of discarded planks from Yesler’s Mill and young cedar I had felled and rough-hewn myself. It was chinked with blue clay I dug from the hillside, and in one wall stood a fireplace assembled from beach stones I had gathered in cedar baskets and carted to the clearing. Klakum Joe assisted with the labor, for which assistance I did promise in due time to reciprocate.

 

Indeed I was on my plat when the siege commenced. There were less than 100 settlers in the vicinity, and in truth, I suspect there were not many more hostiles than this, though the fear they instilled in the small cluster of white families made their numbers seem equivalent to the ancient Barbarian hordes. At the first shouts and rifle fire, the alarum sounded, and families burdened with what household goods they could seize ran to find sanctuary within the blockhouses. The men quickly deemed the north blockhouse too vulnerable and hurried their families to Fort Decatur. Despite the panic, I was unconvinced of the danger from the hostiles and remained reassured in the everpresent protection of our Father—“For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not: I will help thee.”—as well as my favorable, albeit limited, rapport with the natives.

 

Instead of taking up arms to defend the settlement, I helped those families most in need of assistance. I carried to the fort rocking cradles and packing trunks, bundles of clothing and bedrolls, sacks of potatoes and whole smoked hams. I made myself a beast of burden to save my neighbors’ chattel. By midday, I returned to my hutch to find six Flatheads setting the cedar shake roof ablaze before disappearing into the woods. I rushed to extinguish the inferno by thrashing it with wet hemlock boughs, but it had already penetrated to the rafters. I ducked inside and praying the roof, in flames above my head, would not collapse upon me, gathered my two books of scripture—the Bible and Book of Mormon—and my leather U.S. mailbag stuffed full with my hand-scrawled Visions and Vaticinations, and just as the roof began to cave, dove out the door with said articles safely under arm and rolled into the mossy loam of the clearing.

 

I regained my feet and stumbled back from the burning hutch and only then realized half my head had been seared, my hair singed away, the flesh of my scalp, including my right ear, melted away like candle tallow, and barring the pain from my soul, I fell to my knees and heard the word of God rising in me, and in the cinders ascending to the pitch night sky saw the face of God, and heard his voice, saying, Let salvation run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream, whereupon the rain commenced to fall and wash my wounds and sooth my hurt. And the voice of God resumed, Ye have offered sacrifices in the wilderness and now I commend you to my protection and guidance and send you forth to say unto those who deride you, ‘I am the Lord God’s instrument, hearken unto me and my words as ye would unto his Almighty, and humble thyself.’ I pitched forward in a faint, and my head—miraculously, as I judged it upon coming to—fell upon a patch of inch-thick moss that quelled the pain and gave me respite from my burning vision.

 

When I awoke, the rain had extinguished the flames and turned my burning hutch into a smoldering pile of charred timbers. Tentatively I touched my seared scalp and felt there the moss spores embedded in the melted skin. At the same time I heard the whoops of the hostiles in the distance, muffled by the woods but still fervent and fierce. Repeated musket shot could I also hear echoing through the trees.

 

God’s command or no, I did not want to die by their hand and so gathered myself—Bible, Book, and mailbag—and plodded south down the deer path, past the saw mill and through the heaping mounds of saw dust, past the central holdings of the settlement, to Fort Decatur beside the mudflats. I pounded on the door of the two-storey blockhouse and implored my fellow settlers to admit me. The door, however, remained barred. Smoke rose from the roof pipe and I knew there must be fifty to sixty people inside. Yet no men guarded the parameter. Later I learned they had gone out during the short lull in the battle to recover livestock stolen or slaughtered. So for now the grounds around the fort were deserted. I continued to pound the door and beg to be admitted. At this moment I feared less the Indian attackers than my fellow pioneers, who seemed determined to forsake me.

 

From inside the fort walls, I heard, “This fort secures only God’s true children. Let your angel Moroni protect you now.”

 

“I’m a Christian every part as much as any in this settlement,” I called back. “Moreover, I’ve seen the face of God this night and been appointed His own messenger.”

 

“Idolater,” the voice from inside the walls shouted back. I recognized its source not as that of Reverend David Blaine, the Methodist minister who in all aspects was a fairly mild-mannered and well-spoken man, not given to exhorting and casting out, but rather that of the young and fervent Wesleyan acolyte, Charles Montgomery. We had both arrived at the small Seattle settlement on Puget Sound in late ’54. I had come from the Utah Territory where the Latter Day Saints were industriously turning the desert into prosperous farmland, yet where my Visions and Vaticinations had been roundly condemned by the Aaronic Priesthood, leading to my expulsion by those who themselves had been repeatedly expelled. Charles Montgomery came from Savannah, Georgia, the North American port of call for John Wesley, his proclaimer of choice, where he had preached at street corners rather than pulpits, lacking as he did any proper seminary training as required by the Methodist church. Rev. Blaine tolerated him—much, I suppose, as he tolerated me, though I suspect I tested the reverend’s patience even less than his Wesleyan consort.

 

I resorted to Isaiah for my reply. “‘Woe unto he that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.’ Charles Montgomery, unbar this door.”

 

“Is that your prophet Joseph Smith you quote?” I could hear the sniggling in his tone.

 

I replied, casting my condemnation upon all the settlers, and not just Montgomery, “‘How is the faithful city become an harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now . . . ?’” The passage ended by calling those within murderers, yet I refrained from making the full recitation, leaving it to their own conjecture.

 

Charles Montgomery laughed from behind the solid fir door. “Go join your infidel brethren in the devil’s lair,” he said. “You shall not be admitted to this Christian sanctuary.”

 

I wondered why none of the other settlers, especially those whom I had helped transport to the fort, did not push Montgomery aside to admit me. Was I that much a pariah to be so shunned? To be cast to the lions?

 

“I am injured,” I shouted at the walls, hoping a more sympathetic soul from inside would hear my plea.

 

Silence.

 

“I will surely die,” I shouted, though still mainly unconvinced of my imminent peril. A man dies quite readily or not readily at all, and in every circumstance life had flung me, fate had so far favored me with a powerful reluctance to perish.

 

I pounded several more times on the fort door simply to register my objection to, and outrage at, the settlers’ treatment of one of their own. Then quite abjectly, I slunk away. “Father, they know not what they do,” I said aloud to the dark night, to the Lord God who had appeared to me less than an hour earlier and who still filled my heart with His glory. I could hear the Indian war cries in the distance, knew that more houses were being burned to the ground, prayed no settlers were being murdered, and made my way east toward the mudflats. My seared scalp no longer pained me. Instead I had fallen into a trance and walked with beatific precision from the settlement and away from the place the Indians might next attack, if they were to attack at all.

 

The tide was out and I could trudge through the mudflats and across the sand spit that separated the mudflats from the bay. My feet were heavy with the primeval gray sludge as I advanced up the hillside and into the woods that marked the settlement’s eastern boundary. The saw and ax had not yet touched this portion of the hill. Though I knew trails penetrated these woods, I could not find them. Nor did I wish to find them since the marauding natives would likely be on them. The woods were dark—night having already fallen at this extended latitude—but not impenetrable. As I entered them, I felt myself safe from whatever mayhem might occur in the settlement below, perhaps even more safe than if I were walled up in the blockhouse and unable to flee. I clung to my mailbag, Bible and Book of Mormon, and bushwhacked through the underbrush until I found a bifurcated cedar at the base of which a cavern of sorts had formed between the twin trunks. I crawled into the hollow and found I could crouch there quite comfortably, and curling around my Visions and Vaticinations and two holy books, I took my first rest that night.

 

I can’t say how long I dozed, but I was awakened by a piercing whistle, branches shattering and the deafening roar of an explosion. All I could do was hunker deeper into the hollow of my cedar tree and wait out the bombardment. Was this God’s judgment for the natives’ attack? The sloop-of-war Decatur lobbed shell after shell at the shore where several bands of Indians had beached their long canoes and into the woods from whence they torched a house, ran off with livestock, and shot a dog.

 

While the shelling continued, the heavens and earth shook, shattering the region’s tranquility. I thought of God’s message to me, his promise of protection and guidance, and knew I was safe in the crook of the cedar. The shelling eventually ceased, as did the hostiles’ war cries echoing through the trees, and only then did the forest recover its quietude, and only then was I able to release myself fully from my vigilance and fall into a profound and vision-free sleep.

 

 

 

Peter Donahue is author of the novel Madison House and the story collection The Cornelius Arms. He is coeditor of Reading Seattle: The City in Prose and Reading Portland: The City in Prose. His Retrospective Reviews of Northwest literature appear in each issue of Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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