Grey Head, Leader of the Steilacoom Indians

By Nile Thompson, September 1988

One of the most influential Indian leaders in Western Washington during the mid-nineteenth century is little known today. However, he made a large contribution as a peacemaker, was a find orator, and held his Tribe together during a traumatic period. He was also a man of many names.

Between 1795 and 1815 a son was born to Hey-ko, the Steilacoom Headman at a village on Chambers Creek. The Headman of that site generally had the most influence and wealth of all the Headmen of the various bands of the Steilacoom Tribe. He-ko died while his son was a small boy. As a youth the son was given the name Chew-see-a-kit. His early life was filled with training that would give him the ability to assume his father's position.

In the early 1830s the Hudson's Bay Company came to the territory of the Steilacoom Indians and constructed Fort Nisqually with its numerous stations. Chew-see-a-kit was given the Christian name Samuel, or Sam. To distinguish him from a Hawaiian laborer of the same name, he was also called Indian Sam. The surname Young was added to Chew-see-a-kit's English name at some point, perhaps because of association with a British employee of that name.

Horses arrived in Steilacoom Indian territory about 1800. They had a dramatic impact on the culture of the Steilacoom, Nisqually, and upriver Puyallup Indians. As the most influential and wealthiest individual in his drainage basin, it's not surprising that Sam Young amassed the largest herd of horses in his Tribe.

Sam Young was also known to Indians by the nickname, Snew-kude-dupe-tum, meaning literally, "it was all changed into something else." This name poked fun at the Steilacoom leader because his hair had prematurely turned totally white. The Americans who arrived in the 1840s called him Grey Head.

Patkanim, the Chief of the Snoqualmie, called an intertribal council at Whidbey Island in 1848. There he and his followers urged the 8,000 Indians in attendance to kill all the British and Americans in the Puget Sound area. Sam Young, however, displayed his political talents and influence by successfully arguing against Patkanim's proposal.

When the Territorial War broke out in 1855 as a result of the treaty making process, many Steilacoom Indians were interred at the Steilacoom Reserve on Fox Island and at Squaxin Island. However, Sam Young and his band of Steilacoom Indians living on Chambers Creek, totaling 70 individuals, remained at home near Fort Steilacoom. In 1856, the members of the Steilacoom Tribe selected Sam Young as their Chief to deal with the territorial government. The knowledge that the Americans desired to conduct transactions with a paramount Tribal leader was perhaps the key factor in this centralization of political authority.

Sam Young, as the Chief of the Tribe, made a compassionate speech at the Fox Island Council the following year in an attempt to convince Governor Isaac Stevens to create a separate reservation on Chambers Creek for his Tribe. Stevens did not provide for a Steilacoom reservation in the Medicine Creek Treaty because the town of Steilacoom was population center for white citizens in the territory and he hoped it would become the terminus of the transcontinental railroad.

Sam Young's speech was as follows:

"I am very proud to think the Governor has come to visit us again. I was a small boy when my father died. I think if my father were now living he would like to talk to you all today. I have always lived with the whites. I have many horses more horses than any of the Indians here present.

Now what I want to say is this. My home is at Shilicum (Steilacoom) Creek and there is where I want to live and die. I do not find fault with the Governor for selecting the Reservations he has today. No one can blame him for he has tried all ways to please the Indians on the Sound and they are never satisfied. I wish to tell the Governor that every Indian loves his own people best. Still, I am willing to do any(thing) in order to bring about peace once more.

I hope others will speak."

His plea failed.

Without a reservation of their own, a sizable number of Steilacoom Indians chose to remain in their traditional territory and maintain the integrity of their Tribe. In contrast to his speech, Sam Young did not move onto a reservation. He remained in his traditional home on Chambers Creek and retained his role as Chief of the Steilacoom Tribe.

In 1878, the Indian agent stationed at the Puyallup Reservation conducted a survey of southern Puget Sound Indians residing off-reservation, socio-policial entities in Pierce County, the Gig Harbor Tribe and the Steilacoom Tribe. His census recorded only full-blooded, influential Indians. Among the names was "Old Man Hey-ko." This was Sam Young who had taken his father's name.

In the late 1870s, Sam Young, somewhere between 60 and 80 years of age, relinquished his position of Tribal Chief to John Steilacoom, the spun of a cousin.

Around 1883, the youngest son of Sam Young was kidnapped from the family home on Chambers Creek by Puyallup Tribal Police and forced to attend school on the Puyallup Reservation. The expressed policy of the Indian agent there was to attempt to reduce the number of off-reservation and hoping that they would find romantic interests there. In this instance it worked, with Frank Young marrying on the reservation in 1894 and becoming a member of the Puyallup Tribe.

Sam Young died about 1902. His life had been a political success in many ways. He had succeeded his father, acquired many names and many horses (each a sign of wealth), delivered two famous speeches, became the recognized paramount leader of his Tribe and kept his Tribe together in the face of the uncertainties that reigned at the time reservations were settled. Unfortunately, there was also failure. He had failed in his attempt to secure a reservation for his people and to have a son in the Steilacoom Tribe that one day would be Chief.

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