Uncovering the true stories of Salish native women and intercultural marriage

WSU Press just published the first book by Bellingham-based historian Candace Wellman. The full title gives you an idea of the topic: Peace Weavers: Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages. It's a book that follows the life stories of four indigenous women who married across cultural lines, making families with pioneer men.

While the fact of cross-cultural marriages was well known, the women in them were ignored, seen as appendages of the men, or cast in racial and gender stereotypes. It took a curious outsider to start questioning the assumptions of previous historians, and uncover what in retrospect is a seemingly obvious truth: these women had complex, rich lives, and their own stories to tell. Something more remarkable: Wellman uncovered pasts that none had bothered to look for. Outside of family histories, this is the first time their lives have been told.

By focusing on four women, Wellman was able to tell a rich story of life in 19th century Washington and investigate many heady topics that seem to be evergreen: the purpose of marriage, and what it means to marry outside of your race and culture.

I sat down and spent a nice morning with Wellman, who (in the strangest disclosure I've been impelled to write to date) is the mother of my first high school girlfriend. The transcript has been lightly edited.

This was an 18-year journey for you.


Every author I talk to, there's always that one spark that started them on the journey. In this case, a long journey with a lot of research for you. What was that initial spark?

I was a volunteer research assistant at the state archives in Bellingham, and one day a woman came in — she was from Montana, camper was out in the parking lot. She said, "My great-great grandmother was an Indian. Her name was Mary, and she was married to John Briggs here, and that's all we know about her. Will you help me find my family?" So we worked on her genealogy that day.

Six weeks later, another woman on vacation came in, and she said, "My great-great grandmother was an Indian, her name was Fanny. Would you help me find my family?" When we worked on her, I found that those two couples had been married together in the same house on the same day. That was the connection between those two couples. I thought that was really intriguing. Then I found a list of all the people who had been intermarried in the 1850s that was laying in this old historian, Howard Buswell's, files.

Then a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC, was referred to me for help on General Pickett and his Native wife. What I said to her was, "Everything that could be found out about her life was researched and published in the 1960s. There isn't any more." And she said, "Would you suspend that assumption and look again?" When I did, I found new information. So I said, "What else is out there about these other women that everyone thinks there's nothing out there about them?"

Suspending the assumption, as a starting point, is it looking at documents you've already looked at from a new point-of-view and looking for clues, or is it uncovering documents that you wouldn't have considered? Because you went to historical documents, you went to family documents, genealogical stuff. You had a wide variety of sources.

Huge variety of sources. It started off, I was going to write a two-year project about how the Native wives and the white wives lived together and helped each other in those very early years. As I worked, very quickly the white ladies, about whom we know a lot, became boring. And these other women became more fascinating, until I just decided to work on them. But one thing would lead to another. Like, I would take something that had been written about a husband, and I would just pick apart that paragraph and re-research everything. If it said "EC Fitzhugh went to Georgetown Law School," then I got hold of Georgetown and found out there was no law school at that time. It was a prep academy, which he got kicked out of.

If somebody said they went to West Point, then I checked with West Point and found out whether they did or they didn't. I just kept re-looking at everything. I started off with 22 women. Then I kept reducing it. If I couldn't keep the amount of information fairly even between husband and wife, then it had to go.

So the four women, was it kind of a natural evolution to whittle it down to the four women, or did you, at some point, have to pick between people you really wanted to write about, but maybe didn't have the time to, and these four women?

There are eight completed biographies. But the publisher wanted the book cut in half. Then I had to pick four. I looked for four that would give very different stories, very different looks at what was going on in the area, and what kind of lives they lived.

Can you talk a little bit about what marriages were like at that time in general? I think we carry a lot of 21st century assumptions about marriage backwards when we look at them. Or we have the historical assumptions that you talk about questioning. What was a day-to-day life like for a married couple in Whatcom County at that time?

That's the hardest thing to research, because men wrote about men's activities, and they didn't really write about what the women were doing. So it's very hard to pick and choose, and you have to look at what things were, in general. But what I found was that people keep saying that these cross-cultural marriages ... I actually had someone say to me, "But you don't think he really loved her, do you?" And they had been married for 30 years and had six children. There's an assumption that these men just sort of bought a girl to keep house, and be a sex partner, and have kids, and mend clothes. And that's not true. Because the families have their own agendas. You end up with two groups of women who are both in economic partnerships. The white women that came were not girls out of parlors in the middle of Boston. They were women who came west who could hold their own and be an economic partner.

On all the homesteads, whether the wife was a Native American, or whether she was white, they were all in charge of the gardens. They were in charge of the chickens. They made butter. They sold feathers. They sold butter. They worked just as hard as the mend did as an economic contributor; just at different tasks most of the time.

From 1854 to 1859, all the women who intermarried lived in one of three places: the mill, or mine settlements, or at Fort Bellingham. They had the company of many other women of both cultures. It appears that nearly all wives took boarders into their homes, which provided extra cash in a cash-poor economy. They housed, fed, nursed, and did laundry for working men.

You say "economic contributor," but also, in a sense, there was no other resource if you fell flat on something. You couldn't go to the store. There was no childcare. It wasn't —

Well, that's not completely true. Because the women took care of each other's kids. Even if they lived a mile apart, they were close friends. We didn't have doctors in this area until almost 1870, except for the military physician; the Army doctor at Fort Bellingham. Then, later on, he was clear over on San Juan Island. But he would come and help. Army doctors would run a private practice as well as their official practice, so they would help. But you had the Native women acting as midwives most of the time, and using Native medicines to help. You could also send for medicine to Victoria or down to Olympia. Seattle, in the early days, really wasn't anything. Everything was Olympia. It was, very much, the women had to help each other out here.

When you say early days, what's the —

The 1850s, 1860s, yeah. That's the period. But there might be one store, and that was it here. We went through a period where there were no stores here after the gold rush ended. Then the mine flooded and the mill burned down. Then there was nothing. So everything had to come from Victoria, or some other place. La Conner ended up with a little store.

Everybody was sort of living on the same level, for the most part. Struggling in little cabins, and then trying to build a house, and getting orchards in, and gardens in, and trying to find the crops that would go well here. Then you had the people that worked at the mine, had a little settlement, which could be dangerous with miners who were drinking on Friday night.

From what you know, then, what's the difference of life of being raised in a Native culture and living in — you talked about long houses, and some of the size of the long houses, then going to living in small cabins on pieces of land. Was there anything about that that you uncovered?

Well, the women talked about it being hard. It was really hard. However, one positive one was that when the families allied with these white county officials and military officers, the young women stayed pretty close to their families here. Because the custom, the Coast Salish custom, is to marry outside your village. So some young women would have been married clear up around Nanaimo and Duncan, BC, or much further south, and wouldn't have hardly seen their families, except perhaps yearly at a potlatch.

These girls were very close to home, so they saw their families all the time. That helped mentally. But they talked about loneliness; that it was lonely, when they were used to doing tasks together in the long house. The women would weave together and talk while they're taking care of the kids and stuff. All of the sudden, these young women are in charge of a cabin and children all by themselves.

And miles away sometimes. But closer, you say, than they may have been if they had married.

Closer than they might have been otherwise. That was a positive for the families; that they did get to see their mother on a regular basis, and their sisters and other relatives.

I think it's really interesting, you know, you talk again about assumptions that historians, or people reading about history, bring with them as they're reading about history. This book — it seems to me like it exists at an intersection of some really fascinating topics. I mean, first and foremost, the erasure of indigenous stories, but also diminishing of women's stories historically because they're told from a patriarchal point-of-view, or men are writing the histories. Also, the romanticizing of the American west, and the colonization of the west. Then, of course, the domination and kind of the decimation of existing cultures.

It's interesting because your book takes a more nuanced view on some of that. Which is not to say it ignores any of the truths that happened, but that kind of interweaving of cultures has been ... You know, I'd never heard of it before, obviously, and I think most people hadn't. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Yeah, well, this area up here in Bellingham was heavily dominated, about 90% of the marriages from the first 20 years from 1853 up until the early 1870s, about 90% of the marriages were cross-cultural. Then, when the history gets written, the women are gone for the most part. Other places were started by cross-cultural couples. I find a number of them in Washington. I know there's more that I don't have time to research. I believe they're all over the west; certainly Chicago, Detroit, Saint Louis, other towns like that, were started by cross-cultural communities.

Here it was so dominant because of the groups of men that came here; all these bachelors that came here and settled here. In other places, it might be just one or two couples. But the tip-off is always a community history that says, "The first white woman in town." Or, "The first white baby born here." That's the tip-off that there were cross-cultural couples there before. But people want the history to start with the all-American couples that have moved into the area. So they just ignored the others, wrote them out, failed to recognize contributions. I didn't expect to find this, but the longer I got into the research, the more I could see that this was going on everywhere. Just trying to find books to compare to my own for the book proposal, there wasn't anything out there, except over the border. Because there, they've written about the Hudson Bay company wives; fairly extensively. Although very few biographies that are wholly about the women. It's usually in conjunction to the male.

I think this went on everywhere, and it's just been pushed down in the name of the manifest destiny of America to conquer and own. I mentioned, like, in the Willamette Valley we talk about the Oregon Trail pioneers coming into this empty place waiting for them to settle. But when you go down to the Willamette Valley, you can go to Saint Paul, Oregon, and you find that they were fully engaged in building their brand-new, big, brick, Catholic church there in the middle of a farming community when those pioneers arrived with their wagons. It wasn't empty at all. There were communities; there were a number of communities. And big enough ones to have a brick church, not just a little shanty.

And some of the early communities here were Catholic, you mentioned. Is that correct?


And some of the indigenous cultures took on Catholicism?

Yes. They were the only missionaries that were out here to the Coast Salish. Most of the Coast Salish, at least in the upper Sound, or lower Sound around here, were converted in the 1840s. The Swinomish Reservation church is the oldest parish in the state of Washington, I believe. The one at Lummi Reservation may be the second oldest parish. It wasn't until the 1870s that you really saw an influx of the Protestant missionaries deciding to come in, and a population that came in that were all-white couples moving in as the homestead laws took effect, and there was ground that they could settle on, and making some inroads on Catholicism. But you find most of the tribes around are still heavily Catholic, and have taken back their own religion, their own spirituality too, sometimes combining the two together.

You've mentioned that you had to thread a needle a little bit, just because there's some, potentially, really explosive issues here as a white woman writing about Native women, especially. I would imagine there's some sensitivities that you go into the writing with. Can you talk to that a little bit?

Well, there's a lot of distrust, because of disrespect that has been shown to the grandmothers when they were written about, and distrust because of people coming in, perhaps to do a dissertation at a reservation and promising a book when they finished, and then nothing every materialized. This amounts to theft of intellectual property, and that's the way they feel about it.

I tried to go at it as if somebody came to my door and said, "I'm writing a book about your great grandmother. Please tell me everything you know." I would be going, "Whoa! Who are you? What are your intentions? What kind of a book are you writing?" So it takes a long period of developing personal ties. My mentors at Lummi Reservation, I met at the first public program I ever gave. They mentored me through this whole thing. Chief Tsi'li'xw has never had any problem telling me when I'm going down the wrong road, or I should never say something again, or, "That's not the way to say it." Or I'm being disrespectful, and teaching me all along, all these years.

Other people, I have one Nooksack woman friend who I met early on, and she told me, "Listen to your heart and their spirits will guide you." So I always go back to that sometimes when I get confused or don't know what I want to do. Then I sit and think, "What would those grandmothers think of what I'm writing, or how I'm phrasing things? What would they want me to say?"

Many times it seems like you are exposing stories that have been left out, or sometimes in family histories, but sometimes completely left out of the historical record. That is almost the premise of your book.

Right. And there's resentment because of that too; that they knew how fully partnered people were here. In the early days, the Lummis and the Nooksacks controlled the entire transportation system on the Sound; unless you caught an Army or a Navy steamer, or something else that was here very, very rarely. Like, once every two months, if you were lucky to catch it, you could go up the Sound on it.

So, if you wanted to move your household goods, if you wanted to take a little trip to Victoria, if you needed to go to Olympia for the legislature, you were going to hire a Native canoe of the proper size to take you where you needed to go. This has been completely left out of the history in favor of Captain Roeder building the first boat here, but it was not the first vessel here at all.

You talked about Roeder as well, and a hidden history there that ... Can you talk about that a little bit?

Well, the founder of Bellingham is considered to be Captain Henry Roeder, and his partner Russell Peabody, who had a number of businesses fail in California in the Gold Rush, and they came up here looking to start a mill. They received permission from the Lummi to start a mill at the little waterfall hill. The Lummis thought that this would be similar to the Hudson Bay Company arrangements where people weren't really permanent, they weren't building towns, they were cooperative businesses. That's not what Roeder and Peabody had in mind at all. The next thing the Lummis knew, there was a little town growing around the falls, and they were being told to stay out.

Roeder himself married a Native American woman from Lummi. But when his fiancée from Ohio was due to arrive, he sent this woman and their two children back to Lummi, where they died. For that, his reputation among the Lummi is very bad. I think people in town that know our history don't know why his reputation is so bad out there. But that's because they don't know about this marriage; this first marriage, because it was kept secret for 150 years.

You were a bookseller?

A little.

A little. Does being a bookseller teach you anything about, or did you learn anything about getting a book out there, or how to present it, or any marketing?


What did you learn?

That the spine of the book is extremely important, that you want a cover that catches people's eye immediately, that where they put the book in the store can make a great deal of difference. And booksellers like to talk to authors if you're not too pushy; if you don't bug them all the time. And if you can get booksellers to help sell your book, if you can get them interested in your book, they are your best advertisement.

My story is, when I was working at a bookstore here, was when Diana Gabaldon first wrote Outlander. Have you ever heard of that?


Oh, it's a TV series now.

Oh, okay.

Okay. So the booksellers didn't really know what to do with it. It's a little fantasy, it's a little time-travel, it is romance, it is historical fiction. She was a professor of biology when she started this, and it was big, and nobody had ever heard of her. But booksellers, like me, across the country, started pushing this book. For instance, a commercial fisherman came in one day and he said, "I'm going out on the water for four and a half months. I need a little library to read while I'm gone."

So I helped him assemble a library of things that men like. I talked to him about his interests. We put together some military stuff, fiction, and all kinds of stuff, some spy thrillers and stuff. Then, at the end, after we had about 10, 12 books, he said, "Now, what is the one book you want me to read that you know I won't?" And I said, Outlander, and he took it. And he came back in four and a half months later and said, "That was the best book I ever read." But that's how she became ... Then her second book went right to the top of the bestseller list, and all eight have been. But that's the effect a bookseller who likes your book can have on sales.

Oh, that's great.

Is there anything else that you wanted to say or mention that I didn't ask about?

Oh, yes. "Were they really married?" I always am confronted with this question, every single time I talk.

And there was some legal ... You wrote about this a little bit. One of the fascinating things is, I had this thought reading about some of the court cases that you had talked about in the early days, and realizing how we're not so far from that with gay marriage today, or same-sex marriage. That some of the conversations sounded very similar. But yes, please.

The marriage laws in the beginning had started in the 1850s. The first ones were boilerplate, based on other territories. Then they started fiddling with it, because most of the members of the legislature had Native wives, and those laws would have disinherited their children. They wanted their children to inherit whatever land or property they had. Then they started fiddling with this and putting amendments in to the point where at one ... But then they didn't want to legalize Native marriage either.

It just became this tangled mess so that at one point, it was illegal to marry a Native woman, and it was illegal not to marry your Native wife. They put up a $500 fine on any clergy or public official who would perform such a marriage. $500 then is about $5,000 today, and none of these people had that kind of money. The Catholic missionaries did not. Nobody had it. The Catholic's attitude was the same as it had been with the Hudson Bay Company; that you would marry because you presented yourself to the world as a married couple, and you considered yourself married, and that, whenever a priest would come by and you were ready to formalize it, that's when you did it. They were very understanding about the conditions that were going on.

But then, in the 1870s, when the Protestant ministers and all those white women moved in, they had standards; social standards. They did not consider Native women ladies. They had these ideas between ladies and women, and if you were common. They saw these old settlers, as they were always called, the old settlers, as fornicators, because they didn't have paper. But in this area in the early days, this was just how everybody got married. It was tribal custom marriage: an exchange of obligations and gifts between the husband and the woman's family, and you were married.

Then start the legal cases. They were politically connected. They charged a bunch of these men with fornication, and these men had been married for 20, 30 years, had a whole bunch of children, and it would have ruined them. I mean, they could have sent them to jail for this. Some of the people went and got married. Some of them got married with paper, church, or whatever. Some of them just went down to the courthouse and got a license so they had a piece of paper of some kind and said, "I'm not doing this." But when it got stopped, the prosecution stopped when Henry Barkhausen, who was a former county auditor and had been an election judge, and a highly respected man, he said, "I'm not doing it. I am not remarrying Julia. She has been my wife for all these years. We've got six kids, and I will not shame her by calling myself a fornicator."

Then it went to the chief justice of the territorial supreme court who came out with this beautiful treatise on the nature of marriage, that it has nothing to do with government or religion; that it is a contract between two people, and being a religious man, he went back to Adam and Eve. He said, "If you negate that marriage, then you must negate all contracts that have happened in the world since then." And, "There's all these other societies that don't use paper. Are you going to say that none of those people are married?" So this put it to rest. The prosecution stopped, and all of the tribal custom marriages were declared legal.

What year was that then?

1879, I think the decision came down. They started indicting them in '78. And '79, I believe is the date that —

Do you know, did they actually enforce the fines? Were there fines levied against?

Don't know. Because it was such a mess with this you-have-to-and-you-can't thing that nobody knew what was going on. I don't really know. I just know that it was a terrible legal mess, and people just quit paying attention to any of it for a long period, and continued to marry by tribal custom, and some people married with the county, or a priest, or a minister. But others just went ahead with the tribal custom marriages, because nobody could tell what they were supposed to do.