Seattle Now & Then: John Cheshiahud (aka Lake Union John), 1904

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: Cheshiahud (also known as Lake Union John) and his second wife, Tleebuleetsa (Madeline), pose near their cabin in a 1904 portrait taken by Orion Denny, David’s nephew.
NOW1: Duwamish elder Ken Workman stands near the location of Cheshiahud’s cabin at the foot of Shelby Street with an eastern view of Portage Bay.

Published in The Seattle Times online on April 13, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on April 16, 2023

A paved path around Lake Union honors a Duwamish chief and his beloved homeland
By Jean Sherrard

In May 1906, while his second wife, Tleebuleetsa lay dying in their Portage Bay cabin, John Cheshiahud honored her final wish. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, it was “that in her last days … she be surrounded by her kinsfolk … and the friends of her youth.”

THEN2: This blurry photo of the Cheshiahud cabin was taken in late May 1906 during a three-day gathering to bid farewell to Tleebuleetsa on her deathbed. Friends and relatives feasted at plank tables outside.

Lake Union John, as Cheshiahud was known to his white neighbors, sent messengers throughout the Duwamish diaspora, and during three days of celebration and solemn farewell, family and friends came from the Port Madison, Puyallup and Muckleshoot reservations to pay last respects.

A Duwamish chief, Cheshiahud is noted for remaining in Seattle long after the influx of white immigrants. Born circa 1820, he came of age before the settlers’ arrival. In a 90-year life, he witnessed unimaginable change.

His close friendship with a prominent newcomer fueled his drive to remain on ancestral land near his birth village. A sympathetic David Denny (1832-1903) sold him five forested acres on Portage Bay for a dollar.

While hunting, fishing, trapping and occasionally serving as tour guide, Cheshiahud straddled two worlds, one on the verge of certain annihilation.

THEN3: Cheshiahud (left) pilots his canoe in 1885, transporting travelers across Portage Bay, seen here in a timeworn photo. Late in life, testifying in a property dispute, he said, “You white men measure everything: the depths of the waters, the distances of the land, here, there, everywhere. … We Indians come and go and care nothing for measurements.”

Given earlier encounters with white homesteaders, Cheshiahud may have anticipated coming troubles, having narrowly escaped execution by a lynch mob. Denny’s daughter, Abbie Denny-Lindsley, provided the harrowing details in a newspaper account decades later:

She wrote that in 1854, her father, with David “Doc” Maynard and Henry Yesler, discovered the remains of a murder victim in a shallow grave near Lake Union. Advanced decay prevented identification. “When the murder became known,” she wrote, “three young Indians were arrested and imprisoned … although no more guilty than the rest of their tribe.”

An angry mob gathered and hung two of the men. As they strung up the third, Sheriff Carson Boren arrived and ordered them to stop, but they refused. In response, “he cut the rope,” noted Denny-Lindsley (Boren’s niece), “just in time to save [Cheshiahud]’s life.”

Found innocent of any charges, Cheshiahud “never ceased to be grateful” to his rescuer, who happened to be the same person who initially detained him without cause. Leaders of the lynch mob also were tried, Denny-Lindsley wrote, but it “never amounted to anything.”

In summer 1906, distraught after Tleebuleetsa’s passing, Cheshiahud sold the last piece of his Lake Union land for a significant profit, making him one of the wealthiest Native Americans in Puget Sound. He joined his daughter Jennie Davis in Port Madison, where he remained until his death in 1910.

In his honor, Seattle Parks in 2008 opened Cheshiahud Loop, a paved path circumnavigating his beloved Lake Union.


For our 360 video version of this column, head over here.

To boot, a couple of additional photos provide context and location. Thanks to Caleb and Rob Wilkinson for their inestimable help exploring Portage Bay by boat.

The view from Portage Bay looking west up Shelby Street. Cheshiahud’s five acres extended along the waterfront to encompass much of the current neighborhood. Nearby, the city’s Cheshiahud Loop, a paved path circumnavigating Lake Union and dedicated by then-Mayor Greg Nickels on Dec. 3, 2008, is the home of an annual 10K race.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels cuts a ribbon to dedicate the Cheshiahud Loop on Dec. 3, 2008.

Abbie Denny-Lindsley’s 1906 account of the near lynching of Cheshiahud:

One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: John Cheshiahud (aka Lake Union John), 1904”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve never heard of him before and the story of the lynching is horrific. More stories about native residents please!

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