Book Review: Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name: The Change of Worlds for the Native People and Settlers on Puget Sound by David M. Buerge

When I take my daily walks in my neighborhood in north Seattle, I marvel that so much of the indigenous foliage has survived the carpeting-over by houses, shops, streets, and sidewalks. Majestic evergreens tower high over the tallest buildings, and the area is otherwise replete with many other types of trees, bushes, shrubbery, flowers, and grass. After spending hours in front of a computer, my eyes drink in the deep natural colors and my nose the sweet sharp scent of pine and spruce resin like spiritual nourishment. I often imagine, as I stroll along, what the landscape would have been like without all the aforementioned shops, houses, streets, and so on. I attempt to picture the primal forest and its stark beauty.

There are too few books about the history of Seattle, so this new volume is essential. It comes across as being very well researched, and the stories it tells are fascinating. Having said that, I have to admit, for me at least, it is not an easy read. Much of it has to do with how the material is presented, which takes some getting used to. Instead of presenting the material with the simple English alphabet, the author has chosen to use phonetic symbols for many Native American names of people and places. After a time, when these words written in symbols multiply, it becomes very confusing to try to keep them straight. Additionally, although there are numerous pages of maps in the front of the book, so many places are mentioned so often that it dragged down the narrative as I had to continually search for the right map to consult and then locate the place being discussed. The author also comes across as more of a historian than a storyteller, and a smoother style would have eased absorption into the events on the page.

On the plus side, it’s a fascinating story. Buerge focuses on Chief Seattle and his influence in creating and nurturing the city of Seattle, beginning with the era on Puget Sound before pioneer settlers came and initiated the disruption of their way of life, through the years of early city growth, and on into the statehood of Washington and the primacy of Seattle in regional commerce and politics.

It’s a bloody tale. There’s little in it of peaceful, noble Native Americans or settlers. In the early days, Native Americans made savage, violent raids upon one another. When white people came, they warred with the Native Americans. When the Chinese came, both whites and Native Americans resented and fought them. Overall, Puget Sound in the early days comes across as a terrifying place to try to live and raise a family, but many settlers came and gave it their best.

As the book makes clear, in his early years, Seattle was quite a savage warrior himself, but as more and more white men settled in the area around Elliot Bay that eventually became a city that appropriated his name, he became a man of peace and reconciliation, attempting to blend the cultures of white men and Native Americans to mutual advantage. In his old age he converted to the Catholic faith, setting an example of integration that he hoped his people would follow to ensure their survival. His was a unique and interesting life that straddled great societal changes in the Pacific Northwest region.

Overall, I would recommend the book for its value as a historical document, although it’s a bit too effortful a read to qualify as relaxing entertainment.

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