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Treasures of the Archives: The Pioneer Square Totem Pole

Totem pole, Pioneer Place, Seattle, Photographs, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990 Washington State Archives, Digital Archives.

Totem pole, Pioneer Place, Seattle, Photographs, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990 Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov.

In the summer of 1899 a group of businessmen boarded the steamship City of Seattle for what was to be a sight-seeing and “good-will tour” sponsored by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The party went ashore near a Tlingit village. Finding hundreds of totem poles, they selected what they considered to be the best, and started cutting it down with axes as they would a tree. One of the men, James Clise, claimed that the “two decrepit Indians” present at the site of the totem “made no objection to our taking the pole to Seattle.” The totem the men stole that day was a memorial pole, which was made in honor of a female elder named Chief-of-all-Women after her death in 1870. The villagers, who had been away at their fishing camps, came back to find their totem stolen and quickly filed official complaints with the Alaskan territorial government. Meanwhile the pole was unveiled in Pioneer Square in Seattle to much fanfare. The Tlingit tribe demanded $20,000 in damages, but eventually settled for $500 to be paid by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1938, the pole was seriously damaged in an arsonist’s fire, and in 1940 the Tligit tribe was commissioned to build a replica, which still stands in Pioneer Square to this day. This 1905 photograph can be found in the photograph section of the Digital Archives, in the State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990.