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Book uncovers mystery of 1856 Mashel Massacre

Post by Mike Archbold on Oct. 28, 2008 at 1:16 pm with No Comments »
October 28, 2008 1:16 pm

Abbi Wonacott used to ride the school bus past the Mashel River near Eatonville and as a young girl heard the story of a group of men from Oregon who came up and killed Indian women and children by the river in the Spring of 1856.

What was known as the Mashel Massacre was public knowledge but details were vague, she said.

"We didn’t know why it happened or who they were," the 44-year-old Bethel Junior High teacher said.

Until the Spring of 2007.

Wonacott and her ninth grade class of highly capable students took on the Mashel Massacre as a history research project. They delved into histories, libraries and original documents. They consulted historians, including Cecelia Carpenter, author and Nisqually tribal historian. They visited the site of the massacre.

Little was know and what was printed wasn’t accurate, Wonacott said, but the class finally solved the mystery of that terrible day in local history.

The result is "Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually: The Mashel Massacre of 1856," a 40-page paperback complete with maps and photographs.

Wonacott will join other local authors Saturday at the Meeker Mansion in Puyallup for the Third Annual Author’s Expo. Some of her students who helped in the research and editing of the book will be there with her from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to sign books and talk about their research. The book costs $10.

Proceeds from the sale of the book go back to the Bethel Junior High Honors Club, Wonacott said. Since the summer, she said they already have sold about 300 books and cleared around $1,200 for the club.

The book is also being used as a source of history for a state park planned there, she said.

The cover of the book is a watercolor done for the book by Eatonville artist Don Hoffman. It depicts the confluence of the Nisqually and Mashel rivers. The massacre occurred not far from there upstream on the Mashel.

The date was March 31, 1856. It was in the midst of the Puget Sound Indian War that also spread across the mountains to Yakima. She said the best they could determine was that there were 17 to 30 Native Americans killed that day. The men who shot them, she said, weren’t from Oregon. They were Gov. Isaac Stevens’ Washington Territorial Volunteers under the command of H.J.G. Maxon.

Maxon and his men didn’t capture the women and children they found there, she said. Instead they opened fire. One old man hanged himself.

The story of the massacre was put out as a great victory, Wonacott said, much like the first reports of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The class discovered that earlier accounts had the date of the massacre wrong and had confused it with a second "scouting" in the area the following month by Maxon.

Wonacott said they also found that an eyewitness, a Robert Thompson, actually existed and his account was viable. Earlier accounts referred to him but no one was sure if he was a real person. He was, she said.

Carpenter applauds Wonacott and her students for their work on the topic she has known about for years but never has written much about it.

"We (the tribe) already knew what happened," she said. "I hesitated to bring it out into the open. Now that there is going to be a park established up there I can’t keep it under wraps.

"It’s a sacred place. It’s where people died. It was the home of Chief Leschi." Leschi who was involved in the Indian wars was later hanged in 1858 in Steilacoom. In 2004, the state Senate formally recognized the injustice done to Leschi.

Maxon was a "scoundrel," she said, a typical Indian fighter who made his name and reputation fighting and killing Indians. She said the Indian who were on the Mashel were only there because they didn’t want to be in the fight.

"They were hiding up there thinking no one would come up there," Carpenter said. "I’m very glad the teacher did dig it up. … I give her credit."

Wonacott said the story is a complicated one but one that needed to be told. She credits her students in 2007 and 2008 for their help editing and revising on the book.

Wonacott said the original idea for the project was to make a documentary but money, time and lack of equipment didn’t allow it.

"I no longer wonder what happened in 1856; the yearning to know is fulfilled," she said.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.mashelmaker.blogspot.com.

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