Kake tribes take the head of an American official

Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008

Alaska was not yet a part of the United States when a female Kake warrior gave America a bloody nose in a daring raid for the head of an American official.

The Tlingits and other tribes in the 1850s traveled in the summer to Puget Sound to work for Americans and for the British. In the summer of 1856, Kakes camped near the Haidas outside of Port Gamble. They began to drink, worrying the local whites. Several Haida had earlier attacked an Indian village outside of Tacoma and the USS Massachusetts was sent to Port Gamble to punish them.

When the Kake and Haida ignored the captain's command to disperse, the warship shelled the beach, killing a Kake chief along with several Kake clansmen. Then marines were landed, killing 27 Kake and Haida, wounding 21 and destroying their canoes and supplies.

Though Puget Sound was a thousand miles south of the village of Kake, the chief's family demanded retribution. But many Kake leaders were against such a long-distance vengeance raid. Finally a female relative of the killed chief stood up, declaring if it had to be, she would lead the raid herself.

But winter quickly settled in, followed by the salmon season. The woman was not able to select 10 warriors to travel with her until July 1857. The Frazier River Gold Rush was in full swing near Vancouver, and the USS Massachusetts was still stationed in Puget Sound. Even worse, both the British and American navies had increased their presence in the area due to the gold rush and the border dispute between the two nations.

The Kakes hugged the coast traveling as often as they could at night so not to be seen. They reached Whidbey Island by August 1857 and began searching for the highest ranking American official they could find.

Isaac and Rebecca Ebey homesteaded on Whidbey in 1850, and by 1853, Issac had been appointed U.S. Customs collector. It was his attempts at collecting custom duties in the San Juan Islands that touched off the Pig War between the Unitd States and the British Empire. By 1857, he also was appointed to be a local judge.

U.S. Marshal George Corliss and his wife were visiting the Ebeys on the night of Aug. 11, when someone began shouting Ebey's name outside their cabin. When Isaac opened the door, the Kakes fired a volley into the man. Corliss hurried everyone out a back window. Once outside, they ran to a blockhouse down the road as the Kakes hacked off Isaac's head.

The woman and her warriors then raced back to the beach, and with the head, successfully sailed out of Puget Sound retracing the thousand miles they had come back to the village of Kake.

For a while, the head was displayed as a trophy, but later the scalp was removed becoming a secondary prize. Charles Dodd, an American trader, was able to buy the head back in 1860. With the help of the Hudson's Bay Co., Dodd returned the head to the Ebey family. He received a proclamation of thanks from the Washington territorial legislature.

The United States continued to have trouble with the Kakes.

Chief Tom refused to give food to the U.S. revenue cutter Lincoln as it sailed the waters of the Inside Passage in 1867, announcing the purchase of Alaska by the United States To teach all Tlingits a lesson in manners, U.S. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis had Kake burned and Wrangell bombarded. Even as late as the 1880s, Kake war canoes filled Sitka's harbor, threatening an attack over a matter of honor against the Americans.

• Mike Coppock is an Alaska newspaper editor turned freelancer. His work has appeared in such national magazines as The History Channel, American History, Wild West, Sea Classics, Native Peoples and Trailer Life. He can be reached at coppockrv@peoplepc.com.

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