Amidst the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest you’ll find some fascinating history. One getaway to the Kitsap Peninsula of Washington State, just three hours from Portland, gave me an insight into the Native history of the Puget Sound area. Touring historical sites is a great thing to do for those curious about the area’s culture and hidden secrets. Learning about a people's history also enables the visitor to understand more about the current community and their cultural roots.
On this visit I stood on the shell-laden beach at Agate Passage where the “Old Man House,” the center of winter Suquamish life, once stood. The name Old Man House is a derivative of the Indian word "o-le-man," meaning strong man.This beautiful place was the site of the largest cedar plank communal house in this area and once was the home of Chief Sealth (Chief Seattle) and Chief Kitsap. I could see how this place became the gathering place during the winters. It is convenient to those traveling by water and is a sheltered area. It had a long sloping beach leading to shallow water, perfect for receiving visitors who, perhaps, were traveling by canoe for a Potlatch ceremony.
The name Suquamish comes from this main village site along Agate Passage, called "d'suq'wub," which means "place of clear water."
There were other such houses dotted along the Puget Sound but this was the largest. The Suquamish left their winter residences in the spring, summer and early fall in canoes to travel to temporary camps for fishing, hunting and berry picking. So this “Old Man House” was their main home.
There is nothing left of this 800 foot long plank house or its foundation poles. It was burned to the ground in 1870 when the United States Government ordered its destruction in efforts to get the Native peoples to disperse onto plots of land allocated to them. Forget that this land was their land (if, indeed, anyone can own land they believed) and they had wintered there for generations. Forget that this was an important ceremonial and cultural center for the people. Forget that Chief Sealth (Chief Seattle) and Chief Kitsap had once lived there. The U.S. Government had but one goal…. to abolish the Native peoples’ tribal ties and their culture.
But it didn’t work. For many years the Suquamish people lived in a tent and cabin village in the location of Old Man House. Gradually, with the children being sent off to boarding schools and men taking work as loggers, farmers, and soldiers, the people moved on from the beach area you see today. The U.S. Government once had planned to build a military post there but those plans never materialized.
A small park was established at the site, noticeable mainly because it is now surrounded by lovely waterfront homes. Originally real estate entrepreneur Ole Hansen of Seattle purchased the Suquamish waterfront in 1909 from the Native owner, subdivided it and promoted the vacation lots to Seattle residents. The plan never took off. Homes were eventually built in the area. The park once belonged to the State of Washington but has now been returned to the care of the Suquamish people. I was also told that, eventually, the waterfront properties will be returned to the Suquamish.
There isn’t much to see there now. But there is much to feel. Stop at the beautiful Suquamish Museum on NE South Street before visiting the small park to gain perspective on the importance of what happened there. Currently the museum has an exhibit, The Archaeology of Old Man House, on display through October 20th. Read the story and see the artifacts and you will understand the importance of Old Man House to the history of the area.
The Park is not far from the museum. Follow Division Street toward the water. Map