Yarrow House

Small Towns of Seattle: Indian Ghost Towns

I used to meet friends for coffee in Pioneer Square at the Elliot Bay Bookstore basement cafe. The basement was the building’s original street level storefront before Seattle’s enterprising townsmen built a new street one story higher. Downtown Seattle is a midden of skyscrapers layered over old office buildings, layered over settlers’ homes, layered over the longhouses of the people who were here when the Denny party arrived.

Somewhere maybe roughly under Elliot Bay Books’ basement floor were the longhouses whose abandoned remains the Denny party found when they first explored the shore here. By then the Native residents were living in other villages scattered around the Sound and its inland bays, Lake Washington, and up the rivers that fed into these bodies of water.

The Indian villages of Seattle weren’t towns, as we think of them, with houses arranged in orderly rows. They were clusters of buildings sometimes as long as 120 feet and holding many families. Seattle’s tide flats and meadows were fertile, and the families often moved to summer homes in a seasonal harvest rhythm. They spent winters in comfort in the longhouses, retelling tales of a world they made sense of through the stories of the places where they found their cattails for baskets and mats, cedar for canoes, totems, and masks, salal berries, flounders, clams, and salmon—a bountiful, mild world.

The early settlers cleared the trees and built their village along the shore of Elliot Bay, stores and homes backed by gardens and fields on the first muddy streets of downtown Seattle. The little village became a magnet for Indians up and down the Sound who came for a season to work in the sawmills, clean houses, sell sex. Early settler David Kellogg, remembering Seattle of the1850s, called it a very small village “more Indian than white.” The Indians referred to the whites’ village as the Little Crossing-Over Place, the name of the site of eight abandoned longhouses in the vicinity of King Street Station or maybe at the foot of Yesler. Until at least the Second World War, old speakers of Lushootseed (the local Native language) are said to have used this name when referring to the city of Seattle.

The people living on or near Elliott Bay and along the Duwamish, Black, and Cedar Rivers were called the Inside People (doo-AHBSH). On the Duwamish were two main longhouse sites: Herring House and Basket Hat House. Herring House on the west bank of the river at about what is now south Harbor Island, included at least four longhouses and a huge potlatch house. Archeological finds there indicated that the site had been inhabited since the sixth century. White arsonists burned the Herring House longhouses in 1893 to drive their residents out of Seattle and onto the Suquamish reservation across the Sound.

Basket Hat House was located farther south along the west bank at one of the bends in the Duwamish, roughly across from Kellogg Island. Terminal 107 was located there for a while, and it’s now the site of Herring House Park. The Inside People harvested their food— salmon, dogfish, flounder, cod, grebes, seals, mussels, clams, octopuses, deer, elderberry, and wild onions— from the river, bay and meadows of what is now the industrial district and downtown Seattle.

Farther north on Elliott Bay, two longhouses, each 48 by 96 feet, stood on a prairie roughly between Cherry and Columbia and First and Second. The surrounding meadow provided salal berries for fresh fruit or for drying into cakes for the winter. The people used a spring at the foot of Spring Street, and shell middens found all along the shoreline here hint how important the site was for shell-fish processing.

In 1852 settler William Bell staked his claim along the Belltown shoreline. In 1878, as Belltown developed, builders often unearthed bodies wrapped in cedar bark, the remains of an Indian burial ground. The area continued to be an important Native camping place well into the early 20th century for local and migrant Indians from Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington's coast.

On the north shore of Salmon Bay a number of families lived in two large longhouses called “Tucked away Inside” (shill-SHOHL) in the area that is now Ballard Locks. Their protected location sheltered them somewhat from raiding northern Indians.

By 1901, almost all of the residents of Seattle longhouses had been driven out of the city, mostly resettling on the Suquamish reservation on the Kitsap peninsula or farther north on the Tulalip reservation. A few holdouts camped at the point of land below Discovery Park where the West Point lighthouse stands. In the late 1980s and early1990s when the West Point sewage treatment plant was being expanded, archeological excavations uncovered evidence of settlement and wide spread trade stretching back more than 4,200 years to the time following the melting of the glaciers when the water level of the Sound finally stabilized.

On the north shore of Portage Bay near the mouth of Ravenna Creek was Little Canoe Channel, a village of at least five longhouses. When the Montlake Cut lowered the lake level in 1916, the village’s large fishing weir was revealed. The site is now covered by University Village. In summer, it is said, the residents of Little Canoe Channel generally moved to homes at what is now southeast Laurelhurst on Lake Washington. Little Island, now called Foster Island, was the village’s burial ground.

The early white settlers created a tiny settlement on Elliott Bay on top of old Indian villages, and then saw their settlement become a little village of homes with picket fences. The village mushroomed into a town and then became Seattle’s downtown. Gardens and fields vanished into little stores and then bigger stores, sprouting into office buildings and finally, for now, high rises—waves of buildings rising on the former homes of those who also loved this place.

The busy engineers flushed Seattle’s hills out onto the rich productive shore land, filling it in. Gone are the clams, the flounders, the seaweed, and mussels. The springs, the camping spots, the shellfish drying places, the meadows of berries have all disappeared.

Now, we who live here go out for dinner and dancing in Belltown, shop at University Village, attend concerts and plays downtown, jockey for position and success in high rise offices, and attend our gods, births and deaths throughout Seattle. Even though the townscape has changed, we go on doing what they did, our ghostly ancestors of place, whose trails, now paved, we still follow, whose waters we still ply, and whose beautiful mountain, hills and islands, Sound, and lakes fill our hearts, as theirs must have been filled, with amazement at our hauntingly beautiful world.


My grateful acknowledgement to Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, by Coll Thrush, University of Washington Press, 2007, a source of much of this information about the Indian sites.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2016