How Seattle, Washington Got Its Name

Chief_seattleToday I found out how the city of Seattle got its name.

Seattle is one of the only major cities in the United States to be named after a Native American chief. In his native language, Seattle was pronounced “see-ahlsh” but it was difficult for English speakers to pronounce, so they anglicized it to the version that you know today.

Chief Seattle was born in the 1780s on the Kitsap Peninsula, just west of the city of Seattle today. Seattle was the son of nobly born members of both the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, and as he grew older, his leadership was recognized by both tribes. His proven abilities as a military strategist, a winner of battles, a good speaker and diplomat earned him the respect of his people, and he soon was recognized as a great leader by most Native Americans in the region.

When a trading post was built in present-day Olympia, Seattle was one of the Native Americans to trade animal pelts for imported European goods. It is likely that he started to gain respect for the Europeans and European Americans then, even while they took over his people’s land. In fact, Seattle was baptized Roman Catholic in 1852, with his Christian name being Noah, and was considered a friend of the white people.

Soon after his baptism, Chief Seattle convinced a man named David S. Maynard to move his general store to the village of Duwumps from Olympia. Seattle had to canoe to the store, and Duwumps Maynard renamed his store “The Seattle Exchange” which paved the way for the town, and then the city, to be named after the chief.

Chief Seattle is best known for a speech he gave that supposedly supported giving away the Native Americans’ land to the European settlers. However, in order to be translated into English, the speech had to be translated twice—once from Lushootseed, the native language of the Puget Sound Native Americans, to Chinook, which was a trade language, and then into English. It is likely that at least some of its meaning was garbled, misunderstood, or deliberately changed to be used as propaganda by the English newspaper that printed a version of it thirty years after Seattle’s death.

One of the other things that Seattle is most well-known for is signing the Point Elliot Treaty. The treaty was put forward by Governor Isaac I. Stevens in 1855, and detailed an agreement between the white men and the Native Americans. While the white men would claim the land for themselves, several areas now known as reservations would be put aside for use by the Native Americans. In return, the whites would make payments for education, health care, and other needs. However, understanding between the two parties was limited because of the language barrier. Again, in these cases, requests from the Native Americans had to be translated twice in order to be understood. Nonetheless, Seattle was the first Native American leader to sign the treaty, with three others signing after him.

Even in the 1850s, nothing moved swiftly through Congress, and it took them three years to ratify the treaty, which they did only after taking away many of the benefits promised to the Native Americans. In 1856, the “Treaty War” began, with many Native American chiefs going to war with the white people invading their lands. Chief Seattle stayed out of the war and attempted to convince others to do the same. He would also warn his white friends when an attack was being planned if he could. Ironically, on January 26, 1856, a battle raged called the “Battle of Seattle,” though the chief played no part in it.

When the fighting finally ended, the town of Seattle began to grow. Chief Seattle’s people were looked over—they had not gained everything they wanted in the treaty, and their reservations were crowded and diseases were rampant. Many white people treated them with disrespect, but the chief kept the promise he had made when he signed the treaty and would not fight them. He continued visiting his white friends until he died in 1866, probably from a fever. At his funeral, he was given both Roman Catholic and native rites, and “hundreds of white people” supposedly joined the Native Americans saying goodbye to their chief.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The Kitsap Peninsula is named after qeCap (pronounced Kitsap), a war leader and previous leader of Seattle’s tribe.
  • Chief Seattle was on the larger side—around six feet tall—which was unusual for the time. His size probably added to the respect that his people had for him. Traders called him Le Gros, or “The Big One.”
  • One of his spirit powers is said to be thunder, which allowed him to speak loudly. Legend had it that he once spoke so loudly he could be heard in the next village.
  • The chief’s grave has been marked with a large gravestone that reads “Sealth” – one of the pronunciations of his name.
  • Chief Seattle married twice and had five daughters and three sons. His eldest daughter, Princess Angeline made a living doing laundry. S. Angeline Street on Beacon Hill in Seattle was named for her.
  • One of the things Seattle lost in the Point Elliot Treaty was separate lands for his different tribes. He was unwilling to combine them thinking that it would end in bloodshed.
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  • Guy kinda sounds like a sell out

  • Dave Smiling Coyote

    Chief Seattle wasn’t a sell out. He kept his word eventhough the white man lied and continued to lie. If anything I’d say he was a sucker! Like most Native Americans, I was taught from childhood to always keep my word because it’s the only thing we take with us when we stand before the Lord on Judgement Day. That being said, I wouldn’t have put up with the crap that this guy did! I mean, the white man wan’t just screwing him over, but his whole tribe! If he wanted to keep his word and not fight, that’s wonderful, but he shouldn’t have stopped the other men in his tribe from fighting for their families!

  • Seattle =german SEEADLER

    Alternative and better explanation:
    Seattle is a “bastard” word that comes from the German expression for sea eagle, the head ornaments of the chiefs of the indians. The German word is “see adler”. Seatle was a mainly German settlement in the early days say of the American era 1600-1800. Lost of cities spoke German Dutch of French in the time before English was adapted as the main language. When the Settlers aproached the chief of the indians he was indicated as “Seeadler” for his “important” rare feathers. After a while everybody knew that, including the chief, that his name to the Europeans was “Seeadler” ..Pronounced in German ,this word sounds like “seeattle” in English. So he called himself like that, after a while in communication with the settlers. A lot of German influence is now hidden, partly because of the negative connotation of German after the 2 worldwars with them. Influence in language of your enemy is not wished. Do not forget that once Germans immigration was huge and that a vote the parliament for the main language in the USA of today was only off by some votes in favor of English to German/Dutch while the English colonial power was the enemy. Very few Americans make this association as their knowledge of history in combination with German is small.

    • That is real prejudice. There is more German ancestors across this land now than there ever were Native Americans including Seattle and all his Tribes combined. Get over this.

  • I enjoy your articles, but who edits this for you? I always seem to find sophomoric mistakes in the writing. In this article, I think you meant to say that the Native Americans were “over looked” not “looked over”. saying they were looked over does not make any sense in the context of the article..

    In another article, on the rain in Seattle, we were told that Seattle has 36% less days of rain… It should be fewer days. It’s fairly easy to find the rule about fewer and less online if you’re confused about the difference.

    Your articles are interesting and generally well written, but these simple mistakes take away from the enjoyment somewhat.

    • Harriet, “looked over,” and “over looked” have the same meaning. Furthermore, she said that our days of rain are 36% less (than another area). She has syntactic differences, compared to most people, but that is what makes her writing unique.