The U.S. Marines are not normally counted among history’s so called “Indian fighters”. But one of the strangest battles of the American Indian Wars saw both leathernecks and sailors from the U.S. navy warship Decatur repel a native attack. In this case it was by a band of Suquamish and Duwamish warriors bent on destroying the fledging township of Seattle. The battle, which was part of the larger Puget Sound War of 1855 and 1856, came amid native unrest following a series of lopsided treaties imposed upon local tribes by the genocidal governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens.
On Jan. 26, 1856, a sizable band of warriors descended onto the town. Some estimates have put the invaders’ strength at between 150 and 500; others suggested that as many as 2000 warriors took part in the raid.
Local defences were bolstered by the sailors and marines of the Decatur, which was anchored in Elliot Bay just off Seattle following a collision with a nearby reef a few days earlier. The vessel, which was armed with 16 heavy cannon, was in an excellent position to rake the approaches to the town. Several marines from the ship’s company had also been on shore helping locals build a blockhouse for defence.
The attack, which began on the morning of Jan. 26, raged most of the day. A local militia unit comprised of settlers, along with a detachment of Marines foiled the attack under cover of the warship’s guns. After a few hours, the tribesmen broke off the attack. Two settlers were killed in the raid; not a single warrior’s body was recovered.
Oddly enough, the 1856 Battle of Seattle wasn’t the only time Marines would clash with Aboriginal warriors. Early leathernecks would play a large role in the seven-year Seminole War n Florida (1835 to 1842). The Seminoles, which became catch-all name applied to various south-eastern U.S. tribes that had sought refuge in swampy interior of Florida, rose up amid attempts by Washington to forcibly relocate all natives from Florida to regions west of the Mississippi.
Troops from the U.S. Army supported by naval and marine forces under the command of long-serving USMC commandant Archibald Henderson spent the next seven years breaking a native insurgency that never exceeded more than 1,500 warriors.
As many as 300 soldiers and marines died in the fighting – 1,200 more died from tropical diseases.
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