Seattle earned his reputation at a young age as a leader and a warrior, ambushing and defeating groups of enemy raiders coming up the Green River from the Cascade foothills, and attacking the Chemakum and the S'Klallam, tribes living on the Olympic Peninsula. He was also a slave owner. He was very tall for a Puget Sound native at nearly six feet. He was also known as an orator, and his voice is said to have carried half a mile or more when he addressed an audience.
He married well, taking wives from the village of Tola'ltu just southeast of Duwamish Head on Elliott Bay (now part of West Seattle) His first wife died after bearing a daughter. A second wife bore him sons and daughters. The most famous of his children was Princess Angeline. After the death of one of his sons, he sought and received baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, probably in 1848 near Olympia, Washington. His children were also baptized and raised in the faith, and his conversion marked his emergence as a leader seeking cooperation with incoming American settlers
When Seattle died on June 6, 1866, he was believed to be about 80 years old. He would, therefore, have been born around 1786, a full generation before Joseph. Because he had reached middle age before he appears in the historic record, information about his early years is fragmentary. He told settlers he was born on Blake Island in central Puget Sound. His father, Schweabe, was a noble from the main Suquamish village at Agate Pass and his mother, Sholitza, was Duwamish from the lower Green River. His birth occurred during an apocalyptic time in his peoples' history when epidemics inadvertently introduced by western traders decimated the native population, and the introduction of western trade goods and firearms added to the turmoil. Seattle claimed he was present when the British ship H.M.S. Discovery, captained by George Vancouver, anchored off Bainbridge Island on May 20, 1792, and the happy memories of the explorer's visit and his appreciation of the power and abilities of Westerners remained with him all his life. (See also: "Vancouver and the Indians of Puget Sound")
Despite an attribution of slavery in his lineage, Seattle's noble status was affirmed by his reception of Thunderbird power from an important supernatural wealth-giver during a vision quest held sometime during his youth. He married well, taking wives from the important village of Tola'ltu on the western shore of Elliott Bay. His first wife died after bearing a daughter, but a second bore him sons and daughters, and he owned slaves, always a sign of wealth and status.
During the period when his famous uncle, Kitsap, led a coalition of Puget Sound forces against the powerful Cowichans of Vancouver Island, who had been sending raiders south, Seattle succeeded in ambushing and destroying a party of raiders coming down the Green River in canoes from their strongholds in the Cascade foothills. He also attacked the S'Klallam, a powerful people living on the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula, and claimed to have taken a length of shell money from one of their headmen. He may also have participated in raids on the upper Snoqualmie River. By the time he entered the historic record in 1833, when the Hudson's Bay Company founded Fort Nisqually near the head of the Sound, he enjoyed a reputation as an intelligent and formidable leader with a compelling voice. The nickname given him by Company personnel, 'Le Gros' (the big one), indicates he had a physique to match his personality.
The Chief Trader at Fort Nisqually, Francis Herron, considered Seattle important - and dangerous - enough to request his mark on a treaty foreswearing murder. His intimidating presence during frequent visits to the fort, however, kept officials on their guard, and the trouble he caused by murdering a Skykomish shaman in 1837 led Herron's replacement, William Kittson, to hope that the Suquamish would kill him. They, however, valued his leadership. In 1841 he led a crippling raid on the village Yila'lqo, at the confluence of the Green and upper White Rivers, to revenge a murdered kinsman, and six years later he helped lead the Suquamish in an attack upon the Chemakum stronghold of Tsetsibus, near Port Townsend, that effectively wiped out this rival group.
The death of one of his sons during this episode appears to have affected him deeply, for not long after that, Seattle sought and received baptism into the Catholic Church, taking the prophet Noah as his spiritual intersessor. (See also: "Christianity, a Matter of Choice") He was probably baptised by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at their St. Joseph of Newmarket Mission, founded near the new American settlement of Olympia in 1848, and he appears as Noe Siattle in the Oblate Sacramental Register. His children were also baptized and raised in the faith, and his conversion marked the end of his fighting days and his emergence as a leader seeking cooperation with incoming American settlers.
These reached Puget Sound in 1846, and the warm welcome and aid Seattle gave those visiting his homeland earned him the reputation as a friend of the whites. His speech greeting Isaac N. Ebey and B. F. Shaw when they visited Elliott Bay in the summer of 1850, requesting that they settle among his people and trade, was recorded by Shaw. The glowing description of his country that Ebey published in the Oregon Spectator shortly afterwards encouraged settlement in the Duwamish River Valley.
Seattle actively sought out settlers with whom he could do business and trade, and he took up residence at Olympia to develop contacts. His first success came with Charles Fay, a San Francisco merchant, with whom he organized a fishery on Elliott Bay in the summer of 1851. When Fay departed in the fall, Seattle returned to Olympia and convinced David S. Maynard to take his place. In the spring of 1852, Seattle and Maynard organized another fishery at dzidzula'lich, a native village on the east shore of the bay. By the summer, the Americans who took claims near the village named the hybrid settlement Seattle after their patron and protector.
Seattle's efforts to participate meaningfully in the creation of the new community and blend his people's future with the settlers' fell victim, however, to land hunger and the desire of many influential whites to keep their people separate from the native population. This, however, did not lessen Seattle's friendship and loyalty. Notes from the translation of his speech greeting the prospect of treaty negotiations announced by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens during the latter's visit to Elliott Bay in January, 1854, were purportedly written down by Henry Smith, a recent arrival to the area. Stevens recognized Seattle's importance as a native leader, and because of his age and prestige, he served as native spokesman during the treaty council held at Point Elliott (Muckilteo), from December 27, 1854, to January 9, 1855. Despite voicing misgivings about his people receiving money for their land, he was the first to place his mark on the treaty document ceding title to some 2.5 million acres of land, retaining a reservation for his Suquamish but none for the Duwamish.
Unhappiness over the treaties and American arrogance caused many Duwamish to repudiate Seattle's leadership and led, ultimately, to the Yakima Indian War of 1855-57. Subsequent native accusations of his duplicity during that conflict suggest he tried to maintain contact with all native parties east and west of the mountains, but he remained a firm ally of the Americans, and his contacts provided them valuable intelligence.
After native forced were defeated, Seattle struggled to help his people, unsuccessfully seeking clemency for the war leader, Leschi, and petitioning the governor to hurry ratification of the treaty. On the Fort Kitsap (Port Madison) reservation he attempted to curtail the influence of whiskey sellers and prevent the ritual murder of slaves. He had freed his own slaves as required by the treaty. Off the reservation, he participated in meetings to resolve native disputes.
He retained his friendship with Maynard and cultivated new relationships with people such as William De Shaw, Indian Agent and owner of a trading post at Agate Pass, and sawmill owner George Meigs, whose teetotaling company town provided native workers a safe haven from predatory whiskey sellers. Seattle continued to befriend Americans; expressing pleasure at being invited to their gatherings, and suffering their slights and humiliations with stoic dignity.
He received the sacrament of Confirmation at Tulalip in 1864, reaffirming his commitment to his faith, but the leadership of the native Catholic community at Suquamish rested with another Suquamish leader, Jacob, who built the first church there. An 1865 ordinance enacted by the newly incorporated town of Seattle forbade permanent Indian houses within the city limits, forcing Seattle to vacate the place where he had greeted Shaw and Ebey and invited them to settle. He lived at his homes on the Port Madison Reservation, and probably north of the city limits where the daughter of his first wife, called Angeline by settlers, lived, but he was a common sight in town, visiting friends and caring for his people who worked there and continued to gather at temporary campsites on its waterfront.