Local Adventures

Local Adventures: The Hunt For The Story of Chief Charlie Snakelum

Our hikes are not always just hiking, sometimes they blend into homeschooling and beyond. Walker, our middle child, is in 7th grade this year. 7th grade requires Washington State history to be taught (though isn’t enough time spent on it in public school), and my goal is to teach all sides of history, not just the colonialism side. I believe we must teach our children about the First People, and their histories as well. (This isn’t political at all, should you see it that way.) To me, walking into a deep forest, and just listening goes far. To know it isn’t much different than it was 150 to 200 years ago if you go far enough into the woods. Sit there long enough and you will see the tiny deer that dot the island, and coyotes will pad by, looking for lunch. On the nice day we had squirrels were out, in the trees, picking up more food for the rest of the winter, and crows were loudly talking above us.

I had heard about Chief Charlie Snakelum before, in the years I worked in Coupeville, Washington, long ago. But I didn’t know much about him, or his family and their history. A friend mentioned to me about coming across the marker cemetery while hiking in the forest, and it got me to thinking. It felt like a good use of a day for us.

I will be very blunt here: I am NOT giving directions to the place. It exists. I was not trespassing to visit it. But I fully understand why people do not say exactly where it is. For there are people who would destroy it. It isn’t protected as the sites are that are in actual cemeteries (for example in the local pioneer cemetery across the Ebey Reserve, the gravesites are protected and taken care of). When we did find it, we talked about respecting the dead and treading lightly on the ground. I feel it is important to visit the dead, and to have our children experience this. I feel as well it isn’t my heritage, nor my story, so it isn’t my place to tell the world where it is. I took clues given to me, and figured it out. Offline is different to me.

He was born in either 1846 or 1847, and died in 1934, living his life at Snakelum Point (spelled Snatelum on Google Maps) on the edge of Penn Cove, on Whidbey Island. Penn Cove was rich in wildlife, abundant in shellfish and Orcas that plied the cold, but safer water between Whidbey and Camano Islands. It’s not as wild as the Salish Sea is on the other side of the island. It meant they could canoe safely back and forth.

We found the skeleton while cross-country hiking for awhile. It was laying in the forest duff, slowly decomposing. The first vertebra I saw I actually mistook for a large mushroom that was broken, as I stepped over it, until I realized it was a bone (and mushrooms are not in season!)

After a lot of hiking, and figuring out the lay of the land, and up and down trails and cross-country, it clicked where it might be, and there it was. It has a fence around to keep out feet from trampling it.

This one is made of wood. It was added much later. It’s actually pretty recent, from the 2000’s.

Also made of wood.

The plaque helps with reading. With hard to read older markers, it’s great to be able to know what it says.

The obelisk carries engravings for multiple chiefs, over a long span of time.

After visiting it, and talking a lot about the history, we drove into town and visited the Island County Historical Society Museum. I knew we had seen his canoe there before and wanted to revisit it.

His giant canoe sits downstairs. It was made of cedar, that was 600 to 800 years old when carved. The history of the canoe is fantastic, and how Charlie was not the first owner of it. It was passed down to him.

The canoe was nearly lost to age, till it was lovingly restored in recent years. It is a beautiful piece to see, massive in size.

This spring is the annual Penn Cove Water Festival, something to consider attending if you are local. The museum is well worth visiting – it is free to visit, a real blessing if you think about it. We donate to them, because it’s a real effort they have done to preserve the local history. The downstairs is a blend of geological history (how glaciers in the last ice age created the island) and the majority of the downstairs is an exhibit on the history of the First People. Be a child, or an adult, and you might learn more about the history even now schools don’t teach.


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