In late May, many of us on the Rock enjoy celebrating Whidbey’s long-gone Native American people and culture during the Penn Cove Water Festival, featuring music, storytelling and canoe races by members of tribes whose ancestors may once have lived here. But, because of the pandemic, the festival was cancelled again this year.
To make up for that loss, I decided to visit our Island County Historical Museum and study up on somebody from the past I heard briefly mentioned in past Water Festivals.
His name was Charlie Snakelum. That’s an anglicized version of his native name sometimes also written as Snetlin, Snetlum or Snaklum. He was born about 1847 and died in 1932, and his home for his entire life was at what we call Snakelum Point near where Penn Cove empties into Saratoga Passage. His ancestors lived in that gorgeous spot for generations.
He was the grandson of Great Chief Snetlin, who died in 1852 just as white settlers began to arrive on Whidbey. Charlie called himself the last chief Snakelum; others including his half brother also claimed that title, but Charlie was the last man descended from a chief who still lived where his Snakelum ancestors did. By the time he died, virtually all the other Penn Cove indigenous people, including Charlie’s relatives, had moved to the Swinomish, Tulalip or Puyallup reservations. He simply refused to go with them, preferring to remain where he was born.
What fascinates me about Charlie’s story is all he witnessed on the Rock throughout his long life. He lived through hostilities, discrimination and a lynching threat from white settlers, poverty, diseases that killed off many of his relatives including all his children, his severe alcoholism and his bursts of violent anger against his wife and others.
Yet, by the end of his life, he had become a local celebrity, a beloved character known to virtually everyone in the area. He was famous for paddling his canoe from Snakelum Point to Coupeville, where he was warmly greeted. The first three Penn Cove Water Festivals, held in 1930-32, were dedicated to him and he led the parades through Coupeville. Folks nicknamed him “Long Charlie,” not because of his stature (he was relatively short) but perhaps because of his outsized personality.
His funeral was held on Nov. 18, 1932, in the historic Coupeville Methodist Church, where the minister told more than 100 white and indigenous mourners gathered together that “white folks would do well to learn from Indian friends” like Charlie “something of contentment with a simple life.”
That comment strikes me as both ignorant and ironic. I see the broad arc of Charlie’s story as illustrative of what happened to all the indigenous people of Whidbey Island. When George Vancouver’s first mate Joseph Whidbey sailed into Penn Cove in 1792, he made a note that about 600 indigenous people lived along the shore. They had a highly structured society with respected leaders like Great Chief Snetlin, who lived in a large community at the head of the cove with his wives, children and an estimated 100 slaves.
Charlie’s father was Chief Snetlin’s son George, who was the next local chief until he died in 1880. By then, white settlers far outnumbered the indigenous population, which had dwindled to perhaps 150.
In its collection, the museum has a remarkable document from January 1914. Someone decided to sit with Charlie and write down his thoughts about how things had changed in the almost 70 years since he was born. He didn’t hold back his feelings. He deeply resented that white people now owned all the land. “No land for Indians,” he complained. His people were “once a big tribe but later scattered all over.” And, perhaps most disturbing to him, he thought a reservation was supposed to be created at Snakelum Point, his ancestral home, “but it was never done.”
For much of his life, Charlie made his living shearing sheep for local farmers. Later, when he no longer had the strength for that work, he and his wife earned money by picking potatoes for the farmers. He always lived in poverty compared with his white neighbors; a record from 1931 shows that county officials authorized a payment of $4 for a cord of wood to be delivered to Charlie so he could heat his home and cook his food.
He also always lived with discrimination. He was not allowed into some stores and restaurants in Coupeville. All the local taverns forbid him to enter; state law at the time prohibited the sale of alcohol to Native Americans. Many unscrupulous white people sold it to them any way — but at a much higher price. Charlie suffered from alcoholism much of his adult life; I have to believe that poverty and discrimination played a role in that.
And it’s also why he might have suffered from alcohol-induced bouts of extreme anger. He once beat his wife so severely that she required medical attention. After they saw it happen, a group of white men grabbed him, threw a noose over a steam pipe and decided to lynch him. When he nervously and repeatedly pleaded that he would never strike her again, they let him go.
Charlie was buried with his grandfather and father down a trail off Parker Road near Snakelum Point. The grave has a large upright stone marker that was placed there after this father died. The site fell into disrepair after Charlie died; the stone was knocked over and rubbish was dumped on it. Finally, in the 1980s, a civic group restored the site and put a protective fence around it, and it’s still maintained today.
Now, as our nation faces a painful reckoning from years of racial discrimination and inequality, we on Whidbey might reflect on what Charlie Snakelum’s life and experience shows those of us who live on this beautiful island today.
At Charlie’s funeral in 1932, the Coupeville Methodist Church minister concluded his remarks by saying this: “Thus it is — because of the qualities we all may emulate, and because his life connects us with the rigorous ways of the past — that Red men and White men both mourn the passing of Charlie Snakelum. May the Great Spirit in whom both races trust grant him peace.”