By Laurel Downing Bill
Senior Voice Correspondent 

City of Seattle turns to piracy

Aunt Phil's Trunk


July 1, 2023 | View PDF

University of Washington

A delegation of businessmen stole this carved totem pole from Southeast Alaska so they could put it on display in Pioneer Park in Seattle in the early 1900s.

If you have ever traveled to Seattle you may have visited its iconic Pioneer Square, which once was the heart of the Washington city. During the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, Seattle was the center for travel to Alaska.

A group of businessmen decided it would be a great idea to connect Seattle's city center to its neighbor to the north by displaying an icon that was uniquely tied to Native culture. Their plan included enlisting one of the most well-known steamships of the day and a bit of larceny.

As the story goes, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce wanted to erect a totem pole in Pioneer Park in downtown Seattle. However, those who carved the magnificent monuments only came from the tribes of northern Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and the adjacent tribes in British Columbia and Alaska.

So in the summer of 1899, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put a delegation on board the City of Seattle, a famous steamship that often sailed to and from Alaska, to travel to Sitka to see if they could find a totem pole suitable for the park. Since most of the totems by this time were stationed in Indian burial grounds, the delegation's mission was indeed delicate.

After a brief stay in Alaska's old capitol, guests returning to the ship were advised by the purser not to believe anything they heard and only half of what they saw from that time forth.

After finishing her business in the port of Sitka, the City of Seattle sailed out a bit and then anchored in a stream. Passengers watched as the crew lowered one of the ship's boats into the water and rowed ashore. Later, third mate R.D. McGillvery described what happened:

"The Indians were all away fishing, except for one who stayed in his house and looked scared to death. We picked out the best looking totem pole. I took a couple of sailors ashore and we chopped it down – just like you'd chop down a tree. It was too big to roll down the beach, so we sawed it in two."

Members of the Committee of Fifteen paid McGillvery $2.50 (about $90 in 2023 dollars) for his effort to cut down the totem, which belonged to the Raven Clan. It was carved in 1790 to honor a woman called Chief-of-all-Women who'd drowned in the Nass River.

The City of Seattle then returned to her home port with the looted totem pole, which then was put back together and unveiled in Seattle's Pioneer Square late in 1899. The totem was "greeted by cheers of a multitude of people," according to a newspaper article of the time.

The Tlingits were not pleased that their totem had been stolen and demanded $20,000 for its return. They settled for $500, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paid.

The original totem stood proudly in Pioneer Square until a careless smoker tossed a cigarette butt against its decaying base in 1938. The city then removed the original totem and replaced it in 1940 with a replica carved by the descendants of the original totem's carvers.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at


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