WRITTEN BY PAUL DORPAT
ALTHOUGH SEATTLE'S first known sculptor, James A. Wehn, was barely 22 when he learned in 1905 that money remained in a local improvement fund for a fountain and statue, he soon figured that the subject should not be the proposed Roman god Mercury but rather the city's friendly namesake, Chief Seattle. He won the commission.
Wehn went about his earnest work of sculpting the chief's likeness by first consulting the only surviving portrait of him, done in 1864 by E.A. Sammis, Seattle's first known photographer. The statue's uplifted welcoming arm came from a study of a local Indian who declined to return for a second sitting when he noticed a skull in the studio; the sculptor had recovered the cranium for contemplation from an exposed Native American grave in Renton.
Ever since Wehn's statue of Chief Seattle was lifted at Tilikum Place, locals have wondered why the chief is waving to the buildings on Cedar Street. Happily for history, the statue was the child of years of official brouhaha and so has left an impressive paper trail. The right answer seems to be that the chief, who is always described as friendly to the locals, is portrayed as greeting the first settlers at Alki Point, roughly 4 miles away.
The statue was unveiled on Founders Day, Nov. 13, 1912, by Myrtle Loughery, the chief's great-great granddaughter. The park where it stands was named Tilikum Place for the Indian expression meaning "Greetings."
The chief's great-great-granddaughter returned to participate in the 1975 restoration of the statue, its spouting bear heads, pond and Tilikum Place. But the sculptor missed it. The 90-year-old Wehn died in 1973, still doing his art in the same studio where he first studied an anonymous Indian skull for clues of Chief Seattle's profile.
Paul Dorpat specializes in historical photography and has published several books on early Seattle.
Visit the Seattle Parks and Recreation Tilikum Place page.