Jan 26

Thomas Phelps and the Battle of Seattle, 26 January 1856

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 12:01 AM


As a young lieutenant assigned to the sloop of war Decatur, Thomas S. Phelps took part in the suppression of the Indians of varying tribes at the settlement of Seattle in the Washington Territory. Decatur had been stationed in Puget Sound both in anticipation of trouble with local Indians, but also as a deterrent against Indians from Vancouver Island who regularly raided local settlements. On the morning of 26 January 1856, upon receiving reports that the Indians were occupying the woods near Seattle, Decatur’s commander, Guert Gansevoort, ordered a landing force of sailors and Marines ashore.

Supported by a howitzer, which they brought ashore with them, and the ship’s battery firing solid shot, shells, grape shot, and canister, the landing party engaged the Indians and drove them back within thirty minutes. When the Indians paused to eat at 11:45 a.m., the settlers evacuated the women and children to Decatur. Fighting resumed when the settlers attempted to retrieve arms and valuables from their homes. When scouts reported that the Indians were preparing to burn settler buildings, Decatur shifted its firing to the settlement, damaging several dwellings.

By 10:00 p.m. all firing had ceased when the Indians disengaged and retreated with their dead and wounded into the woods. No sailors or Marines were lost due to fighting, and the actions of the combined Navy/Marine Corps force had safeguarded, if only temporarily, the frontier settlement.

Lieutenant Phelps went on to serve in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Squadrons. He achieved future fame for commanding the steam sloop of war Juniata during the January 1865 combined Navy/Marine Corps assault on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, during the Civil War. Phelps was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1884 and retired a year later.

  • Jim Valle

    The voyage of the sloop-of-war Decatur and the incidents in and around Seattle are the subject of an excellent new book. The citation is: McConaghy, Lorraine, Warship Under Sail; The USS Decatur in the Pacific West, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2009.

  • Susan M. Burbage

    My great grandfather, Lieutenant Edward Middleton who became Rear Admiral, stayed on the Decatur during the battle and for one year after that. According to the USS Decatur log book, at the National Archives in DC, the Decatur had a hole caused by running up on rocks. They were fighting and pumping.