s, a S?Klallam WomanWalking next to his father through the woods on a cool winter day, young Mason hears the sound of a bullet entering his father’s body. As he looks ahead, he sees his mother, Xwelas, lower a shotgun. In the essay The Life and Murder Trial of Xwelas, a S’Klallam Woman, Coll-Peter Thrush and Robert H. Keller, Jr. recall the events before, during, and after the murder of George Phillips, a Welsh immigrant killed by his native wife. Xwelas’ the life before the murder, the actions which provoked Phillips’ death, and how the trial was influenced all help to describe the unusual history that took place in the seventeenth century.
Xwelas’ had an unstable past that may have contributed to the anger toward George Phillips. In the mid-1800’s, there were several reasons that it was important to marry a person of a different race. “The threat of slavery, depopulation due to disease, and the breakdown of traditional ways, could have encouraged a young Indian woman to seek relative refuge in marriage with a white man, miles from her home (272).” Xwelas married a man named Edmund Clare Fitzhugh, a native of Virginia who practiced law. After giving birth to two sons, Mason a Julius, Edmund found that home life was dull. He suddenly left for Seattle, leaving Xwelas to herself. However, she married William King Lear, an immigrant from Alabama. After bearing his son, Lear abandoned his family after learning that a relative died. He did not return for more than twenty years. Finally, Xwelas found a common laborer, much less of a public figure than her last two husbands. The authors of the essay write:
“As a forty-year-old woman with three children fathered by two different men, Xwelas may have been considered used merchandise’ by potential white suitors and by tribal leaders looking for strategic marriage alliances. Or perhaps there may have been a romantic attraction between Xwelas and Phillips. For whatever reasons, Xwelas married George Phillips on 9 February 1878.” (273)
Xwelas’ marriage to Phillips seems to have been the worst of her three marriages. Several accounts describe his alcoholism and violent rages. His beatings of Xwelas often drew the attention of neighbors, however, she sometimes tried to fight back, using weapons such as oars. By Christmas of 1878, she was pregnant with her fourth child.
The rocky relationship status between Xwelas and George Phillips provoked the fatal events on Christmas Day. Earlier in the day, the family of George, Xwelas, the infant Maggie, and Mason attended a “squaw dance”. George flirted with an Indian woman, provoking Xwelas’ anger. According to this theory, Xwelas shot her husband out of jealousy. However, Xwelas herself remembers the events differently. She said that they were having fun at a party, when George became so intoxicated that they left. After they got farther away from the home, George started accusing her of sleeping around. George struck Xwelas’ cheek, then he punched her abdomen, both with the oar, although there was a baby inside of her. She brought this to his attention, but it didn’t seem like he cared much. After they got home, Xwelas left to sleep in the woods with baby Maggie. She took a gun with her, and when George grabbed the gun, and after a struggle, the gun went off.
The trial of Xwelas had a very surprising outcome. Firstly, although she stated that he grabbed the gun, there was a lot of evidence that proved that point wrong. Some reasons include the fact that the buckshot had ripped leaves along the path, whereas the bullet would have slowed or stopped due to George Phillip’s body. Also, his body had no gun powder burns on it. Although the entire jury consisted of white men, Xwelas, an Indian woman, did not hang. She was found guilty of manslaughter, but not murder. She was sentenced less than two years in prison. This light sentence may be caused because they felt sympathy for five surviving children. It could also be caused because a positive trial for Xwelas could have been important to maintaining stable relations between whites and S’Klallams. Also, Xwelas’ third husband was a violent alcoholic, rather than an important public official.
While many factors that were accountable for the death of George Phillips, most of them are due to Xwelas’ past and the normal society at the time. If Xwelas did not have other marriages or children, perhaps some of the actions might not have happened. However, George Phillips’ alcoholism and violence could not be controlled by anyone but himself, and therefore it was an accident waiting to happen. Because of the strange circumstances that occurred, a strange trial also took place, which will be remembered in history as an odd event which happened in our history.
Thrush, Coll-Peter and Robert H. Keller, Jr.. “The Life and Murder Trial of Xwelas, a S’Klallam Woman.” Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. Ed. Linda K. Kerber. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 271-277.