Arquette, William "Chief" (1884-1943)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 9/18/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11113

William Arquette, a member of the Puyallup Indian Tribe who as a child living along Elliot Bay witnessed the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, was among the earliest musical stars from the Pacific Northwest. A multi-instrumentalist -- trombone, sousaphone, trumpet, and cornet -- Arquette first studied music at the Puyallup Reservation's Cushman Indian School and went on to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, Yale University's Haskell School of Music, and the Philadelphia School of Music. Arquette joined the United States Indian Band, which performed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, resurfaced as "Bounding Elk" in Buffalo Bill Cody's (1846-1917) traveling Wild West Show, and later performed as "Chief Arquette" with the John Philip Sousa Band. In 1917 Arquette joined Seattle Local 76 of the American Federation of Musicians and then gigged with the Pantages Theatre orchestra. In the 1920s he played with Seattle's premier ensemble, Dad Wagner's Band, was in a Ziegfeld Follies show on Broadway with New York's famed Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and recorded for Victor Records. In the 1930s Arquette performed with major Northwest dance bands and by the 1940s he was a member of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Early Years

William "Willie" Arquette was born on April 4, 1884, to Isaac Arquette (d. 1915) and Katherine St. Andre Arquette (c. 1870-1915) on the Puyallup Indian Reservation, located on Commencement Bay just north of Tacoma. Isaac and his brother Abraham had come to the Northwest from Montreal, Quebec, and the former joined the Puyallup Tribe while the latter settled in with the Yakama peoples. Katherine was a daughter of Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) fur trader Peter St. Andre, who worked in the area from the Cowlitz Prairie up toward Steilacoom, where his presence was noted in 1859 poll records.

When Hudson's Bay Company fur traders reached the Pacific Northwest in the first decades of the nineteenth century, there was a considerable population of Wahkiakum, Cathlamet, Clatsop, Chinook, and other peoples living in numerous villages of large cedar longhouses in the Cowlitz River area and along the Columbia River. Many of the villagers traded with the HBC at Fort Vancouver, the company's regional headquarters, located where the city of Vancouver, Washington, later developed (the specific location of the HBC fort, later a U.S. Army facility, is preserved today as the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site). Thus it was that many French Canadian fur traders met and married women from local Indian communities. Among their names, carried down through the decades in area tribes, were "St. Andre" and "Arquette."

William Arquette's parents separated when he was but a child, and in those early years he was shared between their two households. His mother Katherine settled onto an isolated rural homestead on Mud Mountain near Enumclaw in southeast King County, while his father Isaac had a spot on downtown Seattle's Elliot Bay waterfront. As William's daughter, Florence Rose Arquette Wescott (1914-2001), would much later write in an unpublished memoir:

"He was living with his father on the shores of Seattle, about where the ferry now docks. The year was 1889. All along the beach were little shacks where the Indians lived. He told me how he loved to live there and be with his father. He was there when the [June 6, 1889] Great Seattle Fire took most of Seattle" (Wescott).

Isaac eventually relocated back to the reservation where he had a house near the bridge over the Puyallup River. A less pleasant fate awaited Arquette's mother Katherine, who was strangled in her own bed by a man who went on to serve 20 years at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Meanwhile, Arquette was shuffled off to attend the Cushman Indian School at the Puyallup Reservation.

Cushman Indian School

On December 26, 1854, tribal leaders of the local S'Puyalupubsh (Puyallup) peoples (and a few other area tribes) and Territorial Governor -- and Superintendent of Indian Affairs -- Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) had signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek. The immediate result was the establishment of small reservations at Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin Island.

The U.S. Government's Office of Indian Affairs (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs) boarding-school system was devised to force the assimilation of Indian children into mainstream society by requiring them to be separated from their families; learn English; become Christian; and adopt new hairstyles, clothes, cuisine, and behavioral patterns. This whole militarized process was generally wrenching and degrading for Indian societies.

Initially Puyallup kids were forced to attend a new school built on Squaxin Island, whose location far down Puget Sound near Olympia proved to be egregiously inconvenient for them. So in 1860 a new school was built on the Puyallup Reservation. It was relocated in 1864 and, after being built anew in 1890, the Cushman Indian School was the largest of all Indian boarding schools across America -- and the place where the Arquette children would be schooled.

In July 1889 the Office of Indian Affairs sent Edwin L. Chalcraft (1855-1943) to serve as superintendent at Cushman. He had worked for the agency since 1883 and over time would be based in other locales including the Chehalis Indian School in Oakville, Grays Harbor County, and the Chemawa Indian School and the Siletz Indian Agency in Oregon.

The government's boarding schools were run with systematic cruelty, with brutal work regimens for the kids and wanton corporal punishment meted out for countless possible rule infractions. But one upside of this otherwise heartbreaking program was that many reservation-based schools had in-house bands, although they focused on marches and parade music -- a musical choice probably intended to give even more regimentation to the young students' lives.

The Band

It seemingly did for Willie Arquette, who took to playing music with a natural ease and a determined dedication. The tribe had already formed a Reservation Band by the 1880s but it dissolved due to the lack of organizational cohesion. At that point the instruments were donated to the school, and then after the hiring of a new teacher, Henry J. Phillips, on February 1, 1890, the band saw a second life as a school-based ensemble. Chalcraft recalled of Phillips in his 1942 memoir:

"He was an excellent musician and possessed an unusual ability as an instructor ... Mr. Phillips undertook the task of developing a school band, composed of pupils only. He selected the required number of boys, none having any knowledge, whatsoever, of music, and went to work. Naturally progress was slow at first, but within a reasonable time, he had a band capable of playing in public, not only at the school but including various places in the city of Tacoma" (Chalcraft).

As director of the band, Phillips was a good fit. He liked the kids and they liked him. Willie Arquette was given a trombone and he loved it. His brothers -- James (d. ca. 1918) and John -- also received instruments, as did another nine boys, and rehearsals commenced. Once they were proficient, Phillips began booking performances at various banquets and parades, and for the entertainment of guests at the grand circa 1884 Tacoma Hotel.

One memorable gig occurred on April 23, 1891, when the Puyallup Reservation Band, as it became known, was noted as "a conspicuous part of the parade this morning" ("G.A.R. Encampment: Parade Reviewed ..."). The morning march had been mounted to greet the arrival in Tacoma of the recently admitted state's first lieutenant governor -- and at that moment acting governor -- Charles E. Laughton (1845-1895), who was scheduled to appear at a later event at Robinson's Opera House in Puyallup.

Hail to the Chief

In 1891 America's Independence Day was marked by the Puyallup Tribe in a way that caught the attention of the local press. In a regrettably titled (and written) news item, the Tacoma Daily News opined that the "Puyallup Indians will celebrate the Fourth of July in a truly patriotic manner" ("White Man's Style"). Explosives and fireworks were acquired and invitations sent out to the neighboring Nisqually, Muckleshoot, and other tribes, so that "on the glorious Fourth ... the homes of their ancestors [will] ring out with music and joy of the white man's Fourth," creating "a general reunion of the Western Washington tribes on the lands of the dusky Puyallups" -- with entertainment at the event including a performance by the "Indian band" ("White Man's Style").

On July 26, 1893, the school band took part in a parade welcoming the arrival in Tacoma, by Northern Pacific train from Portland, of Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson (1835-1914) (grandfather and namesake of the twice-unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in the 1950s). Planned activities included a tour of the reservation, and the Tacoma Daily News reported that the "Indian band from the Puyallup Reservation and the chief men of the tribe will also be guests" of the sponsoring organizers ("Tomorrow Morning ..."). Then on the 27th a crowd gathered at the Tacoma Hotel and as Stevenson prepared to leave for Olympia to the musical accompaniment of "Hail to the Chief," the "Indian boys stood about the vice-president's carriage and played, bringing forth the cheers from the multitude" ("Reception at Tacoma").

On February 22, 1894, the Puyallup Reservation Band played at a banquet and dance marking the grand opening of new headquarters for Tacoma's Troop B, and then later that evening charmed the editors and staff of the Tacoma Daily Ledger while performing at the newspaper offices at 928 Broadway.

Music Schools

In October of that same year, Edwin L. Chalcraft was transferred to the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. And, in a perhaps related move, at some point Willie Arquette began attending Chemawa and probably carried on with his studies under that school's noted music instructor, Ruthyn Turney.

The 1904 annual report of the Bureau of Indian Affairs lists a William Arquette (and a James Arquette) as "employed in the Indian school service" as "laborers" beginning on December 1, 1903, at the Chilocco School (in Chilocco, Oklahoma). Yet, it is known that Arquette also studied at what was considered the boarding-school system's finest facility, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (based at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from 1879 through 1918). Carlisle's reputation for excellence was so great that in 1901 the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. went to Pennsylvania and filmed a silent movie, Band and Battalion of the U.S. Indian School, which depicted a parade led by the Carlisle Band.

Promising Indian students from various reservations were occasionally relocated to Carlisle, and it was probably Arquette's musical skills that took him there. While his music studies advanced with the Carlisle Band, he also joined legendary early football coach Glenn "Pop" Warner's "Carlisle Indians" team in 1904, reportedly playing halfback along with teammate and future sports great Jim Thorpe (1888-1953). From Carlisle, Arquette moved up to studies at both Yale University's Haskell School of Music and the Philadelphia School of Music.

Show Biz Big-Time

Also in 1904, Arquette was recruited as a new member of the United States Indian Band -- an ensemble that drew the finest players from the dozens of reservation bands scattered across the nation. While touring the nation giving concerts, the band performed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the St. Louis World's Fair), taking second-place honors in an international competition.

Meanwhile, America's most renowned band-leader, John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), who had served as the director of the prestigious U.S. Marine Band from 1880 into 1892, playing for presidents and touring America, had resigned from the Marine Corps and founded his own namesake band. As the successful composer of many mega-popular marches, including America's official national march, 1897's "The Stars and Stripes Forever," Sousa was eventually "able to recruit some of the best musicians around" ("The Sousa Band").

And among those talents he hired was trombonist Arquette -- who likely received the stage-name "Chief Arquette" during his stint with Sousa's band. (Note that the musician should not be confused with the 1930s pro wrestler Gordon "Chief" Arquette of the Yakama Tribe, who also grappled under the ring name "Red Skin" -- the wrestler was William Arquette's cousin, the son of his father's brother Abraham.)

Arquette took up a marching-band bass instrument whose invention Sousa himself had inspired around 1893: the sousaphone. Before long, and for its subsequent four decades of activity, the Sousa Band enjoyed a deserved reputation as one of America's premier musical ensembles, and by touring far and wide their leader became world-famous; he is considered to be perhaps America's first arts superstar.

The Wild West

Arquette was soon playing trombone in the band that accompanied William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody's famed Wild West Show, where he took on the stage-name "Bounding Elk." While with the troupe he met 16-year-old Florence Silveira, a fellow performer, and they married on December 6, 1911. Their daughter Juanita Elk was born in 1914 while they were touring -- her legal name was soon changed to Florence Rose Arquette. In her memoir she wrote:

"I was born in Bridgeport, Conn., during this time and was taken along with my family on the tour. If you have ever seen a Wild West show, you know they have cowboys and Indians. So Mama would ride the stagecoach while the real Indians were chasing it. Then the army would chase the Indians and then rescue Mama and the passengers from the stagecoach. Papa played trombone in the Indian band; sometimes Mama would sing 'Pony Boy.' We traveled with the show another year until we all came west to Tacoma" (Wescott).

Back Home

In 1916 the family arrived in Tacoma, where Arquette reunited with his siblings and boyhood friends from the Cushman School. From there they moved east to Toppenish in Yakima County, where Arquette took a job as a policeman on the Yakama Reservation, before returning to Tacoma about a year later. It was about then that he joined Tacoma's American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 117; he also joined Seattle's AFM Local 76 in 1917.

From 1920 into 1921 Arquette was a member of Seattle's most prominent musical ensemble, Dad Wagner's Band. Theodore H. "Dad" Wagner (1860-1933) had arrived in town in 1888, played cornet in various theaters, and then became the leader of the Washington Territory National Guard First Regimental Band. In the immediate wake of the Great Fire of 1889 Wagner won the hearts of the citizenry by directing the band in outdoor performances to help raise morale. Sometimes dubbed the "Father of Seattle Music," Wagner went on to a long and popular career in the Northwest.

Another great Seattle gig for Arquette was his membership in the New Pantages Theatre Orchestra, where he backed local performances by many of the era's biggest touring vaudeville stars including Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, the Cohen Brothers, the Rooneys, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, and Ed Wynne.

But, like so many musicians before and since, Arquette moved around as much as necessary to make a living, joining various musicians' unions along the way. One of those must have been Portland's AFM Local 99 because by 1922 he was getting press attention there. Among Portland's top dance bands of the era was one led by a hometown boy. George Olsen and his orchestra drew large crowds to the Portland Hotel and The Oregonian newspaper's radio station broadcast their Friday-night shows for those who couldn't attend. The Oregonian's September 15, 1922, issue noted that "a full-blooded Indian is the new trombone player" in the popular octet. Olsen's band recorded a large number of discs for major labels over the years, but it is not established which, if any, Arquette's playing appears on. 

Off to New York City

Arquette had another brush with fame in 1923 when he headed off to New York City to join the famous orchestra of Paul Whiteman (1890-1967). The Roaring '20s saw the rise of Whiteman, New York's "King of Jazz," who'd been a viola player with the San Francisco Symphony before serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I. By 1920 he'd formed his own "jazz" band, which recorded his first million-selling hit, "Whispering," and the bandleader became an overnight star.

In 1923 Whiteman and his orchestra were hired to support the hit Broadway show Ziegfeld Follies, where they gained further notoriety. Whiteman only worked with the best players -- including Arquette -- and thus he went on to discover many other Jazz Era stars including Spokane vocalists Bing Crosby (1903-1977) and Mildred Bailey (1907-1951).

In time Arquette also scored a gig with the house band at the Apollo Theatre, where his wife's sister, Ethel Silveira, performed as a dancer. Arquette eventually succumbed to his attraction to Ethel and, after a divorce from Florence, the two married in 1924. Florence Rose Arquette, then still a child, eventually married Orville Wescott and they had two children, Jim Wescott (b. 1933) and JoAnne Wescott (b. 1935), who were raised in West Seattle.

The Northwest Again 

His New York days over, Arquette made his way back west again. That path took him to the rough-and-tumble mining town of Butte, Montana, where he joined both AFM Local 31 and (in 1924) the popular Ernest Loomis Orchestra, and had business cards printed noting that he was offering lessons on sousaphone, trumpet, and trombone. On June 2 and 3, 1927, a mobile field crew from New York's Victor Records set up audio gear at Butte's Finlen Hotel and recorded the Loomis orchestra. The result was two snappy dance tunes, "Sentimental Rose" and "Lovers Lane," that were released as a 78 rpm single (Victor 20735). A promotional card for the band's September 20 Lindy-Hop dance at Spokane's Dance Palace featured a photograph of the record label and the dozen band members -- Arquette among them. Along with other gigs, the orchestra also played at Butte's Winter Garden Palace and at least once in Seattle at the KFOA radio studios.

Finally back home in Seattle, Arquette carried on with his music career and AFM Local 76 brought him plenty of good gigs with some of the area's top dance bands, including the Frankie Roth Orchestra's long stint at the fabled Spanish Castle ballroom. Arquette was also enjoying being a grandfather, and in 1938 he began teaching trombone to his grandson Jim Wescott. Times were tough in the depths of the Great Depression and Arquette had also taken up the art of hand-winding bead décor on bamboo fishing poles, which he sold to area tackle shops, while his family began doing traditional tribal bead-work as a side-business. In 1939 he was roped into performing -- in full Plains Indian feathered headdress and with tomahawk and war drums in hand -- as "Chief William Arquette of the Puyallup Tribe" ("Hold Your Hats!"). The occasion was Seattle's Golden Potlatch celebrations held June 26 to 30, where he also appeared with the Roth Orchestra at a "cowboy dance" in the Civic Auditorium.

Last Years

In 1940 Arquette bought a house at 1115 Harbor Avenue SW in West Seattle with a splendid front-row view looking northeasterly across Elliot Bay toward downtown Seattle (in 2015 the site of the Wahkiakum condominiums at 1111 Harbor Avenue SW). During the 1941-1942 season, Arquette also joined the Seattle Symphony Orchestra as third-chair trombonist -- and he was present for the legendary concerts led by famously controversial British guest conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961). During those early years of World War II, Arquette also joined with KOMO radio stars Tommy Thomas and his Romance Time Orchestra, who played many concerts for shipyard workers and military personnel at the nearby Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

A man who was known for saying "I'll keep playing music until the day I die," William Arquette proved to be a man of his word. It was on June 16, 1943, after collapsing during a Puget Sound Naval Shipyard gig, that the Chief passed away in a Seattle hospital. His remains were interred at the crematorium at North Seattle's Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Sources: Peter Blecha interview with with Jim Wescott, August 20, 2015, Shoreline, Washington, and telephone interviews, December 3, 2013, and March 4, 2015; Florence Arquette Wescott, undated handwritten memoir, in possession of Wescott family, Shoreline; Cushman Indian School Calendar and Catalogue 1914-1915, Department of the Interior, United States Indian Service, copy in possession of Wescott family; "Victor Orchestra Plays For KFOA Tonight -- Dance Music to Be Broadcast Tonight," The Seattle Times, undated, "Hold Your Hats! It's Potlatch All over Town," Seattle Star, July 24, 1939, and "Swing It, Wrangler! Real Cowgirls, and Purty, Too, in Preview" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1939, clippings in possession of Wescott family; "Historical Overview," Puyallup Tribe of Indians website accessed September 18, 2015 (http://www.puyallup-tribe.com/about/); "Proposed Finding Chinook Indian Tribe (Petitioner #57): Anthropology Technical Report," p. 57, in "Summary under the Criteria and Evidence for Proposed Finding Against Federal Acknowledgment for the Chinook Indian Tribe, Inc.," August 1, 1997, Bureau of Indian Affairs website accessed March 5, 2015 (http://www.bia.gov/cs/groups/xofa/documents/text/idc-001487.pdf); "Troop B at Home: Entertain Its Friends in Its New Quarters at the Riding Club," Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 23, 1894, p. 5; "Serenaded by the Reservation Band," Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 23, 1894, p. 5; Edwin L. Chalcraft, Assimilation's Agent: My Life as a Superintendent in the Indian Boarding School System (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 103-104; "G.A.R. Encampment: Parade Reviewed by the Governor," Tacoma Daily News, April 23, 1891, p. 5; "White Man's Style: Patriotic Indians Will Celebrate the Fourth Down the Valley," Tacoma Daily News, July 1, 1891, p. 8; "Tomorrow Morning: Mr. Stevenson and Party Arrive," Tacoma Daily News, July 25, 1893, p.1; "Reception at Tacoma: The Vice President of the United States Entertained," Morning Olympian July 27, 1893, p. 1; Annual Reports of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1904: Indian Affairs Part I, Reports of the Commissioner, and Appendixes (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905), 660; "The Sousa Band," America's Library website accessed March 5, 2015, (http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/sousa/aa_sousa_band_1.html); "John Philip Sousa, Band Leader, Dies in Hotel at Reading," The New York Times, March 6, 1932 (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1106.html); "Radio Has Olsen Again: Crack Orchestra to Be Heard Tonight," The Oregonian, September 15, 1922. p. 4; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham debuts with Seattle Symphony Orchestra on October 20, 1941" (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 21, 2015).

Related Topics:   Biographies | Northwest Indians

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