History — Stephen Liberty: Pioneer, Adventurer, Friend
By Ellen Martin Bernardo
Liberty is said to have been a big man, standing over six feet tall with broad shoulders. He and his younger brother, Joseph Edmond Liberty, studied at the seminary in Quebec, though neither entered the priesthood. He was well educated, spoke English and French, and learned other dialects and languages from his travels and association with different tribes of Indians.
A copy of Stephen Liberty's own deposition of his life fills in the details we might not have otherwise known. In October 1862, eighteen months after the Civil War was declared in the U.S., Stephen Liberty left Canada for the United States. He first went to Massachusetts, and from there he went to Lake Superior where he spent the winter of 1863-1864. In the spring of 1865, at the close of the aforementioned war, he went to Stillwater, Minn. At St. Paul, Minn., he entered the employ of Captain Louis Robier where he bought furs and traded with the Indians on the St. Peters River. In the summer of 1866 he was hired on a wagon train to be officer of the guard and assistant trainmaster under the command of Captain James L. Fisk. On the trek across the plains, he met Colonel I.N. Peyton and Judge W. E. Cullen of Spokane, as well as Joseph Perrier (changed later to Peavy).
Liberty and Peavy left the wagon train at Fort Benton, Mont. They went to Helena before going on to Cabinet Landing on the Pend Oreille River in what is now Idaho. There they bought and ran a station house. They met J.K. Clark, the brother of Senator W.A. Clark of Montana, who was representing and carrying the U.S. mail for the firm of Clark & Witcher. Through J.K. Clark they took a contract for carrying the mail from Cabinet Landing to Rathdrum, both in the Idaho Territory. During this time he became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., having received his second papers at Cheney (Washington Territory) in 1866. It is in Rathdrum that Liberty met and married 16-year-old Christine Barnabé, daughter of Joseph Barnabé (Barnaby) and his wife Isabelle Elizabeth Boucher, on Sept. 2, 1868.
Stephen and Christine Liberty were the first settlers on what is now known as the Moran Prairie in Spokane County. He planted a large orchard and made other improvements. Within two years he sold out to Joseph Moran from whom the area took its name. They moved back to Rathdrum and purchased the land on which the town of Rathdrum now stands from Joseph Barnabé, Liberty's father-in-law, and Liberty returned to carrying mail. He sold that property to Thomas Ford and moved two miles below Rathdrum, where he worked in the buying, trading and raising of stock.
In February 1871, Liberty moved to what was then known as Lake Grier. He was the first white settler, and the name was changed to Liberty Lake in his honor. He planted approximately 25 acres of orchard and continued to raise stock. He lived on the west side of the lake. Chief Andrew Seltice of the Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe was his neighbor and good friend. Stilam, a Coeur d'Alene Indian and personal friend of Liberty, lived just a short distance away near Spokane Bridge. Joseph Peavy came to live in the Spokane area around 1876.
From the very beginning, the wise and kind Chief Andrew Seltice and other Coeur d'Alene tribal leaders always had Liberty's well being as a priority. In August 1885 at the "urgent request and invitation of Andrew Seltice, Pierre (Peter) Wildshoe, Quinnemose, Stilam, Regis, Saul Louis and other head men of the tribe, and with the permission, knowledge, consent and sanction of" the above mentioned men, Stephen Liberty bought a tract of 350 acres adjoining the lands of the Fathers at the DeSmet Mission on the reservation. He was told if he moved to the reservation he would be accorded every right as any other member of the tribe. That autumn, the Liberty family moved to the reservation. When the chief said, "These are my children, you shall respect them and treat them as such," that made them a member of the tribe. Stephen Liberty became known as a "white Indian."
Liberty wrote many letters on behalf of the Coeur d'Alene Indians to help legally establish the reservation and clarify treaties. In 1887, Stephen Liberty, Chief Seltice, Peter Wildshoe, and others traveled to Washington, D.C. hoping for a legal settlement on the boundaries for the reservation. They met with President Grover Cleveland. Liberty became a translator for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, traveling several times to Washington, D.C., representing the tribe on their behalf.
On January 18, 1911, Stephen Liberty died of pneumonia at Sacred Heart Hospital. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Fairmont Memorial Park in Spokane. One hundred years later a monument was placed to honor Liberty where he lies buried. Another monument just like the first one was placed at the north end of Liberty Lake at the Nature's Place at Meadowwood arboretum.
Ellen Martin Bernardo is vice president of the Liberty Lake Historical Society. She has lived in the Inland Northwest 33 years, 23 of those in Liberty Lake.