15 December 2008

“On the wings of lightning”: John Mullan With the Stevens Railway Survey Expedition

By Ken Robison

This continues the series of historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

During the period 1911-12, Editor A. L. Stone of the Daily Missoulian newspaper wrote weekly articles about the pioneers of early Montana and their escapades. The articles, titled “Following Old Trails,” proved so popular that Stone was encouraged to publish them in a book. In 1913 Following Old Trails was published with many of the articles printed for posterity. Among those left out of the book was a fascinating account triggered by an 1883 letter sent by early explorer Captain John Mullan to pioneer Frank Worden in Missoula. This letter caused Stone to write the following article about the “Historic Trailblazing” of then Lieutenant John Mullan during 1853-54:

There lies on my desk, as I write, a letter which is old but which has preserved through 30 years its interest and which, viewed in this long perspective, seems even more impressive, probably, than it did when it was received in Missoula in the spring of 1883. It is a letter written by the man who made the first exploration of the western Montana mountain passes to ascertain the feasibility of railway construction which should unite Puget Sound with St. Paul—Lieutenant Mullan.

The letter was written after the retirement of this renowned trailblazer. He had an office in Washington at the time and the communications was addressed to F. L. Worden, the founder of Missoula, and one of the comrades of Lieutenant Mullan during the years he spent in this region. The letter was, primarily, a business communication, but it contains a few paragraphs which are historically interesting.

“You say: Just to think that 20-odd years ago, you and I were struggling through Hell Gate canyon, never dreaming of making the trip in Pullman sleepers. Now my dear Sir, permit me to say that, if there was ever any conviction firmly lodged in my mind, it was the conviction that the day was coming when a line of Pullman sleepers would cross down through Hell Gate canyon. With me it was more than a dream—it was a conviction. It was for that purpose that our surveys were made and our wagon-road construction was conceived and, under my direction, were executed and, while there were plenty of persons who, 25 or 30 years ago, conceived that I had a mania on wagon roads and railroads, yet I thought I could see in the distance, coursing across the plains from Minnesota to Oregon, by the northern route through the Mullan pass and down the Hell Gate canyon, this same line of Pullman sleepers, making an overland trip from St. Paul to the Columbia in five days, so that now, when we are on the eve of realizing, the benefits of this overland construction, you can well imagine that my heart wells up with gladness at seeing realized one of the fondest germs [sic] of my life and fulfillment of so many years of hard and patient toil in the mountains, where I was so largely a pioneer, 30 years ago.

“I watch constantly the developments in your section of Montana, because there is no strip of the continent to which I am more wedded than the strip which includes the Rocky mountains of Montana, particularly the Bitter Root valley, my home in ’53-4, and your town of Missoula, where time and again I have camped with not a house within 100 miles and where I crossed the Hell gate river in ’54 amidst circumstances that vividly call to mind the dangers and disasters attending my little party while crossing the swollen stream during the June and July freshets of ’54.

“When I took hold of the celebrated land case of the settlers in the Bitter Root valley against the N. P. R. R. Co., in which I succeeded in wrestling from said company that entire valley and dedicating it to the permanent homes of the settlers then residing therein, it is no want of modesty in me to say that I threw into said case my whole spirit and zeal, because of the attachment I had for the early pioneers in that valley, which is the gem of the mountains.

“I look forward to the completion of this road at the end of the next six months, and it is not impossible at that time, I shall visit your section of the country on a flying trip to the Pacific, and, if not then, at some future time when it will suit both my convenience and my business.”

When I started to copy these paragraphs, I intended to reproduce only the first two, as they deal with the blazing of the trail which Mullan explored and established but the rest of the letter seemed to me so characteristic of the writer, as I pictured him from the descriptions which I have had from those who were his intimates and from what I know of his work in this region.

Missoula and the Bitter Root country have and always should have a lively local interest in Lieutenant Mullan. During all the years of his exploration and in the subsequent construction period, he made his headquarters in this region. His first permanent winter camp was Cantonment Stevens located near where Corvallis now stands. From there he conducted his reconnaissance to ascertain the depth of the snowfall, on the mountain passes and his observation of altitude. His construction camps were located all the way along the river between Missoula and the summit of the Coeur d’Alene pass.

It is the testimony of those who knew Lieutenant Mullan intimately, confirmed by the deliberate judgment of Governor [Isaac I.] Stevens, and borne out by the accuracy of the reports which he made, that he was an indefatigable worker, a conscientious zealot and in inspiring enthusiast. The second paragraph of his letter, which I have quoted, substantiates this verdict; it shows the earnestness of the man and reveals the sincerity of his purpose.

The first trail which the Stevens explorers were shown by the Indians was that which led from the Bitter Root up the Blackfoot, across the Cadotte pass, to Fort Benton. This was the Indian trail to the buffalo country; it was the route which the red men recommended to the pioneers in the quest of a way across the mountains. It was the natural way, perhaps, but it did not suit Lieutenant Mullan. He felt certain that there was an easier crossing of the divide and he looked about until he found it. And so we have the Mullan pass.

It was in 1853 that the Sevens expedition made its first trip through this region. It purpose was twofold. The exploration was expected to develop a northern transcontinental route and Governor Stevens was laying the foundations for the treaties with the Indian tribes which would make the construction as peaceable as possible. The second expedition entered Montana from the west, two years later, and it was crowned with complete success; we have seen how satisfactorily Governor Stevens dealt with the Indian tribes on both sides of the range.

Upon Lieutenant Mullan devolved the responsibility of the exploration of the region which is now western Montana. He explored every Indian trail he could find; he took observations and made careful measurements; he studied the Indians, the animals, the vegetation, the water supply—there was nothing which was overlooked which could in any way contribute to the useful information regarding the proposed railway route.

How thoroughly he labored and how successfully, is best told in the report which Governor Stevens made to the federal government and which comprises one of the most valuable contributions to the early historical records of this region. This report is voluminous and is prepared with the careful attention to detail which was characteristic of Governor Stevens. These paragraphs deal with that part of the work of Lieutenant Mullan which was local to Missoula:

“Lieutenant Mullan having learned from the Indians and half-breeds of the mountains the existence of a pass leading directly to Fort Benton, through which wagons could be carried with little of no difficulty, determined upon its examination, and if practicable, to test it by bringing wagons from Fort Benton to Bitter Root valley. With this view he started from Cantonment Stevens on March 2, 1853, for Fort Benton, following the Hell Gate valley to its junction with that of the Little Blackfoot; thence along the left bank of the Missouri to the Gate of the Mountains, when he crossed the river on the ice, and following along its right bank, reached Fort Benton on the morning of the twelfth. He found from 12 to 15 inches of snow on the main divide of the Rocky mountains, little or no snow in the valleys or on either slope. He found the route until reaching the Gate practicable and easy, but here the road passed over a succession of difficult pine-clad hills that precluded the possibility of a wagon route, save at great expense. The character of the country and the views of the Indians all went to show an easier location to the north, which would turn this detached bed of mountains and reach the foot slope of the divide by easy grades and little or no work. Completing his preparations, he left Fort Benton on the morning of March 14 with a loaded wagon drawn by four mules, and keeping on the high plateau near the route of the expedition of the preceding year, found a level prairie road from Fort Benton to Sun river. Thence to the Dearborn, keeping some miles to the south of Donaldson’s [Lieut. A. J. Donelson] trail, the route was excellent. From this point, keeping some distance west of [Civil Engineer A. W.] Tinkham’s route, in 15 miles he reached the valley of the Little Prickly Pear creek, which was half a mile wide, and well wooded. Up to this point he had met with no difficulty, but found an easy practicable wagon road, a measured distance of 124 miles from Fort Benton. Here the fallen timber in the valley of the Little Prickly Pear creek was the first obstacle met with. Selecting a suitable camp on this creek for his party, he set his men to work clearing the timber for a track, which for a short distance followed the valley bottom; but finding, as he ascended the valley, the timber becoming somewhat more dense, which involved a greater amount of work and time in its removal than he had at his disposal, he preferred taking the southern slope of a hill, and, gaining the top of a high plateau, follow this through the longer of the two routes.

“In 14 miles, descending from this plateau, he reached the Prickly pear creek a second time, which here flowed through a small prairie bottom. This creek rises in the main chain of the Rocky mountains and flows through two gaps or passes of two low parallel spurs that run northwest and southeast. By following the valley bottom of this creek you avoid all steep ascents and descents, and reach the foot slopes of the main range, the only work required being that of removing the timber and the building one or more small bridges over the Prickly Pear Creek.

“Gaining a high point of the river it was seen that for 30 miles above the Gate of the Mountains, from the point where the Missouri breaks through the belt range between the two Prickly Pear creeks, the country is one immense bed of mountains, extending southward along the Missouri to its three forks for 150 miles, and 15 miles wide, making it necessary for a road to turn westward and northward of this range or bed. These mountains are mostly well wooded, with an abundant and large growth of pine, and the rock formation principally granite. In the preceding November Mr. Tinkham had very cold and snowy weather during his journey up this part of the river, but it did not continue, nor interfere with his crossing of the mountains. After the middle of March Lieutenant Mullan found no snow on any part of his route, and had beautiful weather on his return trip from Fort Benton. Even at this early day of the spring the grass in the bottoms was putting forth; and returning with the same animals that he had taken from Cantonment Stevens, they were fat and strong, and subsisting only upon the grass found at each night’s camp. Wood, water and grass throughout the whole distance, from Fort Benton to the foot of the divide, was found at suitable and convenient points, a measured line of 150 miles.

“From the small Prickly Pear creek to the divide the country was an easily rolling prairie, with occasional strips of timber on either side. On the seventh night from Fort Benton, including the time occupied in the making of the road, he encamped at the foot of the mountains. On the morning of the eighth day, he crossed the mountains with no difficulty whatever, found no snow upon its summit, and the divide itself nothing more than a low prairie hill. He says: ‘Indeed the ascent and descent were so exceedingly gradual that not only was it not necessary to lock the wheels of the wagon in descending, but it was driven with the animals, trotting.’

“For a railroad line it would involve a cut 100 feet deep and half a mile long, which was the measured distance from base to base. He hardly imagined that he was on the waters of the Columbia until he recognized the distinctive and marked features of the valley of the Little Blackfoot. Leaving the divide, he followed done the broad and easy valleys of the Little Blackfoot and Hell Gate to the junction of the latter with the Bitter Root, finding no difficulty along the whole line. All the streams being easily fordable at this season and the forest being open, with little or no undergrowth, required but little work. For a good and permanent road, to be traveled at all seasons, the bridging of the Little Blackfoot and Hell Gate would be required at all the present crossings.

“In 14 days from Fort Benton, he reached Cantonment Stevens with his wagon—thus proving the complete practicability; and having measured the distance by an odometer, found his line only 40 miles longer than that followed by Donaldson, through Cadotte’s pass.

“In view of the easy grade the small amount of work required at first, put it in good condition for an emigrant line, and to maintain it in that condition, the abundance of grass, wood and water, and its direct connection with practicable lines to the east and west, he regards it the best route he examined in the mountain region.

“Something more, however, is due both to Lieutenant Mullan and his party and the exploration to which he contributed so largely, than the foregoing narrative of his several journeys. In the establishment of his quarters, the management of his command, and in his intercourse with the Indians, he evinced the soundest judgment, and the whole sphere of duty was filled by him in a manner entitling him to the warmest commendation. I will now give a brief statement of some incidents connected with his post in the Bitter Root valley.

“On October 8, 1853, he established his camp 10 miles above Fort Owen, at a point where there was excellent grass, wood and water, and where, in consequence of its being a little removed from the Indian camps, he could better regulate the intercourse of his men with them; and in November, notwithstanding his trip in the meantime to the Jefferson fork of the Missouri, he succeeded in getting into a state of forwardness the erection of four log buildings for the accommodation of his party, one being a storehouse. Leaving a portion of his party behind to continue the work, he started for Fort Hall, and on his return found the buildings ready for his reception. This was all done by the labor of his own party, the only additional expense being the hire of some oxen to haul logs, and the purchase of hardware, not amounting in all $25. There was a corral attached for animals. To this post he gave the name of Cantonment Stevens. Thus a considerable cost was saved to the government in the way of rent, and there were simple accommodations provided for the use of any subsequent party employed in continuing the work of the exploration, or for the home of an agent sent to the valley to reside amongst the Indians. These considerations were dwelt upon by Lieutenant Mullan in his correspondence with me.

“By this time the Indians who wintered in the valley, the Flatheads and some lodges of the Nez Perce, had learned to place implicit confidence in him. I had requested that he should give much attention to Indian affairs, do what he could to impress them with confidence in our government, and especially, to devote his energies, in concert with Mr. [James I.] Doty at Fort Benton to prevent all difficulties between them and the Blackfeet. [Doty, a scientific man, was left at Fort Benton for the winter of 1853-54 to make meteorological observations and to conduct a census of the Blackfeet.], The Blackfeet, to be sure, were always the aggressors, and the proposed Blackfoot council, which I had gained the consent of all the Indians to hold, and which I had so strenuously and so successfully urged upon the government, was by both, constantly presented to the Indians with whom they were respectively in contact, as the most effectual argument to dissuade, in the one case, from aggression, and in the other, from retaliating with undue severity.

“Lieutenant Mullan, besides constant and judicious intercourse with the Indians, always assembled them in council previous to starting on any expedition, informed them of his probable absence, and gave them good advice in reference to their own affairs. They were very glad to have him mediate in their disputes, and they cheerfully acquiesced in his decisions. So much solicitude did he feel in regard to Indian affairs, that he incorporated the following in a special report: ‘They (the Flatheads) received the intelligence of the council with much joy and to the coming summer as the time when they are to date a new and happy period in their nation’s history.’ And again: ‘The report of the council at Fort Benton has spread throughout the whole Indian country as on the wings of lightning and has been received as a harbinger of glad tidings to all.’ I received from him, at every opportunity, reports in regard to the Indian tribes, which were of the greatest service, and which enabled me better to comprehend their feelings, wants, and the proper mode to manage them. The fact that he left the valley in the fall of 1854 with the sincere regret of all the Indians who knew or had heard of him, is the best evidence of his services in connection with them. Not one unpleasant thing occurred during his year’s sojourn in the wilderness which marred the propriety of the intercourse of his party with them, or tended to diminish his influence over them.

“The individuals of Lieutenant Mullan’s party had equal respect for him, and they were generally cheerful and contented, and prompt to perform their duties. Yet the party was at all times on short rations of flour, sugar and coffee, and much of the time lived exclusively on meat. I received many letters from him referring to the entire dearth of articles which, in settled communities are considered almost indispensable to sustain life, and urging the necessity of dispatching a train with supplies as soon as possible. Yet there was no complaint, and his cheerful spirit impressed itself upon all of his men. I had found it impossible to get off a train in the fall and winter, and one did not reach him till June. Some of the provisions left for him the previous fall were spoiled. He passed through winter and spring quite well on the allowance to each man of four pounds of fresh beef a day. The Flathead cattle keep in good order through the winter, and no difficulty was found in purchasing beeves at reasonable prices.

“I have deemed it a simple act of justice to this most promising and meritorious officer to say this much. His judgment and discretion were equal to his boldness and resource, which qualities had been exhibited not only in his winter explorations, but to those of spring, when the streams were up and hazardous crossings had to be made. He made remarkable contributions to existing knowledge, both of the snows and the geography of the country, at a season of the year and under circumstances when most men would have done nothing. I left with him in October nothing but disabled animals for every sound one was used in connection with other parties. The day after my departure he moved his camp to the best grass of the valley, and on the sixth day afterwards he was in his saddle, with a portion of his party going to the waters of the mission. And such was his promptness and energy throughout.”

A L. Stone concludes, “Western Montana owes much to the
devoted service of this man [Lieut. Mullan]. The whole west is his debtor, but that obligation seems to me to rest more heavily upon our neighborhood than upon any other. He was one of our people.” [Lieut. John Mullan, of course, later gained fame during 1859-60 when he led the expedition that built the Mullan Military Wagon Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton.] Missoula, April 20, 1912. A. L. S.

Sources: “Following Old Trails XLIII.—Historic Trailblazing” Daily Missoulian 21 Apr 1912; Reports of the Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean; Life of General Isaac I. Stevens by Hazard Stevens.

Photos: (1) Lieutenant John Mullan

(2) Governor Isaac I. Stevens

(3) Cadotte Pass

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