29 March 2010
From Walla Walla to Benton by Military Road Report of Capt. John Mullan
From Walla Walla to Benton by Military Road Report of Capt. John Mullan
[From: Anaconda Standard Sunday Morning July 26, 1908]
In no way can the changes wrought in the northeaster portion of the United States in the last half century be more forcibly realized than by a perusal of a report submitted in the war department in 1863 by Capt. John Mullan, who had been in command of several exploring parties sent out by congress to locate and build a military road from Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia river to Fort Benton on the Missouri river.
The necessity felt by the government for a more thorough and satisfactory knowledge in detail of the geographical and topographical character of the country between the Mississippi river and the Pacific ocean, looking especially toward the location and construction of a Pacific railroad, called into the field in the spring of 1853, under authority from congress, several corps of engineers and explorers, whose mission it was to supply this desired information within certain limits of time and means.
Hon. Isaac I. Stevens was in command of the first expedition in 1853 and Captain Mullan was assigned as one of his assistants. This party rapidly and easily surveyed and laid out a good road from St. Paul’s, as the Minnesota metropolis was then called, to Fort Benton. Then the expedition entered the more difficult section of the Bitter Root range of the Rockies, where the lateness of the season, the difficulty of the county, the importance of the undertaking and the scarcity of supplies caused Governor Stevens to leave a small party in the field for further explorations, with Captain Mullan in command.
A Blind Undertaking. The only knowledge the explorers had of the country was that gleaned from the maps and data of Lewis and Clarke and such information as Hudson Bay trappers or chance travelers might be willing to impart. As one of the most essential aids for the construction of a railroad was a good wagon road, owing to the necessity of transporting all supplies for long distances from the eastern to the western depots, the value and importance of Captain Mullan’s work can be appreciated.
The limited commerce and travel along the narrow margin of the Columbia and the principal tributary, the Willamette, at that date gave employment to one or more smaller-sized steam craft, which were amply able to do the business of those who looked toward the Dalles as the head of steam navigation on the Columbia, or to Oregon City, the head of the Willamette; or the eastern watershed of the Rocky mountains a solitary steamer engaged in the fur trade, made its annual trips from St. Louis till it crept along the waters of the Missouri to a region where the red man walked alone, though a pioneer to the long line of steamers that must follow in the wake of the trade and development of this region constituted the only attempt made to test the further navigation of this noble river towards its sources in the Rocky mountains. Captain Mullan’s energies were to be directed to finding the shortest and most feasible route between the headwaters of these two rivers, and the field examined by him in 1853 and 1854 extended from the valley of the Kootenay river on the north to Fort Hall on the Snake on the south.
Indian Reformation. In the spring of 1854, from a half-breed named Gabriel Prudhomme, who had been a voyager and traveling companion of the earlier Jesuit fathers in their pilgrimage through the Rockies, Captain Mullan learned of an easy and direct route from his camp in the Bitter Root mountains to Fort Benton. The party left camp on the first of March, arrived in Fort Benton on the 14th and returned to their starting point in the Bitter Root mountains on the 31st of the same month. A messenger was dispatched to Governor Stevens with the news, which gave fresh hopes to him and his friends, as they were anxious to open this section by a line of immigrant travel.
This discovery led up to an appropriation of $30,000, the first of a series, to open a wagon road from Fort Benton to Walla Walla, and the party turned its attention to the country to the west. One of the engineers in the party examined the southern Nez Perce trail, but found it an impossible one, owing to snow and other obstacles, Clarke’s Fork, St. Regis, Borgia, Coeur d’Alene valley and Lolo pass were the other lines left to be examined, and to arrive at a just estimate of the advantages possessed by each route it was necessary for one person to make an examination of all of them. Clarke’s Fork was examined in the spring and, owing to the high water, was decided to be impracticable, although Captain Mullan later regretted that he did not choose this route, as he came to the conclusion that the extra expense of constructing a road above the high water mark would have been more than balanced by the difference in climate enjoyed by this route over that of the Coeur d’Alene valley, which was chosen.
Thinking, very naturally, that as the Coeur d’Alene route lay 50 or 60 miles south of the Clarke’s Fork road and the difference in altitude being small, all questions of climate would be in favor of the more southern route. Later examinations developed the remarkable fact that as one goes north in this mountainous region, within certain limits the climate grows milder, the snow less deep, that horses can travel all winter and the general characteristics of winter are all less servere.
As to Climate. In regard to this climatic peculiarity, Captain Mullan says: “If we take an isothermal line which crosses the country in the latitude of St. Joseph, Mo., and trace this line westwardly, we reach Fort Laramie, when, varying from the line of latitude, it trends northwestwardly and passes between the Wind River mountains and the Black hills of Dakota, reaching the head waters of the Yellowstone at the hot springs and geysers of that stream; thence again to the Beaverhead valley, crossing the main range of the Rocky mountains at Deer Lodge valley. In other words, the longitude from St. Joseph to the Rocky mountains has gained six degrees of latitude, which remarkable increment continues as we trace it further westward; for the lie crossing the range grasps the valley of the Hell’s Gate and keeps it until it reaches the Bitter Root, and thence, trending northwest, strikes Clarke’s Fork at the Pend d’Oreille lake; from this point it trends south and come to Walla Walla, in Washington territory. Thus we find the same climate along the Clarke’s Fork, Hell’s Gate, upper Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers that we find at St. Joseph, Mo. This is as true as it is strange, and shows unerringly that there exists in this zone an atmospheric river of heat flowing through this region, varying in width from 1 to 100 miles, according to the physical face of the country.
Over the Field. Captain Mullan completed his field labors in 1854, when the appropriation gave out, and was sent by Governor Stevens from Puget sound in January, 1855, to Washington with letters to the war department, urging it to continue the explorations. The subject hung fire from this time until the winter of 1857, when Governor Stevens was in congress and, owing to the latter’s interest and enthusiasm, Captain Mullan was again detailed to take command of a road-building party. This decision of congress was hastened by the Mormon disturbances, which brought the necessity of troops at the center of trouble forcibly before the government. Then the Indians along the Columbia rose to a tribe, and although they were defeated in the wars of 1856 and 1857, they were not quelled, and in 1858 occurred the defeat of Colonel Steptoe, which caused Captain Mullan to delay his expedition for the time being, as the escort of 60 men which General Clarke, commander of the department of the Pacific, had been directed to furnish him, could not be spared from Fort Walla Walla, and, in addition, it would have been impossible to construct wagon roads with the Indians in a state of open hostility.
Rather than remain idle, Captain Mullan offered the services of himself and engineers to General Clarke, who assigned him to duty on Colonel Wright’s staff as topographical officer. This gave Captain Mullan an opportunity of learning, at first hand, the nature of the country through which the road would eventually pass, as he knew it only from the reports and maps of others, and was uncertain as to where a road should be built. The Indian campaign was successful, Colonel Wright pursuing the Indians about 150 miles, and on the banks of a stream near the Spokane, which, Captain Mullan speaks of as the Nedlwhuald’s, caught up with them, hanged the Yakima chief, Qualtian, and several of the other leaders of the uprising.
Making Ready. Not wishing to await the action of the bureau and the decision of congress in regard to orders for another expedition, Captain Mullan journeyed to Washington, and through the aid of Governor Stevens an appropriation of $100,000 was made in March, 1859.
In June Captain Mullan had his command of 100 men assembled at The Dalles, in Oregon, and sent a part of them on ahead to run levels along the banks of the Columbia, in the Snake river to determine the feasibility of a railroad along this route.. In this advance party were several engineers who had had experience on eastern railroad lines, and they made note of the wood, sand, lime, stone, etc., which would be available for the construction of a Pacific railroad. They were to await the main party at Walla Walls.
G. Sohon, who had accompanied Captain Mullan on his expedition in 1853 and 1854, and who was familiar with the Indian languages and had great influence over the savages, was sent on with the advance party to Walla Walla, from whence he was told to proceed to the Coeur d’Alene country; from there he was to go to the Coeur d’Alene mission and from Father Joset procure such guides as were necessary and then to reconnoiter and determine where the best crossing of the Snake river could be made, and where was the best and shortest route between the head waters of the Palouse river and the Bitter Root valley. Father Joset and Captain Mullan had been in correspondence and the latter believed that through the Indians he could learn of a direct route. Unfortunately, the Indians were so bitter and the country proved so rough that, after many hardships, Sohon was recalled and Captain Mullan gave up all hope of finding a better route at this point than through the Coeur d’Alene valley.
On the first of July the whole party met in Walla Walla, and thence started on its long, arduous journey eastward, which ended at Fort Benton 13 months later, and on which they laid out 624 miles of road, built many bridges and gained for the benefit of the settlers and gold seekers much valuable data in regard to climate, topography and natural resources of the country.
The Route Traversed. The route traversed was from Walla Walla to the mouth of the Palouse; then the Snake river was crossed where one of the men was drowned, and then on to Fort Taylor, which was built in 1858. Whatever work was required en route in the way of excavations or bridges was done by the men as the train was moving, as the country was a rolling prairie.
It being a question in the mind of the commander as to whether the road should follow the main valley of the Palouse, or should strike across the high prairie country and follow the upper tributaries of this stream, Theodore Kolecke was sent ahead to explore both routes. The more northern route was chosen, which lay near Pyramid butte. The road now crossed the Ora Yatayeuse river and required little work until a tributary of the last named stream called the Teho-Teho-u-Seep was reached, after which they entered the most difficult portion of the basaltic basin which, owing to the deep ravines, and the bed of Spectre lake intervening, forced them to take a still more northerly course when they reached the prairie that separates the waters that flow into the Snake river from those that flow into the Spokane.
They now camped on the banks of the Nedlwhuald, where Colonel Wright had hung the Indians a year before, and after traveling over a country that required almost no work in the construction of the road reached the spurs of the Bitter Root mountains, where the difficult feats of road-building began.
The line chosen for the road lay on the southern edge of Coeur d’Alene lake, then continued four miles up the St. Joseph’s river. After crossing the latter it took the most direct route to the Coeur d’Alene river and to the mission of that name. In order to make the descent from the table land to the St. Joseph valley a bridge 60 feet long was constructed and a good deal of excavating had to be done.
Beautiful Valley. It was in this valley, which Captain Mullan extols as one of the most beautiful it was his fortune to see, that the Catholic fathers first established their mission, but, owing to the overflow of the lower portion of the valley, which made communication with the outside world difficult and prevented the extension of their fields, they removed to Coeur d’Alene lake.
The road from St. Joseph’s to the mission, 12 miles away, was constructed with some difficulty, as three bridges had to be built and a good deal of excavation done along rocky spurs. Two parties were sent out, one of which was directed to cross the mountains along the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene river, strike the Clarke’s Fork at or near Thompson’s prairie, procure Indian guides and an outfit and pursue investigations up the Clarke’s Fork to the Pend d’Oreille mission and return via the Bitter Root, recrossing the mountains via Sohon’s pass and thence to the main camp, which was busy making a corduroy road a few miles from the Coeur d’Alene mission. The other exploring party was sent forward to ascertain the best crossing of the Coeur d’Alene mountains and to continue examinations down the valley of the St. Regis to the Bitter Root and thence up it to Hell’s Gate valley. After careful consideration of the data brought in by these two parties it was decided to build the road up the valley of the Coeur d’Alene, and finally after much laborious work through dense timber the outfit reached the valley of the St. Regis the 1st of December.
Severe Winter. As they had been obliged to keep the stock in the mountains until they were covered with snow, many of them died from starvation. Captain Mullan had intended to spend the winter in the Bitter Root valley because of its mild climate, but as it was, winter overtook him and the best he could do was to make a point on the St. Regis. In order to do this he pushed his animals to the last notch of their endurance, dreading to be caught in a mountain gorge to battle out the winter or to contend with the high water of the coming spring. After becoming settled in camp the stock was sent 100 miles to the Bitter Root, but the ground was covered with snow and the animals so impoverished that many of them died en route. The beef cattle were slaughtered and the meat frozen and lasted in this condition until March. The camp was called Cantonment Jordan and the men spent the winter compiling field notes, making maps and busy with the ordinary camp routine.
Captain Mullan devoted a good deal of attention to measuring the snowfall, and many inquiries developed the fact that no Indian had been known to pass the mountains in the winter via the Coeur d’Alene route, but that the Clarke’s Fork trail was nearly always passable, which fact he wished he had known sooner.
Owing to the difference in climate enjoyed by the Bitter Root country the camp was moved and as the horses were still in no condition to be used, the men transported two months’ supplies on their backs through the dense timber to the new camp, where they constructed six bateaus and a large flat, the latter to be left at the crossing and the former to be used in transporting supplies to the river as the work progressed.
Aid From Indians. Captain Mullan then left the party in charge of Lieut. J. L. white and went to the Bitter Root valley and laid his needs before the Flathead Indians, who had always been friendly to him. He informed them that he needed 117 horses with park saddles and 15 or 20 men to accompany Mr. Sohon, who was to be sent to Fort Benton for supplies. The chief, Ambrose, appeared the next day, after Captain Mullan had stated his request with a bundle of 137 sticks, each of which represented a horse or a man. The Indians were paid for the use of their animals and the services of the men and returned in March from Fort Benton to the Bitter Root camp with 11,000 rations. A messenger was also sent from the Bitter Root to Salt Lake with a requisition on Colonel Crossman for 50 mules.
The messenger was caught in the mountains by deep snow, near the head of the Snake river, lost his horse, made snowshoes from his saddle rigging, and, though snow blind, made the greater portion of the 500 miles on foot, reaching Camp Floyd safely and returning on horseback with one companion, making the whole trip to and from within 50 days. Captain Mullan then went to the Pend d’Orielle mission for fresh vegetables, as many of the men were showing signs of scurvy.
Captain Mullan was anxious to reach Fort Benton as soon as possible and thought that the summer of 1860 would prove a good time for carrying out the proposition of Jefferson Davis—a military movement via the Columbia and Missouri rivers and the route which was then being laid out. If the soldiers could be transported across the country by this route, it would show that some result had been obtained from the expenditure of the money. The success of the steamers in reaching Fort Benton in 1858 and 1859 was one point accomplished, and then the fact that the forts in Washington and Oregon needed recruits and supplies and the fact Captain Mullan would reach Benton with a large and empty wagon train would make the spring of 1860 a proper time for testing the merits of the road. A messenger was dispatched to Washington setting forth the advantages of the route and requesting that 300 recruits be sent from St. Louis on the steamers belonging to Pierre Chouteau & Co. with four months’ supplies. Captain Mullan agreed to meet them at Fort Benton with his train with which they could make the trip to Walla Walla in 60 days.
Heading for Fort Benton. After procuring the vegetables Captain Mullan returned to the camp on the Bitter Root ferry and now every effort was made to reach Fort Benton in as short a time as possible. The road was made along the right bank of the Bitter Root river, with but one crossing of that stream, and an arduous cut made around Big mountain, which cost the labor of 150 men for six weeks. The next stretch of country of 60 miles to Hell’s Gate required the building of a bridge 150 feet in length and this part of the road was left in fine condition. The party then pushed on to the Blackfoot river, which was reached on the 1st of July, and a party was sent out to make a thorough examination of the Big Blackfoot and run a line of levels from the mouth of its tributary. Lander’s Fork, across the Rocky mountains, via either Cadottes’ or Lewis and Clark’s pass to the Dearborn river. This party was to join the main command at the crossing of the Dearborn river.
The Big Blackfoot was crossed by means of a wagon boat and a small bateau, the last named of these being transported the entire distance to Fort Benton, and in it some members of the party descended the Missouri to Fort Randall. While crossing the river Captain Mullan learned of the arrival at Fort Benton of Major Blake, with a command of 300 recruits, en route to Fort Walla Walla, who was awaiting the arrival of the exploring party with the wagon train. After a good deal of wire pulling by the friends of the new road the soldiers had been sent to Fort Benton and the government was saved $30,000 by the opening of the route.
The road up the Hell’s Gate required 11 crossings on this trip, but later all but one were eliminated. They followed the Little Blackfoot for some distance and reached the west base of the Rockies, crossed Mullan’s pass on the 17th day of July. They followed the coarse of the Big Prickly Pear and passed through the Prickly Pear valley, which Captain Mullan states abounded with game of all kinds. They crossed Little Prickly Pear, and as at one place the stream enters into a deep rocky canyon with no berme on either side, they were forced to make the road over a broken section, which they termed Medicine Rock mountain. As Major Blake was becoming impatience they descended into the valley of the Little Prickly Pear and made 18 crossings of the stream in order to save time.
On Medicine Rock mountain Captain Mullan states that traces of quartz were found and continual indications of gold, and the Indians told the party of gold which had been found two miles up a canyon, near the Big Prickly Pear. The route now lay over prairie hills to the Dearborn river, where dispatches from Washington were received setting forth a continuation of the appropriation. Camp was made at Bird Tail Rock, from there they proceeded to the Sun river, which was crossed at a ford where the Indian agency of the Blackfeet, in charge of Col. A. J. Vaughn, was located.
Easy Going. The remaining 55 miles to Fort Benton was over easy, almost level road and was made without incident, the end of the journey being reached on the 1st of August. A Mackinaw boat was in readiness and the soldiers and civilians, whose terms had expired, were sent down the river to St. Louis. The wagons were turned over to Major Blake, and on the 3rd of August Captain Mullan, after leaving several of his most competent men with the major as guides, left Fort Benton for Walla Walla, desiring to keep in the lead and make whatever repairs the road called for. The soldiers under Major Blake made the trip to Walla Walla from Fort Benton in 57 days and the feasibility of the route was demonstrated for future military movements to the western coast.
On his next expedition Captain Mullan desired to test the Laramie-Deer Lodge route, and with this in mind went to San Francisco, from there to St. Louis by stage, thence to Washington, where, owing to the chaotic conditions prevailing in 1860, he was forced to return to Walla Walla and take up work on his original proposition, which had previously been accepted, to continue work on the Missouri, making improvements on the road. He left Walla Walla the middle of May, 1861, and spent the winter in camp in the Bitter Root mountains at Cantonment Wright, which was located at the fork of the Hell’s Gate and Big Blackfoot rivers. The winter of ’61 and ’62 was one of unusual severity, the Indians losing the greater part of their cattle and stock.
In the spring of this year many of the bridges were washed away, necessitating new ones, and in many places the road was moved in order to place it as much as possible above the high water mark. Fort Benton was reached in June and on the return trip to Walla Walla, which Captain Mullan made almost immediately, he had the extreme satisfaction at seeing many settlers, emigrants and miners availing themselves of the road which he had planned. Late in August, 1862, he reached Walla Walla and auctioned his property at public sale and on the 11th of September started for Washington to make his report to the war department. He had been seven years on the work and had opened up a road 624 miles in length, at a cost of $230,000.
When Captain Mullan made his journey there were three grist mills and two sawmills in Walla Walla valley, one grist mill at the Coeur d’Alene mission, one saw and one grist mill at Frenchtown and the same number at the Pend d’Oreille mission; one sawmill at the Jocko river and one steam saw and one grist mill owned by LaBarge & Co., which they proposed to erect near the Deer Lodge gold mines, which were already coming into notice.
Prophecy Fulfilled. An interesting prophecy made by Captain Mullan has been fulfilled. He states that he expected that the buffalo would be exterminated in a few years and their places taken by thousands of bands of sheep and he also states that he hopes in time that the streams of the Rocky mountains would be harnessed and wool manufactories erected which would send to St. Louis via the Missouri an enormous quantity of wool and that this wool, together with gold, would be the principal exports of the Northwest.
In 1858 gold was discovered in British Columbia and in the next year Captain Pierce explored the Bitter Root mountains and discovered the Nez Perce gold mines. Within three years prospectors had spread all over Eastern Washington and then in their restless wanderings had uncovered the rich mines in the Big Hole and Beaverhead valleys, and Captain Mullan remarks in his report that “enough discoveries have been made to warrant us in thinking that the whole mountain system is gold bearing.” He also speaks of copper, sulphur, coal and iron indications which encourage him in the belief that the cherished scheme of a railroad to the Pacific will become a necessity.
In his special report of the Indians along the road he praises the Flatheads, which at that time numbered about four hundred. The other tribes mentioned are the Palouse, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Pend d’Oreilles, Snakes, Bannacks, mountain Nez Perces and the Blackfeet, the last of which are, according to the captain, the most numerous and the worst of the lot.
The white population found on or tributary to the road at this time is estimated at 1,000, found mostly at Walla Walla, Lewiston, Deer Lodge, Hell’s Gate, Beaverhead, Big Hole, Bitter Root and Prickly Pear. Two weekly papers were published in the region, at Walla Walla the Statesman and at Lewiston the Golden Age.
There were three Indian missions established along the line of the road—one among the Coeur d’Alenes, one among the Pend d’Oreilles and one among the Blackfeet. Captain Mullan pays the Fathers the highest tribute, both on account of their unvarying kindness to him and because of the marvelous influence for good which they had over the Indians.
In expatiating upon the wants of the country, Captain Mullan urges the establishment of a cavalry post at Deer Lodge and one at Hell’s Gate, which should receive their supplies from a military depot which he urges the government to build at the head of the great falls of the Missouri, at the mouth of the Sun river. Florence, Ore Fino, Fort Boise and the Coeur d’Alene mission also needed companies of soldiers, and the war department was advised to retain Fort Laramie, with a large body of troops always in readiness. Military roads were recommended from Deer Lodge to Salt Lake, from Fort Benton to Beaverhead valley, and from this valley to Salmon river.
The government was urged to establish mail facilities from Hell’s Gate to Fort Benton, from Deer Lodge to For Laramie and Salt Lake, and also a mail route from the Beaverhead valley to Florence City.
As to Railways. In discussing the Pacific railroad, the question as to whether the constitution of the United states would allow land grants or not was a mooted question. The fact that the country from the eastern terminus, St. Paul, to Walla Walla was almost wholly unsettled and that the road would be liable to the attacks of the Indians, and would have no tonnage from the intermediate points, was a deterrent feature in all the plans suggested for the immediate construction of the road.
Captain Mullan goes at length into the various questions affection the proposed railroad and reviews the matter from the time of Whitney, who first advocated a Pacific railroad in the ‘40s, gives elaborate explanations of the cost, different systems and routes and debates whether in view of existing conditions the credit or cash system of construction would be the better.
The sextant, transit and meteorological observations of the exploring party are given in the last part of the book, and those people who claim that the climate of the Northwest is changing and is no longer the same as it was in the early days have a reliable record with which to compare the conditions of the present and to discover whether improved conditions of lining account for the weather seeming milder or whether there really is a change for the better.