Special 150th Anniversary Mullan Road Conference Edition of the River Press published 20 May 2010
By Ken Robison
David Parchen painting for the 150th Anniversary Mullan Road Conference depicting Fort Walla Walla, Lieutenant John Mullan, Wagonmaster John Creighton’s Wagons on the Mullan Road leading to arrival of the Military Expedition at Fort Benton August 1, 1860.
Celebrating 150 Years of the Mullan Military Wagon Road
By Ken Robison
During May 20-22, 2010, the River & Plains Society in Fort Benton will host the national 150th Anniversary Mullan Road Conference. This conference celebrates the completion of the Mullan Military Wagon Road in 1860, the first wagon road from Fort Benton to cross the Rocky Mountains to Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory, into the Inland of the Pacific Northwest. The 624-mile long Mullan Road joined the Missouri River with the Columbia River, blazing the path through the plains and valleys westward from Fort Benton into the rugged mountains of western Montana and Idaho. The road was built by US Army 1st Lieutenant John Mullan between the spring of 1859 and August 1860 with an expedition of some 230 combined military and civilian men. Parts of the original Mullan Road can still be traveled today, and, weather permitting, the Conference will included a field trip from Fort Benton into the Sun River valley past Birdtail Rock to the Dearborn River.
The Conference also will celebrate the arrival of the first steamboats at the Fort Benton levee July 2nd, 1860. When the Chippewa, commanded by Captain Joseph LaBarge, and the Key West, under Joseph’s brother Captain John LaBarge, moored at Fort Bento’s levee, it heralded the beginning of the steamboat era at the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Aboard the two steamers, belonging to Pierre Chouteau & Company (known as the American Fur Company), were owners Pierre and Charles Chouteau, their agents Fort Benton “Factors” Andrew Dawson and Alexander Culbertson, Indian agents, company employees, military supplies, and Indian trade goods. Also onboard the crowded steamboats were Major George A. H. Blake and his First Dragoons, some 300 soldiers who were poised to become the first, and last, direct military users of the Mullan Road on their way to Washington Territory.
A final exploration group arrived at Fort Benton in that amazing summer of 1860 before Lieut. Mullan, to await steamboat passage down the Missouri. The Military Reconnaissance Expedition of Captain William F. Raynolds had spent the past year exploring the Yellowston basin and had come down the Missouri River from the Three Forks, past the Great Falls of the Missouri, to arrive at Fort Benton July 14th. With the Raynolds Expedition was topographer Lieutenant James Dempsey Hutton, who took the first known photograph of the Fort Benton trading post from across the Missouri River. During that summer of 1860, there was no town of Fort Benton, only the trading post, and an opposition post, Fort Campbell, which by the spring of 1860 had been bought by Pierre Chouteau & Company. Yet, in the words of John Strachan, one of Mullan’s men, “Fort Benton has everything . . . a bakery, blacksmith, carpenter and cooper shops, trade offices for buying, others for selling and retail shops. Goods are sold at enormous prices . . . sugar is sold at $1 and up a pound and everything else in proportion. Business amounts to about $160,000 a year, with buffalo robes the staple of the trade.”
The 150th Anniversary Conference will begin May 20th late Thursday afternoon with a tour of Old Fort Benton, the reconstructed American Fur Company fur and robe trading post built in 1846-47 at the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Resident Mountain Man “Burnt Spoon” will lead the tour group into the 1850’s past to see the original Block House (Montana’s oldest permanent structure), the newly reconstructed log Stockade and Bourgeois House (the Factor’s Quarters), and into the Trade Store and Warehouse where the River & Plains Society will host an evening reception in the fur trade museum. The River & Plains Society is the non-profit that operates the museums complex in Fort Benton and the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center. A Fort Restoration Committee leads the effort to reconstruct Old Fort Benton.
Friday will be held at the Montana Agricultrual Center-Lippard Auditorium beginning with regional Mullan Road activity reports from Washington state, Idaho, and Montana. Morning presentations will include: “John Mullan Road Builder: An Army Case Study” by U. S. Military Academy instructor and Yale University doctoral student Ryan Shaw “Artists Gustavus Sohon and John Mix Stanley Images Along the Mullan Road” by Dr. Paul McDermott of Maryland; “Early Travelers Along the Mullan Road” by Lee Hanchett, author of Montana's Benton Road; and “Natural Resources along the Road” by Dr. John E. Taylor of Helena. The luncheon speaker will be Cultural Historian Bob Doerk discussing “Inni - The Buffalo of the Plains.”
Friday afternoon talks and demonstrations will include: “Mullan Road On-Line Resources Including a Google Earth Mullan Road Fly-Thru” by Dr. Bill Youngs of Eastern Washington University, and Ron Hall; “Sampling the Minckler Mullan Road Collection” which includes unique photographs, diaries, and material from Mullan's wagonmaster John A. Creighton, by Art Historian Thomas Minckler and Ken Robison; “Through Indian Country: Native American Perspectives on Mullan and Regional Development” by Dr. Richard Scheuerman of Seattle Pacific University; and “Actions to Designate the Mullan Road a National Historic Trail” led by Courtney Kramer, Gallatin County Historic Preservation Officer. Friday evening will feature a reception and dinner with Bruce Druliner aka “Burnt Spoon” bringing to life “Old Fort Benton in the 1850s through stories and songs.”
Saturday morning begins with “Surveying along the Mullan Road” by Montana surveyor re-enactor Bill Weikel, followed by a field trip into the Sun River valley with bus guide commentary about the route of the Mullan Road and key historic, cultural, and geological features. Stops will be made at Sun River Leaving (Vaughn), Sun River Crossing, St. Peter’s Mission, and a box lunch at Birdtail Rock Stage Stop. Weather permitting the tour will continue on over Birdtail Divide to Dearborn Crossing and on to Fort Shaw. At this historic fort, Dick Thoroughman and other members of the Sun River Valley Historical Society will show General Gibbon’s original Military Quarters and will talk about Sun River valley history including the military at Fort Shaw Military Post and the later famed Indian Industrial School.
“Reconstructing Old Fort Benton”
By David Parchen & Bob Doerk
[Photos: 1860 photo of Fort Benton. This photo by Lieut. James D. Hutton taken in 1860 is the first known photograph of Fort Benton.
[Sketch of the reconstructed Old Fort Benton]
[Color Photographs of the entrance, the log stockade, the Block House, the new Bourgeois House, and the interior of the Trade Store and Warehouse.]
A good place to start the story of the reconstruction of Old Fort Benton is a vision of the past provided by the great James Williard Schultz in his book, William Jackson, Indian Scout. In his 1926 book, Schultz has his scout, Jackson describe Fort Benton of the late 1850s.
“Entering the big gate in the wall facing the river, one found on the right the carpenter shop and blacksmith shop. On the left, first a long warehouse and then the trade room for the Indians, where behind breast-high counters, were tiers and tiers of shelves upon which the various trade goods were displayed. Along the west side of the great inner court were three houses: another warehouse, the store for company employees, and the kitchen . . . the bourgeois, Andrew Dawson . . . lived and had his office in the upper stories of the western most of the houses on the north side of the court. The upper of the other three houses in the row were quarters of our clerks, Matthew Carroll and George Steell, and our Father who was the tailor . . . all the lower stories in this row were reserved for the use of the Indians who were continually coming to the fort to trade. All the houses on the east side of the court were occupied by the engages, or laborers and their families, and the gunsmith, the post hunter, and the general foreman and their families. . .”
What a picture this paints. What a great place this would be to go back in time and see. What a wonderful experience to enjoy!
This became our dream--to rebuild Old Fort Benton to provide a living history for all who enter the great gates and step back in time. In the early 1990’s we decided to move forward with a project to rebuild the Fort. What an economic benefit it could be for the town. What a legacy to share with future generations. So, we approached our parent non-profit organization, the River & Plains Society, and asked if we could form a committee to purse this project. They could give us no money, but we had their blessings and the use of their non-profit status so we could write grants. The Fort Restoration Committee was born, and we were on our way.
Before we got underway, we reviewed the fascinating history of Old Fort Benton. We found that in the late fall of 1846 footings were dug on the present site of the Fort. In the spring of 1847, the earlier Fort Lewis was dismantled and its logs were floated five miles down river. The new trading fort was completed during 1847, well documented by Father Nicholas Point who was staying there at the time.
Before Factor Alexander Culbertson was sent back up to Blackfoot country, he operated Fort Laramie where he’d been exposed to the joys of adobe buildings. Adobe homes were warm in the winter, cool in the summer, hard to burn down, and the walls stopped bullets. Culbertson directed that his house (the Bourgeois House or Factor’s Quarters) be constructed out of adobe. This began the gradual replacement of the original wooden logs with adobe, a transition that took thirteen years.
As the Fort weathered and the fortunes of the fur trade waned, Fort Benton underwent gradual changes. Accounts of travelers who entered its massive gate varied from praise to ridicule. Some like James Willard Schultz loved its safe harbor and others condemned the dusty, filthy interiors.
When the American Fur Company sold the Fort in 1865, the mature buildings were changing. Walls were torn down, and corrals added. The military was housed there in 1869, and the fort was finally mapped and measured.
After the military abandoned its Military Post Fort Benton in 1881, the fort passed into private ownerships. Buildings were abandoned, roof leaked, and weathering took its toll. Some buildings were town down so the adobe bricks could be reused and others collapsed from neglect. Dan Dutro and others took many photographs over the last years of the 19th century. The Fort site became a city park and in the early 1900s the Daughters of the American Revolution, with the help of businessman T. C. Powers and others, took steps to protect the last standing building, the Block House. They had the walls braced up, the exterior protected by a stucco shell, and the weight of the roof lifted off the walls and held up by posts and beams on the interior. This effort saved what is now the oldest permanent building in Montana.
These early “preservationists” planted trees, posed cannons, and eventually laid asphalt driveways through the park so people could drive around the old ruins. Visitors to Old Fort Benton such as Charles M. Russell had their pictures taken by the Block House or among the decaying ruins. The site has gone through many changes over the years.
The first steps we took in the reconstruction were to use the 1870 military map and dig test pits to see if we could locate where the walls had been. The map proved very helpful and accurate. When we got down to the cultural layer, we found that on either side of the adobe walls were artifact, beads, bones, broken pottery, nails, and even coins. Where walls had been, nothing was found. At the bottom of the wall, there was an abrupt change from clay (adobe) to sand and typical river bottom soils. In fact, it was very easy to locate where the walls had been.
Archeological digs were organized. These summer digs revealed that on the outside of the adobe walls, toward the river and three feet down, there were flat river rocks. We believe that the early Engages placed the flat rocks to help preserve the log walls. These original logs were probably taken down as the mud walls went up as the fort transformed from logs to adobe during the 1850s.
At the end of one summer dig, we decided to see if we could find the gatepost of the main gate. Using the military map, we measured where we thought the post should be. Approximately 12 inches down from the surface, we found one of the posts. Digging revealed a beautiful 14” x 16” by 4’ post. Amazingly, it was intact after all these years. And at the bottom of the post were a couple of flat river rocks. A cottonwood tree had destroyed the other post.
As the archeological digs progressed, artifacts accumulated and the old fort gradually revealed itself. We had other valuable sources to give us insight into the fort—journals and inventories kept by the American Fur Company and early oral histories recorded by Fort Benton’s first historian, Lieutenant James Bradley, during his years at Fort Benton Military Post in the early 1870s.
When the archeological digs were complete, the next step was to put in footings. Compacted sand and gravel was the base for thick, well-rebared footings. If we didn’t have funds to erect the brick buildings, at least we would have an outline of where the buildings had been. As it turned out, grant money came in and the first brick buildings, The Trade Store and Warehouse, were erected.
But before any construction could begin, research on every building was essential. Our research had us examining every old drawing, photograph, and written description our Research Center had on Old Fort Benton. The old photos of the decaying buildings were especially helpful because we could look inside and figure out construction details. The one original building from the days of Old Fort Benton, Montana’s oldest standing structure, The Block House, was a wonderful guide to how two-story buildings were put together in the 1840s.
From our wealth of historic material and images, Dave Parchen prepared rough drawings of each building in the Fort. Carpenters, log home builders, and brick masons looked over the rough drawings in detail. We listened to their advice, and where we had to speculate, we were able to make good, educated decisions. Finally, we hired a professional draftsman to execute the final drawings. We should emphasize here, we were on a shoestring budget and had to stretch every dollar.
The brick mason took one of our original adobe bricks and found a brick maker who could match it in both color and size, yet far more durable. Local contractors ordered all the timbers and wood. The wood was logged out of the Highwood Mountains to the south of us, just like the original timbers. Wiring was run underground and all plumbing and heating was put into the thick, brick walls. Insulation in the walls and the roof are virtually invisible. Every effort was made to have the buildings look as authentic as possible; yet modern and easily maintained.
One of the final touches to the exterior was to erect a sign over the main gate. From early drawings, we knew the sign was rather large, but we really didn’t known what was on it. All the forts of the American Fur Company, up and down the Missouri, had colorful folk art type signs to welcome the Native American traders. Out of the blue, a photograph of Fort Benton taken in 1860 was sent to us from Fort Union. The Beinecke Library at Yale University had long had the photo in its collection showing an unidentified fort, with the words “Fort Union ?” noted on it. In fact, it was a photograph of Fort Benton taken from across the Missouri River in the summer of 1860 by Lieut. James D. Hutton, a member of Captain Raynold’s Expedition. This photo showed a large sign over the entrance to the fort. Scanning the photo in the computer, enlarging and sharpening the image, combined with a couple of descriptions from newspaper accounts, we were able to put together the American Fur Company trading post sign. The sign showed the head of a bull buffalo with the American flag and the pennant of the American Fur Company crossed in the background and the words “Fort Benton” lettered below. We are confident it is close to the original sign that Lieut. Mullan and his Expedition saw on their arrival at Fort Benton in August of 1860.
More than a decade has passed since the east wall buildings, the Trade Store, Warehouse, Blacksmith/Carpenter Shop, and Main Gate were reconstructed to join to the original Block House. Our efforts have centered on the display and interpretation of many fur trade era artifacts in the River & Plains collection, and the acquisition of trade goods, robes, and furs. With the help of our Blackfeet friends, the Trade Store is furnished as it was in the 1850s and the Warehouse houses fur trade and Native American displays interpreting the fur trade years. For the past five years, we have had a resident fur trader, “Burnt Spoon,” [aka Bruce Druliner] giving daily interpretive tours and entertainment.
Funds slowly built up over the years for further construction. In the fall of 2009, we received a significant grant to match funds we had accumulated enabling us to proceed with major new construction. Late in the fall of 2009 we laid the foundation for the Bourgeois (Factor’s) House. Adobe look-alike bricks were ordered and plans are in place for construction to proceed in the spring of 2010. After the walls are up, the roof will be installed with a target date of mid-June. As money becomes available, we will complete the interior of the Bourgeois House, and once environmental and security controls are installed we plan to house an art gallery on the lower level and the Factor’s living quarters on the upper level.
An additional grant is allowing us to erect log palisades this spring, just as the original fort had in 1847. The log palisades remained in place until the 1850s when the fort’s original log construction was replaced by adobe walls. Similarly, the new log palisades will remain until completion of the final major building, the Engages Quarters. The new palisades will enclose the “courtyard,” and we will have painted tipi’s, wagons and a fire pit with wood benches in place for varied outdoor cultural activities this summer. The summer of 2010 is an exciting time in the process of reconstructing Old Fort Benton.
“Mullan’s Hardworking Wagonmaster John A. Creighton:
Sampling the Thomas Minckler Collection”
By Ken Robison
In a diary kept intermittently by John Creighton during 1859-60, he recorded:
“August 1, 1860 Arrived at Fort Benton on the first day of August 1860 with Lieut. Mullans Military Wagon Road Expedition from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton W. T. John Creighton Wagon Master.”
John A. Creighton was born about 1836 in Scotland. In June 1858 he assembled a US government wagon train from Fort Leavenworth going overland to Benicia Barracks, California, arriving November 15 after traveling a distance he recorded as 2004 miles. The train appears to have been intended to preposition wagons and supplies for 1st Lieutenant John Mullan and the 6th Infantry for the Mullan Military Wagon Road Expedition.
From his departure June 24, 1859, from Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory, with the Mullan Expedition until his arrival back at Fort Walla Walla October 4, 1860, with Major Blake’s Dragoons, John A. Creighton served as Wagon Master and leader of the 29 man escort of teamsters, cooks, saddlers, and blacksmiths. Creighton earned $100 a month and served Lieut. Mullan well. Yet, little has been known previously about this strong man. Through the Thomas Minckler Collection, much insight can be learned about the man and his place in history supporting the Expedition.
Wagon Master Creighton’s men included William T. Armstrong, eight muleskinner teamsters, ten ox driver teamsters, five other teamsters, J. Donely cook or teamster, Robert Daley carpenter or teamster, A. Brearly blacksmith, and William G. Mills saddler. A “List of Citizens employed as Wagon Masters, Teamsters, Cooks, Saddlers and Blacksmiths to the Escort of Lieut. Mullan on the Fort Benton Road” from the Quartermaster Department of Oregon at Fort Vancouver dated May 11, 1859 lists the names and salaries: Armstrong earned $80 a month while the other men received $50. Of the 29 names on this list, only six are carried on the Mineral County Museum list of known Mullan Road participants. So we have 23 new Mullan Road names to add to the master list.
[insert all or part of the Muster List]
Creighton’s Diary begins March 9, 1859 when he left Benicia Barracks at sunrise in charge of 140 US government mules en route to Fort Vancouver on the Barque Storm Bird, sailing about 5 knots and anchoring. By March 18 the Storm Bird had reached San Francisco, departing two days later for Fort Vancouver. Suffering from seasickness, to Creighton’s relief Storm Bird moored at Fort Vancouver April 4th. Two months later on June 12, Creighton left Fort Dalles with a government train for Fort Walla Walla, arriving June 21st to report to the Assistant Quartermaster. He remained encamped making preparations for the Fort Benton Road Expedition until June 24th when he struck camp and got underway.
[Insert photos of Creighton’s Diary]
During the early part of the Expedition, Creighton made frequent short entries, providing insight into progress, distances traveled, and the hazards lurking along the way. His June 27 entry was, “This morning we tried to swim our stock across the [Snake] River and failed but ferried our wagons across. Today I had to swim to save my life.” The next day they succeeded in swimming the cattle across without loss. On July 1st they traveled up the Palouse River “a little ways and lowered our wagons over a hill with ropes.” July 4th was spent camped on the Palouse River, with Creighton’s entry, “This the 4th of July not a shot fired. Everything very still. Lieut. Mullan party reached here today.”
Progress was slow for the Expedition. On July 7th Creighton noted, “This day we lay over while Lieut. Mullan’s party is making the road which is to cut in the side of the bluff.” Two days later, the wagons struck camp and “went up the river crossing it four times. The road being very good for the country. Camped on Palouse River. Distance 12 miles.”
On July 17th Creighton wrote, “Today we laid over nothing very serious happened. The distance from Fort Walla Walla to this camp is 158 miles.” After laying over for five days the road was finally ready, and on July 23, “This morning we struck camp and moved on going through some heavy timber and down a very steep hill into St. Joseph valley and camped on St. Joseph River. Distance 7 miles.” The entry for July 25th read, “Today we are laying waiting for the building [of] a flat boat to cross the St. Joseph River.” After a week the boat was finally ready, and on August 2 they ferried the wagons across St. Joseph River. “No accident happened.”
On August 6th, the entries in Creighton’s Diary abruptly end, and the pages that follow record some cargo inventories and miscellaneous information. One entry reads, “Of all the property in my charge for the Transportation of Lieut. Mullan’s Escort in charge of Lieut. Lyon.” The property recorded partially includes 7 horses, 6 blankets, 6 riding saddles, 36 mules, 7 sets of six-mule harnesses, 136 cattle, 28 wagons and boxes, 35 wagon covers, 73 ox yokes, 34 ox whips, 29 pack saddles, 1 box of horse medicines, etc. Other pages include lists of names and accounts that will take analysis to fully understand.
The final two entries in Creighton’s Diary include the following:
“August 17, 1860 Returned from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla with the Oregon Recruits on August 17, 1860.”
“October 4th 1860 Arrived at Fort Walla Walla on the 4th day of October 1860”
At Fort Benton, Lieut. Mullan met Major A. H. Blake and his 300 Dragoons. He transferred Gustavus Sohon to Major Blake, as a guide and interpreter to his command. In addition John Creighton with his wagon train also transferred to support Major Blake and his “Oregon recruits.” Lieut. Mullan recorded that to the “joint good services [of Sohon and Creighton] Major Blake was largely indebted for the success of his march. Such other of my men as could be spared were also turned over to him, so that, so far as our means could supply him, he had nothing of which to complain.”
The Minckler Collection includes several important letters from Lieut. John Mullan, Lieut. Hylan B. Lyon, and Lieut. Winfield S. Hancock. Lyon later became a Colonel in the Confederate Army, commanding the 8th Kentucky Cavalry that covered the Southern retreat to Vicksburg after their defeat at Champion’s Hill, and then later escaped from the siege of Vicksburg. Hancock became a Brigadier General in the Union Army, and later narrowly lost a presidential bid to James A. Garfield.
On April 17, 1860 Lieut. Mullan wrote a long letter to John Creighton from “Camp on Bitter Root” with coordination instructions. Lieut. Mullan directed, “In order to facilitate the movement of supplies for the working parties, I advise you to send one of your men down to Browns for his wagon . . .” In his 1863 report, Lieut. Mullan stated, “Our entire work to the Hell's Gate ronde was completed by the 28th of June, when our train was moved from our winter camp to the residence of a Frenchman, named Brown, where I had built a storehouse to leave such supplies as I did not care to transport to Fort Benton.”
On May 22, 1860, during the Expedition, from Cantonment Jordan 2nd Lieut. Lyon wrote in part, “Mr. Creighton. The road it appears will be finished sooner than I expected when I wrote yesterday and the orders I now send will replace those of yesterday . . .” The orders from Lieut. Lyon directed the movement of beef cattle for use by the expedition.
In June 1860 Captain Winfield S. Hancock wrote in a letter of commendation, “John Creighton was employed by me in 1858 as a wagon master in charge of a train with the 6th Infantry. He was recommended to me then being a teamster, as a suitable person for wagon master and an excellent teamster. I first made him an assistant wagon master and afterwards a wagon master. I never had a more active one in the performance of his detail. He was always faithful. His habits are good and he did not require watching . . . Winfd S. Hancock Captain A. Q. M.”
Later on Creighton’s return with Major Blake’s Brigade, Creighton received a letter from 2nd Lieut. H. B. Lyon reading, “John Creighton was employed in the Quartermaster Department USA as wagon master from about the 20th of June 1859 to the 1st of August 1860 under my direction, and in that capacity and in every other in which he acted he gave me perfect satisfaction.
“I can recommend him as a very trustworthy sober industrious and obedient man and one competent to do anything he undertakes. H. B. Lyon 2nd Lt AAQM to the Escort to the Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton Wagon Road Expedition.”
After the Expedition John Creighton formed a freight company Creighton Crawford and operated out of Boise City from 1863 to 1865. He then moved to Elko, Nevada during 1868-69, before returning to the Oregon settlement. Not all business went well for Creighton and on October 16 1869 he filed bankruptcy papers in Elko, NV owing his former partner Crawford some $23,000, and many other smaller debts. On Christmas Eve, 1868 Creighton married Mary Jane McCully. They lived for some time at Union, Washington Territory, and then moved to Wallowa. John Creighton died in 1884, and his widow with their four girls Mary, Jessie, Mabel, and Rosa, went to Salem, Oregon. Thus ends this preview of the Thomas Minckler Collection and insight into Lieut. John Mullan’s wagon master, John Creighton.
Mullan’s “Men” Were Not All White Men: Mrs. Mary Lowry and Thomas Lowza Also Served on the Expedition
By Ken Robison
Mrs. Mary Lowry came with the Mullan Expedition in 1859, the first white woman to arrive in later Montana. Mary and her husband, John Lowry, were attached to the Mullan Expedition, she as cook and servant for the engineers, and John as a 24-year old, Irish born, private in the military escort. Mary spent a portion of the winter of 1859-60 at Cantonment Jordan on the Regis Borgia River in western Montana. Afterwards she became well known in that section. Having parted with her husband at Florence, Idaho, she associated herself with a bad and dangerous character named Matt Craft, and returned to Montana in 1863. In the autumn of 1864, Matt Craft shot and killed a young man named Crow after Crow allegedly insulted Craft's wife at the tent the couple lived in. One year later, Craft was killed in Missoula by Thomas Haggerty. In 1867 Mary Lowry married a Mr. Collins, but they too separated, and she drifted to California, where she died. [Source: Montana Newspaper Association, The Hardin Tribune 8 March 1920]
Thomas Lowza, a 25-year old African American born in Jamaica, served in the civilian contingent on the Mullan Expedition. He was recorded as a printer with the rest of the expedition in the September 1860 Colville Valley, Washington Territory U.S. Census. Nothing else is known of Thomas Lowza.
Lieutenant John Mullan’s Montana Explorations in 1853-54: Remarkable Work of Lieut. Mullan, Who Blazed Trails Ahead of Railroad; Called Pathfinder to Pacific Ocean.
By Martha Edgerton Plassmann,
Daughter of Governor Sidney Edgerton. Written in 1924.
Two men were examining the Mullan memorial at Missoula near the railroad station. One said: “Who was the Mullan; an Irishman, or a Scotchman?”
“I don’t know,” the other replied. “All I’m sure of is that he built the N. P.” [Northern Pacific Railroad]
This is about all the average person has learned regarding one of the most remarkable pathfinders that ever helped to make this region a charted locality, comprehensible to the rest of the world.
It was in the spring of 1853 that Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington territory received the appointment to head an expedition to find a route for a railroad from the upper Mississippi to the Pacific coast, part of his duty being to make a thorough examination of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, which were then comparatively unknown.
Governor Stevens and the greater part of his company, went overland from St. Paul, but a detachment was dispatched by the water route to Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone river, there to join the rest of the expedition. It reached the appointed rendezvous ahead of the overland party, and with this detachment went Lieutenant Mullan, the first we hear of him.
On arriving at Fort Benton, Governor Stevens decided to arrange for a council to be held with the Flathead Indians, and sent Lieutenant Mullan to act as his envoy, the first problem being to find the Indians. Naturally it would be expected that he would go west, to their little village of St. Mary’s, or its vicinity. Instead of this he forded the Missouri about 500 yards below Fort Benton and then went south, skirting the Highwood mountains, to the foot of the Belt or Girdle mountains, following the Shonkin part of the way.
He crossed branches of Arrow river [Creek]; six branches of the Judith river, and then followed the latter to its head in the Judith mountains but saw no Indians, although buffalo, ducks and geese were plentiful. Thirty miles from the Judith mountains he crossed the Muscle Shell [Muscleshell River] and going down that river a few miles, found the Indians and arranged for the council.
Hunting Ground of Indians. From this can be seen what an extent of territory was ranged over by the Flatheads when in search of game, always more plentiful east of the Rockies, and what risk they ran of attacks from Blackfeet, Assinniboines or Crows.
Returning from his interview with the Indians, Lieut. Mullan went to the head of the Muscle Shell, crossed a ridge, and then went down Smith River to the Missouri, and from thence to the Bitter Root valley, where Governor Stevens had preceded him.
At the conclusion of the council, Lieut. Mullan, and from ten to fifteen men were left in the Bitter Root to protect the Flatheads from the Blackfeet, who made forays into the western country, not for game, but for horses. A Blackfeet is recorded as saying “I take the first Flathead horse I come across. It is sure to be a good one.”
Lieut. Mullan established his camp ten miles above Fort Owen, that his men might be far enough away from the Indians, not to have trouble with them, and having arranged for the building of houses during his absence, he called the Indians together to assure them that although he would be away for a short time, his men would protect them from enemies, as well as if he were with them. He then set out on another exploring trip, up the Bitter Root to its sources, and over the mountains to the Wisdom, and Jefferson rivers, and then returned to his camp, which he had named Cantonment Stevens.
Between the last of November and the middle of December 1853, Lieut. Mullan followed this same route he had gone over in October, and then continued southward to Fort Hall, on the Snake River. He found little snow, except on the summits of the mountains; there was none in the valleys to his great surprise. On his way to Fort Hall he passed what he called Market Lake, giving it this name for the following reason. The lake gave every indication of being recently formed; that whole region having subterranean streams that often came to the surface. It was also evident that at no distant period this had been a paradise for game. Before the lake was formed, whenever the supplies of the trappers ran low, they would say “Let’s go to market,” and hasten away to the spot now covered by the waters of the lake, where vast herds of buffalo and deer roamed, and the hunters would soon replenish their larders.
In 1863 our wagon train passed this same lake, which was covered with what we though were ducks. Anything in the way of fresh meat was a luxury after a prolonged diet of bacon and ham, and our men joyously anticipated the meal they would provide for us. There was no trouble in shooting the birds, and camp was close at hand; but we had ham, and not duck for dinner, as the birds proved to be little else but skin and feathers covering a framework of bones. It was not Market lake for us.
Followed De Smet’s Trail. On his return journey, Lieutenant Mullan passed, at High Bank Creek, through the same canyon traversed by Father De Smet in 1840. He also went into the Deer Lodge valley, so named because of the many deer seen there, as well as antelope, while on the hillsides were mountain sheep and goats. It was a beautiful sylvan scene that Lieutenant Mullan gazed upon. Civilization has changed all this, destroying the luxuriant vegetation, poisoning the soil, and establishing a prison there.
This journey to Fort Hall and return to Cantonment Stevens occupied forty-five days, in which time a distance of seven hundred miles was covered; the mountains crossed four times, and this by four different passes, during the months of December and January 1853-54.
It has been asked “Did Lieut. Mullan ever pass through what is now the site of the city of Great Falls?” The answer to this question is contained in the record of his explorations.
Learning from the Indians and others of a pass leading directly to Fort Benton over which wagons could be taken, Lieut. Mullan determined to try it. He left the Bitter Root March 2, 1854, going up the Hell gate to its junction with the Little Blackfoot and from there to the Missouri, and along the left bank of the latter to the Gate of the Mountains, where he crossed the Missouri on the ice. From this point he followed the right bank of this river to Fort Benton. He found the road good to the Gate of the Mountains, but from there it was hard traveling. This route must have taken him through or in the immediate vicinity of Great Falls.
Two days after reaching Fort Benton, he started back to the Bitter Root, going up the left bank of the Missouri to Sun River, thence to the Dearborn and Little Blackfoot, finding the road excellent all the way. Among other parts of Montana explored by Lieutenant Mullan during the following month was the Flathead River, and north to the Canadian line. This accomplished, he went into Idaho, then a part of Washington territory, of which his chief, I. I. Stevens, was governor. Either on his way to or from the Clearwater, he passed by Lolo Hot Springs.
Tribute to Mullan. Governor Stevens states that he was most favorably impressed by the manner in which Mullan carried out the orders given him, and concluded by saying “Not one unpleasant thing occurred during his (Mullan’s) year’s sojourn in the wilderness which marred the propriety of the intercourse of his party with the Indians, or tended to diminish his influence over them.”
That the Indians did not like to have Lieut. Mullan leave the Bitter Root is undoubtedly true. But not altogether because of the well-merited affection they had for him. His presence there was a protection against the Blackfeet, who “were always the aggressors” and not withstanding the recently concluded peace with them, could not be trusted to abide by it.
In 1858 the government decided to build a wagon road from Walla Walla to Fort Benton, and Lieut. Mullan was chosen to put it through.
These explorations of Mullan’s may be tiresome reading for any who are unable to visualize this region as it was at the time they were undertaken. I can recall no wagon train from Fort Benton to Bannack in 1864, ten years after these journeys of Lieut. Mullan. Those who made the trip went on horseback, through the Prickly Pear canyon. Malcolm Clarke’s ranch, near the entrance to the canyon, was one of the stopping places eagerly anticipated.
All this country was a wilderness, relieved by a few missions, and the trading posts of the fur companies dotted hear and there. The Blackfeet, Assinniboines and Crows were powerful tribes, and none too friendly to whites. They roamed wherever their fancy led them. The Blackfeet went to the Judith Basin for game and berries; and into the Flathead domain to steal horses. The other tribes did likewise, only with a change of name of the invading territory and its occupants.
Into such surroundings came Lieutenant Mullan, and bravely undertook the task allotted to him, carrying it through successfully often at a season when other men would have stayed in camp . . .
By studying his itinerary it will be seen that, although he did not build the Northern Pacific, those early explorations greatly excited its building, and also to construction of the Great Northern. [Source: Montana Newspaper Association 4 Feb 1924 The Grass Range Review]
Governor Isaac I. Stevens
Lieutenant John Mullan
Mullan Trail Blazer
[From the Anaconda Standard Sunday Morning March 20, 1910]
[Editor’s Note: Despite the impact of Captain John Mullan on Montana, his death December 28, 1909 passed without notice in the press of Fort Benton or Great Falls. This article in the Anaconda Standard in March 1910 by James U. Sanders of Helena, oldest son of Senator Wilbur F. Sanders, serves as the best "obituary" this author has found in the Montana press.]
The recent death of Capt. John Mullan, jr. Washington at the advanced age of 79 marks the passing of about the last member of that band of explorers of this region. He was a man to whom Montana owes much, and it would be a credit to us if in the not distant future some new county to be carved out of our imperial domain should bear his name.
Lieutenant Mullan’s activities in this part of the Northwest began in the year 1853 as a member of Gov. Isaac I. Stevens’ expedition to explore a route for the Pacific railroad from St. Paul to Puget sound. General Stevens on the creation of Washington territory in 1853 was appointed governor of the new territory and was at the same time placed in charge of the exploration for the Pacific railroad by the northern route.
In 1853 provision was made by congress for explorations for railroad routes from the Mississippi river to the Pacific Ocean to be under the supervision of the secretary of war.
Jefferson Davis, then secretary [of War], organized five expeditions, the first to explore a line near the thirty-second parallel of north latitude, the second near the thirty-fifth parallel, the third near the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels, the fourth near the forty-first and forty-second parallels and the fifth near the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels. The reports of those surveys published by the government fill 13 royal octavo volumes, one of the most valuable publications of the government printing office. Thirty-five of the 70 full-page colored illustrations of the volume containing the report of the exploration of the northern route are of scenes in what is now Montana, and from one, the view of Cantonment Stevens and Fort Owen in the Bitter Root valley, adorning the walls of the house of representatives in our state capitol, was copied.
Secretary Davis in submitting the reports to congress in 1855 expressed a preference for the southernmost route, desiring the Pacific coast to be commercially allied to the gulf states.
It is a matter of interest that Governor Stevens, in crossing the summit of the Rocky mountains at Cadotte’s pass in the present county of Lewis and Clark and entering the confines of the territory of Washington on the 24th day of September, welcomed the members of the party to the new territory and issued a proclamation establishing civil government therein. This incident is worthy of commemoration and the spot should be marked by the Historical or Pioneer society.
Governor Stevens’ memory is also worthy of commemoration by Montana. Lieutenant Mullan adds his testimony to the value of his labors, which he says have left to the country a very correct outline of the geography of the Rocky mountain sections examined.
As a preliminary to railroad construction, Stevens appreciated the necessity of a wagon road and emphasized in his introductions to Mullan the problem of a proper connection through a practicable mountain pass of the plains of the Missouri with the plains of the Columbia between the forty-fifth and forty-eighth north latitude. So Mullan considered that his connection with this great national highway dated from that time.
The expedition under Governor Stevens along the northern route is the only one of interest to us. It was divided into two divisions, the main one operating under Stevens from St. Paul west. The western division, under Gen. George B. McClellan, was to proceed to Puget Sound and work east through the Cascade and other mountain ranges and meet Stevens. Lieut. R. Saxton was to repair in the Columbia River, organize a party and establish a depot in the Bitter Root valley.
Governor Stevens considered for a time the proposition of chartering a boat, sending a party up the Missouri river and throwing it into the mountains immediately. But he gave this up, not being fully satisfied that a boat, for which he had secured a conditional charter at Pittsburg, could go up that river. So the party proceeded overland.
In this party besides Governor Stevens were several men whose names are familiar as those of pioneers in what later was to be the state of Montana: Lieut. John Mullan, Second Artillery, six years later detailed to construct a military wagon road from Walla Walla to Fort Benton on the Missouri river; F. W. Lander, who later constructed that great highway known as the Lander cutoff, which left the main overland trail in the South pass above old Fort Aspenhul and proceeded direct to Fort Hall; Thomas Adams and Fred H. Burr, remembered by many old-timers, were also in the party. The services of Alexander Culbertson were also secured to acquaint the Blackfeet Indians with the purposes of the expedition.
Lieutenant Mullan was assigned to a party to survey the Missouri river and establish a depot at Fort Union. His party left St. Louis on the American Fur Company’s boat May 21, with instructions to make as complete a survey of the Missouri river as circumstances would permit and to establish a supply depot at Fort Union. From Fort Union Mullan was detailed to survey the valley of the Yellowstone River, which he ascended to a point near the present city of Billings. From there he turned northward and explored the valley of the Musselshell and Judith basin and rejoined the main party at Fort Benton on Sept. 1.
Mullan was left in command of a party to explore the mountain regions of eastern Washington and the northwest part of Missouri territory, for this was before the creation of the territory of Nebraska, which came to the summit of the rocky mountains. He established his headquarters in the Bitter Root valley near Fort Owen, and explored the mountain regions, as he expressed it, “which included the sections whence flow the sources of the Columbia and Missouri rivers in a network of babbling brooks.”
Mullan states that the only information of this great region of country was the map left us by Lewis and Clark in 1805, with addenda given him by the more intelligent employees of the Hudson Bay Company or chance travelers in the country.
Governor Stevens had employed a wagon train from St. Paul to Fort Benton, but there he had decided that he would be compelled to employ pack trains.
At this time the only overland wagon road to the Pacific was via the South (Pacific) pass, which still probably remains the great highway across the continent.
The question of the navigation of the upper Missouri and Columbia rivers was then a subject of discussion, one or two small steamboats at that time meeting the necessities of the commerce of the Columbia, with the head of navigation at The Dalles. On the Missouri it is recorded that a solitary steamer engaged in the fur trade made an annual trip up that stream.
The region covered by Lieutenant Mullan and his party in 1854-1855 [actually 1853-1854] extended from the Kootenai River on the north to Fort Hall on Snake river, covering the mountainous portions of Montana. Mullan, at this early date, determined that the Bitter Root mountains presented greater difficulties than the Rocky mountains in the matter of wagon and railroad construction, so that perhaps its adoption 10 years later as the boundary between Idaho and Montana territories is not strange.
Lieutenant Mullan, with a small party, left the Bitter Root valley May 1, 1854 and, crossing the summit of the Rocky Mountains on the 10th, arrived at Fort Benton on the 14th. There he remained two days fitting up a wagon train, and started on his return on the 17th, again reaching the Bitter Rot valley on the 31st of that month. On this trip, in traveling along the Blackfoot, he said it was a misnomer to call it the Hell Gate, as the sun does not shine on a better spot on earth.
The actual construction of the military road from Fort Walls Walla to Fort Benton was deferred until 1859-1860, when the expedition was placed in the immediate charge of Lieutenant Mullan, and the Mullan road will live in history, although the iron horse has paralleled it for the greater part of its length.
J. Wiessner, the astronomer of the expedition, in submitting his report of the astronomical and meteorological observations to Captain Mullan, closed with the following remarkable statement:
“While I was drawing a profile of the road, and by attempting to represent all known heights of the mountains, of settlements and camps along the rivers, in valleys and prairies of Gov. (the late lamented general) I. I. Steven’s Northern Pacific Railroad district, between the longitude of the mouth of the Columbia on the west and Fort Union on the east, and within the parallels of 45 degrees and the northern boundary, your signature was found most wonderfully written by the pen of nature. From the Pacific, along the Columbia up to Mount Adams, down to the Cascades, up to Mount Hood and, down to The Dalles, the profile is an ‘M’; along the Columbia, the Walla Walla, the Touchet to the head of Reed creek, down to the Tukonon to where Lewis discovered the Snake river, up the Pelouse on to the high plains of the Columbia and down to the St. Joseph, the profile is a ‘U’; up the Coeur d’Alene to Sohon’s pass and down the St. Regis Borgia to the Bitter Root, the profile is an ‘L’; by the Medicine Rock, Dearborn, Sun river, over the plains to the right of the Teton, to Fort Benton and along the winding Missouri to Fort Union, the profile is a ‘N.’”
From the foregoing it will be seen that the M of this remarkable profile is written in Oregon and Washington along the Columbia river; the U is written within the state of Idaho, the first L representing the summit of the Bitter Root mountains, the Rocky mountains representing the second L and the A N being written along the Dearborn, Sun and Missouri rivers across the state of Montana to Fort Union on the east. Let the profile of the White mountains look to his laurels.
We have mentioned the Oregon trail. This old highway in its time was without doubt, the best traveled highway of history and was followed for two-thirds of its length by the Pacific Argonauts from 1848 till the completion of the first Pacific railroad in 1869. Along the Oregon trail again old Ezra Meeker, over 80, in arranging to take a rip this summer, retracing the trip which he took 58 years ago, a feat which he accomplished in 1906, visiting President Roosevelt at the White House and driving his oxen into New York city.
A bill is pending in congress providing for the marking of this old trail at prominent points and seeking to interest the historical societies of the states through which it passes, in the matter, surely a worthy cause. The sympathy which this proposition has aroused suggests that similar action should be taken with reference to the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition 44 years before the dedication of the Oregon trail. . .
J. U. SANDERS.
Helena, March 14, 1910.
In 1882 Mr. Sanders received this letter from Captain Mullan:
Washington, D. C., Aug. 30, 1882.
“J. U. Sanders, Esq., Helena, Mont.:
“Dear Sir: I acknowledge the receipt of your very full and satisfactory letter of the 20th inst., containing so graphic an account of the operations going on at this time at both ends and in the middle of the Mullan tunnel, and for which please accept my thanks.
“It would afford me exceeding great pleasure to be present next year at the celebration which you speak of in anticipation of the completion of this great work through the Rocky mountains, and if circumstances enable me to be present on that occasion I shall conceive it my duty to make an effort to visit you in Western Montana and see the result of the growth of that region, where 30 years ago I pioneered the first wagon across that section of the Rocky mountains. I have always had a most abiding confidence in the future growth and development of that, to me, most interesting portion of the Northwest and to travel through that country again at the rate of 500 miles a day, where we thought we were making a fair day’s work when we journeyed five miles a day on foot, will be to me a pleasure which can only be described by the enjoyment thereof.
“My advices from Oregon are to the same effect as you attest, to wit: that the western section of the road will reach Missoula some time about the end of the year.
J. M. Mullan
“On the Wings of lightning”: John Mullan With the Stevens Railway Survey Expedition
By A. L. Stone
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 included in 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. [John Mullan writes:]
“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 gems 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.”
[Editor Stone continued:] 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
Reminiscences of the Mullan Military Road Expedition:
By Ken Robison
In August 1860, 148 years ago and before there was a Montana Territory, Army First Lieutenant John Mullan, Jr. led a military expedition to construct a wagon road from Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory to Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Departing Walla Walla in June 1859, Lieut. Mullan’s men carved the road through the mountains of Idaho into Montana, arriving at Fort Benton in August 1860.
One of Lieut. Mullan's hard working men was Charles Schafft, an immigrant born in Berlin, Germany in 1838, who enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1853 at the age of just 15years old. He was promoted to Sergeant, and served in Company D, 3rd Regiment, U. S. Artillery. By 1858, Schafft was out of the Army and living in San Francisco. When news came to California that Lieut. John Mullan would lead a road-building expedition across the Northwest, and Charles Schafft decided to sign on. Many years later, when Schafft began working for the first Fort Benton newspaper, the Benton Record, he wrote a series of "Literary Contributions”. Schafft's first contribution was a reminiscence of his time with Lieut. Mullan, building the Mullan Military Wagon Road. As you read Schafft’s account, remember that it was written long ago and printed in the January 2, 1880, Benton Record Weekly. Charles Schafft wrote:
Commencing at Walla Walla in Washington Territory, and terminating at Fort Benton, in Montana, is located one of the oldest public roads in the Territory. Its construction was commenced and consummated nearly a quarter of a century ago, and although much of it is as yet a public convenience, and was to within a year or two, the only wagon-road connecting at least one county with its neighbors and the outside world, much abuse has been heaped upon the superintendent [Lieut. John Mullan] of its original location, when instead, he should have some credit with honor upon the pages of our history. From time to time short, but erroneous articles related to the "Mullan Road" have appeared in the local papers, intended as "Bits of history," and many inquiries have been made by private parties in regard to the road and its builder, with no satisfactory answer. As most every early event in our history is of some interest, the writer was induced to prepare an article from personal experience and memory on the subject in hand.
It should be remembered that twenty-five years ago  very little was generally known of what was eastern Washington Territory, and of what is now Montana, except and mainly from the official and necessarily brief report of Lewis & Clarke and the vague accounts given verbally by unlettered employees of the fur companies. The whole country was looked upon as a primeval wilderness, fit only for the Indian, the trapper, the hunter, and no least of all the zealous missionary. The section called Montana was then deemed far more remote from civilization than Alaska is now.
Under the administration of Jeff. Davis, as Secretary of War, several expeditions were organized 1854-55, to explore the various Territories, make topographical surveys, and report upon the feasibility of constructing railroads. Col. Williamson, of the Engineering Corps, had charge of the central part. Lieut. John G. Parke, also of the Engineers, surveyed and explored the southern portion between San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas, while Gov. I. I. Stevens, of Washington Territory, was placed in charge of the northern reconnaissance and surveys. Among the officers assigned to duty under the latter, were Lieut. Doleson and Lieut. John Mullan, of the 4th Artillery. Governor Stevens, who was Ex-Officio Superintendent of Federal Affairs for his Territory, was advised by his instructions to make treaties with Indian tribes, and report upon the general resources of the country visited, with the view of inducing the formation of settlements. The country was thoroughly explored, and scarcely any Indian tribe was left without a treaty of some kind. During the winter 1854-55 the expedition cantoned in the Bitter Root Valley, near the present site of Stevensville, and in July the following year a treaty was made with the Flatheads, Pend 'Oreilles and Kootenays, who confederated as one nation, with the Flathead, Victor, as head Chief. The year terminated the work, and the Governor made a detailed report to the Departments, which was duly printed and published. Among the recommendations made, was the construction of a military wagon-road from the Columbia to the Missouri, which was to serve not only for the cheaper transportation of troops and military supplies to far western posts, but also for the benefit of enterprising emigrants who might select homesteads in some of the beautiful valleys on the line of the road. This recommendation was approved of, and an appropriation for the purpose was made by Congress 1857-58. Lieut. John Mullan, who ranked Lieut. in the army, as an engineer of ability, was selected to open up the road.
The writer hereof, who was in San Francisco in April, 1858, with Frazer river as his objective point, reading one day in the papers the arrival of Lieut. Mullan and a corps of assistants en route to Walla Walla, felt induced to approach the Lieutenant when already on the Oregon steamer, and seek for employment on the expedition. Mullan's arrival and his departure for Oregon to open up a wagon-road to the Missouri river, created some excitement in San Francisco at the time, and the expedition was looked upon much the same as a trip to the North Pole is looked upon now.
The Dalles, in Oregon, being the last place connected then with steamboat transportation, was selected as the rendezvous, and the expedition started from thence and reached its real point of departure without mishap. Work was then commenced and proceeded from Walla Walla for a distance of about fifty miles to the mouth of Tricanyon creek, as which point operations were suspended on account of the retreat of Col. [Edward] Steptoe, who had been up the Palouse on a military reconnaissance, with a force of troops lightly armed and mounted on horses unbroken to stand fire. The Indians were unwilling for the whites to penetrate their country, and had advised Steptoe to return; but upon his insisting to go on, fire was opened by the Reds, more as a defiance and a warning, than to kill. In trying to return the fire, some of the recruits were thrown from their horses. A panic was created which resulted in a hasty retreat. Of course the road expedition could not go forward in the face of defeat, nor was it proposed to fight its way through unknown numbers of apparently hostile Indians, and consequently had to await further events.
General [William S.] Harney, who was then at Vancouver trying to settle the San Juan question, took prompt measures to punish the Indians, and Col. [George] Wright with all forces that could be collected, was dispatched against them. The campaign resulted in the utter defeat of the Indians, who had congregated quite an army out of nearly all the tribes between the Rocky mountains and the Columbia, and it also resulted in opening the Walla Walls country, which had heretofore been Indian territory, to settlement.
As the war consumed the whole summer, the road expedition had been disbanded, to be reorganized in the year following, and a small extra appropriation was made by Congress in 1858-59 to cover and make good losses sustained in stock and supplies.
In the spring of 1859 the expedition had its rendezvous again at the Dalles, where Captain [Thomas] Jordan, Post Quarter-master, furnished the necessary supplies and transportation for its escort of fifty men drawn from the 3rd Artillery at Fort Vancouver. Lieut. Mullan hired about one hundred men who were bound to serve by certain conditions, the ordinary wages paid being $50 per month, and the old army ration. To break his men a little to the labor required, some work was done improving the old emigrant road between the Dalles and Walla Walla, the latter place being reached in June. And now the expedition fully equipped and organized, was really ready to commence operations in earnest. We left Fort Walla Walla in June 1859, a few days after the departure of Major [Pinkney] Lugenbeel, who had gone with two companies of the 9th Infantry to establish Fort Colville, and proceeded to the mouth of Tricanyon, where a rock breastwork called Fort Taylor, had been built during the Indians war. At this point we crossed the Snake river, and the conditions of service were once more read to the men, while the settlements were easy of access.
A day of twenty miles travel, early in the hot month of July, took us from Snake river to the left bank of the Palouse, immediately above its picturesque falls; thence the road was located up the Palouse and over to the St. Joe valley. Little hard work had so far been required, except the occasional grading of a side hill or a crossing, but the descent to the St. Joe needed the construction of a heavy grade and some corduroy work. In this beautiful valley (now a reservation for the Coeur D'Alenes) we made a time camp. Two ferry boats had to be built, one for the St. Joe and the other to be taken around by the lake to the Coeur D'Alene river. Swampy bottoms had to be corduroyed, and a road had to be cut through the timber over the Coeur D'Alene range, which divides the two valleys. When we reached the Coeur D'Alene river, it was at a point twenty miles below the Mission, and the expedition crossed in the boat built on the St. Joe. To follow up the river required time and work, on account of timber, swamps and grading, and it being already in September continuous rains made it disagreeable for the men. Arriving at the Mission, we had the Bitter Root mountains in our immediate front, and the difficulties to be encountered through them, a distance of 75 miles to the Missoula river, were painted so formidably, even by the missionaries, that winter quarters began to look a long ways off. Had the object of the expedition been solely to construct a road for the accommodation of travel, and had not official instructions prevented, it is probable that Mullan would have diverged here and built the road around Pend 'Oreille Lake, which would have avoided the mountains, but lengthened the distance over eighty miles. There had been a difference of opinion between Stevens and Mullan in regard to the feasibility of railroad construction through the mountains, and the facts in the case were to be determined definitely by a party of engineers taking a line of levels from old Fort Walla Walla as the starting point.
Mud Prairie, eleven miles above the Mission, was fixed upon as a depot camp. This prairie, naturally a swamp, was made more so by the previous heavy rains, and had to be partly bridged to get the wagons to its upper end. An examination of the surrounding hills found them full of springs and impractical for grading. We were now at the main barrier of the entire road, and it was a serious one. The pass on both sides was obstructed by an almost impenetrable heavy growth of pine, cedar, tamarack and fir, long since thinned out by frequent firs occurring almost annually for the past twenty years. The mountains hugged the streams so closely that numerous crossings or time-consuming or laborious grades, were unavoidable. The timber on the line of the road had been set on fire, probably by Indians, and everything looked smoky, dismal and discouraging; but gloves had to be laid aside now, and working parties provided with eight or ten days' rations were pushed ahead to cut out, inch by inch as it were, the timber marked by the engineers, who were crawling through the undergrowth, unable to see more than a few feet before them. The road followed the bottom of the canon, because it would have taken nearly a whole summer's work to grade the hills, even if that were practicable; as it was it took nearly the whole month of October to open a merely passable way for the wagons from Mud Prairie to the summit, a distance of only twenty-five miles, and the men were working hard from the earliest dawn till dusk. Mullan, who did not hesitate to put his shoulder to the wheel, was ever among them, to instill courage and hurry up the work. A fall or two of snow began to warn us of the approaching winter. While at Mud Prairie a Quarter-master's train brought out the winter supplies for the military escorts, which necessitated double tripping on part of our teams to the next depot at the foot of the mountains.
Early in November the next depot was established on the east side of the mountains, at what is now called Packer's Ranche, on the Reguis Borgia river [St. Regis River near today's Superior, MT]. The work down this steam was somewhat lighter, because the timber was more open, but headway was made slowly on account of the numerous crossings. Winter having now set in for good, made it still harder on the men, and the indispensable work cattle began to suffer for want of feed. It had been thought all along that we could find winter quarters in the valley of the Missoula, but it as impossible to get there, and reluctantly the order was given for the building of a winter camp at the leaving of the Reguis Borgia, about thirty miles above its mouth. The camp was called "Cantonment Jordan."
Mullan, who had his winter supplies shipped to Benton, with the expectation of having easy access to them from the Missoula valley, found himself disappointed, and had to begin making drafts on the Quartermaster for stores. The citizens of the expedition having exhausted and worn out their supplies of clothing and other necessaries, began to suffer for want of shoes and bedding, and anxiously began to look for the arrival of Messrs. Friedman & McClinchy, Sutlers to the outfit, who were on the road from Walla Wall with a pack train of one hundred animals loaded with merchandise. These merchants had started for the camp rather late in the season, and with overloaded animas, and after they passed the Coeur D'Alene Mission and began to enter the mountains, their animas gave out and perished for want of feed or owing to the effects of the cold. Their merchandise had to be abandoned, and was promiscuously scattered all along the road from Mud Prairie to the foot of the mountain. Friedman reached the camp with only two or three packs, and a few loose animals. The loss of the train was felt severely by all concerned, and the owners of it were at a clear loss of $10,000. Mullan, it was said, was interested in the loss. Some few of the abandoned goods were got to camp by soldiers, who hauled them over the mountain in hand sleds.
Winter quarters being established, and it being likely that the supplies would run short, some of the men were released from their engagement and allowed to proceed to the valley. The others were kept steady at work.
During the winter an order arrived from Washington that the War Department advised it would send four or five hundred men as recruits up the Missouri the following spring, for Forts Walla Walla, Colville, etc. and specified that Mullan was expected to be at Benton in time with his wagons to furnish transportation for those troops. This order necessitated the prosecution of the work more vigorously than ever, and the soldiers who had heretofore performed no labor, were called into requisition, and sent ahead to aid in road building. It was necessary to have the way open for travel necessary to have the way open for travel as far as Hell Gate Ronde, with the earliest spring, and most of the grades up the Missoula river were dug out of the deep snows of mid winter. Most of the work animals perished, and a new supply had to be sent for to Camp Floyd, in Utah. There was not much enjoyment in this winter camp. As early as possible in the spring of 1860, the expedition moved over the laboriously made road to Hell Gate; thence as rapidly as wagons could be got over obstacles up the Hell Gate canyon to Deer Lodge, and thence over a comparatively open country to Fort Benton, and arrived there in due time to furnish the desired transportation to Major Blake and the recruits. On the return to Walla Walla some important work was done by the soldiers, and the road had been opened and the wagons had rolled over it both ways; but it was like all new roads, a hard one to travel.
Upon recommendations made by Major Blake, who was authorized to inspect and report upon the work done, and who reported very favorably, Mullan was sent again into the field early in 1861 with a new [second road-building] expedition to do more necessary work and improvements. This expedition had with it only about fifty hired laborers, and an escort of one hundred men from the 9th Infantry. The road this time crossed Snake river at the mouth of the Palouse, and thence followed the Colville road twenty miles to Cow creek, and thence over an open prairie to Antoine Plants, on the Spokane river; thence up the Spokane around Coeur D'Alene Lake to the Mission, abandoning entirely the road made the previous year from Snake river via the Palouse and St. Joe valleys. There was no difference in distance on the new route taken, but it was entirely a prairie road, with the exception of thirty-five miles between the Lake and the Mission, where considerable work had to be done over spurs of mountains. The main part of the labor to be performed lay in the Bitter Root mountains, and between the Missoula river and Deer Lodge, (the only portion of the country where the Mullan road is yet distinctly marked, and where it was always be known by its proper name.) A careful examination of the pass revealed the fact that either a continuous grade would have to be made for a distance nearly fifty miles, or that the road would have to remain along the bottoms of the canyons. Grading was found impracticable for the want of means and time, therefore the old road had to be retained. Much work was required and done to clear it of fallen timber, and to level standing stumps with its bed. The many crossings of the stream were a serious draw-back, and Mullan tried the experiment of bridging. Timber being plenty, rough bridges were easily and quickly constructed, but in most instances the embankments were very low, and it was not expected that the bridges would withstand any high freshet, as at most they were only intended for temporary structures. Leaving the mountains proper, many repairs and improvements were made along the Missoula river, and to save crossing it, and establishing of ferries, it was decided to retain the road made before. The Hell Gate canyon, where but little work had been done the previous year, had yet to be attended to, and winter quarters were built on the left bank of the Big Blackfoot, near its mouth.
The camp was called Cantonment Wright. Most of the soldiers were distributed in small parties along the canyon, and the grades on the Hell Gate were broken from the ground during the winter of 1861-1862, one of the severest known in the history of this country, and the work went along very slowly. A fine bridge, covered with whipsawed lumber, was thrown over the Big Blackfoot, but being severely damaged by the unusually high freshet of 1862, it was soon after replaced by a private toll bridge. Late in December two horse thieves, Butler and Williams, were followed and arrested in Deer Lodge Valley, by authority of Lieut. Mullan. They received no jury trial, but were both fastened together by the legs, and rendered efficient service in digging out rock for the filling of the piers of the Blackfoot bridge. In the spring they were set at liberty with some good advice for their future guidance.
In January 1862, a citizen connected with the sutler store, while en route to Deer lodge, had his feet frozen, and medical assistance being unable to reach him in proper time, the amputation of both legs became a necessity.
Near the ending of May 1862, Mullan, who had just been promoted to a Captaincy, having fulfilled his instructions, disbanded the expedition; many of the citizens going East via Benton, and the soldiers returning West. Captain Mullan, on account of private affairs, found it necessary to resign his commission in the army.
It was customary while constructing the road to set up posts or brand trees, at convenient points, with the letters "M. R." military road, and the number of miles from each terminus. Those brands were intended as guides, and also to keep off trespassers. Notwithstanding some of the best portions of the road were "taken up," and toll was collected, while the most sections requiring much labor for improvement were severely left alone for free public use. So outrageous became the trespassers at last, that the legislature of Montana found it necessary to enact a law declaring the Mullan road to be a "free public highway."
That the portion of road between Walla Walla and Deer Lodge, (upon which much money and time had been expended,) fell into disuse, was the result of various apparent causes. Owing to the Eastern war no troops or military supplies were sent over it; the discovery of gold in Montana and Idaho diverted emigration from it, and in western Montana there were no markets to tempt freighters to try it. Mullan expected the road would be used, and by use improved. In many of the swamps, and where grass was scarce near camping places in the mountains, he had caused grass seed to be scattered to provide good feed in the future, and fine timothy patches can now be found as the result. It was one of his projects to have a mail route established between St. Paul, via Benton and Portland, Oregon, with a branch coming in from Leavenworth and connecting in the Missoula valley. It being claimed that by this route Oregon would receive its mails quicker than by the old routes. A part of the road he built will probably long remain in public use, notwithstanding the fault-finders who never saw the principal part of the work, and whose imagination can't picture the hardships endured by those who toiled upon it. General Sherman, who traveled over it, did not condemn it, nor did he advocate the building of a new one, but he found the old location good and important enough to cause it to be reopened, if only as a military necessity. It is not reported that the troops who worked on it last summer had more efficient engineers than Mullan but they had to obey orders likewise, and could not deviate from the assigned track, which is yet and long will be a subject for much improvement.
Mullan was one of the pioneers of this country. His name became permanent by a public work of peculiar difficulties, and those that are acquainted with the circumstances well know that he rather lost than make a fortune during the time he was employed upon it. There certainly is some credit due him.
[Signed] C. S.
So, what became of Charles Schafft after the expedition? As he related in his account, in January 1862 "a citizen connected with the sutler store, while en route to Deer lodge, had his feet frozen, and medical assistance being unable to reach him in proper time, the amputation of both legs became a necessity." That "citizen" was Charles Schafft! In the words of Lieut. John Mullan:
"I here mention, with regret a sad accident that occurred to a citizen in passing from one to another of our camps, and which will tend to show the degree of cold we experienced during January . He (Charles Schafft) had left one of the camps with the intention of going to the Deer Lodge valley. Night and severe cold overtaking him before he could reach another camp, he halted to build a fire, and being wet endeavored to slip off his moccasins, when he found them frozen to his feet. He became alarmed, and retracing his steps reached the point he had started from, late at night, but with both feet frozen, and on their being thawed in a tub of water all the flesh fell off. The poor fellow suffered intensely, and his life was only saved by his suffering the amputation of both legs above the knees; the operation performed by Dr. George Hammond, U.S. Army. A purse of several hundred dollars was raised for him, and he was left to the kind charity of the Fathers of the Pend d'Oreille mission, where he remained up to the date of our leaving the mountains."
Despite the handicap of the loss of his legs in March 1862, Charles Schafft remained active in Montana as the new Territory was formed, and by 1864 he served as a county officer in Missoula County. Two years later he became postmaster. In 1880 Schafft moved on to Fort Benton where in addition to his literary contributions to the Benton Record, he worked as a bookkeeper for Robert Mills of the Centennial Hotel. Later, Charles Schafft returned to Missoula, where this remarkable man died March 2, 1891 and was buried with a Union veteran's headstone to mark his grave.
As we near the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Expedition at Fort Benton and the completion of the Road, we can value the unique perspective of Charles Schafft's account of the Mullan Military Road Expedition.
Sources: Benton Record Weekly 2 January 1880, p. 4; U.S. Army Register of Enlistments 1798-1914, p. 240; 1870 U. S. Census Missoula County; 1880 U. S. Census Choteau County; Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Vets; Mineral County Museum "Blazing the Mullan Road."
Photos: (1) Lieutenant John Mullan, leader of the difficult road-building expedition from Fort Walla to Fort Benton [OHRC Photo]
(2) Colonel Edward Steptoe, whose disastrous military defeat in 1858 delayed the Mullan Expedition for one year [OHRC Photo]
(3) Wagon master John A. Creighton assembled his wagon trains at The Dalles to provide logistical support for the Mullan Expedition [OHRC Photo]
(4) The Mullan Road cut along the Bitter Root mountains near Superior, Montana. This May 2008 photo shows the difficult task of road building through the mountains [OHRC Photo]
(5) The route of the Mullan Wagon Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton [From Pioneer Trails West]
Building Mullan Road to Walla Walla Occupied Army Troop For Seven Years.
By Mrs. Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann. Written in 1930.
Anyone who is at all familiar with Montana history, or that of the Pacific Northwest, has heard of the Mullan road, but how many know its route, its length, or the reason for its building? Comparatively few, I fancy. Some of these points I propose to make clear in this article.
Today, as never before in the history of our country, is an age of road construction, that automobiles may speed over them from one end of the continent to the other, devouring the miles at a rate undreamed of in pioneer days.
Most of these highways in the northwest follow old trails, originally Indian paths that were broadened by white men who passed over them, and are now being cleared of obstructions; graded and smoothed--in some instances paved. They are better roads as a whole, than mid-western city streets in the days of my childhood.
Among these roads of the northwest, none is more noted than that laid out and built by Lieutenant Mullan, from Fort Benton to Walla Walla. It was a government undertaking to provide a military highway between these two points, in case of Indian outbreaks, then always possible.
Lolo Too Difficult. Before the road could be built there were the required preliminary surveys to determine the best route to follow. There were three trails Mullan could have taken in crossing the mountains to reach Missoula: that through the Lolo Pass; following Clark Fork, or via Coeur d’Alene and St. Regis. Lolo Pass was out of the question. Even now a highway over it is delayed because of the difficulties and cost of its construction. One who has been a passenger over the Northern Pacific between Missoula and Spokane at flood time can readily understand why Mullan did not choose the Clark Fork route, the one followed by the Northern Pacific. The neighborhood of Lake Pend d’Orielle, when I saw it, was one vast morass, where the ancient Oregon story might have been applicable. It was said an Oregon woman was seen wading through the water knee deep, and sounding it here and there with a long pole. When asked what she was doing, she replied, “Trying to find the well.” In the Pend d’Oreille region the wells, if there are any, must be equally hard to locate.
Mullan finally decided on the Coeur d’Alene--St. Regis route. When completed the road was six hundred and twenty-four miles long, but hundreds of miles had to be surveyed in addition, before the route was determined. Mullan said later he should have chosen the Clark Fork way through the mountains.
While he was engaged in the survey, war with the tribes just west of the Coeur d’Alene broke out. Surveying in that region was then impossible, and Lieutenant Mullan, instead of taking a vacation, offered his services to Colonel Wright, who was sent out to subdue the Indians, and made a thorough job of it.
Completes His Work. When the Indian troubles were ended, Mullan collected a company of a hundred men and set out on the first of July 1859, to complete the work so long delayed. His starting point was long delayed. His starting point was Walla Walla, from whence he proceeded in a northeasterly direction to the Coeur d’Alene, most of the way over a rolling prairie until he reached the heavy timber near the mountains and through them. The last two hundred and twenty-four miles was mainly open country.
There were 120 miles of timber felling and the grubbing out of stumps. What this meant in labor and time those best can testify who have tried it. Thirty miles of excavating were necessary and there were numerous bridges to be built, and Fort Benton was not reached until 1860, the road being completed during the summers of 1861-62.
Lieutenant Mullan spent seven years in putting this road through. Included in this time was his service rendered during the Indian war. He proved to be as good a military commander as he was an engineer, and many anecdotes are told of his heroism during the Wright campaign.
It was no easy task to build a road for over six hundred miles through the wilderness inhabited by none too friendly Indian tribes; both heroism and persistence were needed to accomplish it, and when completed it was no longer needed for military purposes, although a few soldiers passed over it.
A new use arose for the road when gold was discovered in Montana, as over it passed the miners from the west in their mad rush to the new diggings. Mullan’s survey resulted in the building of the Northern Pacific via Clark Fork, also in a more comprehensive knowledge of all that great region lying between its objective points of Fort Benton and Walla Walla.
Soon Needed Repairs. The Mullan road is said to have been soon in need of repairs, and that need continues, as those can testify who have lately passed over the St. Regis portion of it. The local authorities made repairs as they were held to be necessary, and must continue to do so in the future unless they are fortunately enough to secure government aid.
When first laid out, the Mullan road cost the government $230,000, and was not considered at the time of its building to be a very good highway. The remark concerning it is attributed to Father Cataldo, “The Mullan trail wasn’t much of a road. It was a big job well done, but we used to say Captain Mullan just made enough of a trail so he could bet back out of here.”
For the student of Montana history, there is some extremely interesting reading to be found in the report of Lieutenant Mullan that he submitted to the government. He in no way underestimated the difficulties of the task he undertook, as his experiences when with Gov. Isaac I. Stevens had taught him something of the country through which he must pass.
Passing north of Lake Coeur d’Alene, the mountains over which he must pass confronted him, and here arose trouble. The Indians, not wishing their land crossed by the road, did all they could to discourage him. They described the mountains as being unpassable. They never had heard of any one crossing them, nor were they willing to act as guides. Finally one--Augustine--agreed to go with him, but later refused to accompany him. Notwithstanding this, Mullan pushed on, fairly hewing his way over the mountains, where he testifies the hatchets were kept busy.
Indian Trail Impossible. It was almost impossible to follow the Indian trail. This, in places, was so steep and slippery some of the horses fell over the cliffs. Added to this were rock slides and fallen timber to impede his passage. Once at the summit, snow was found and plenty of it, through which the weary men and horses were compelled to flounder. At length the divide was conquered, and the company managed to reach the Hell Gate River.
Here Mullan’s topographer met Major Owen, and went with him to his fort, near Stevensville, making this the initial point of his second departure. He went to the Rattlesnake, and on up the Hell Gate River, crossing it fourteen times on the ice. The beaver had also been at work on the road but not in a helpful way for the human road builders, as they rendered it almost impassable. Any one can believe this who has attempted to tear down a beaver dam. I have tried it.
Reaching the head of Prickly Pear canyon, a blizzard set in, the wind blowing terrifically, overturning their tents and keeping them in constant fear trees would be uprooted and fall on them. They survived the night, however, but the morning brought no relief from the storm. On the contrary it must have increased in severity, as blizzards in this region are likely to do, and the strong wind, laden with ice particles made it impossible for the men to keep their eyes open while ascending the divide between the Dearborn and Sun rivers. They were forced to turn back to shelter.
Reach Sun River. Not far distant was a camp of Pend d’Oreille Indians, who would have received them hospitably and they could have been comfortable and it seemed advisable they should go there, or at least wait for a time before continuing the journey. The topographer feared if they did so it would be long before they could reach the farm on Sun River. He therefore decided to keep right on notwithstanding the severity of the weather. Had he realized the serious menace of the storm, he would have hesitated about exposing his men to it. They went on to the farm but in a sad condition, as many of them were badly frost bitten. In this respect, however, they were more fortunate than the soldiers who, later were the victims of a similar blizzard on Frozen hill.
Despite the storm, Mullan’s topographer did not fail to notice the features of the landscape. He speaks of Big Knee, Crown, and Square buttes.
Major Vaughn, then Blackfeet Indian agent, received the company on their arrival at the farm, and entertained them to the best of his ability. There their frozen members were thawed out, and they once more found themselves in a fit condition to go on.
It happened that Major Dawson’s interpreter was at the farm from the Fort Benton fur post. He kindly volunteered to act as their guide. The weather modifying, they again struck the indicated trail, which led them to the Missouri below the Great Falls.
From this point it did not take them long to reach Fort Benton, that was to see the end of the road, although it was by no means settled it should be approached by the route they had followed, for their return trip would be by another, at least part of the way.
They stayed but a short time at Fort Benton. Possibly they were apprehensive of trouble with the Indians, as Malcolm Clarke gave them a howitzer with an odometer attached to the wheel, by which they could know the distances traveled. It belonged to the government, and their being a government job, no objection could be raised at Mullan’s taking the gun. The odometer especially proved to be very useful. Only waiting to attach this valuable acquisition to the howitzer wheel, the company began the return trip, which they accomplished safely with no trouble from Indian attacks.
In his report Lieutenant Mullan acknowledges his indebtedness, in the early stages of his journey, to Father DeSmet’s book, “Oregon Missions,” which gave him many geographical and statistical facts.
He advised that a depot be built at the mouth of Sun River, to be a three company cavalry post, this post to supply a fur company post at Deer Lodge, and a one company post at Hell’s Gate, supplies to be shipped to the Great Falls from St. Louis. He was the first person on record to recognize Great Falls as a good distributing point. He also advised that the Indians be placed in charge of the war department. He spoke highly of the missions, their object being “to secure the Indians from the blighting effects of advancing civilization, which to them means death.”
[Source: Montana Newspaper Association 1 Sep 1930 Winifred Times]
On Mullan Trail of Vinegar Jones
Shooting the Pass: On the Mullan Road in a Hudson Sport Supersix
By W. G. “Vinegar” Jones
Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered about the fancy marble Mullan Road statue on the Fort Benton Levee? Who was Mullan? What was the Mullan Road? Well, here is the answer.
In the early days of the automobile in the 1920s, auto excursions were exciting features in the local newspapers. Every Saturday the Great Falls Leader carried an adventure to one destination or another. The Evening Leader of August 11, 1923 told of a trip made in a sport model super six Hudson along a portion of the Mullan Military Road. Sixty-three years earlier, Lieutenant John Mullan led a military expedition to construct a wagon road from Walla Walla, Washington Territory to Fort Benton, then in Dakota Territory.
By 1923 the Mullan Road largely had faded from memory as Montana’s pioneers passed from the scene. Because of the friendship of Leader editor Ed Cooney and colorful Fort Benton and Great Falls character Whitman Gibson “Vinegar“ Jones, the Great Falls Leader featured the Mullan Road and Vinegar’s efforts to preserve it their Saturday Auto Excursion Special of August 11, 1923. The Leader headlined:
On Mullan Trail Of Vinegar Jones. Shooting the Pass in Sport Supersix Hudson For Holter [Dam]. Where John Mullan Blazed the Birdtail Pass Through the Rocky Mountains for Generations to Follow and Drink of the Birdtail Spring on the Summit--Where Also Lived Whisky Brown in the Days of Real Sport.
[Log of Road has been omitted.]
It is a far cry from the buffalo trail of Lieutenant John Mullan in 1860, to the Bird Tail highway of today over the Rocky Mountains within the confines of Cascade county. But we made it in a sport model super-six Hudson just like shooting down a beaver slide on a wet shovel. That is we made the distance between Great Falls and Holter dam by way of the Bird Tail pass a distance of 76.3 miles, in a sport Hudson of the Gies-Wight Motor company driven by Arthur Gies of the company, and logged out a drive which is magnificent in varied scenery and a pleasure to drive over. With 24 miles of hard surface road, from Great Falls to just beyond the old town of Sun River, and the rest of the road excellent, one crosses the divide without knowing that he has crossed it; there is no hill and no pull in the crossing, and the first time one makes the trip it is hard to realize that the divide has been passed.
The Ice Cold Spring. On the summit of the mountains, at the very top of the Rockies on the road is a small green flat of perhaps five acres, with a little lake tucked away against the side of the mountains on one side of the road, a little flat plateau, and on the opposite side of the road an ice-cold little spring bubbling up out of the rocks as though made to order. The day the super-six sport Hudson party crossed the divide it was more than warm--it was hot--but the little spring was as cold as ice-water, and Bill drank two quarts on the outward trip, and came back for a couple more on the return. In the scores of years that the spring has been known to the thousands who crossed the divide no one has ever thought to wall it in, and it is today just as it was before Lieutenant John Mullan found it 60 years ago, and Vinegar Jones found it 40 years ago.
John Mullan laid out the Bird Tail trail 60 years ago across the Rockies and for many years all the travel of freighting and stage coach days went over that road. Then came the iron horse and freighting went out of fashion, the Buffalo quit the prairie for the long trail over the Great Divide, and the Bird Tail road of the old days went out of fashion.
Enter Vinegar Jones. It remained for W. G. ‘Vinegar’ Jones of Great Falls to revive the trail, and bedevil the world, the people, and the board of county commissioners until the road became a thing of beauty and joy once more; it took years, near 20 of them, but Vinegar Jones came out of the ruck triumphant in the end, and the memory of John Mullan and the traveling public, owe to him a debt of lasting gratitude.
‘Vinegar’ Jones is not really sour, as one might infer, but as he built the first vinegar factory in Great Falls and furnished the first home vinegar for this neck of the woods in the days of long ago, it was natural that he should be tagged with a distinguished mark; it was a habit they had in the earlier days of Montana. Mr. Jones has a ranch near Great Falls, a home in town, and a ranch near Eagle Rock on the Bird Tail road, which he located over 40 years ago, and where his son, E. R. Jones, yet lives, and raises ever-bearing strawberries and the like, keeping a watchful eye on the Bird Tail road.
Yellow-Green Gobs. In the sport Hudson party, not Hudson sport party, there were Mr. Gies, Mrs. Gies, the Fishing Lady, Bill, a basket lunch, the minnow bucket and a gallon of iced tea. It was quite a party and just balanced the sport six to run smooth as if on skids. Thirty-five miles an hour and never spill a drop of water from the minnow bucket, which is moving softly some. Just beyond the old town of Sun River the first lane to the left is the Bird Tail road officially, although one can go by Simms also and have 14 miles more of hard surface road. However, the hand of Vinegar Jones marks the first lane west of the town of Sun River as official for there begins his famous Yellow-Green mark of the Bird Tail trail
One day a year since, when the 20-year fight for vindication of the judgment of the late Mr. Mullan had borne fruit, in the way of work upon the road and the final straightening out through right-of-way proceedings of a more or less tedious procedure, Vinegar Jones took a keg of yellow paint, a keg of green paint, a couple of brushes for the same, his son E. R. to herd the jitney, and beginning at Sun River he smeared yellow and green gobs for 40 miles along the Bird Tail trail, to its meeting with the Sullivan Hill road on the west side of the Rockies. The work may not be artistic from the standpoint of an artist, neither geometrical, nor according to accepted rule, but the yellow and green is there for all to see: on telegraph posts, on fence posts, on rocks, on bridges on buildings, on even the roof of the world, are the yellow-green gobs of Vinegar Jones. What he was doing was marking the road, and he did.
There are other trail signs on the road, white and black, and red white and blue, but the yellow-green gobs of Vinegar Jones point the way like a lighthouse in the darkness of the night. And he did the work himself and paid for it himself. It was his personal tribune to the memory of the late John Mullan, and Vinegar Jones laid on with lavish hand.
The combination of orange green is an unusual one, but it harmonizes on the Bird Tail trail--except that the orange is above the green, which caused Mr. Jones considerable consternation when called to his attention by the board of county commissioners in way of an official joke.
‘Never wanted to hurt nobody’s feeling, nor meant anything,’ explained Vinegar Jones to the board.
‘I just wanted to mark the road down so it couldn’t be lost again like it was for more than 20 years and I did it the best I know how. I don’t want to hurt nobody’s feelings, and next time I paint it I’ll put the green on top.
And Then Whiskey Brown. The road from Sun River is through a dozen miles of the irrigated Sun River reclamation and Crown Butte irrigated district. And then you come to the erstwhile home of Whiskey Brown, now a sheep ranch with house standing in a great grove of cottonwood trees to the north of the road. Whiskey Brown has long passed over the great divide, but in the days of real sport his was one of bright spots along the old stage and Helena.
“I always got something to eat for a feller,’ Mr. Brown would remark with a chuckle, ‘and the best drink of whiskey from hell to Whoop Up.
And there is yet living testimony that he spoke truthfully--also that is how he received the handle to his ordinary name of John. Ah me, if Whiskey Brown could but have foreseen the drought of today he would have passed in his checks without a sigh!
Things Had Changed. Bill had visited the Whiskey Brown cabin when a 10-year-old boy, but the trees had grown, the hills looked smaller, and things seemed different. When Bill had made his last visit there were buffalo roaming about the face of Crown Butte and the Eagle Rock gap was full of them, while antelope dotted the prairies in thousands. The antelope and the buffalo have gone to join Whiskey Brown in the Spirit land, and only a grove of 50-year-old cottonwood trees, a sheep wagon in the grove, part of an old rock chimney standing in the middle of a heap of brown earth and debris mark the spot of vanished glory of a vanished day.
‘Things don’t look the same,’ said Bill, and then the machine shot on.
Eagle Rock Station. One station to the west and comes Eagle Rock gap, with Eagle Rock station and the home of the late Judge J. J. Farrell, who also was one of them in the early days, but not so early as Whiskey Brown. The old Eagle Rock station was the pride of the stage route, with its long log walls, dirt and earth covered roof, and warmth of welcome for the traveler in a lonesome country with a long ways between stops. The old station looks the same, and Bill almost hugged its whitewashed walls.
‘Now, that,’ said Bill, ‘looks something like, and the buffalo were over there, and I wanted to take a shot at them, but no one had a gun. They didn’t carry guns much in those days, unless they were hunting, or were bad men.’
And on beyond that, a few miles and to your right downstairs, sits the red painted home and barn of Vinegar Jones, nestling in a grove of cottonwoods and looking like something taken out of a picture and pasted down on the landscape.
To your left stands Bird Tail rock. In the setting sun, with the rays lighting up the top of the big rock, it looks like a magnified tail of some gigantic bird with coloring pigment from the storehouse of God. In the early day they named objects of nature as they looked--and the Bird Tail rock is one of them.
Shades of Jim Lee. And then, just at the east side of the divide stands a tall lumber house of ancient design--the old freighting tavern of Jim Lee and last station east of the divide. If the old tavern, which it never was called, but is used to make the story sound better, could talk it could tell some startling tales of the days which are no more; of the days when the buffalo roamed, the Indian rode high and wide, and the cabin door was never locked, nor the stranger turned away. Anyhow, even if the old joint can’t talk, it can be read quite interestingly, as its rooms, two of them, are papered with newspapers dating back about 35 years, most of them being New York Heralds, with a Benton Press stuck in here and there for good measure, and a Helena Herald as a sort of afterthought.
One climbs the road to the top of the world without knowing it, for there is no more than a 7 per cent grade, and little of that. In the days of Mr. Mullan the reef of low rocks at the top of the world was blown out the width of a wagon and, worn away with time and travel, in latter times one jumped up several feet or fell down as the case might be, to pass through the door in the rocks, but now it is level. The commissioners let a contract to grade the west side of the mountain and take out certain large boulders, and when that is finished one will glide over without knowing it. The west side of the range is easy of approach, and without particular grade or any length to the top, and joins the Sullivan hill road about two miles from the summit.”
Editor’s Note: At this point The Leader excursion goes off the Mullan Road and on to Holter Dam and an afternoon of fishing. From Fort Benton to Helena the Mullan Road formed the basis for the famed “Benton Road” that by 1862 was scene of hundreds of freight wagons, stagecoaches, and other conveyances during the exciting steamboat era of the 1860-80s. An excellent recent book, “Montana’s Benton Road,” by Leland Hanchett pays tribute to the Mullan Road and the successor Benton Road through a fine combination of historic and modern color photos as well as exciting traveler accounts. Lee Hanchett will be speaking at this 150th Anniversary Mullan Road Conference.
[Sources: Great Falls Evening Leader August 11, 1923 [the original article spelled Mullan incorrectly as “Mullen”; “Montana’s Benton Road” by Leland Hanchett, 2008]
Photos: (1) Lieutenant John Mullan
2) Mullan Monument at its original location near the Old Fort Benton Ruins. Today the Monument is on the Levee
From Walla Walla to Benton by Military Road Report of
Capt. John Mullan
Anaconda Standard Sunday July 26, 1908
In no way can the changes wrought in the northeastern 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.
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