Stevens was a West Pointer who used his experience with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mexican-American War heroism, and election support for President Pierce to lobby for and win the bid to survey the most northern route for a transcontinental railroad. Congress had commissioned the survey of four routes west, and, I believe, the northern route never had a chance in Congress before Southern secession, but in 1853, when he came West and war was still almost a decade away, Stevens did not know this. And in my recent re-reading of the treaty period and Governor Stevens, I am convinced that the railroad job was the one that he fancied most—because it was the one that meant a national reputation and legacy.
It strikes me in all of this re-reading of history that the quest for fame and glory counted for as much then as the quest for financial fortune or technological innovation does today. And that life expectancy, which was less than 40 when Stevens was born and hovered at about that in mid-century, was one of the drivers that led generals, prospectors, fur traders, and homesteaders to take big risks at young ages in pursuit of it.
For most men, the prospect of early death coupled with fickle climate and frequent hunger, getting a piece of the American pie, rising above the mining camp-cow camp-plantation land struggle and securing a bit of something for sons and daughters was as far as they could see. For women, who died in childbirth in such numbers as will make heads shake now, grasping the straw of a man in pursuit of something better for the next generation was what they had (the women of Butte, Montana watched their husbands die in the mines and wouldn’t let their sons work in them).
For people—mostly men—of some privilege and great ambition, the military offered something more—recognition beyond family and one’s own time. I think Stevens was a part of this—first in his class at West Point, eager and ready to grab the rings that came his way. And think of it, connecting the continent with a railroad when ships were slow and horses slower, would knit the nation and Stevens would be the hero of it.
Here’s Josephy’s summation of Stevens in his American Heritage essay on the Walla Walla treaty council:
Although his rail route did not win the day, Stevens did go to Congress from Washington—and then went to the Civil War. And this is how it ended (as described in Wikipedia): “He was killed in action at the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862 after picking up the fallen regimental colors of his old regiment, shouting ’Highlanders, my Highlanders, follow your general!’ Charging with his troops while carrying the banner of Saint Andrew's Cross, Stevens was struck in the temple by a bullet and died instantly.” He was 42 years old.
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