Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Isaac Stevens' Quest for Fame and Glory!




Isaac Stevens is known in the region as the architect of the 1855 treaties that created the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakima reservations. He was Governor of the Washington Territory, which made him the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and, along with his Oregon counterpart, Joel Palmer, the treaty maker on both sides of the Cascades and all the way to present-day Montana.

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:

A dynamo of a man, still only thirty-seven years old, Stevens saw all three of his jobs complementing each other toward a single grand end. As a governor who wanted to build up the population and prosperity of the territory, he was intent on winning congressional approval for the railroad route he had charted from St. Paul to Puget Sound. That meant clearing the Indian owners away from the proposed route: buying what part of their land he wanted, tucking the natives away on reservations, and ensuring the safety of the right of way for railroad builders and travelers. At the same time, the Indian cessions would increase the territory’s public domain and make land available for more settlers. Stevens bore no ill will against Indians, and even fancied that he admired and respected them. But as an instrument of advancing American civilization, he had a job to accomplish, and with a flair for publicity, he expected to win notice in the national capital for what he would achieve.

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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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Civil War and Nez Perce Treaties



Yesterday in line at the grocery store, a new young clerk was telling someone how interested he was in the Civil War, and how he really wanted to go east and visit Antietam.  I piped up to suggest that he think about the civil war in the west. Had he ever wondered how Union County got its name, and why there is a Sumter close by? And did he know about the impact of the Civil War on Indian tribes, and specifically on the Nez Perce treaties?

I’m teaching a short, non-credit class on the Nez Perce and the Wallowas, and plan to devote one of five sessions to the treaties. Thinking about the grocery store clerk and about the upcoming class, it occurred to me that Alvin Josephy’s treatment of the treaties—in his books and in a long article for American Heritage on the 1855 Treaty—might have been different had he done the Civil War in the West book first. 

Briefly, here’s the chronology: 1855 is the Stevens treaty talks in Walla Walla. As a lawyer friend points out, the Nez Perce negotiated a pretty good treaty. They were the only ones to get their own reservation—the initial Stevens goal was to put them together with others on a confederated reservation. And they ceded very small amounts of their traditional village and migratory grounds.

Then, in 1861, gold was discovered on the Nez Perce Reservation. In 1862, directly contravening the provisions of the treaty, 18,000 white miners flooded the reservation. Remember, the Civil War is underway. There is no way that the federal government can remove 18,000 miners from the reservation. And the Union wants the gold!

I remember as a child that Civil War currency—like Weimar marks—was available for cereal box tops (well, I don’t remember any specific box top offers, but it seemed that there were; kids had Confederate dollars). Lincoln and the Union wanted the trails West open for many reasons, but one of them was to retrieve the gold which made Union currency hard currency. Currency that could buy arms and goods from other countries. What would have happened had the Confederacy controlled roads west? Why was the first road West the trail in the Southwest? Prior to the Civil War, none of the central or northern routes for rails or trails was agreeable to Southern Senators (including the Northern rail route surveyed by Stevens).

So the series of Indian treaties and broken treaties, the Minnesota uprising and the Mankato hangings, the Sand Creek and Bear River massacres, all owed to keeping Western trails open and retrieving Western gold. Yes, there were other factors, including fights over votes leading up to the War, recruitment of volunteers, etc. But, as Alvin points out in Civil War in the American West, the decimation of Indian tribes that goes on during the War and that continues after the War is all intricately tied to the great War that most Americans associate with Antietam and Gettysburg.
At War’s end, with the Nez Perce situation still unsettled and President Grant trying to deal with the “Indian problem” with his 1868 Peace Policy—giving reservation administration to the churches, with military commanders having their own solutions to the Indian problem, with Custer and Black Hills gold strikes and a War-time legacy of making and breaking treaties, everything that happens to the Nez Perce is in the shadow of that War.

Which all makes me wonder whether Alvin would have written those treaty chapters differently had he pulled all of the Civil War in the West material together first. It is one of many questions I failed to ask him when he was with us.

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