Book Review:
Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry

  • Posted 9/16/2016
  • Essay 11256

Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry
By Kent D. Richards
Washington State University Press, Revised Edition 2016
Paperback, 468 pages
Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index
ISBN 978-0-87422-338-5

Isaac Ingalls Stevens, the controversial first governor of Washington Territory, is brought to life in vivid detail in Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry, by Kent D. Richards, emeritus professor of history at Central Washington University.

Although he lived only 44 years, Stevens managed many achievements. He graduated from West Point, engaged in the eastern Coast Survey, and fought in the Mexican-American War, all before his appointment as governor of Washington Territory. And he followed that by serving as a Union general in the Civil War, where he died at the Battle of Chantilly. These adventures, and more, are chronicled within chapters sprinkled with the names of those Stevens worked with and against.

Stevens was not an imposing figure, having a slight body and a large head, but he was a leader who had great visions for the westward expansion of the country. With his innate political talent, Stevens was able to manage his appointment to the governorship of Washington Territory.

In intricate detail, the author describes Stevens's travels west in 1853 to his post in Washington Territory, where he also served as commander of the northern railroad survey. His service can be attributed to both his training as an engineer and his desire to populate the western frontier.

When Stevens arrived in Olympia in November 1853, wet and muddied after months of travel, his first speech to the settlers assured them that "I have come here not as an official for mere station, but as a citizen as well as your chief magistrate to do my part toward the development of the resources of this territory."

Because Stevens mostly identified with the various Indian treaties he organized, almost half the book documents his efforts on behalf of the federal government to attain these treaties and the Indian Wars that followed in their aftermath.

As was his temperament, Stevens hurriedly acquired treaties with the Indians, and had achieved supposed success by 1855. The author observes, however:

"Stevens and other whites believed that the Indians could not be relied upon to keep their word, and the Indians believed the eventual breakdown of the treaties proved white treachery. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that Stevens might have stabilized Indian-white relations in the Northwest. Certainly he abundantly possessed the energy and the persistence to do so. But he allowed his dogged determination to obscure reality. As a result, the treaties did not bring peace to the territory, but instead provided a stimulus for further hostilities."

Nevertheless, in the fewer-than-four years of activity before he joined the Union Army as a general in the Civil War, Stevens's contributions to the expansion of the Pacific Northwest are noteworthy.

This book is a scholarly publication and a definitive portrait of a major figure in Pacific Northwest history. That the publisher determined the importance of its continued place on history shelves is evidenced by this third edition. The casual reader may find this work dense, but those with an interest in history will find it fascinating.

Illuminating the text are notes for each chapter with sources included. There are also portraits of Stevens and his family, numerous maps of the territory, and lithographs of indigenous peoples.

By Mary Henry, September 16, 2016


Submitted: 9/16/2016

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