Stevens, Isaac Ingalls (1818-1862)

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 2/26/2003
  • Essay 5314

As Washington's first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens oversaw the establishment of government in what would become Washington state. He also led the survey of a route to Puget Sound for a transcontinental railroad. Stevens's superintendence of Indian Affairs did not serve the interests of Native Americans and resulted in needless deaths and enduring controversy.

Early Years

Isaac Stevens descended from the earliest settlers of Andover in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was born on March 24, 1818, on his parents' farm. His small size suggests that he may have suffered from a slight form of dwarfism, but he possessed intelligence and ambition. Educated at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, he secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The demands of the curriculum seem to have appealed to him and he graduated first in his class in 1839. This earned him a commission in the prestigious Corps of Engineers, then responsible for the design and construction of coastal defenses and waterways and harbors. These were the largest public works projects of the time and Stevens quickly gained experience as a surveyor and engineer. He also earned a reputation for competence and the ability to handle several assigned tasks at once.

The War with Mexico (1846-1847) gave the young officer his first taste of combat and of conquest. The United States emerged from the war with new Western territories and Stevens returned home with a brevet as major (recognition for bravery) convinced of his country's "manifest destiny." By the end of that war, American citizens had established communities and self-government in California, Oregon, and Utah, and the U.S. government would soon extend its authority over them.

The New Territory

After the war, Stevens resumed his duties with the Corps of Engineers, but his aspirations suffered in a peacetime army full of officers senior to him. He joined the new U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey which would map the young nation's newly won holdings. Not only was Stevens exposed to talented scientists and technicians, but he learned politics. In 1852, he actively supported the candidacy of Democrat Franklin Pierce (1804-1869). When the new Washington Territory was formed on March 2, 1853, Stevens applied to President Pierce for the governorship. Pierce selected Stevens for the post, which carried with it the title of Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

Stevens didn't stop at just two jobs. The emerging technology of the railroad caused political and business leaders to dream of tapping into the lucrative markets of Asia by means of a transcontinental railroad. The government planned four surveys to determine the best route from the United States to the Pacific Ocean. Stevens, an engineer and a geographer, realized that the best route was to Puget Sound, which was the closest to Asia. Anyone who opened the door to Asia would gain wealth and power. He organized friends and allies to lobby on his behalf and he created compelling proposals for the project. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) named Stevens in command of the survey of the northern route.

Stevens wasted little time and his survey expedition left Minnesota in June 1853. Not only did the mission document the route of the railroad, but it recorded the flora and fauna, and Native American tribes. The survey party reached Fort Vancouver on November 19, 1853. The report that followed in 1859 was the most thorough of the four surveys.

Stevens had formally declared the establishment of the Territory of Washington (by Congress in March 1853) as he crossed Cadotte's Pass in the Rocky Mountains on September 24, 1853, but he did not formally assume his office of governor until November 25. When the diminutive and disheveled engineer arrived at the Washington Hotel in Olympia, he was told he would have to wait outside until after the governor had arrived. Once the confusion was cleared up, Stevens quickly organized a territorial government. He also settled claims by the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company, which had established itself in the area. The territorial legislature petitioned Congress for land for a university and $5,000 was expended for books for a territorial library.

The Stevens Treaties

It was Stevens's discharge of his duties as Superintendent of Indian Affairs that proved most dramatic. Since 1850, white settlers had been granted lands throughout Oregon Territory without any release of title by the prior inhabitants, the Native Americans. What is more, the most desirable properties, on prairies and along the rivers, were those most needed by the tribes for survival. Conflicts quickly occurred, and they resulted in fatalities. Stevens's response was to divide the territory into districts and assign Indian Agents to find tribal representatives with whom to sign treaties. He then left the territory for Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for funds for roads and improvements and for the northern route for the transcontinental railroad.

When Stevens returned in December 1854 with his wife (who was so despondent at seeing Olympia, she did not leave her house for two months) and children, he plunged into the organization of treaty councils. His agents had been making the rounds of villages and selecting individuals who would represent each tribe. According to historian David M. Buerge, "Not only was the timetable reckless; the whole enterprise was organized in profound ignorance of native society, culture, and history. The twenty-thousand-odd aboriginal inhabitants who were assumed to be in rapid decline, were given a brutal choice: they would adapt to white society or they could disappear." Despite this draconian approach, Stevens was something of a moderate between those who believed in political and cultural equality with the Native Americans and those who advocated their complete elimination.

West of the Cascades, Stevens organized four treaty councils between December 25, 1854 and February 26, 1855. Each lasted about four days. The governor distributed manufactured goods, read out the treaty terms in the Chinook jargon, allowed some comment, then invited the tribal representatives to step forward to affix their marks to the treaties. Few if any understood the implications of signing the documents. The result was, the Native Americans lost most of their land in exchange for small reservations. Two more councils east of the Cascades did not go as smoothly, but Stevens obtained the requisite marks on the treaties. The treaties did allow the tribes to continue to gather fish in common with whites at all their accustomed places.

The Treaty Wars

Before the treaties were signed, a young Yakima Indian murdered an Indian Agent who was investigating the murders of some miners. Stevens dispatched a military force of 102, and the Yakimas (later renamed Yakamas) turned it back. Violence spread to the west side of the mountains and innocents of all races died throughout the rest of 1855. Stevens advocated an elaborate winter campaign against the tribes east of the mountains. U.S. Army Department of the Pacific Commander, General John Wool (1784-1869) wanted to let things calm down and work out a peaceful solution. Indians murdered settlers. Militiamen murdered Indians. Stevens charged that Wool had abandoned him, forcing Wool to return to Washington, D.C., to defend himself.

Stevens then undertook a campaign against the mixed-race settlers of the Hudson's Bay Company, seizing them and their property. When Territorial Judge Edward Lander (1816-1907) attempted to enjoin Stevens, Stevens arrested Lander. President Pierce was pressured to remove Stevens, but Pierce only reprimanded him. Stevens continued his campaigns against the tribes resulting in more loss of life, mostly old men, women, and children. Stevens had Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858) hanged in 1858 for allegedly killing a soldier in open combat. Citizens such as Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) spoke out against Stevens's conduct and in defense of the tribes, not a popular position. The Indian War wound down with the tribes being relegated to their reservations.

Stevens was elected as Territorial delegate to Congress in 1857 and 1858 and his service as Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs ended. It was left to his successors to resolve lingering issues between Native Americans and the settlers.

One of the provisions of the Stevens treaties allowed the tribes the right to fish in their accustomed places in common with the Americans. In 1974, this was interpreted in courts to mean that the treaty tribes were entitled to one-half the harvestable fish and shellfish in Western Washington. This decision returned to the tribes control of resources recognized in the treaties.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Stevens secured a commission as a Brigadier General of Volunteers. He was killed in action in 1862 during the Battle of Chantilly.


David M. Buerge, "Big Little Man: Isaac Stevens (1818-1861)," Washingtonians: A Biographical Portrait of the State (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1988), 73-95.
Note: This essay was corrected on July 11, 2005, and again on September 21, 2011, to say that Isaac Stevens was killed in the Battle of Chantilly.

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