small man of large ambition and keen intelligence, Isaac Stevens cut a wide swath through the military and political institutions of the 19th century. Although his family was among the earliest settlers of Andover and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and played a prominent role in colonial society, Stevens insisted that "he rose from humble but honest circumstances to win education, forge a career, and emerge as a figure of national prominence."
Education and Early Military Experience
Following his education at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, Stevens secured an appointment to West Point, where he graduated in 1839, first in his class. His skills in mathematics, engineering, surveying, military strategy, and politics earned him a commission in the prestigious Corps of Engineers, a government agency responsible at that time for the largest public works projects. Stevens earned a reputation for competence and the ability to handle a number of tasks at once, and also gained invaluable experience as a surveyor and engineer.
As an officer in the War with Mexico (1846-48), he had his first taste of combat. He returned home with a commission promoting him to the rank of major, and convinced of his country's "manifest destiny." Stevens returned to the Corps of Engineers for a time, later joining the newly established U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. This was the agency destined to map the nation and its newly acquired territories.
Stevens' Political Career Begins
His active support of Democrat Franklin Pierce's 1852 candidacy for President launched his own political career. In 1853 Stevens successfully applied to President Pierce for the governorship of the new Washington Territory, a post that also carried the title of Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Not content with just two jobs, Stevens also lobbied for a position with the proposed transcontinental railroad survey. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis placed him in command of the survey of the northern route.
Stevens's survey expedition left Minnesota in June 1853. The expedition was responsible for documenting the potential route of the railroad, and recording information about the flora, fauna, and the Native American tribes whose homelands were being surveyed. On November 19, 1853, the expedition arrived at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River; eventually, it produced the most thorough report of all four surveys also undertaken for the railroad projects.
Several days later, the diminutive and disheveled engineer arrived at the Washington Hotel in Olympia, where, according to legend,
a small slight figure, bearded, begrimed, and dressed in rough woolen clothing came to the entrance of Olympia's unpretentious but crowded hotel to inquire about the bustling crowd filling the rude structure. Brushing aside the ragged stranger a celebrant said they were waiting for the governor, but suggested the traveler might find food in the kitchen. After eating his fill, Stevens reappeared to dramatically announce his true identity (Richards1993:xi)
Wasting no time, Governor Stevens quickly organized a territorial government, settled claims by the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company, expended $5,000 for books to set up a territorial library, and petitioned Congress for land on which to build a university. However, it would be his duties as Superintendent of Indian Affairs that would truly define his long-term impact on the future State of Washington.
In June of 1854, leaving acting Governor Charles Mason and the new legislature in charge, Stevens returned to the nation's capital to lobby for money to cover the remaining debts from the railroad survey expedition, and to secure funding for the Indian treaty councils. His time in the other Washington was well spent and highly profitable for the new Territory. He returned home with much of the survey cost overrun covered, as well as money to build military roads and funding for the treaty councils.
Stevens immediately plunged into the task of organizing the councils. He intended to make treaties with the Indians to secure the necessary resources for building the railroad and to obtain land sought by the ever-increasing stream of settlers flowing into the region. His agents had already been visiting the various Indian villages, selecting individuals to represent each tribe. Historian David M. Buerge describes Stevens's whirlwind preparations:
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.
Stevens saw the treaties as a middle ground or compromise between those who desired political and cultural equality with the Indians and those who preferred their annihilation.
The Medicine Creek Council
On the day after Christmas in 1854, Stevens held his first treaty council at Medicine Creek in the Nisqually Delta. The Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squaxin, and other tribes, were informed in advance of the upcoming negotiations. They were anticipating fair payment for land settlers had already appropriated, and a reservation of land that would sustain their families and future generations.
What the tribes received were several widely separated small reservations. These brought different tribal bands together, but allowed the tribes to continue to fish, hunt, and gather food and other supplies in their usual accustomed places outside the reservations. The government also pledged to provide schools, blacksmith shops, carpenters, and medical care. In return, the United States acquired 2.5 million acres of tribal land.
Understandably pleased at the positive outcome of the Medicine Creek Treaty, Stevens prematurely speculated that if the whole treaty program proceeded as smoothly, all the tribes would soon be on reservations. However, his lack of understanding of native culture led him to make some serious mistakes. He did not understand that Indian leaders had limited powers to represent their tribes, nor did he recognize that there would be resistance to moving tribes, who had traditionally been enemies, onto a single reservation.
News of the western treaties had quickly passed to the eastern Washington tribes, along with sad tales from the nation's interior and eastern states concerning the plight of the tribes in those regions. The Indians were aware that their lands had been ceded, and that just compensation and the promised services had not been received from the "Great Father" in Washington, DC. They were understandably wary of Stevens and the treaty proceedings.
The Walla Walla Council
News of the western treaties had quickly passed to the eastern Washington tribes, along with sad tales from the nation's interior and East concerning the plight of the tribes in those regions. The Indians were aware that lands had been ceded, but just compensation and services had not been received from the "Great Father." They were understandably wary of Stevens and the treaty proceedings.
Although the Nez Perce, traditionally friendly to the whites, readily agreed to attend the Walla Walla Council, the Yakama, Walla Walla, and Cayuse bands were initially very reluctant to participate. Despite their misgivings, however, the Council formally convened on May 29, 1855, with thousands of tribal members in attendance
The chiefs at the Walla Walla Council were firm, businesslike negotiators, sure of their strength and confident in their negotiating skills. When faced with the inevitable decline of their way of life, they sought to gain the best treaty terms possible. Stevens was forced to make compromises, and the Walla Walla Treaty was signed by all the tribes present.
Hell Gate Treaty Council
Proceeding further east, into what is now Montana, Stevens met with the Flathead Salish, Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai tribes. These tribes were under constant attack by the Blackfeet Indians, so Stevens promised that he would procure easement rights from the Blackfeet to allow the tribes to hunt on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains, and that he would stop the pillaging by that tribe.
Once again, Stevens's misunderstanding of tribal culture created discord at the proceedings, and angry words were exchanged before an agreement was finally reached.
The Blackfeet Treaty
Three tribes comprised the Blackfeet Nationthe Blackfeet of the north, the Piegan, and the Blood. These three, sharing kinship ties, customs, a common language, and traditional enemies, were collectively the most powerful and feared tribes of the region. They actively resisted the activities of American explorers and fur traders.
Fifty-nine chiefs attended the Blackfeet Council, including delegates from tribes west of the Bitterroot Mountains. Three thousand five hundred Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Flathead Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille Indians attended the council, and once again Stevens persuaded the tribes to sign a treaty with the United States.
War Breaks Out
Twelve days after the Walla Walla Treaty was signed, the Oregon Weekly Times published this announcement: "By an express provision of the treaty, the country embraced by the cession and not included in the reservation is open to settlement..." This announcement sent streams of settlers and gold seekers to lands east of the Cascades, igniting outrage among the tribes and eventually driving the Yakamas to war against the intruders.
While Stevens was still returning from the Blackfeet Council, he learned of warfare in the Territory. Proceeding on through the Bitterroot Mountains and into the Spokane River valley, Stevens demanded a council with the chiefs of the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Colville, and Isle de Pierre tribes.
The Spokane Council
The Spokane Council was unique: of the four councils held in the eastern part of the Territory, this was the only one that failed to produce a treaty. For the first time, Stevens engaged in a true dialog with an Indian leader, Spokan Garry. He had been educated by the Hudson's Bay Company and represented the Indians with great eloquence, placing Stevens in an uncharacteristic defensive posture. Although no treaty was signed, Stevens counted the council as a minor victory since it had secured a promise from the Spokane that they would not join with the Yakamas to create an alliance against settlers.
The Quinault Council
Returning to the west coast, Stevens completed his last formal treaty on January 25, 1886, this time with the Quinault and Quileute tribes. Having insured himself a place in history by securing ten treaties in thirteen months, Stevens turned his attention to advancing his political career. In 1857 he became Washington's delegate to Congress, and in 1859 almost single-handedly obtained the ratification and official recognition of the treaties he had negotiated.
The Civil War
When the Civil War broke out, Stevens offered his services to the Union government and was appointed Colonel of the 79th New York Highlanders. He was commissioned Brigadier General of Volunteers in September 1861, and promoted to Major General of Volunteers less than a year later. He met his death fighting gallantly in the battle of Chantillythe battle in which his son, Hazard, was also woundedon September 1, 1862.
Richards, Kent D. Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1993.
Buerge, David M. "Big Little Man: Isaac Stevens (1818-1861)," in David Brewster and David Buerge, eds., Washingtonians: A biographical Portrait of the State. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1988.
Nicandri, David L. Northwest Chiefs: Gustav Sohon's View of the 1855 Stevens Treaty Councils. Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1986.