The Mullan Road

Sydney Fay Stover

Mullan's Outfit


In the American Northwest during the 1850s and early 1860s Lieut. John Mullan led the survey and construction of a military wagon road. The wagon road later became known as the Mullan Road that connected Fort Benton in Montana to Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory. To be the first to blaze a trail might end in glory and fame, but the beginning of the task always starts with a list. Lieutenant Mullan needed ample supplies for the task and for himself and his men to survive the wilds of the Northwest during the road’s survey and construction. Mullan’s outfit’s list would have included: men of certain occupations; horses and other animals; wagons; food; as well as tools to hunt, fish, survey, record, and construct the military wagon road.

Built on the Backs of Horses

Lieut. John Mullan and his crew of 230 men began construction of the military road before the snow melted in 1859. The group of men traveled and constructed over 624 miles of road that crossed rivers, swamps, mountains, and prairies all in an effort to connect the east to the west. (1) The rough and harsh terrain the men set out to conquer was difficult to cross with the many supplies they required. The horses and mules that carried or pulled all of the supplies proved to be the back-bone of Mullan’s outfit.

In his final report in 1863 John Mullan writes of his pack train, “For my own purposes, I have always preferred the apperajo for packing, and have always preferred mules to horses. Packages of any shape can be loaded upon the apperajo more conveniently than upon the packsaddle. A bell animal should be always kept with a pack train, and a grey mare is generally preferred.” (2)

Packhorses or mules were all a critical tool in the development of the Mullan road as well as the American west as a whole. Packhorses carried goods on their backs with the use of packsaddles, side-bags or saddlebags, and/or panniers (which is a double basket, bag, or box or similar container that was hung over the animal’s back). During Mullan’s time, packhorses were used to cross difficult terrain where the lack of roads prevented the use of wheeled vehicles like wagons. (3)

Horses in the Northwest had suffered in numbers only a few short months before Mullan began construction on the military road. On September 8, 1858 near Liberty Lake in Washington Territory, United States Army Col/ George Wright ordered his troops to slaughter a herd of eight-hundred horses that belonged to a Palouse chief. Their goal was to deny the use of the horses by enemy tribes. Sadly, the soldiers also destroyed the Indian’s lodges and storehouses of grain only weeks before the first snow fell. (4)

Colonel Wright ordered two companies of soldiers to shoot the horses and destroy the houses. Wright originally spared one-hundred-and-fifty animals for his own troops, however they were revealed to be untrained and useless and were later destroyed as well. Slaughtering the eight-hundred horses took a day and a half. According to author David Wilma, “The carcasses rotted into piles of bones that marked the site that became known as Horse Slaughter Camp…” (5)

The massacre of the animals devastated the native peoples. To the Indian tribes of the inland Northwest horses represented both wealth and military power. The slaughter of so many horses along with the destruction of the peoples’ winter food supply and homes overwhelmed the tribes and was the cause of many deaths over the winter months of 1858-1859. (6) The scarcity of local animals made their worth close to priceless for the area’s native inhabitants. All this occurring only weeks before John Mullan and his men entered into the area with their pack train of valuable horses and mules. This event also made it difficult for Mullan to resupply his own stock of horses.

Mullan’s journey was hard on the horses and mules in his outfit. He wrote of the sad news of his animals in a letter dated October 26, 1859 to Captain A.A. Humphreys, “the nights are cold, and I regret to report the loss of most of my horses and a number of oxen and beef cattle. The horses were Indian horses, and being much used in the summer for various purposes had very sore backs, an[d] during the cold nights with scanty food they could not stand the cold but died by the wayside. This has grown out of the peculiar nature of our work, where they have been kept in the mountains on sparse grazing for near three months.” (7)

Countless more times throughout his official report he remarks on the conditions of his stock and his ever present desire for fresh horses. On August 29, 1859 he writes, “I called on Antoine Plant for some provisions, as my bread had entirely given out, and I had yet two good days' march to reach the Coeur d'Alene mission; he could spare me only two small loaves of bread, each weighing about two pounds, and a little butter. I asked him also for fresh horses, but he had none at hand.” (8)

Throughout Mullan’s official report he comments on any cases where a horse was stolen by Indians that he hears of. Mullan blames one tribe in particular for these offences and writes, “The Blackfeet are great horse thieves, though I never suffered from this propensity, to which they are greatly addicted.” (9) Horses were always on Mullan’s mind. By the 1860 season he was desperate for a new stock.

During his many encounters with the various tribes of the Northwest he kept a record of the size of the various Indian tribes’ herds of horses. At the beginning of the 1860 construction season he was in great need for fresh horses. Mullan pens, “I proceeded to the Bitter Root valley and held a talk with the Indians." "The necessity of getting my supplies from Fort Benton, and the condition of my own animals, compelled me to lay my wants before the Flatheads. I told them I needed one hundred and seventeen horses, with pack saddles."(10)

John Mullan knew that the life of the operation and the lives of his men rested on the backs of the horses and mules in their outfit. The scarcity of a fresh supply and the condition of the stock he used directly affect his progress and the wellbeing of the men he commanded. In his final report on the construction of the military road in 1863 he offered up some advice, “They [the animals] should be regularly watered, morning, noon, and night. Never maltreat them, but govern them as you would a woman, with kindness, affection, and caresses, and you will be repaid by their docility and easy management.” (11)

Wagons to Build A Wagon Road

In his final report written in 1863, Captain John Mullan writes, “Every article to be used in crossing the plains should be of the best manufacture and strongest material. This will, in the end, prove He John Mullan used six wagons during the construction of his military road in 1861 according to the equipment list. (13) While a detailed description of each wagon was not given, it is possible that the following could have been similar to the wagons used by Mullan and his men during the construction of the military wagon road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla.

The wagons carried the outfit’s tools: axes, picks, shovels, blasting, carpenters’ and blacksmith’s tools, nails, spikes and iron crow bars, camp equipage, and cooking utensils totaling $2500 in net worth. If anything happened to the wagons, the equipment would be stranded. To manage the six wagons and the oxen that pulled them, Mullan employed one wagon master who earned $125 and twelve teamsters. (14)

The teamsters (similar to packers) would drive the wagons and/or lead the animals. The wagon master would be in charge of leading the train and made any decisions that affected the whole caravan or advised Mullan on issues like: when and where they were going to camp for the night, when and how the wagons would cross the rivers, deciding when the outfit would stop to rest during the day, and making sure the animals and wagons ran smoothly and safely. (15)

The most common wagon found in the American west was called a Conestoga or a prairie schooner. It was a covered wagon used to carry freight across the prairies. Mullan would most likely have used a smaller version of the Conestoga that later was called a military escort wagon used during the Civil War. The wagon was usually made of hickory, oak, or maple and the wagon’s tongue was almost always made from hickory. This type of wagon could carry up to 2,000 pounds worth of equipment and supplies which is why six wagons were needed. (16)  (17)

The front wheels of the wagons were smaller than the back wheels to help the wagon turn.  Underneath the back wheels there was a bucket full of grease hanging from the axle. The grease was used to lubricate the wheels to make them turn smoothly.  There were many things that could go wrong with wagons, for example some wagon wheels would break. According to the personnel list Mullan employed a blacksmith to aid in any repairs on the equipment including the wagons. (18) (19)

Freight wagons were popular in Idaho during the construction of the Mullan road. While they were too large for Mullan’s use, there were smaller versions that may have been used by Mullan to aid in the construction. Similar to a prairie schooner without a canopy, the freight wagons could cross harsh Northwest terrain where some larger Conestogas could not travel. (20)

According to the equipment list there were four cooks employed in Mullan’s outfit. It is possible then that one or two of the wagons were chuck wagons. Chuck wagons, like most wagons, were very noisy because of all the pots and pans hanging off the wagons. The pans would clang against each other as the wagon moved if not tied down. (21)
The chuck wagon’s design was always the same. In the back was a chuck box that was a tightly packed collection of drawers and shelves. The larger back partition held sourdough starter, a flour sack, larger utensils, and a several gallon coffee pot. Smaller spaces contained tin plates and utensils. (22)

Heavy pots and pans were stored in a hinged box below the chuck box and a water barrel was mounted on the wagon’s side. A jockey box beneath the footboard held emergency equipment such as hobbles (which were used to keep animals from wandering off) or horseshoeing tools. The chuck wagon’s bed held other cooking supplies like a Dutch oven and cast iron pots with legs and a rimmed lid that was considered essential to the cook and used coal. Other equipment may have included a dish pan for mixing bread, a kettle for heating water for washing, a 'wreck' or 'roundup' pan for dirty dishes, and a 'squirrel can' for scraps. (23)

Mullan used 60 oxen, 70 cows, and hundreds of horses and mules in his outfit. These animals would have worked to pull the various vehicles and supplies that aided the men in building the military wagon road that connected the east and the west. The writer David E. Sneed so well said, “During and after the Civil War, animal drawn Pontoon wagons, Daugherty wagons, Escort wagons, ambulances, caissons and other military support vehicles were a lifeline for a new nation determined to grow and defend its territories.” (24)

Food, Fish, and Game

An old familiar saying goes, an army marches on its stomach, and the army of men lead by Mullan would have been no exception. Food is the maker of a healthy mind and body. Adequate nutrition would have been firmly on the minds of all the men who worked on the famous military road. In Captain Mullan’s final report published 1863 he makes several recommendations to any whom follow his newly constructed trail, “I have found that for ten men for fifty days, the following is none too much on a trip of this kind: 625 pounds of flour, 50 pounds of coffee, 75 pounds of sugar, 2 bushels of beans, 1 bushel of salt, 625 pounds of bacon side, 2 gallons of vinegar, 20 pounds of dried apples, 3 dozen of yeast powders, and by all means take two strong covered ovens, (Dutch ovens.)” (25)

In addition, Mullan includes in his food supply list: brown sugar, tea, bacon, sardines, and a few jars of preserved fruits and pickles. (26) In his roster of suggestions little is mention of a proper supply of meat. This could be explained by the abundance of game in the Northwest that could be hunted on a daily basis if needed. Mullan writes, “Springs of water occur at convenient distances." "Game, consisting of bear and deer, were occasionally found, and an abundance of mountain grouse.” (27)

While these animals did live in the Northwest at the time, they were not the only option for an army of hungry surveyors and trail blazers. Mullan’s report continued, “Game is in abundance in the shape of deer and sheep, and all the streams are filled with trout.” According to the Idaho Fish and Game, Mullan and his men would have been able to hunt: wild turkeys, mule deer and white tail deer, pronghorns, rattlesnakes, moose, elk, beaver, and bighorn sheep. This list names only a few of the animals that may have appeared on the men’s daily plates. (28)

In the fresh water rivers, streams, and lakes Mullan and his men could have lived off the wealth of native fish. Several times in his report Mullan mentions the, “abundance of delicious salmon trout.” (29) Many native fish to the area’s rivers that may have been consumed by the men include: mountain whitefish, white sturgeon, Coho salmon, Cutthroat trout, as well as steelhead and rainbow trout. Plus, in the area’s abundant lakes the men would have found bull trout, Chinook salmon, and kokanee salmon. (30)

Adding local and fresh protein to their regular diet would have kept Mullan and his men healthy and happy. The tie between the food supply and the success of the operation has many more elements. The additional materials that would have appeared on the outfit’s supply list would have included tableware, cookware, ammunition and other hunting and fishing supplies.

Included in Mullan’s supply list for 1861 are 70 cows. (31) While it is not stated if the animals were used for labor during the construction process or for consumption, the fact is they were there and available for food if needed and one incident in particular showed, “that among the citizen employ√©s who received five days fresh beef and two days dessicated vegetables out of the seven." "The soldiers who received but two days fresh beef and two days dessicated vegetables in the seven. The rations of the latter were regulated by Lieutenant White; those of the former by myself,” (32)

When the Lieutenant began his list of supplies he had to calculate the outfit by not only what would be needed, but by also what they could carry with them. While there are many elements that make up Mullan’s outfit like clothing, pack animals, shovels, picks, surveying instruments. It is the food supply that would make or break the operation. The fact that the area supplied a wealth of fish and game aided the project in not only keeping the men strong and healthy, but also by increasing the various other supplies in the outfit by lowering the amount of food they had to carry along with them from the start. John Mullan so wisely warned, “Never take anything not absolutely necessary. This is a rule of all experienced voyageurs.” (33)

Tools of the Trade

Within the wagons and packs the men and animals carried were the supplies of the outfit. Food, spirits, weapons, and tools filled every vehicle and satchel during the survey and construction of the Mullan road. Thanks to detailed record keeping a vast majority of these items were recorded as well as their quantities and in some cases even their price.

Beginning in 1853 correspondents concerning the survey and construction of the road were collected. In a letter to Captain A.A. Humphreys dated December 28, 1854 several items appear. The multiple page lists are supplies and instruments given to Washington Territory’s Governor Isaac Stevens for the purpose of survey and construction of the road between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton. The following are a few of the items and quantities found in the communication to Captain Humphreys: 2 hand axes; 1 carpenter’s edge; 5 water buckets; 22 dressed skins; 257 saddle blankets; 76 dragoon bridles; 94 dragoon saddles; 170 pack saddles; 60 pack covers; 150 horses; 159 mules; 2 nail hammers; 39 holsters and covers; 1 drawing knife; 15 lariats; 1 pad lock; 55 lash rope; 7 buffalo robes; 60 field axes; 36 axe handles; 20 axe slings; 144 hobbles; 1 tool chest; 11 wagon covers; 21 chains; 2 horse collars; 3 ox collars; 10 pounds of horse nails; 880 pounds of rope; 30 shades; 1 oils stone; 2 jack screws; 2 hand saws; 1 back saw; 214 horse shoes; 1500 mule shoes; 9 wagon saddles; 1 saw level; 2 3/4 pounds steel; 1 steel square; 6 sabers and sheath; 17 shovels; 1 level saddle tool; 18 wagons; 1 spring wagon; 1 monkey wrench; 4 yokes; 5 wheels; 36 colt pistols; 1 dragon pistol. (34)

The letter continues by listing off the specific survey instruments that include: 4 sextants; 2 chronometers; unknown number of telescopes, odometers, barometers, thermometers, aneroid, pocket compasses, pocket levels. The list continues with weapons including dozens of rifles and 1,870 rifle cartridges; various pistols; other weapons and ammunitions as well as tools to maintain and repair the weapons are also included in the lists. (35)

To Resupply in the Northwest

The 1853 supplies shown in the letter to Captain Humphreys were still not enough to maintain the survey and construction of the road. (36)  The construction of the Mullan Road took several years to complete and the outfit needed to be regularly resupplied. The task of retrieving fresh supplies was a difficult one and often required long journeys. Pack-trains and boats were regularly used to carry the fresh supplies to Mullan’s construction crews that were often separated into various teams, and each crew needed their own supplies. (37)

Fort Benton was one of the places that resupplied Mullan and his expedition. Detailed records were kept at Fort Benton and a list of supplies purchased by Mullan was recorded. The list included: stove and pipe; tobacco; thread; coffee; light sash and glass; sugar; pepper; wood nails; handcuffs; tea; powder and ball; shirts; four; beef; whiskey; fruit; rice; salt; envelopes; candles; blankets; additional mules and horses. The list also includes pay to men like Mr. Sohon and the cost for their personal supplies as well as pay to Indian scouts and other men employed. (38)

Mullan and his team were resupplied regularly via pack-trains from both Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton. The Colonel Wright, which was a 110-foot long sternwheeler, resupplied Mullan and his crew from Fort Walla Walla. Mullan writes, “A portion of our supplies were forwarded to the mouth of the Palouse by the steamer Colonel Wright and the remainder transported by wagons to the same point, under general charge of Lieutenant Lyon, 3d artillery.” (39) In 1859 The Colonel Wright was the first steamboat to navigate the upper Columbia River as far as the lower Snake River, 140 miles to the mouth of the Palouse River at modern day Lyon's Ferry near the town of Starbuck, Washington. (40)

To ensure the supplies found Mullan and his crew, rendezvous points were pre-established. The Mission in the Coeur d’Alene region was one such site where the resupply pack-train rendezvoused with men from Mullan’s crew in 1861. (41) Again Mullan writes, “Starting then with our expedition on the 1st of April, with eight month's supplies, we shall reach the eastern base of the Bitter Root Mountains by the 1st of May, where our heaviest work begins. From this point our heavy trains can return to the mouth of the Pelouse and bring up our remaining seven month's supplies, getting back by 1st of June. By the 1st of July our work and the supplies for the entire period will be at the Coeur d'Alene Mission.” (42)

Once more in the 1863 report Captain John Mullan writes of the mission as his resupply point of rendezvous along the trail’s construction, “I now determined to take in my return route to the Bitter Route valley the pass known to Aeneas, and with this view I started for Fort Colville to replenish my supplies, and from thence, via the Spokane, I went to the Coeur d'Alene mission .” (43)

The task of managing the outfit and its resupply was a full-time job in itself. Luckily for Lieutenant Mullan he had fellow Army officers to aid him in resupplying his outfit. In the reports of 1861 and 1863 Lieutenants White and Lyon are both mentioned for their efforts in bringing in additional supplies. (44) (45) However, Mullan formally thanked one man in particular for his work on the road’s outfit, “In the outfitting of my expedition, and in all things necessary for the success of my trip, I was cordially aided by Captain Thomas Jordan, (then captain in the army,) to whom I am indebted for all co-operation that it was in his power to accord to him I return my sincere thanks. Fiat justitia ruat calum.” (46)

The Mullan road was completed in 1862 and the final report on the road’s construction was released in February of 1863. (47) Conversely, the issue of what was to become of the remainder of Mullan’s outfit was discussed in a letter written by John Mullan to Captain A. A. Humphreys, from camp Cantonment Jordan, January 3, 1860. In the letter Mullan writes, “I shall endeavor to dispose of as much of my outfit as possible to the Indian department. The animals can be driven back; but it would not pay to take the wagons back empty, and hence I shall leave them at Fort Benton rather than pay the hire and subsistence of teamsters to take them back. I shall then return with the escort and a very small party back to Walla-Walla.” (48) Thus ended the outfit of the Mullan road.

The outfit of the Mullan road was the most important aspect of the expedition. If the outfit failed so did the men and in turn so did the goal of a wagon road. Not only did the outfit insure the success of the operation, but it also insured the safety, health, and lives of the men who carried and lead it across the Bitterroot Mountains of the Northwest. Hundreds of animals were used and many died, countless men were employed, and a vast amount of tools were used to link the east to the west across the United States’ northern most territory at the time. On a final note, while the outfit’s contents might seem vast and perhaps cluttered, it was not. For Captain John Mullan so wisely knew to, “Never take anything not absolutely necessary. This is a rule of all experienced voyageurs.” (49)

Sydney Fay Stover has a BA in Anthropology, is a Cody Fellow, and is working towards a MA in History at Eastern Washsisngton University.

End Notes

(1) Priscilla Long.  Lt. John Mullan and a 230-man crew. (Seattle: HistoryLink.Org, 2003). 1. [Accessed 11-15-10].
(2) John Mullan. Report On The Construction Of A Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla To Fort Benton. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863).
_report/mullan_report_1-84.html [Accessed 10-03-10]. 40-41.
(3) J. M. Kinsey and Jennifer Denison. Backcountry Basics. (Colorado Springs, CO: Western Horseman Publishing, 2008).
(4) David Wilma. U.S. Army Colonel George Wright slaughters 800 Palouse horses. (Seattle: HistoryLink.Org, 2003). [Accessed 11-15-10].
(5) Wilma, 1.
(6) Wilma, 1.
(7) John Mullan. Military road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla-Walla. Letter from the Secretary of war, transmitting the report of Lieutenant Mullan, in charge of the construction of the military road (1861);cc=moa;q1=Mullan%20road.;rgn=main;view=text;idno=aft6663.0001.001 [Accessed 11-28-10]. 26.
(8) Mullan, Report. 111-112.
(9) Mullan, Report. 50.
(10) Mullan, Report. 21.
(11) Mullan, Report. 41.
(12) Mullan, Report. 40-41.
(13) Marc Entze. 1861 Report: Mullan Road Workforce and Supplies Required to Complete the Mullan Road. John Mullan to A. A. Humphreys, October 25, 1869 (p.70-71) [Accessed 11-22-10].
(14) Ibid.
(15) A Pioneer's Journey to the Frontier:How Did the Pioneers Travel? [Accessed 11-22-10].
(16) Ibid.
(17) David E. Sneed. Wheels That Won the West. [Accessed 11-23-10].
(18) A Pioneer's Journey, 1.
(19) Entze, 1.
(20) Sneed, 1.
(21) Entze, 1.
(22) The Chuck wagon. [Accessed 11-22-10].
(23) The Chuck wagon, 1.
(24) Sneed, 1.
(25) Mullan, Report. 40-41.
(26) Mullan, Report. 40.
(27) Mullan, Report. 16.
(28) Species Profiles. Idaho Fish and Game. [Accessed 11-07-10].
(29) Mullan, Report. 17.
(30) Fish Identification. Idaho Fish and Game. [Accessed 11-07-10].
(31) Entze, 1.
(32) Mullan, Report. 22.
(33) Mullan, Report. 41.
(34) Correspondence of the Office of Explorations and Surveys Concerning Isaac Stevens’ Survey of a Northern Route for the Pacific Railway, 1853-1861 (Washington D.C.: The National Archives, 1947) 65-73.
(35) Correspondence of the Office of Explorations and Surveys, 65-73.
(36) Correspondence of the Office of Explorations and Surveys, 65-73.
(37) Mullan, Report.
(38) George Weisel. Men and Trade on the Northwest Frontier as Shown by the Fort Owen Ledger (Missoula: Montana University Press, 1955) 74-79.
(39) Mullan, Report. 12.
(40) Glossary. [Accessed 11-29-10].
(41) Marc Entze and Amanda Van Lanen. The Mullan Road Report of 1861: A Summary. [Accessed 11-29-10]. 10-15.
(42) Mullan, Letter.72.
(43) Mullan, Report. 5.
(44) Mullan, Letter.
(45) Mullan, Report.
(46) Mullan, Report. 8.
(47) Mullan, Report. 1.
(48) Mullan, Letter. 32.
(49) Mullan, Report, 41.