The Mullan Road

Clayton J. Hanson

1859: Surveyors' Summer


The Lay of the Land

Looking for clues about the past is like reading a landscape for its natural history.  Moving across it, one sees the general contours of the country rising and falling just like the general rhythms of the past. The obvious landmarks, outcrops and events stand out from a distance but their names and significance are not clear without further investigation.  Beneath these monuments of basalt and granite and lonely stones in the field, the bedrock causes are hidden by time and distance.  The weather can be sensed but the climate is not yet obvious.  To understand these elements of the world around us one must experience them but it is possible also to examine them in detail, measure and analyze them.  How the Inland Northwest was experienced and then examined by European explorers and visitors reveals not only its own nature but something about the observers.

Mullan and his expedition, the scientists, engineers and artists, and the events that surrounded their experiences are a nearly perfect group for uncovering the lay of the in the Inland Northwest in the mid-19th century.  First, though they were active throughout the 1850s and early 1860s, they were already experienced with the region when Mullan asked them to scout ahead of the main road construction party. Second, though they passed through a unique country and they were distinct individuals, they were part of an even larger effort of scientific and engineering activity by Americans in the Far West during the middle years of the 19th century. (1)  In fact, there were some thirty-four separate roads built in California and the territories between 1850 and 1860. (2)  Finally, they left extensive notes, letters and sketches which reflect their experiences.

It is most straightforward to focus on a few brief weeks of intense activity by the Mullan expedition and his topographers:  Gustavus Sohon, Theodore Kolecki and P.M. Engel.  The weeks covering June and early July of 1859 are perfect for this purpose as all three topographers were sent to explore variations on the route which was already under construction.  This time of year also has the most favorable weather for both surveying and construction.  The importance of this summer had been evident during the previous year. That year, a letter from Father Josét had influenced Mullan to reconsider his earlier plans for crossing the Palouse and the Rockies.  As a result, he sent his surveyors ahead of the rest of the expedition to probe additional routes to and across the Bitterroots. (3)

“One Immense Bed of Rugged Mountains”

Gustavus Sohon was not an inexperienced visitor to this region.  He had been a part of the railroad survey overseen by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens that had crisscrossed the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest looking for a route through the mountains. (4)  He knew that between the two outposts of American settlement were rugged peaks and valleys crossed only by Indian trails.  Also along those trails were bands of Indians whose experience with the country dwarfed his own, even if he had some skill in their languages.  Finding a suitable route for the wagon road across the Rockies was not simply a matter of drawing a straight line from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton.  Despite this knowledge, the possibility of a shortcut that would not have to take the long detour to the north of Lake Coeur D’Alene tantalized Mullan.

Sohon recounted how Lt. Mullan described his plan and how he was already aware from earlier surveys “that the mountains to the south of the Coeur d'Aléne river, until you reach Salmon river, were high, difficult, and probably impracticable for a wagon road.” (5)  Thus, a road would have to follow either the Clark Fork or travel to the extreme south and follow the Snake River to its headwaters.  Mullan was “determined, however, to satisfy myself as to the true nature of the country lying between the Clearwater and St. Joseph's river” which had been favorably recommended to him by Gov. Stevens. The 1853 survey undertaken by Stevens had indicated that the distance to be crossed, no matter how rugged, was quite short. (6)

Gustav Sohon had been a part of that earlier expedition and was chosen to explore the country from the headwaters of the Palouse River to beyond the Clearwater.  He was friendly with the Indians, who again and again dissuaded him from exploring this route.  First, the Nez Perces at Walla Walla had indicated that the whole area was “one immense bed of rugged mountains.” (7)  Despite this warning, he set out with Father Josét and a Coeur D’Alene guide named Augustine across the Palouse toward the Clearwater and the western slope of the Bitterroots.

Unlike the Nez Perce, the Coeur D’Alenes did not, at first, refuse outright to lead Sohon into the Bitterroots.  Gradually, however, the human and physical barriers of this route revealed themselves to Father Josét and to Sohon.  First, it was obvious that only parts of the route were known to particular Indians—one by Augustine, another by Ko-ne-moo-say, and yet another by Kah-lis.  However, upon reaching the Coeur D’Alenes at the camas prairie, he could only muster two of his three guides.

A Camas Prairie of the Pend D’Oreilles (c. 1853) (8)

In fact, Ko-ne-moo-say refused to guide the small party without Kah-lis, who was not present, and the encamped band attempted to prevent Augustine from leading them along even his part of the route. (9)  Sohon was led to the edge of the Bitterroots, and here Augustine expressed his own concerns about the undertaking:

"Let us have a better understanding. I told you at Walla-Walla that there was no road through this section to the Flathead country; the mountains are too difficult. Those high ridges yonder (pointing to some high spurs of the Bitter Root range) are small compared to those over which we shall be compelled to pass, and there are many of them: the road would pass over high and steep mountains, and down in steep ravines and cañons. If all the Americans would work here a thousand years they could never make a road. I think a road through the Pend d'Oreille country is the best for you, for there you do not pass over difficult mountains. It was Ko-ne-moo-sey who told you that a wagon road could be had here, and he says this because he owns land along the Pend d'Oreille route, and fears if the soldiers make a road along that route he will lose his land. I am sorry to see Father Joset and yourself determined to take this route. Those who told you that a road could be had here deceived you, and made you lose time in exploring. I say again, that if all the Americans would spend a thousand years here they could not make a road.” (10)

Defeated by this admission of the human and physical difficulties of the route, Sohon returned to the Sma-Kodl prairie and found the Indians camped there to be evasive about the suitability of the route across the Bitterroots. (11)  In fact, “The consequence of all this was that I could obtain neither horses nor guides. Never have I seen Indians more impertinent or unwilling to do service of any character; I could not even secure the services of one of them to bear you an express.”  He turned west, retracing his steps to the Tat-hu-nah hills and rejoined Mullan’s main camp on July 7th.

 “Very Difficult to Construct a Wagon Road”

A month after Sohon began his journey with Augustine to the foot of the Bitterroots, P.M. Engel left the mouth of the Tucannon River with instructions to explore the Snake River as far as Red Wolf’s Crossing. (12)  He would follow the north bank of the Snake, which offered “less difficulties for the horses.” (13) Traveling among the tributary ravines, he noticed Indian plots under cultivation and commented on the course of the river before he arrived at Al-ah-hah Creek and the Nez Perces under Chief Timothy. (14)  The variable width and constant ravines along the Snake did not bode well and he later reported that in the region it would be “very difficult to construct to construct a wagon road.” (15)

Chief Timothy by Gustavus Sohon (1855) (16)

The rocky trail was bothering his animals and he turned north toward the Palouse River and the plateau.  Like Sohon, he had been unable to find a guide and was forced to strike out without assistance. (17)  But this was not entirely new territory, it had been covered by Sohon.  In fact, one of Sohon’s runners to Mullan’s camp had led Engel to believe that it might be possible to reunite with Sohon at or near Tathunah. (18)  Turning along Sohon’s trail, he was delayed by the sparse forage and the overwhelming numbers of “mosquitoes, and gnats” both of which had caused the horses to scatter in the night. (19)  But, despite this effort, the connection with Sohon was missed and Engel returned to the main camp.

“A View of the Whole Country For Eighty Miles”

The reports of Sohon, Engel and also Kolecki are almost divided in their simultaneous repetition of the scientific concerns of the mission and the role of traditional ways of organizing the environment through which they had been passing.  Even as there is often irritation with their intransigence, there is also sensitivity to the advice, names and terminology of the Indians who inhabited the Columbia Plateau and the Bitterroots.  In Sohon’s own report, rather than applying a new name to a location, he constantly refers to locations by their Indian names. (20)  In comparison to George Vancouver, or even Lewis and Clark, his desire to rename the landscape is weak.  This muted desire is not entirely out of place; even one of the topographers of the boundary commission frequently used Indian names when traveling over the difficult terrain of Washington’s 49th parallel. (21)

Thus, instead of names like Cheney or Colfax dotting their narratives, the places the surveyors refer remain either reproductions of Indian terms or visually descriptive. This passage from Engel attests to it:

“From Awauwi to Salaisson’s creek, the distance is 15 miles, in which 4 more small creeks empty from the north side into Snake river.  Skalaisson’s creek running the track ravine which the trail from the Red Wolfs crossing follows towards the north follows, heads 4½ miles from its mouth, which last, is about 2½ miles below the mouth of the Al-pah-hah creek. [...]  Opposite the mouth of the Al-pah-hah creek is a high, rugged, and timberless mountain called Tailuts, which over towers all others...” (22)


Theodore Kolecki’s report lacks the same spice of reproductions and translations of Indian names. Still, he christens the mountain at the center of his journey “the Pyramid Peak” rather than Sohon’s Peak or Kolecki’s Peak or McKay’s Peak (the last being the name of interpreter).  His report details the route to the hill but it remains “Pyramid Peak” even when he takes in the sublime scene from its top: 


“The sun was but a few degrees above the western horizon; we were much fatigued by the long march, and therefore rather disposed to delay the ascent until morning; but the delicious coolness of the atmosphere, succeeding almost instantaneously the heat of the day, inspired us with new energy, and we climbed up the steep slope of this rocky cone, that stretches its crown more than one thousand feet above its dingy neighbors.  From the top we had a view of the whole country for eighty miles around us.  The outlines of all objects were for a short while very clearly defined by the last rays of the setting sun.” (23)


This passage is a near perfect example of the change in how Western civilization viewed mountains.  Pyramid Peak may be named simply but it opened scenic vistas and refreshed the souls of Kolecki and his party as the Romantics. (24)  As William Cronon identifies in his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” the 19th century marked a turning point in how Americans viewed the natural world. (25)  For Kolecki, the wilderness has already gone from a place of peril to one of beauty to be appreciated on its own merits.


At the same time as these almost ecstatic visions are being described, Sohon and his associates are also scrupulous in recording the temperature and magnetic headings of their daily travels.  Sohon’s June 16th reflects this mix of traditional and scientific methods of seeing the world:


“At 5 a.m. the weather was clear, with a temperature of 66°.  We travelled up the Paloose, on the left bank, for seven miles, when we struck the SmoKle [sic] creek, and followed it up.  It flows through a valley of easy grade, and bounded on either side by high, rolling prairies; its course being generally west.  The valley at its mouth is somewhat narrow, but in ¼ mile it widens, and in five miles it runs out into the general level of the country.


In eight miles from the river it is closed again by slopes 100 and 600 feet high.  The soil in the first ten miles is somewhat gravelly—farther up it is richer, and in fifteen miles it bears the cammass and other roots upon which the Indian subsist.  In the first ten miles there is little or no wood, but higher up, cotton-wood, Aspen, Birch, and brushwood fringe the banks more or less.” (26)


It is a similar story within P.M. Engel’s notes.  While describing the layout of the territory and sounding the depths of creeks, he refers to them again and again by their Indian names. (27)  However, he was also enthralled by how their industry fits and matches that which one would expect of Europeans as he describes Indians who “are so anxious to profit by every piece of ground fit for cultivation that islands and even portions of islands are used for this purpose.” (28)  There are no virgin territories to be discovered and christened with new names and measurements, but there are territories thick with the same Indians whom Sohon depicted in drawing after drawing.  Make no mistake; Engel is no Mullan who is himself no Muir.  He is concerned with the landscape for how it can be converted and “improved” for military road construction but unlike later boosters and geographers, he sees the land as one already under cultivation and in use by the Indian inhabitants of the Snake River basin.  In short, he fits the mold of scientist in service of expansion rather than development. (29)


So, as we look at the work of the topographers, we can see that their work brought them ahead of the road in two senses.  They were both doing the advanced scientific work which allowed its construction in the first place but they were also ahead of the renaming of these territories which marked European-American settlement of the Columbia Plateau and the gold rush to the Bitterroots.  The land that the surveyors traversed in the summer of 1859 was no longer purely Indian but it was also not yet a European-American landscape.  Uncovering the provenance of this extra layer is a way into the minds of the surveyors during their most active summer.


Sohon Sketch Map (30)

1 Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 126


2 White, 127


3 John Mullan, Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton, 11


4 United States War Dept.,Narrative and final report of explorations for a route for a Pacific railroad, near the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels of north latitude, from St. Paul to Puget Sound,, vol. XII of Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, printer [etc.], 1855-60.), 196


5 John Mullan, 11-12


6 Mullan, 12


7 Mullan, 96


8 United States War Dept., Plate LII


9 Mullan, 99


10 Mullan, 100


11 Mullan, 100


12 Donna M. Hanson ed., Frontier Duty: The Army in Northern Idaho, 1853-1876 (Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Library, 2005), 42


13 Hanson, 42


14 Hanson, 43


15 Hanson, 43-4


16 “Te-ma-Tee; Nez Perce Chief,” Accessed on 7 December 2010,,44


17 Hanson, 44


18 Hanson, 45


19 Hanson, 45


20 Hanson, 34


21 Harry M. Majors, introduction to Discover of Mount Shuksan and the Upper Nooksack River, by Henry Custer (Seattle:  Northwest Press, 1984), 8


22 Hanson, 43


23 Hanson, 48


24 Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 45


25 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Uncommon Ground (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1996), 68-69


26 Hanson, 35


27 Hanson, 43


28 Hanson, 42


29 White, 126


30 “Surveying the West,”  Accessed 7 December 2010,


Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Uncommon Ground. New York:  W.W. Norton, 1996.


Hanson, Donna M. ed., Frontier Duty: The Army in Northern Idaho, 1853-1876. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Library, 2005.


Majors, Harry M.  Introduction to Discover of Mount Shuksan and the Upper Nooksack River, by Henry Custer.  Seattle:  Northwest Press, 1984.


Mullan, John. Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton.


Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.


“Surveying the West.” Library of Congress. Accessed 7 December 2010.


“Te-ma-Tee; Nez Perce Chief.”  Washington State Historical Society.  Accessed on 7 December 2010.,44


United States War Dept.,Narrative and final report of explorations for a route for a Pacific railroad, near the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels of north latitude, from St. Paul to Puget Sound,, vol. XII of Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, printer [etc.], 1855-60.


White, Richard. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.