The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 2, Pages 3-13
Spring, 1976

Isaac I. Stevens

By Kent D. Richards

Kent D. Richards is a Professor of History at Central Washington State College.

Isaac Stevens, c. 1860 (added in 2009)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

There is an often repeated apocryphal story of Governor Isaac I. Stevens' initial appearance in Olympia in the fall of 1853. According to the story, 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 crude structure. Brushing aside the ragged stranger, a celebrant exclaimed 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.

Drama and a penchant for the unexpected did typify the governor, but not the role of an unnoticed stranger. Despite his small stature and slight frame, Isaac Stevens was most often in the center of activity, providing leadership, spewing out orders and ideas, shaping events, or creating controversy; he was a man either loved or hated, but seldom ignored. From his entrance into the United States Military Academy in 1835 until his death at the battle of Chantilly in 1862, Isaac Stevens pursued a career in public service as a cadet, an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Survey officer, territorial governor, superintendent of Indian affairs, head of a Pacific railroad survey, delegate to Congress, and Civil War general.


Brushing aside the ragged stranger, a celebrant exclaimed they were waiting for the governor,
but suggested the traveler might find food in the kitchen.


His contemporaries were bitterly divided as to how well Stevens met these challenges. Virtually all who knew him agreed that he possessed a brilliant mind, enormous energy, and a dominant personality. These characteristics were respected in the 19th century particularly on the American frontier. A Minnesota newspaperman best captured the admiration for Stevens' character when he praised him as a true representative of the times, "a regular go-ahead man;" but others castigated him as a Napoleonic dictator with delusions of grandeur and a narrow egotism that brooked no criticism or opposition. Whatever the truth about Isaac Stevens' character and personality, there is no doubt that he is the most prominent figure in Washington's territorial period, and beyond that a man of national importance because his career encompassed issues which are as vital now as they were for Stevens' generation.(4)

Early Life

Birthplace of General Isaac Stevens, Andover, Mass.

From Historical Sketches of Andover, by Sarah Loring Bailey

Born in North Andover, Massachusetts on March 25, 1818, Isaac Ingalls Stevens descended from Puritan emigrants who fled England in the 1630s and helped settle the Andover area in the 1640s. Stevens boasted that he rose from humble circumstances to win an education and forge a nationally prominent career. But like many others, including his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, Stevens exaggerated the hardship and deprivation of boyhood. Long prominent in the community, the Stevens family included military leaders, lawyers, politicians, and the owner of the local woolen mills. Stevens' father, although handicapped by a crippling leg injury suffered in a logging accident while a young man, nevertheless succeeded in building up a substantial farm on the shores on Lake Cochichewick.

Young Isaac did his share of hard work on the farm and in his uncle's mill, but his father quickly singled him out as the intellectual in the family and fostered his education. At the age of fourteen Stevens enrolled as a full time student at Phillips Academy in Andover. During his two years at the Academy the instructors lauded Stevens' performance particularly in mathematics, a subject in which one teacher claimed to have not seen his equal for twenty years. His strength in this area led Stevens' mentors and the family to suggest a career at West Point as the logical next step because at that time the Military Academy offered the best mathematics and engineering program in the nation. Stevens had no difficulty securing the appointment through the good offices of the local congressman, a neighbor and close friend of the family.

When Stevens arrived at the Military Academy in 1835, it had recently emerged as a prestigious institution noted for the training of civil engineers. The man most responsible, for this achievement, Sylvanus Thayer, resigned as superintendent two years before Stevens became a plebe, but Thayer's faculty, curriculum, and traditions remained unaltered. One of Thayer's innovations was a system, which ranked the cadets within each class on the basis of their academic performance. This led to intense competition, at least among those near the top of the ratings, and it appealed to the competitive streak in Stevens' personality. Stevens' family later emphasized the obstacles Isaac overcame to rank first in his class. In particular they noted that his two main rivals, Henry Halleck, Lincoln's military adviser and General-in-Chief during the Civil War, and Henry Biddle of a prominent Philadelphia family, had both attended college prior to arriving at West Point. However, their training was primarily in classics and literature, disciplines that counted for little at the Military Academy, while Stevens' strong background in mathematics prepared him well for the Academy. He was not a poor farm boy competing against cadets with superior educational and social attainments, but rather a young man from a prominent New England family with a sound educational background, an extraordinary mathematical mind, and a strong competitive instinct. It is not surprising that he ranked first in the class of 1839.

Befitting his high ranking, Stevens received assignment to Fort Adams at Newport, Rhode Island. Adams was one of the largest coastal forts in the string then under construction to provide protection from foreign attack, and was under the personal supervision of Chief Engineer Joseph Totten. Newport had the further advantage of an active social life sponsored by citizens of the elite community. But despite the inducements of Newport, prospects for advancement in the peace time army were bleak at best, and Stevens seriously considered turning to the law when his military obligation ended. Circumstances, however, prevented this move.

While at Fort Adams he met, wooed, and wed Margaret Hazard, the daughter of a prominent Rhode Island lawyer-politician. In certain respects Stevens was not a likely husband for such a desirable bride. When he had first arrived in Newport, some society belles considered the new lieutenant homely. This impression was created by his massive head set on a slight body with stumpy legs, which indicated a form of dwarfism caused by an early deficiency of the pituitary gland. Aside from the mismatched body proportions, Stevens at maturity was a dashing, even handsome, man with dark hazel eyes, thick black hair which curled over his ears and collar, a small goatee carefully trimmed, straight nose, and firmly set lips and chin. Margaret confessed to her sister that she was not immediately smitten with Stevens, but "the more I see of him, the more I like him." Soon thereafter her sentiment changed to "devotion" and the marriage took place in the fall of 1841. The responsibilities of marriage and the death of Margaret's father, who had encouraged Stevens' leaning toward the law, led the young lieutenant to postpone and finally abandon his plan to leave the army.


[H]e was a man either loved or hated, but seldom ignored.


Stevens' yearning for advancement was now partially assuaged by a new responsibility within the Corps of Engineers. Upon their return to Newport after a brief honeymoon trip to West Point, Stevens found orders sending him to oversee reconstruction of an old fortification at New Bedford. Stevens acted with typical alacrity; he informed a friend:

We arrived at Newport about four o'clock on Thursday. I left the next day at two o'clock, made an inspection of the fort on Saturday forenoon, issued a hand-bill the same day for mechanics and laborers, and on Monday morning had a gang of about twenty men at work. I never was in New Bedford before, and knew not a single man in the place...I went on Monday into a ledge of granite rock, and have already thrown out about two hundred tons of stone, and got about a hundred feet cut...After I had been at work three days, I dismissed three men for idleness, which had a very good effect.

Stevens was so involved in his new work that he was able to write of his bride of two weeks: "I have been so busy that I have had no time to miss her." Stevens' efficient work at New Bedford quickly led to further responsibilities, first an assignment to repair two forts at Portsmouth and then an additional pair at Portland; added to this load came command of construction at a new fortification near the mouth of the Penobscot River opposite Bucksport, Maine. The Chief Engineer apologized for the heavy burden, but Stevens eagerly grasped the responsibility. By the eve of the Mexican War, Stevens had proven to his superiors, peers, and, perhaps most importantly, to himself that he had the judgment, energy, and ability to lead men and bring results.

Isaac Stevens

By Katie Karcher

Ironically, Stevens' competence as an engineer hindered his military career by keeping him out of the first year of the Mexican War. He hinted broadly to his superiors that he wished assignment to Mexico, but they demurred due to a potential British threat to the Northeast. When tensions with Great Britain eased, Stevens was ordered south and arrived in time to participate in General Winfield Scott's march from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Stevens was one of the nine engineer officers assigned to Scott's headquarters who won enduring fame for their reconnaissance efforts and field fortification work during the campaign. But in spite of his contribution, his work was overshadowed by that of Robert E. Lee or P.G.T. Beauregard. Many of Stevens' reconnaissances, although brilliant, involved routes that were, on his recommendation, discarded as impractical. It proved difficult to win fame for efforts that produced negative results. Two serious injuries further hindered his hope for distinction. On the eve of the battle of Cerro Gordo a hernia which first appeared in Stevens' teens ruptured again, and then in the final action before Mexico City a ball plowed across the top of one foot seriously crippling him for several months.

Return to the peacetime army was anti-climactic particularly in light of a typical post-war cutback in military expenditures. Stevens and his fellow officers found themselves holding honorary new ranks, in his case brevet major, but back at the same pre-war duties. Thus, after a stint of fort building with ever decreasing appropriations, he eagerly accepted an opportunity to become the chief assistant and second in command of the Coast Survey, a federal agency that often employed army and navy personnel. The brilliant, energetic head of the survey, Benjamin F. Bache, and Stevens soon established a warm working and personal relationship. To Stevens, Bache represented a father figure whose advice he might not heed, but who exerted a profound influence. Bache spent much time with survey parties in the field, and Stevens commanded the main office in Washington, D.C., supervising the process of putting the field reports and maps into final form. He quickly reorganized the rapidly expanding office operations placing them on a more efficient basis and assumed added responsibility by acting as the survey's chief lobbyist with Congress. At the same time Stevens became the unofficial spokesman for officers in the engineer, ordnance, artillery and topographical corps who believed they were discriminated against in pay and rank compared to the infantry officers. Stevens developed a close relationship with many ofthe nation's leading political figures, and bolstered his reputation as a man of action.

Territorial Governor

By the early 1850s Stevens realized that revitalization of the army was far distant; he and other young officers would need to wait for years until the death or retirement of senior officers before they could advance. At the same time, despite his close relationship with Bache, the position with the Coast Survey was a dead end, and he did not wish to spend his entire career as "an office drudge." A long-time interest in the west, nurtured by the expansionist sentiments of "Young America" and the operations of the Coast Survey on the shores of the Pacific, came to fruition in Stevens' mind in 1853 with the near simultaneous initiation of the Pacific railway surveys and the creation of Washington Territory. He recognized an opportunity to lead and grow with the Pacific Northwest, an area he believed would soon rival the Old Northwest in importance. He envisioned his career as parelleling that of another man of small physical stature with a large head, Steven A. Douglas, then emerging as one of the most powerful men in the nation's capital. Stevens' close relationship with Douglas and other Congressmen, to say nothing of his yeoman campaign efforts on behalf of the newly inaugurated president, Franklin Pierce, made his appointment as territorial governor a foregone conclusion; some friends were puzzled that he had requested such an unimportant post. When he immediately asked to head the northernmost of the railway surveys leading from Minnesota to Puget Sound, his design emerged more clearly.

All Stevens' leadership and organizational abilities honed during his years with the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Survey were put to the test during the railway survey. In less than three months he was able to put together an excellent cadre of artists, scientific men, engineers, and military escort as well as marshalling tons of supplies at the jumping off point near St. Paul. Residents of the booming frontier town expressed amazement that the head of the railway survey was able to move his supplies up the river while merchants who placed their orders months before were forced to wait. But even the energetic Stevens could not foresee certain problems such as the 200 "demonically wild" mules supplied by the army for transportation. Stevens ordered everyone, veteran mule skinner and eastern scientist alike, to set to the task of breaking the mules, which they did with numerous curses, bruises, contusions, and broken limbs. But to the surprise of all, the expedition was able to depart on schedule.

Problems continued on the march, including Minnesota mud, thick fogs, Indian scares, buffalo stampedes, and Rocky Mountain snows, but the party reached the Puget Sound by the end of the year with the loss of only one life (a soldier killed by the accidental discharge of his own gun). The survey provided solid information on the climate, flora, fauna, elevations, terrain, rivers, mountain passes, soil conditions, and Indian tribes all of which had been depicted inaccurately prior to the survey. It was a monumental undertaking, completed before the other transcontinental surveys, yet more exhaustive in scope. Stevens deserved much of the credit, for despite the usual grumblings and personnel problems, he kept the force moving ahead with an eye on the main goal.

Nonetheless, the positive accomplishments of the survey as, for example, the recognition by Stevens that much of the soil was not as sterile as popular opinion believed, have often been overshadowed by the fact that Stevens' recommendation for a northern line was initially rejected. Secretary of War Davis, in overall command of the surveys, was strongly inclined to favor the southern line. In his report Davis emphasized the cold, snow, and sterile soil of the northern route, ignoring evidence, which Stevens had amassed to indicate that the old view of the northern latitudes was greatly exaggerated. The hope for a transcontinental railroad connecting the Pacific Northwest with the Old Northwest was frustrated for many long years, but this fact should not obscure the contribution to knowledge of the region, which Stevens' survey made.

Upon his arrival in Olympia near the end of 1853, Stevens embarked on his second assignment and became the first governor of the newly created Washington Territory. Citizens were relieved to discover that their new governor in no way resembled the second-rate political hacks often sent to govern the territories. In his first weeks in office Stevens impressed most as a "model" governor, and one predicted confidently, that "the future is pregnant with noble achievement." The governor's program for the territory was simple - remove various impediments to settlement and rapid growth would automatically follow. The obstacles to territorial development as Stevens saw them were: the unsettled question of Indian claims; problems with Great Britain left over from the boundary settlement; lack of roads and railroads; the need for better mail service, educational opportunities, land surveys, and military protection. The governor knew, as many of his constituents did not, that the key to solving these problems lay not in Washington Territory but in Washington, D.C., because the territorial system left most of the power including control of the purse strings with the central government. When the government was functioning smoothly in Olympia, Stevens hastened east to lobby with Congress on behalf of the territory. The governor was in a unique position as a consequence of his prior experience in the capital. He persuaded the War Department to place a steamer on Puget Sound, which served the dual purpose of mail carrier and military defender. Old acquaintances on the Lighthouse Board quickly put machinery in motion to establish lights on the Washington coast; the groundwork was laid for appropriations for military roads in the territory. Stevens did not succeed in all of his immediate objectives - most disappointing was the delay of a transcontinental railroad - but he did accomplish much.

Isaac Steven's House in Olympia

By Katie Karcher

The governor returned to the territory late in 1854. His primary goal was the extinguishment of Indian title in the vast territory stretching from Puget Sound to the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. A basic problem arose from the contradiction between federal policy, which called for resolution of Indian titles before white settlement, and the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850 which opened all of Oregon and Washington to immigrants. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, acting upon the current philosophy of Indian-white relations, directed Stevens as superintendent in Washington Territory to make treaties placing the Indians upon as few reservations as possible. Stevens recognized that he was inheriting a potentially explosive situation, but was supremely confident that he understood the Indian character (although his contacts with them were limited) and that he could forestall any major conflict. The governor was sympathetic to the plight of the Indian and recognized that legal steps were necessary to protect red men as well as white, but he doubted the value of treaty negotiations and preferred to dictate terms to both natives and settlers. In his opening statements to the various Indian representatives at the councils, he often pointed out that the Indians were like children who needed guidance through a transitionary period that would allow them to acquire the ways of civilization and to eventually become part of white society. Stevens based the negotiations on his assumption that it was best for the Indian to be converted to the European way of life; that this conversion could be accomplished by an economic shift from hunting to farming; that the government would faithfully provide the goods and services stipulated in the treaties; and that the Indian could be persuaded that all this was in his best interest. He was mistaken on all counts.

It has often been argued that Stevens' treaties led to war. Perhaps they did. But critics do not suggest alternatives that the governor might have followed. He did his best within the framework of government policy to protect the rights of both sides through the treaty process. For example, Stevens created more reservations and agreed to higher payments than suggested by his superiors. The governor, however, is open to serious criticism on at least one point. He assumed that the treaties once signed would automatically be followed faithfully by both sides; this was naively optimistic. Consequently at a critical moment in Washington history he was out of touch with important developments. In June 1855 he completed three separate treaties at the Walla Walla council. Instead of remaining to enforce the treaty provisions and to act as a mediator between suspicious Indian leaders and hostile white settlers, Stevens hurried east to participate in the Blackfoot negotiations - involving tribes which were for the most part outside of his jurisdiction.

Stevens was in Blackfoot country when Indians east of the Cascades murdered Indian agent Andrew Bolon and several miners heading toward the Colville gold discoveries. When an express rider reached him with news of events, Stevens' reaction was immediate - the Indians had broken the treaties and like bad children gone astray must be severely punished. Even when confronted with facts which should have caused him to modify his policy, he did not deviate from his position; indeed, he solidified it. It is a major example of Stevens' decisiveness, his desire to take quick and immediate action, leading him into serious difficulties. While still east of the Rocky Mountains, he called for a large-scale military effort against the hostiles, and once committed to this course of action he would not admit that his policy was in error.

Commitment to a military victory led to a series of tragic consequences. It brought Stevens as commander of the militia into conflict with the regular army resulting in contradictory policies carried on simultaneously. After a year of intensive but futile effort to bring the elusive hostiles to bay, Stevens took two steps. First he declared martial law in Pierce and Thurston counties in an attempt to blame a handful of half-breeds for the militia's failure to defeat, or even to come to grips with the Indians on the Sound. In the process he defied the civil courts, and was ultimately forced to concede that he had overstepped his authority although he continued to insist that circumstances justified going beyond his legal powers. Next Stevens sent an expeditionary force east of the mountains despite the fact that the regular army under Colonel George Wright was already in the field. The militia, finding Wright in Yakima Valley and no hostiles in the Walla Walla Valley, proceeded south into Oregon where they massacred an encampment of women, children, and old men on the Grande Ronde. In an effort to save face, Stevens hailed this unfortunate episode as a victory, and the war came to an end.

As a consequence of his martial law declaration, Stevens was censured by President Pierce, and narrowly escaped removal from office, but the citizens of the territory for the most part applauded Stevens' actions. As the typical settler interpreted the situation, lives and property were in danger and the governor had acted vigorously to save the territory from destruction. Stevens was elected as delegate to Congress from the territory in 1857 and reelected in 1859. His major concerns during his four years in the nation's capital were to resolve the problems resulting from the Indian wars and justify his actions. Of the many issues Senate ratification of his Indian treaties and payment of the war debt run up by the territory loomed largest.

During the Indian war, Stevens had considered abandoning the treaties negotiated in 1854-55, but by the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., he had reached the conclusion that his handiwork should be brought to a successful conclusion. He urged ratification as the best solution to prevent further Indian outbreaks while insisting that the most prominent war leaders, men like Kamiakin, Leschi, Stahi, and Nelson be arrested, tried, and executed. The delegate failed to win government support for the latter course, but Leschi was hung anyway. The renewal of hostilities in 1858 convinced Congress that Stevens was correct in regard to the treaties, and they were finally ratified in 1859.

The major issue during Stevens' four years as delegate was payment of the war debt. The territory financed the war effort by issuing more than $1,600,000 in scrip, which it had no means to redeem. As with other territories in similar circumstances, citizens in the Northwest assumed the government would find the expenditures justified and would make appropriations to pay the debt. However, General John Wool, backed by regular army personnel, vigorously attacked the war scrip as a bold attempt to plunder the treasury. Wool charged that merchants and farmers had sold supplies of various kinds to the volunteers at inflated rates, and he argued that the volunteers were superfluous. Stevens, working with Joe Lane the delegate from Oregon, countered Wool's position by insisting that without the volunteers every "man, woman, and child would have been cruelly slaughtered." After extensive investigations by an independent commission, which reported favorably on the claims and by the treasury department, which opposed the claims, Congress paid the scrip at slightly over half of its face value. No one had expected more, and Stevens returned triumphantly to the territory in the spring of 1861 to seek reelection to a third term.

During his last two years in the capital, Stevens had neglected his political fences at home. In addition to his work as congressional delegate, he was deeply involved in the 1860 presidential campaign. In national politics Stevens was a "doughface," a northern man who argued for protection of slavery as guaranteed by the Constitution. He played a key role in the Democratic convention as a member of the platform committee and as the author of a minority report which, helped split the party at Charleston. Stevens not only supported the Breckinridge-Lane ticket, but served as the party's campaign chairman. This brought him into the limelight nationally, but did not please the many anti-Southern citizens in Washington. Stevens' enemies in Washington Territory led by Salucious Garfielde maneuvered him out of the Democratic nomination, but the reaction in the territory was so great that Garfielde lost by a wide margin to his Republican opponent in the election.

By the time this took place Stevens was back in the east. News of Fort Sumter had arrived during the territorial convention, and even if Stevens had won a third term it is unlikely that he would have served. He wished to be in the center of the action and immediately volunteered his services to President Lincoln. Despite his obvious qualifications for a high command, the new administration was suspicious of their former political opponent, and it was not until after the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run that he was offered even a colonelcy. He accepted, but soon thereafter was shunted to an expedition that captured South Carolina's Sea Islands. The victorious Union forces lived in idle splendor and tried to develop policy for the 10,000 former slaves that fell into their hands while Stevens chaffed to get back into action. Finally in the summer of 1862 he was sent north (now a brigadier general) as part of General Pope's new army. Pope met Lee and Jackson on the same battlefield that had opened the fighting and Second Bull Run proved as disastrous as the first. As the Union army retreated to the capital, Stevens made a forced march to cut off Stonewall Jackson's attempt to flank Pope's army. Jackson was met at Chantilly where, after a fierce action, the Union troops held, but Stevens, leading a charge with the standard seized from a fallen color-bearer, was killed instantly by a bullet through the head.

In many respects Stevens was a representative man of his age. Imbued with the work ethic and sense of responsibility of his Puritan ancestors (although not their religious zeal) he combined this with the ambitious, driving, get-ahead spirit of the Age of Jackson. A keen intelligence added to his other traits led to a highly successful career in the Corps of Engineers, with the Coast Survey, and as head of the northern railway survey. As governor of Washington, however, other traits in Stevens' character became apparent. His personality and his career in the army made him more successful at giving orders to subordinates than in working within the give and take of a political framework. Although his career as governor was marked by some successes, the Indian treaties led him down a path to war, to an unauthorized declaration of martial law, and to two undistinguished congressional terms, which served primarily as a vehicle to justify his previous actions. His career in Washington territory indicated that he did not possess the necessary flexibility, tact, or humility necessary for the position. The Civil War found Stevens back in his proper sphere, and when he was suddenly and tragically cut down, rumors were circulating that he was in line for bigger things, perhaps command of an army. Stevens was a dedicated, honest, principled public servant who approached greatness, but who also possessed personal qualities which marred his record and kept him out of the first rank of 19th century American political and military leaders.