Published on February 15, 2011 by Amy
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Isaac Ingalls Stevens
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.
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.
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.