Mining and the Mullan Military Road

Donald Graham
2-28-2005

Introduction

The Mullan Military Road ran 624 miles from Fort Walla Walla, Washington, to Fort Benton, Montana. Exploration and surveying for the route began in 1853 and 1854 but construction was delayed due to confrontations with hostile Indians. Construction actually began in 1859 and the road was finished in 1862; the total cost of construction was $230,000. Road construction methods were rather basic, consisting mainly of chosing a suitable route without too much gradient, removing trees and rocks in a few places where necessary, and building bridges. Lots of bridges! There were dozens of bridges over the Coeur d'Alene and St. Regis Rivers. They were washed out frequently and needed repair every time the rivers flooded, which was often, especially in the spring. The road itself was hardly more than a trail and began to deteriorate almost as soon as it was built due to the harsh climate and lack of funds for maintenance. Rather than being a means for travel across the country, the road was used more for access to the interior of Idaho from Fort Benton in the east and from Fort Walla Walla in the west. Rather than wagons full of settlers, the main users of the road were miners and their pack trains of supplies.

Mining and the Mullan Military Road

The ruggedness of the Idaho Batholith, a composite granitic mass that underlies central Idaho, combined with the remoteness of the region, provided little reason for travelers to undergo the rigors that travel through the region required. Prior to the discovery of gold, that is. The discovery of gold in Idaho Territory coincided with the waning production of the goldfields in California, which produced secondary gold rushes in (present-day) Idaho and a year later, in (present-day) Montana. The unique feature of the rush to the Idaho-Montana Gold Rush was that it was not an east-west migration as was the California Gold Rush. There was movement from even the north, from mining areas on the Fraser River and other areas north of the border.3 Men came from the south as well.4 It was more of an invasion or the region from all points of the compass. As William Trimble describes it:


… this movement was part of the formation and advance of an eastward moving frontier. [italics in original] American population, which had advanced westward up to 1840 in comparatively gradual and connected movements in the decade 1840-1850 leaped to the Willamette and the Sacramento; now it was recoiling eastward and in this recoil was meeting the old frontier, which was still advancing westward. In this beginning of the fusion of frontiers there was an interesting commingling of men reared in the East and of the men habituated to Californian ideas and usages. New problems were created (among which the condition of the Indians was most grave), new industrial and social forces were generated, and older ones reshaped or accentuated.5

For the years between 1820 and 1840, the westernmost point on the frontier of the U.S. was fairly stagnant in the general area of Saint Joseph-Westport Landing-Independence, in Missouri. Above Westport Landing, known as Kansas City today, steamboat navigation was possible as far as Fort Benton, Montana, but the change in direction of the river from east-west to north-south, at the Great Bend, and navigation problems made it so difficult that this river route was “seldom used.” The Platte and Kansas Rivers were discovered to be too shallow for practicable use as early as 1813. The Oregon Trail became important after the explorations of John C. Fremont’s expedition of 1843, and the publication of a map of the area published by the Fremont’s topographer, Charles Preuss. The Oregon Trail was the only reasonable east-west route in the north.

In the 1840’s the eastern terminus of the Oregon Trail was at the Great Bend of the Missouri River. At this time, of the more northern routes, only Marias Pass was possible. But it was little used because the short summer and the presence of hostile Blackfoot Indians, both of which added to the difficulties of geography. The Mullan Road, when finished in 1862, did not immediately overcome these deterrents. In the period of its heaviest use, the Mullan Road was travelled by only about 1,500 people. It was the discovery of the mineral wealth of the area that caused the Mullan Road to “come into its own.”

Fort Benton was established in 1847 by the American Fur Trading Company. Thomas Hart Benton, then a Missouri senator, helped to save the company’s license after it was involved in a legal dispute with the government over the sale of whisky to Indians. It was constructed of adobe bricks which eventually disintegrated, leading to the abandonment of the fort in 1881. In the 1860’s, following the discovery of gold in Montana, it became an important supply point for mining enterprises in the area.

John Mullan made one expedition to the area of the future road in the years 1853-54, crossing the continental divide a number of times and traveling more than a thousand miles. Following this expedition, he departed for other duties, while the idea for a road languished.

In the spring of 1858, the idea for the road was revived. When Lieutenant Mullan arrived at Fort Walla Walla, however, his road-building mission was interrupted again when he became part of Colonel Wright’s expedition to end the so-called Yakima War. It was at the end of this expedition in October 1858 that Lieutenant Mullan left Colonel Wright’s command and returned to Washington D.C. It was only the following spring, in March of 1859, that he was again given orders to resume his construction of the road that would eventually bear his name. It was in June of 1859 that construction actually began.

Mullan was to reroute his road several times. In 1860, after the Saint Joe River threatened the usability of the road, he switched routes from one passing south of Lake Coeur d’Alene to one passing north of the lake. He also eventually determined that he had chosen the wrong route. He decided that he should have chosen a route to the north following the course of the Clark Fork River to Pend Oreille.

The Indians either moved to reservations or were forced deeper into the rugged areas of the Rockies by the pressure from increasing numbers of white emigrants, miners and settlers. The military cited, of course, the presence of a number of hostile Indian tribes which posed as a threat to the white emigrants as justification for building the Mullan Road.

After the Yakima War was over, the region of the Columbia Plateau became a magnet for settlers. E.D. Pierce discovered gold on the North Fork of the Clearwater River February 20, 1860. This event in western Idaho sparked a gold rush to the area in the years 1860 and 1861. Towns grew up, flourished and died almost overnight. The town of Florence, Idaho, is a spectacular example. The gold rush quickly faded out as the easiest of the placer deposits were worked out. Some mining persisted for many years, and some miners found other livelihoods, but the majority of miners moved on. There were later gold rushes in other gold mining areas is southern Idaho and the Boise Basin, but these had little effect on northern Idaho or the Mullan Road.

The influx of miners began when gold was first discovered in the Colville area when a Scotsman named Angus MacDonald discovered gold in the area. Some also traveled through the area into British Columbia, where gold had also been discovered. The small trickle of men into the area it lacked the potential for a true gold rush but it was beginning to cause trouble with the Indians. “It seemed that gold could be found almost anywhere between the Spokane and the Pend d’Oreille [rivers], but that the deposits were small and superficial.”6 Besides the meager pickings, the difficulties were also significant because, as Trimble puts it: “The Indians of eastern Washington, in number about twelve thousand, were not to be despised as enemies.”7

In 1860, however, gold was discovered on Oro Fino Creek, in Idaho. The area was, at the time, Nez Perce country. The discovery prompted a rush of miners to the Salmon River area the next year and gold was discovered at various places in the region, including Grasshopper Creek and Gold Creek. Around this time the boom town of Bannock began.

It was the discovery of the mines in this area that began to draw heavy traffic into the area from the east. The miners came from both east and west. From the west up the Columbia River, but from the east there were three routes used:


…over the plains from Minnesota, up the Missouri by steamboat, and over the old Oregon trail. One incentive to taking the first two routes was the Mullan military road which had recently been constructed between Fort Benton and Walla Walla. All these immigrants of course prospected when they got into the mining regions and about the middle of the summer, parties arriving on the headwaters of the Missouri, discovered “prospects” at a number of points. The most important discovery was made at Grasshopper creek by some immigrants of whom John White seems to have been in some sort the leader. This group, like many others, was trying to penetrate to the Salmon river mines by way of old Fort Lemhi. The physiography of the country between the vicinity of Fort Lemhi and the Salmon river mines, however, is of the most forbidding character, while that northward toward Deer Lodge is comparatively inviting. It may well have been that reports from Gold creek helped to draw wanderers northward, but there was also the desire to get to the Mullan road. At any rate, there began on Grasshopper creek “the first important mining operations in this Territory.”

The gold rush which started first, in 1861, on the western flank of the rugged Idaho Batholith area on the Clearwater River, spread, in 1862, to the eastern flank of the Batholith in present-day southwestern Montana. In Idaho, a large number of remote small mining towns such as Florence, Idaho City, Elk City, Pierce City and Orofino were founded. Many of these towns became ghost towns almost as quickly as they sprang up. In Montana, while there were many small ghost towns, some of the larger mining towns became permanent, such as Helena and Butte. Besides the shipping points of Forts Benton and Walla Walla, to support the many small mining towns, a smaller number of larger towns such as Spokane, Lewiston and Missoula grew up as supply points. (Trimble, pp.)

For the years between 1820 and 1840, the westernmost point on the frontier of the U.S. was fairly stagnant in the general area of Saint Joseph-Westport Landing-Independence, in Missouri. Above Westport Landing, known as Kansas City today, steamboats navigation was possible as far as Fort Benton, Montana, but the change in direction of the river from east-west to north-south, at the Great Bend, and navigation problems made it so difficult that this river route was “seldom used.” The Platte and Kansas Rivers were discovered to be too shallow for practicable use as early as 1813. The Oregon Trail became important after the explorations of John C. Fremont’s expedition of 1843, and the publication of a map of the area published by the Fremont’s topographer, Charles Preuss. The Oregon Trail was the only reasonable east-west route in the north.

In the 1840’s the eastern terminus of the Oregon Trail was at the Great Bend of the Missouri River. At this time, of the more northern routes, only Marias Pass was possible. But it was little used because the short summer and the presence of hostile Blackfoot Indians, both of which added to the difficulties of geography. The Mullan Road, when finished in 1862, did not immediately overcome these deterrents. In the period of its heaviest use, the Mullan Road was travelled by only about 1,500 people. It was the discovery of the mineral wealth of the area that caused the Mullan Road to “come into its own.”

Fort Benton was established in 1847 by the American Fur Trading Company. Thomas Hart Benton, then a Missouri senator, helped to save the company’s license after it was involved in a legal dispute with the government over the sale of whisky to Indians. It was constructed of adobe bricks which eventually disintegrated, leading to the abandonment of the fort in 1881. In the 1860’s, following the discovery of gold in Montana, it became an important supply point for mining enterprises in the area.

Notes
1 Idaho State Historical Society. “The Mullan Road in Idaho.” Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series, Number 287 (Boise, ID: December 1964). Pp. 2. (Accessed January 17, 2005. URL: http://www.idahohistory.net/Reference%20Series/0287.doc)
2 The term region is here defined as a rectangle with old Fort Walla Walla at the southwestern corner and Fort Benton at the northeastern corner.
3 William Joseph Trimble, “The Mining Advance into the Inland Empire; a Comparative Study of the Beginnings of the Mining Industry in Idaho and Montana, eastern Washington and Oregon, and the southern interior of British Columbia; and of Institutions and Laws Based upon that Industry,” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin. History Series; v. 3, no. 2. (University of Wisconsin: Madison, Wis., 1914), p. 9.
4 Men came to the region (E. Washington-N. Idaho-W. Montana) from a southerly direction, as well as from the South, meaning Texas and other southern states. Many town names reflect this southern flavor: Dixie, Atlanta, Virginia City, etc. See Idaho State Historical Series Number 108, Idaho Before Statehood, and Sargent, unpublished paper. See also Moehring, "The Civil War and Town Founding," pp. 317-8.
5 Trimble, “The Mining Advance,” p. 11.
6 Ibid, p. 16.
7 Ibid, pp. 17-23.
8 Utley, Robert M. and Wilburn E. Washburn, “The American Heritage History of the Indian Wars,” (New York: Bonanza Books, 1977), p. 179-81.
9 There were other causes, such as the unfair treaties made by Isaac Stevens. See Trimble, pp. 18-19.
10 Both of these wars were fought largely with local volunteers and militia instead of regular army troops. They were paid with warrants which were later redeemed by the government. See Trimble, “The Mining Advance,” pp. 12-23.

Ibid, p. 23.
 
Ibid, p. 65.
 
U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Florence Tells Her Secrets,” Nez Perce National Forest Brochure published online in PDF form, (URL: http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/nezperce/florencesecrets.pdf.), p. 11.
 
Idaho Humanities Council, “Early Mining,” in Idaho Encyclopedia on Idaho Humanities Council website (URL: http://www.webs.uidaho.edu/idahoencyclopedia/articles/economy/early_mine.htm).
S. J. Coon, “Influence of the Gold Camps on the Economic Development of Western Montana,” The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 38, no. 5 (October, 1930), pp. 588-9.
 
Ibid, p. 589.
 
Ibid, p. 589.
 
S. J. Coon,”Influence of the Gold Camps on the Economic Development of Western Montana,” The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 38, no. 5 (October, 1930), pp. 580-99.
 
Pauline Battien, “The Gold Seekers - A 200 Year History of Mining in Washington, Idaho, Montana & Lower British Columbia.” (Colville, WA: Statesman-Examiner, Inc., 1989) p. 5.
 
Louis C. Coleman and Leo Reiman, (compiled by B.C. Payette) “Captain John Mullan: His Life; Building The Mullan Road as it is Today and Interesting Tales of Occurrences Along the Road.” (Printed Privately for Payette Radio Limited: Montreal, Canada, 1968.), p. 8-10
 
Captain John C. Mullan, “Report on the Construction of a Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton.” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863). 36 p.
 
Idaho State Historical Society. The Mullan Road in Idaho. Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series, Number 287 (Boise, ID: December 1964). Pp. 1-5. (Accessed January 17, 2005. URL: http://www.idahohistory.net/Reference%20Series/0287.doc). See p. 2.
 
Captain John C. Mullan, “Report on the Construction of a Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton.” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863). 36 p.
 
Pauline Battien, “The Gold Seekers - A 200 Year History of Mining in Washington, Idaho, Montana & Lower British Columbia.” (Colville, WA: Statesman-Examiner, Inc., 1989), p. 7.
 
6 Robert M. Utley and Wilburn E. Washburn, “The American Heritage History of the Indian Wars,” (New York: Bonanza Books, 1977), pp. 200-205.
 
Alvin M. Josephy, “The Civil War in the American West.” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), pp. 244-46.
 
Herbert M. Hart, “Old Forts of the Northwest.” (New York: Bonanza Books, 1963) p. 169.
 
From SmithsonianEducation.org (URL: http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/idealabs/ap/artifacts/knifedoc3.htm accessed 01/21/2005.)
 
Levi Strauss and Company, “About LS&Co., A History of Denim.” From the Levi Strauss and Company Website. (URL: http://www.levistrauss.com/about/history/denim.htm. accessed 01/21/2005.)