The Mullan Road

A 6.418Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

In 1849 a Mounted Rifle Regiment arrived at the west coast’s Fort Vancouver, as did two companies of the First Artillery of the War Department that had sent troops down the east coast and across the Isthmus of Panama. As more conflicts developed in the Pacific Northwest, the requests to send troops from back east proved expensive. The need to know the true potential of an overland route was a topic often discussed on Capitol Hill in the early 1850’s.

With the end of the Mexican War and the beginning of the California Gold Rush, the need to connect the new American west with the east seemed even more imperative. In March 1853, Congress formed the Territory of Washington out of the northern portion of the Oregon Territory. After a long series of debates that year, congress authorized the War Department and the Corps of Topographical Engineers to conduct a comprehensive survey to determine the most practical and economical route. There were numerous discussions concerning a railroad connection to the Pacific slope due to the expanding population, and congress appropriated $150,000 for an exploration of feasibility. President Franklin Pierce received a request for the governorship of Washington Territory from Major Isaac I. Stevens, an 1839 West Point graduate. He also requested to be placed in charge of the survey for a railroad route and was awarded that position.

Many survey instruments had to be made prior to the expedition and Stevens immediately issued orders for portable transits, barometers, and levels to be constructed. As Stevens’ assistant, Lt. John Mullan, an 1852 West Point graduate, was able to offer advice concerning the manufacturer of some of the equipment he had trained with, some models better than others. Mullan was given his first command once they reached the trading post at Fort Benton on the Missouri River, some forty miles below the current city of Great Falls, Montana. His task on horseback was a visit of goodwill to a Flathead Indian camp to the southeast, nearly to the Yellowstone River some 170 miles distance. Mullan’s small party talked four chiefs into accompanying him to the Bitterroot Valley, south of current Missoula, where Stevens would inform them of the Great White Chief back east, and his desire to end Indian wars as well as to provide them with needed assistance. Stevens had several other parties under his command exploring different areas for a railroad route across the Rockies and Coastal Mountain Ranges.

Lieutenant Mullan was ordered to stay the winter in the Bitterroot Valley, at a site he named Cantonment Stevens, to conduct surveys south for 250 miles to Fort Hall, north 180 miles to the Canadian border, and west to Fort Walla Walla, near the Columbia River. The trip south was in the dead of a harsh winter for the men, spending Christmas Eve on the continental divide fifty miles south of Dillon, MT on the border with Idaho. The trip to the north was in the spring when streams were high, twice having to swim their horses across while their supplies were loaded on makeshift rafts. The trip west through rugged mountains was where Lewis and Clark in 1805 had traveled and nearly starved to death until they had reached Indian villages that supplied them with fish, making the men sick from gorging themselves. During Mullan’s 1853-54 travels out of the Bitterroot Valley, he crossed the great divide five times on horseback, once by returning to Fort Benton and bringing a wagon back to his cantonment. Mullan kept accurate journals of his expeditions and keeping Stevens advised with reports, he was convinced he had found favorable mountain crossings for a railroad route.

Returning back east, Stevens petitioned Congress for appropriations to construct a military road across the mountains from Fort Benton to Walla Walla, allowing troops to be sent west by steamboats up the Missouri and down the Columbia with a 600 or so mile road in-between. He also recommended John Mullan to command the road construction, and was successful in both.

Mullan was to begin the military road construction from Fort Walla Walla, but in April, 1858 Lieut. Col. Edward Steptoe and one-hundred thirty dragoons left there to protect miners in Fort Colville near the Canadian border. Ninety miles into the trek, Indians in war paint: Spokane’s, Pelouze’s, Coeur d’Alene’s, Yakima’s, and warriors of smaller tribes met Steptoe near the current town of Rosalia, Washington. After a few talks with chiefs and Father Joset, a Jesuit missionary, the tribes attacked Steptoe’s troops. By nightfall with several dead soldiers, Steptoe and his men mounted their horses and quietly rode down a hill to the south and onward for seventy-five miles, arriving at the Snake River crossing at 10:00 the following morning. Steptoe’s official report stated that had Mullan started his road, all men would have been slaughtered. Consequently, General Newman Clarke ordered three companies of artillery from San Francisco, one company of the 4th Infantry from Fort Jones, California, and another company of the 4th Infantry from Fort Umpqua, Oregon. These troops were concentrated at Fort Walla Walla and thoroughly drilled in Indian warfare. The command of six hundred was given to Colonel George Wright, with instructions to persist in a severe defeat of the hostiles and to seek the capture of Yakima Chief Kamiakin and other leaders. Mullan joined the command acting as topographical engineer, selecting routes and river and stream crossings. He was also placed in command of thirty Nez Perce mounted warriors who were to act as guides, scouts and interpreters for Wright.

Soon engaged, Mullan’s West Point training exercises as well as his time fighting the Florida Seminoles came rushing forward. But he quickly realized that his Indian troop’s individuality was so strong that it was difficult for him to induce them to obey orders. Each one was fighting on his own responsibility, just as they had done before the white men came. Mullan’s native dragoons were dressed in uniform to distinguish them from the hostiles. Like most Indians, they were particularly delighted with their clothes, and no young officer just commissioned thought as much of his uniform as they did. They insisted upon having every portion, even to the glazed cap covers. Mullan feared for his orderless men and after a few skirmishes, he regrouped and led them to meet up with Wright’s command. Wright and Mullan rode to the top of the hill, and the whole scene lay before them like a splendid panorama.

The ensuing battles began in the area surrounding the community of Four Lakes, Washington at the junction of I-90 and State Highway 904. A mile to the southwest is Wrights Hill, a prominent knoll named after Colonel Wright which may have been the hill he and Mullan rode up to observe the battle. In the town of Four Lakes, there is a monument to this Battle of Four Lakes, located 170 yards west of Highway 904, just north of West 1st Street. The later Battle of Spokane Plains also has a historical monument two miles west of South Craig Road at the west side of Airway Heights along U.S. Highway 2, and just west of the South Dover Road entrance.

It was June, 1859 before Mullan did finally commence the road work toward Fort Benton with 90 soldiers and civilians. He was escorted by Lieutenant James White’s command of 140 men of the 3rd artillery for protection against Indian attacks. By December 5th the road construction halted due to heavy snows and -42 degree temperatures. Cabins were built, supplies stored, men still worked a few hours a day cutting firewood, repairing items, making leather items from the cattle hides, tidying camp, and trying to stay warm and dry in the three feet of snow. Due to lack of feed, many horses and cattle perished, some horses and oxen were taken to the Bitterroot Valley for the winter. Remaining cattle were slaughtered for winter food. Construction started again in April and the road was completed to Fort Benton by August 1. Waiting to cross the newly constructed road were Major Blake with two-hundred military men and nearly twenty-five oxen wagons, one six-mule team wagon for headquarters, and a pack train of some one hundred-fifty small ponies and mules, most of which were commandeered from Mullan’s expedition. Mullan worked ahead of Blake on needy areas of the road and they arrived in Walla Walla by Oct. 4th.

Mullan reworked the road the following years of 1861-62 and no other military troops ever crossed over it. The road as completed around the north end of Coeur d’Alene Lake, from Walla Walla to Fort Benton was measured at 624 miles. Mullan didn’t regard his road as being completed and estimated that a further sum of $700,000 would be required to bring it to a state of perfection he believed it should be. However numerous homesteaders, freighters and prospectors did use the road for a number of years. From 1853-1862, John Mullan had totaled thirteen continental divide crossings on horseback.

In 1867, the Washington State congress passed a surprising memorial: "Memorial Relative to the Mullan Road." Statutes of the Territory of Washington, Fourteenth Session, 1866-1867. Your memorialists wish to further show the vital importance of an early opening of a free road through this rich and fertile region of public domain, whereby the producers of the valleys may be enabled to reach the mining regions with their produce, and supply the miners with the necessaries of life at prices which will enable them to remain in and develop the mines–From Jan. 1, to Nov. 15, 1866, 1500 head of horses have been purchased by individual miners at Wallawalla; 5000 head of cattle were driven from Walla-walla to Montana; 6000 mules have left the Columbia river and Walla-walla loaded with freight for Montana; 52 light wagons with families, have left Walla-walla for Montana; 31 wagons with immigrants have come through from the States via the "Mullan road," a portion of whom settled in Walla-walla valley and the remainder crossed the Columbia river at Wallula and settled on the Yakima river or passed on to Puget Sound; not less than 20,000 persons have passed over the "Mullan road" to and from Montana during the past season; 1,000,000 dollars in treasure has passed down through Walla-walla and Wallula during the same period."

Today, county roads, highways, I-90 and a railroad follow portions of the Mullan Road through Montana, Idaho, and Washington. In 1977, the American Society of Civil Engineers, through their National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Program, designated the entire Mullan Road as a historic civil engineering landmark. Evidence of the Mullan Road can be seen at specific areas along the 624 mile route. Currently, according to Mr. Raymond Borchers, there are twelve statues, twelve stone or pyramid monuments, twelve road signs, and six historical markers, a total of forty-two, commemorating John Mullan and his military road between Walla Walla Washington and Fort Benton, Montana, plus the Town of Mullan, ID bears his namesake. Numerous streets, roads, and trails also bear the Mullan name in portions of the three states. Other than perhaps Lewis & Clark, no other individual in all of the northwest of America has such recognition for a historical event. Lieutenant/Captain John Mullan truly was, `The Explorer.’ Though short in stature, about 5 foot 5 inches, he was a giant in the history of the American Northwest.

Montana resident Stewart Nash received his first survey license in 1972 and is licensed in several western states. He has contributed several articles to the Montana Surveyors Assoc. quarterly magazine, and currently has four historical novels available for downloading to e-readers, primarily through A fifth novel was published in Canada, under G. Stewart Nash, and is available on Amazon. He can be reached at

A 6.418Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE