John Mullan's later years

History Corner

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Seven years of arduous toil on the Inland Northwest frontier building the now-famous Mullan Road linking Walla Walla, Wash., with Fort Benton, Mont., via North Idaho, earned U.S. Army Lieutenant John Mullan a promotion to captain, but it would be a long time before he saw glory again.

It was late 1862 when Mullan wrapped up his affairs at the completion of the 624-mile wagon trail he carved out of the wilderness, and began a new road in life - one that would be lined with failure, family betrayal, recognition, success and then poverty.

The year 1863 started out as a good one for Captain Mullan. The road he built was no longer his concern and he returned to Washington, D.C., married Rebecca Williamson of Baltimore, and resigned from the Army.

The Geographic Society invited him to give a lecture in New York about the Northwest frontier. Then the newlyweds headed back west to live the lives of settlers on farmland he purchased years earlier near Walla Walla.

Mullan had left the property in the care of three of his brothers while he was building the road.

Now back in civilian life, he joined his brothers on the farm, plowing into the task with his usual energy and zeal, never dreaming that dark clouds lay ahead.

From sunrise to sundown, he planted, plowed, fenced and did all the other chores needed to make his land productive. On Sundays, church services were held in his farmhouse parlor, often officiated by Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet and other frontier missionaries.

Mullan's wife Rebecca devoted her efforts to building a church and school, including raising the necessary funds.

She completed the project within a year. His farming efforts however failed to achieve his goals.

For 16 months, Mullan toiled to pay off all the remaining debts on the property. Then his married brother Louis asked that the title to the property be recorded in his name - even though John bought and paid for everything, and the other two brothers had also worked the land.

The law at that time said the title goes to the person who could prove the longest in possession of the property. John had not kept accounts of his efforts and expenditures, and after much legal wrangling his greedy brother Louis won the battle.

John and Rebecca gave up and returned to Baltimore- but he still had a heart for the West.

Seeing a need, he obtained a four-year contract from the government for $75,000 a year to establish and operate a mail and stagecoach line between Chico, Calif., and Ruby City. It was a tough task.

He had to repair roads, build bridges and stations, secure horses and drivers, and then contend with marauding Indians. The Indian matter became so perilous that Mullan asked the military for help. Ten companies of troops were assigned to protect the U.S. Mail, the stage line and the settlers.

It didn't take but about six months, however, for competition to move in.

Gov. James W. Nye of Nevada obtained a government contract paying him double what Mullan received. With more money, he could offer lower passenger fares, and Mullan quickly saw that his enterprise was doomed.

He hurried to Washington to try and salvage the matter but failed. Rebecca blamed it on politics.

"My husband's conservative views," she wrote, "had to give way to the radicalism that prevailed at that time. Thus he gave up a project to others, that he had initiated and expended so much money (on)."

Despite liquidating his assets, he was still $12,000 in debt.

Mullan never shrank from adversity. After all, he was the lad of 16 who boldly approached President James K. Polk in his office and asked for an appointment to West Point - and got it.

Weathering tough times was part of John Mullan's character. With a Scarlet O'Hara 'tomorrow is another day' attitude, he had Rebecca pack their bags and the couple headed for San Francisco, where he planned to become a lawyer.

In San Francisco, he studied law diligently, having already studied common and international law on his own. After several months of concentrated effort, he was able to pass the California bar exam.

He became a very successful lawyer in the Bay City, first working for a bank, then the city, followed by an assignment with the state.

His success enabled him to pay off his debts from the stagecoach business and to buy a "very handsome house," with all the latest furnishings.

After some six years, he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1878 to represent California seeking claims against the federal government. He later added Oregon, Nevada and Washington as clients. Things were looking good for the Mullans.

Back in the West, they did not forget about him.

In 1883, he was invited as guest of honor at the driving of the Golden Spike ceremony for the Northern Pacific Railroad at Gold Creek, Mont. Some 300 top leaders attended from all walks of life, including politicians, business tycoons, Supreme Court judges and foreign dignitaries.

Three years later, a Helena newspaper wrote, "From this distinguished engineer and explorer, the Mullan Road ... and the Mullan Pass across the Rockies take their names, and remain ever to remind present and future generations of the man's works."

Mullan also earned a reputation for working well with the Indians and was highly respected by them. While building the road, he used guides from several tribes - including a Coeur d'Alene Indian named Bassile.

He also helped them fight legal battles with the government.

U.S. Senate documents note: "In the autumn of 1884, said Coeur d'Alene Indians ... specifically requested John Mullan to bring to the attention of ... the United States the wrongs and rights of said Indians ... securing ... proper compensation for their lands, of which they had been dispossessed."

Though short in stature - about 5-foot-5 ("one to two inches below average height") - he was a giant in the history of the American Northwest.

Sadly, his final years were not happy ones.

Rebecca died in 1898, while John Mullan would live another nine years, continuing to practice law, but making little money at it. This once robust mountain man spent the last five years of his life paralyzed and confined to a bed and a wheelchair. His daughter supplemented their income by taking in extra laundry.

He died on Dec. 28, 1909, in Washington, D.C., survived by three of his five children. He was 80.

"My father as I recall him," wrote his daughter Mary Rebecca Flather, "had a masterful air, a keen sense of humor, loved a joke and a good story, his blue eyes twinkling with merriment.

"He had wonderful skin; cheeks like winter apples, and his white beard, merry blue eyes, and rosy cheeks he looked the ideal Santa Claus - and children on the street would call him so."

John Mullan is buried under a simple headstone in St, Mary's Cemetery in Annapolis, Md.

Two thousand and twenty miles to the west - at Fourth of July Pass on I-90 Highway east of Coeur d'Alene - there used to stand a white pine tree with "MR July 4, 1861" carved on it ( MR for "Military Road"). On that date, he and his men were there, celebrating with extra rations of molasses, ham, whiskey, flour and pickles.

The tree stood for another 101 years, finally blown down by a wind storm in 1962. The inscription part however, is preserved at the Museum of North Idaho in Coeur d'Alene.

The tree and the road that John Mullan carved into history may be long gone, but the memory of this hardy soldier, explorer and pioneer will be forever a part of the American experience.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission.

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