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Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-62) was the first governor of the Washington Territory (1853-57) and represented the territory in Congress from 1857-61. He was an enthusiastic proponent of westward expansion and an early booster of the commercial potential of the Pacific Northwest. He served with distinction with the U.S. Corps of Engineers under General Winfield Scott in the Mexican War in 1847. As superintendent of the government survey of a northern route for a transcontinental railroad in 1853 and as the first governor of Washington, he played an important part in promoting the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. His handling of Indian affairs in the territory, particularly the Indian War of 1855, was controversial even at the time and earned him a reprimand from President Franklin Pierce. The treaties he signed resulted in the rapid removal of the Indian population to reservations. They also established Native American fishing rights and became the basis of subsequent negotiations between the state and the Native American population.
Isaac Stevens was born on March 28, 1818, in North Andover, Massachusetts. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1839, the first in his class. In 1840 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Between 1840 and 1853, he worked on coastal defenses in Newport, Rhode Island, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Portland and Bucksport, Maine. He married Margaret Lyman Hazard of Newport on September 8, 1841. They had five children: Hazard, Virginia, Kate, Maude, and Susan.
Stevens spent most of 1847 with the engineer corps in General Winfield Scott’s Mexico campaign. After the siege of Vera Cruz, he was made adjutant to Major John L. Smith, commander of the engineer corps attached to Scott’s army. The nine-member engineer corps selected sites for fortifications, constructed field works, and provided information about unfamiliar terrain and enemy positions. The contributions of corps members Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and George B. McClellan to the success of the Mexican campaign are well known, but Stevens’s contributions have received less attention. Stevens saw action at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, where he was seriously wounded on September 13. He was promoted to brevet captain for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco and brevet major for the wound he took at Chapultepec.
After the war, Stevens returned to Bucksport, Maine, where he continued supervising construction of Fort Knox. In 1849, he moved to Washington, D.C., to become assistant in charge of the U.S. Coast Survey under survey director Alexander Bache, a fellow army engineer. As Bache’s assistant, Stevens ran the Washington office of the survey from 1849 to 1853. He reorganized the office into eight divisions, increased staff and improved efficiency, and served as the liaison between the survey and Congress and the public.
While he was living in Washington, Stevens also lobbied Congress on behalf of the army and the Army Corps of Engineers. In this capacity, he oversaw passage of the Fourteen Year Bill, which sped promotions for young officers. In 1851, he subsidized publication of 1,000 copies of a short book, Campaigns of the Rio Grande and Mexico, a defense of General Scott’s role in the war.
Frustrated with his prospects for advancement in the army during peacetime, Stevens decided to seek his future in politics and the West. He campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee Franklin Pierce in 1852, writing a series of letters to the Boston Post and a pamphlet defending Pierce’s war record. He also stumped for Pierce during the final weeks of the campaign. In return, Pierce named Stevens governor of the Washington Territory on March 17, 1853. Stevens also lobbied for the job of organizing and leading a government survey party to explore a northern route for a transcontinental railroad. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed Stevens superintendent of the survey in March 1853. Stevens spent the next three months organizing the expedition, which set out from St. Paul in June. The party traveled west through the Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho and arrived at Ft. Vancouver on November 19, 1853. The survey identified the first rail route from St. Paul to the Puget Sound and gathered information about the region’s topography, geography, flora, and fauna, identifying several previously unknown species. Survey artists John Mix Stanley and Gustavus Sohon created a pictorial record of the expedition that included some of the first graphic representations of the regions explored. The survey report was published in 1859.
Stevens arrived in Olympia to begin his term as governor on November 25, 1853. As governor, he convened a territorial legislature, settled claims to the territory by the Hudson Bay Company, petitioned Congress for funds to purchase land for a university, and established a territorial library. As superintendent of Indian affairs in the territory he oversaw the implementation of U.S. government policy toward Native Americans, which resulted in their removal to small reservations. When an Indian war erupted east of the Cascades in 1855, Stevens authorized a strong military response. West of the mountains, he instigated attacks on the Hudson Bay Company settlers, who had intermarried with the native population. In April 1856, after removing settlers whom he believed to be aiding the enemy and placing them in the military's custody, Stevens declared martial law in Pierce County to ensure a military trial. A declaration for Thurston County soon followed. However, only the territorial legislature possesed the authority to declare martial law, and a bitter political and legal battle ensued. Stevens was forced to repeal the declaration and fight subsequent calls for his removal.
From 1857 to 1861, Stevens represented the Washington Territory in Congress and worked for ratification of the Indian treaties he had brokered there. He was active in the presidential campaign of 1860 and a delegate to the Democratic national conventions in Charleston in April and Baltimore in June. He supported the candidacy of John Breckinridge and was appointed chairman of the Democratic National Party Executive Committee in Baltimore.
When the Civil War began, Stevens entered the Union Army as colonel of the 79th Regiment of New York Volunteers, known as the Highlanders. His success in bringing discipline to the mutinous regiment contributed to his commission as brigadier general from Washington Territory in September 1861. Assigned to the command of General Thomas W. Sherman, Stevens spent the first year of the war in coastal South Carolina and took part in the bombardment of Port Royal, near Charleston, in November 1861. On June 16, 1862, he commanded the main assult force in the Battle of Secessionville, fought on St. James Island. In August 1862, he joined General John Pope's forces at Culpeper Courthouse, Virginia, passing through Newport News and Fredericksburg on his way. He commanded a division at the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Chantilly, where he was killed on September 1, 1862. Stevens is buried in Newport, Rhode Island.
Scope and Content
The Isaac I. Stevens Papers document Stevens’s career from 1840 to 1853, from his appointment to the Corps of Engineers to the beginning of his term as territorial governor. There is less material on his years as governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. Stevens's Civil War letters provide an account of interactions between the union army and freed slaves in coastal South Carolina in 1861 and 1862. There is also a description of conditions in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the summer of 1862.
The great majority of material is found in accession 111-1. This accession contains 4.42 cubic feet of correspondence, speeches and writings, diaries, and documents from the period 1831-62. It consists primarily of general and outgoing correspondence from 1831-62 and files of research notes that Stevens created in the course of writing books and articles about the Mexican War, the army, politics, and the Northern Pacific Railroad survey.
Stevens’s general correspondence is arranged into two series. The first is a series of undated letters from the period 1831-45, arranged alphabetically by correspondent. The second is dated correspondence from 1831-62, arranged chronologically. These letters provide a record of Stevens’s professional and personal life from his student days at West Point to his death in 1862. They document Stevens’s career in the Army Corps of Engineers, his service in the engineer corps in the Mexican War, his planning and administration of the Northern Pacific Railroad exploration and survey, his involvement in national Democratic party politics in the 1850s and early 1860s, and his service in the Civil War in South Carolina in 1861 and 1862. Major correspondents include Isaac Stevens, Sr., Margaret Hazard Stevens, and other Stevens family members. A complete alphabetical listing of correspondents is linked to the inventory below.
The accession also contains two bound volumes of outgoing letters. The first is a letterpress copybook containing copies of Stevens’s letters from the period 1849 to 1851. They document his efforts to lobby Congress for more funds for the U.S. Army and the development of his ideas about reorganizing the army and improving professional opportunities for young officers. The volume includes a circular memo Stevens addressed to the brevetted officers of the Corps of Engineers and letters he wrote circulating his book, which he called “my little work on the Mexican War,” to fellow army officers. Major correspondents include Brigadier General Joseph Totten, Captain G.A. Smith, Major Barnard, and Major Hunt. A second bound volume of letters within the Pacific Railroad Survey subject series documents Stevens’s activities as he organized and planned the Northern Pacific Railroad survey expedition in the spring of 1853. It includes a draft of a memo addressed to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in which Stevens outlines his plan for the survey. There are also letters hiring members of the expedition party and letters to the quartermaster general’s office ordering supplies and providing for re-provisioning of the party out west.
Stevens’ diaries date from March 28 to May 5, 1847, and constitute a daily account of his experiences in the early months of the Mexican War. They contain descriptions of the Mexican people, architecture, and terrain, the progress of the war, and commentary on the military capabilities of fellow corps member Robert E. Lee. Stevens’s letters to his wife from this period, filed in the chronological General Correspondence, contain an account of the siege of Vera Cruz.
A large series described as Speeches and Writings consists of materials created by Stevens in the course of writing his book, Campaigns of the Rio Grande and Mexico, newspaper articles, and speeches, and in lobbying Congress to improve the status of the army. Research materials include military data and records, notes, officers’ accounts of the Mexican campaign, and data on the number and strength of army troops on the western frontier. Speeches and articles Stevens wrote on the Mexican War, for the presidential campaign of Franklin Pierce, and promoting a northern route for the transcontinental railroad are also described as Speeches and Writings. The content of each folder is listed on the inventory.
Aside from correspondence, the collection contains relatively little material that pertains to Stevens’s term as governor and superintendent of Indian affairs or superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railroad survey. Among the subject series is a folder of information about the Blackfoot language that was gathered at Fort Benton and Piegan Camp in September 1853. The North Pacific Railroad Survery subject files pertain mostly to the lengthy efforts of Stevens and his heirs to win reimbursement for expenditures for the survey work. A folder on military service in Texas in the Speeches and Writings of Others series contains a description of Indian settlements there in the 1850s. Among the main Speeches and Writings series is an obituary Stevens wrote for his nephew and aide, George W. Stevens. The accession also contains four photostat copies of Governor Stevens's declarations of martial law in Thurston and Pierce counties in 1856.
The accession contains one subgroup, Stevens Family Correspondence. It consists of six folders of General Correspondence between members of the Stevens family during the period 1839-62. These letters include descriptions of Olympia during Stevens’s term as governor. The bulk of this subgroup consists of the incoming letters of Isaac Stevens, Sr., and Margaret Stevens.
Accession 111-2 consists of positive microfilm copies of the two series of Stevens's General Correspondence and other selected material from Accession 111-1. The copies are contained on four reels of positive microfilm. The accession includes two sets of microfilm, one set of which is available for interlibrary loan. The arrangement of the materials on the microfilm follows that of the originals prior to their reprocessing. An index to the correpondents can be found in the inventory of Accession 111-1. The originals of the materials known on the microfilm as Supplements to Isaac Stevens's Papers are found in the Incoming Letters, Outgoing Letters, and General Correspondence of Others in Accession 111-1. Similarly, the microfilmed Speeches and Writing includes materials from the Subject Series and Report series of Accession 111-1. Only the period from April 5 to December 12, 1847, of Stevens's Mexican War Diary has been filmed.
Digital Content/Other Formats
Portions of the Isaac I. Stevens Papers have been microfilmed and are available in the library and for interlibrary loan (Accession. 111-2).
Restrictions on Access
Open to all users.
Restrictions on Use
The creator's literary rights are in the public domain.
The materials in Accession 111-1 of the Isaac I. Stevens Papers were acquired by the University of Washington Libraries in 1934 from Kate Stevens Bates and in1960 from Albert Culverwell.
The photostat copies of Stevens's declarations of martial law were acquired from the Pacific Northwest Quarterly in April 1975.
Accession 111-1 is a merger of materials received in 1934 and 1960. The accession was reprocessed in 2002, at which time accession 111-3, the photostat copies of Stevens's declarations of martial law, was merged.
The microfilm that comprises Accession 111-2 was filmed from the original papers in 1965 at the University of Washington under a grant from the National Historical Publications Commission.
The Hazard Stevens Papers, 1863-1899 (Accession 4909-1), were previously part of the Isaac I. Stevens Papers. This collection contains correspondence, legal documents, reminiscences, writings, and documents from Hazard Stevens’s service with the 1st Regiment of Loyal Virginians (1863-65), family and business correspondence, a diary, and biographical notes Hazard Stevens gathered about his father, Isaac I. Stevens.
Two portrait photographs of Stevens were transferred to the division's photography collections in 2002.
Buerge, David M., "Big Little Man: Isaac Stevens (1818-1862)." In Washingtonians: A Biographical Portrait of the State, edited by David Brewster and David M. Buerge. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1988, pp. 73-95.
Doty, James, The Journal of Operations of Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens of Washington Territory in 1855, edited by Edward J. Kowrach. Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1978.
Hazard, Joseph Taylor, Companion of Adventure: a Biography of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, First Governor of Washington Territory. Portland, Or.: Binfords and Mort, 1952.
Richards, Kent, Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979.
Stevens, Hazard, The Life of General Isaac Ingalls Stevens. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901.
Other Finding Aids
The guide compiled in 1965 for the National Historical Publications Commission Microfilm Publication Program contains a biographical sketch of Stevens, a list of papers microfilmed for the NHPC project in 1965, and a description of the arrangement of the entire collection in its prior arrangement, including an alphabetical list of Stevens’s correspondents. An earlier guide contains a narrative description of the collection, which at the time consisted of only Accession 111-1, with considerable description of the subject content of the General Correspondence, biographical information about Stevens, and a brief description of other series in the collection.
The records of Washington's territorial governors, including those from the Stevens administration, can be found at the Washington State Archives. The Archives also have a small amount of Stevens Family materials.
Additional papers of Isaac Ingalls Stevens can be found at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
The Washington State Historical Society holds additional papers of Isaac Ingalls Stevens and Hazard Stevens.
University of Oregon Libraries holds the Kate Stevens Bates Papers and the Hazard Stevens Papers.
A typescript copy of the journal of operations of Governor Stevens maintained by his secretary, James Doty, is held by the Oregon Historical Society Libary.
Tulalip Agency Papers at Washington State University includes correspondence of Stevens and others chiefly regarding the Tulalip, Lummi, Snohomish, and Puyallup Indians.
Eastern Washington State Historical Society at the The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (formerly the Cheney Cowles Museum) in Spokane has a collection of Stevens Family papers.
|Last modified: November 14, 2013|