John Mullan: the Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder

By Luke Sprague

October 2, 2014

Petersen, Keith. John Mullan: the Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2014. 336 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87422-321-7.

Keith Petersen’s book John Mullan: the Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder solidly captures the spirit of the mid-nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest and the life of one of its leading figures. His book chronicles the life of John Mullan, a man well known in the Pacific Northwest for his role as architect and builder of the military road between Fort Walla Walla, Washington and Fort Benton, Montana.

In this biography and history, Petersen builds a complete historical context that demonstrates an extraordinary depth of nineteenth-century historical knowledge while remaining accessible to the general reader. The work, in one consistent voice, successfully spans nineteenth-century Baltimore Catholic upper-social strata to the bordellos of Walla Walla, Washington without missing a beat. Petersen knows his topic well and wraps the primary sources so tightly that it is difficult to find openings in the content with to take issue.

His analysis is sober, without unnecessary hyperbole, and not marred by the follies of popular history. This includes Petersen’s painting of the collision of the United States Army and northwest Native American tribes on the eve of John Mullan’s road construction in 1858. He also clearly grasps the special connections established between antebellum US Army officers: Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, Frederick Dent, Isaac Stevens, and John Mullan.

The book exudes robustness and depth while keeping the story centered and moving ahead, a task few histories achieve. With that said, the preludes to each section I found distracting and breaking up the flow of the book, the prelude to section three in particular. However, other readers may find the preludes a valuable structure upon which the chapter’s information may be layered.

Petersen successfully utilizes a number of techniques to maintain his academic bona fides while being completely accessible to the public. Not including a historiography (historians arguing about what other historians say) certainly made the book more readable. This may have upset academic readers, but given the only recent access to the John Mullan Papers at Georgetown University Library I suspect this book is the beginning of the analysis.

Secondly, Petersen uses a recently accepted method of source documentation that provides academics with what they want, while allowing the public an easier read. In this method, the endnote number appears at the end of an entire paragraph, allowing the reader to flow through the text while giving the academic a reasonable way of finding the material in the endnote citation. Petersen went a step beyond this by providing substantial commentary on sources in the endnotes thereby helping future researchers. He also made a smart use of endnote abbreviations and included a substantial index.

John Mullan should be a reader for any senior-level or graduate college course involving the Pacific Northwest: the breadth of content is substantial while maintaining primary source depth. This book is also valuable for fleshing out the personal profiles of West Point Cadets in classes from 1846 to 1852. Fifteen years later, these class years of cadets formed the foundation of the regular army officer corps and were mid-career at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. That being said, I recommend this book for anyone interested in the life of John Mullan, Mullan’s Road, or the Pacific Northwest in the nineteenth-century.

Historian Luke Sprague (left) and Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen (right) at Plante’s Ferry Park in Spokane Valley, Washington on September 20, 2014.

Q&A session with Keith Petersen:

On September 20, 2014, I asked Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen a series of questions regarding his newly released book John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder. Here are my questions and his answers:

Question (Luke):What can you tell me about Captain Mullan’s special relationship with General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman?

Answer (Keith):“Mullan sought to replace General Sherman’s brother-in-law and foster brother Charles Ewing on the Board of Catholic Indian Missions when he died at the age of 48.”

Luke’s sidebar- Charles Ewing worked with Father Brouillet on this board; Brouillet knew Mullan from thru his wife Rebecca who helped raise money for the first Catholic Church in Walla Walla, Washington.

Question (Luke):Without John Mullan’s individual drive and obsession would the Mullan Road been built?

Answer (Keith):“Yes, the road was going to be built no matter what. Isaac Stevens would have found someone else to build the road, had it not been Mullan. Isaac Stevens had a vision for Washington Territory.”

Question (Luke):Mullan’s wife, Rebecca, remains an enigma, what would have other sources told us?

Answer (Keith):“We have no personal correspondence. We have to read between the lines. What we have is a diary from 1858 when Mullan and she had been courting for a year. Her family was socially significant in Maryland and she was close to her family. But Rebecca is not buried with her husband, but instead in the Williamson family crypt in Baltimore.”

Question (Luke):Do you think the dedication of the Mullan Road markers part of “nation-building” for the United States?

Answer (Keith):“No, it was not, most of these monuments were set from 1916 to 1941. Local people placed these historical markers in remembrance of the importance the Mullan Road held for local communities. This was after that period.”

Question (Luke):There are prelude sections to the three sections of the book—foreshadowing of the content, what can you tell me about your decision to use this technique?

Answer (Keith):“You can use it for material that you cannot fit in anywhere else—at the front of each section.”

Question (Luke):What would have liked to include in the book but did not?

Answer (Keith):“The story of the Mullan Road historical markers and their placement; and the historians who kept the story of the Mullan Road.”

Thumbnail image of Luke Sprague

Luke Sprague is a historian at HistoryMint who writes nominations for historical markers, click here to find out more about this service.