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#1 Let's go on a journey!

Washington, D.C., February 7, 1859

Sir: I have the honor to submit my final report of the explorations made by me and under my direction, in the years 1853, 1854, and 1855, to determine the practicability of the northern route for a railroad to the Pacific.

I am, very respectfully, your most obedient

Isaac I. Stevens

Hon. John B. Floyd

Secretary of War, Washington City.

Thus begins Volume XII a hard-bound report containing the general, geographic, biological, meteorological, and zoological information gathered to determine the best root to build a railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Specifically from Saint Paul to Puget Sound along the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels You might appreciate learning who Isaac Stevens was and how he came to conduct these surveys.

Isaac Stevens, a native of Massachusetts, appears to have been a rather complex individual according to the various historians who have written about his life. He was a “can-do” kind of man who was known to have been “hard-headed and stubborn, prone to heavy drinking, and not worried about who he had to step over (or step on) to get things done.” [1]

In the Native American communities, many historians compare Isaac Stevens (pictured to the left) to Hitler and being genocidal. This was in relation to the poorly handled treaties and the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands. Retired Director of the Washington State Historical Society, David Nicandri, likens Stevens to Napoleon, stating that “However you calculate these things, Isaac Stevens has a larger footprint or takes up a greater volume of concern and consciousness than the entire balance of the territorial officialdom up until the time Washington becomes a state in 1889.”[2] Any way you look at his life, he left an indelible mark in history; albeit rather unknown to many of us in the original 13 (colonies that founded the country and later became states in the Union).

A staunch supporter of Franklin Pierce’s campaign for the presidency, Stevens was rewarded with the governorship of the newly created Washington Territory in 1853 (through 1857). On his way westward to the Territory in 1853, he undertook a massive survey. He traveled with a surveying crew to identify and map a northern transcontinental railroad route. An artist, Del Stanley, traveled with him as well.

Titled “Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route For A Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean” this fascinating final volume contains the “General Report,” “Botanical Report”, “Zoological Report”, and the two Appendices (“Table of Heights and Distances” and “Meteorological Reports”). There are also to large maps. “The Isothermal Chart of the Region North of the 36th Parallel etc. etc. Between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans” and “The Milk River to the Crossing of the Columbia River”.

Within the first three pages I encountered a bit of a knot to unravel. In 1855, Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States of America, was the Secretary of War. You will see, however, that the Honorable John B. Floyd is noted as the Secretary of War. This confused me for a few minutes. Floyd, 31st Governor of Virginia, was appointed Secretary of War by President Buchanan (1857-1860); which is obviously after 1855. I went back to the Title Page. On the back of that page is a printing of Senate and Congressional resolutions dealing with financing the explorations dated 1853 and 1854. A resolution to fund the printing of these reports was dated February 24, 1855. The last entry was a Senate resolution to print as many copies of Stevens’ report as were needed, dated May 9, 1860. It appears that the original report was printed beginning in 1855 and officially submitted to the Secretary of War, John B. Floyd in 1859.

Along with the diary-like narrative of the journey, this final report contains over 160 beautifully executed lithograph plates by artist and lithographer Stanley Del depicting scenes of nature, Native Americans, plants, animals and insects.

I will be reading the full report narrative and hope to provide you with some interesting and entertaining information soon through a series of articles. In the interim this is a beginning:

The first entry of the narrative journal begins:

On the 8th of April, 1853, I was assigned the duty of exploring a route for the Pacific railroad from St. Paul, or some eligible point on the Upper Mississippi, to Puget Sound. My instructions require me to examine carefully the passes of the several mountain ranges, the geography and meteorology of the whole intermediate region, the character, as avenues of trade and transportation, of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, the rains and snows of the route, especially in the mountain passes, and, in short, to collect every species of information bearing upon the question of railroad practicability. It was necessary, moreover, to give great attention to the Indian tribes, as their friendship was important to be secured, and bore directly upon the questions both of the Pacific railroad and the safety of my part. [1]


[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 19.

[1] Feliks Banel, “Remembering Washington’s complicated first governor, Isaac Stevens.”

[2] Ibid.

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