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Stevens, Isaac, Mission


STEVENS, ISAAC, MISSION (1853–1855). Isaac Stevens was thirty-five years old in 1853 when he was appointed the Washington Territory's first governor and also Superintendent of Indian Affairs. As a West Point graduate, he was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers and gained experience as a surveyor and engineer. After military service in the War with Mexico (1846–1848), he joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Stevens's trip to his new post in the Washington Territory was combined with the additional job of commanding a survey team in mapping out a northern route for a proposed transcontinental railroad. Of the four surveys commissioned for the railroad, Stevens's was the most comprehensive, including records of flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Stevens assumed the governorship in November 1853 and set up a territorial government. With white people moving to the territory and settling on prime land claimed by Indian tribes, conflicts were inevitable. Stevens's solution was to divide the territory into districts and send agents out to select Indian representatives of each tribe to sign treaties.

Stevens traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funds to build roads and to buy Indian lands and establish Indian reserves. He returned in December 1854 with $45,000 for negotiating treaties with Indians in Washington Territory and another $80,000 for tribes along the eastern boundary of the territory.

Stevens appointed a commission to draw up a treaty patterned after those already signed with several Oregon tribes. Once it was ready, he set up a treaty council at Medicine Creek with tribes of Puget Sound Indians. On Christmas Day 1854, Stevens presented the treaty through an interpreter who used the Chinook Jargon, a language of some 500 words that crossed Indian language barriers.

The tribes were regarded as separate nations, but not foreign nations. They could make no treaties with any other country and were totally under the dominion of the United States. Representatives of the tribes signed the treaty on 26 December 1854, exchanging most of their land and gaining graduated annuity payments and an agricultural and industrial school. Their fishing rights were guaranteed on their usual grounds not included in the reservation land. Congress ratified the treaty on 3 March 1855.

Similar treaties were signed with other Puget Sound tribes at Point Elliott, Point No Port, and Neah Bay in January 1855. The ratification of these treaties was delayed in Congress until March 1859 because an Indian War, consisting of mostly small skirmishes, was waged with these tribes before they were settled on reservations.

Stevens's method of signing treaties continued with great councils held in Walla Walla (May–June 1855), and in present-day Montana at Hell Gate on the Clark Ford (July 1855) and at the mouth of the Judith River (October 1855).

Indian fishing rights outlined in the Treaty of Medicine Creek were challenged in court cases that lasted from 1968 to 1979, resulting in a Supreme Court decision,U.S. v. Washington, on the side of the Indians, ensuring their rights to fifty percent of the harvestable number of fish allowed within conservation regulations of the state of Washington.


Marks, Paula Mitchell. In a Barren Land: American Indian Dispossession and Survival. New York: William Morrow, 1998.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Richards, Kent D. Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979.

Veda BoydJones

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