| Boundaries Contents
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The Collector, is due out in October.
The 1840s and 50s saw wrenching upheaval in the North Columbia country. British fur trade culture, which had been the most visible organizing factor in the region for four decades, began to wane after the 1846 treaty that established the 49th parallel as the international boundary. Two years later, a virulent measles epidemic decimated tribal populations on the southern Plateau and led to the destruction of Marcus Whitman's mission at Walla Walla. Before anyone had recovered from that, gold-seeking prospectors flooded north from the California gold fields into the upper Columbia. By 1853, teams of surveyors began to probe the mountains for possible railroad routes, and in 1855 newly appointed territorial governor Isaac Stevens made his whirlwind tour of treaty negotiations, which stirred up controversy on all fronts. These culture clashes led to skirmishes between tribal people and encroaching settlers, followed eventually by Colonel George Wright's destructive swing through the Palouse and Spokane country in 1858.
In the view of distant observers from Washington, D.C., western Indians could not possibly stand up to these drastic changes. One United States Army private, who traveled up the Columbia four different times during this tumult, nevertheless tried very hard to put a face on the people who most of his superiors assumed were fading toward extinction.
Gustavus Sohon was born in the city of Tilsit in East Prussia in 1825. Little is known of his childhood or education beyond his daughter's recollection that her father attended "University," and that he was fluent in English, French, and German. According to family lore, he emigrated to the United States when he was seventeen in order to avoid conscription into the Prussian Army. The teenager settled in Brooklyn, where for ten years he worked in an assortment of skilled trades, including bookbinding and woodcarving.
In July of 1852, Sohon joined the U. S. Army, whose records describe him as five feet, seven inches tall with a dark complexion, hazel eyes, and black hair. The new private was assigned to Company K of the Fourth Infantry Regiment, at a wage of seven dollars per month. Private Sohon's outfit was soon dispatched to San Francisco aboard the S.S. Ohio; after only a few weeks in California, they continued north to the Columbia River and the infantry's new headquarters at Fort Vancouver. Their stated mission was to protect the growing numbers of American settlers pouring into the Northwest.
President Franklin Pierce had just appointed Isaac I. Stevens as Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the new Washington Territory; within a short time Stevens was also charged with leading a survey of possible railroad routes across the northern Rockies to the Pacific. While Stevens worked his way up the Missouri River to tackle his new duties, one of his assistants, Lt. Rufus Saxton, organized a supply train to travel east from Fort Dalles and establish a depot in Montana's Bitterroot Valley. Among the 18 foot soldiers who left Fort Dalles with Saxon on July 18, 1853, was Private Gustavus Sohon.
Having learned that the most direct trail across the mountains to the Bitterroot Valley was too arduous for the pack animals, Saxton set off on an alternate route by way of the Spokane and Clark Fork rivers -- part of the ancient Road to the Buffalo used by many Plateau tribes. Guided by Antoine Plante, a veteran fur trader, the party left the Walla Walla Valley on July 30 and traveled through a landscape that would become very familiar to Sohon in the coming years. When the party reached the Spokane River on August 6, they were greeted by Chief Garry of the Spokanes, who had been educated in Canada's Red River colony by the Hudson's Bay Company and spoke fluent English. His tribal members had heard reports that soldiers were coming to make war, and came out in great numbers to make sure the military understood their determination to defend their territory. Saxton assured Garry of his peaceful intentions and gave out presents "sent by the Great Father at Washington." Upon their departure he made arrangements to leave three crippled horses in Garry's care.
The next day, the Americans continued eastward for their rendezvous with Governor Stevens. Before continuing west, Stevens instructed Lt. John Mullan to establish winter quarters in the Bitterroot Valley and thoroughly survey the passes through the Rockies. Mullan established his main encampment in the middle of the comfortable valley near modern Stevensville. Gustavus Sohon was part of the winter detail, and both Stevens and Mullan were well aware of his artistic skills; over the winter Mullan gave the private every chance to shine.
Over the cold months, Private Sohon created many sketches and paintings. Works that have survived include accurate depictions of a camas flower and bulb, women engaged in gathering firewood, and landscapes later adapted into formal lithographs for Stevens's final report on the railroad survey. In addition, Sohon also sketched dozens of portraits of Salish and Kootenai Indians that include tribal names with English translations and biographical information. After the private completed one such likeness of Spokane Garry, the chief signed it with his own hand. .
Sohon applied his linguistic talents to the Salish language, beginning a dictionary of Salish words and phrases that eventually stretched into the thousands. Spokane Garry may well have assisted with the lexicon, and Sohon used great care to show the inflections, stops, and sounds of the oral language in his written versions. Sohon's writings that have survived on maps and a single surveying notebook provide important clues to the way Kalispel and Coeur d'Alene Salish were spoken a century and a half ago.
Lieutenant Mullan and his detachment spent the better part of a year spent exploring the Bitterroot Range before receiving orders to return to the Columbia. Journeying west across Lolo Pass, which they concluded was a most uninviting route for a railroad, they reached the Snake River at the mouth of the Clearwater (near present-day Clarkston) on October 5. The party then made their way overland across the high rolling prairie to Fort Walla Walla and down the emigrant road to Fort Dalles. Sohon spent at least part of the following months at Fort Vancouver, where he made a bird's eye sketch of the post that appeared as a lithograph in the official report of the expedition.
In 1855 Sohon returned to the Plateau region, sketching and translating for Governor Stevens during his treaty negotiations in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In 1858, he made the only eyewitness drawings of the key battles of Colonel Wright's campaign. Although Sohon then resigned from the U.S. Army, he returned to the region in 1859-62 to assist Captain John Mullan in the surveying and mapwork that went into building the Mullan Road between Fort Benton on the Missouri River and Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia.
Gustavus Sohon is universally acclaimned as one of the most sensitive and significant artists of early United States presence on the Columbia Plateau. Many historians, including David Nicandri of the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, believe that perhaps his most important contribution to our region may have been his many sketches of native people. "Each portrait," writes Nicandri, "is like an archaeological specimen meticulously unearthed and carefully logged."
Those sketches, now scattered among several museums, show distinct individual characters, men and women, old and young. The writing that Sohon added to each portrait provides important personal history and touches on the relationships of Plateau people with the fur trade, Eastern Woodlands and Plains Indians, Jesuit missionaries, and the new United States government. With pencils and pens, brushes and watercolors, Private Sohon showed anyone who bothered to look that real people inhabited the North Columbia Country. They had lived here for untold generations, had a culture that fit the place, and were determined to play a role in whatever social dynamic emerged from the chaos of the 1850s.
Illustration: Gustavus Sohon: "The Woman of Good Sense" 1853. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Jack Nisbet Homepage