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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 446

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This is the grave of Isaac Stevens.

Born in North Andover, Massachusetts in 1818, Stevens had a rough childhood. His father was an unloving taskmaster who forced the boy to work in the sun until he suffered sunstroke. His mother died young and his father married a woman he didn’t like. Moreover, he had some sort of disorder that meant he was very short, barely five feet tall. But he was driven. He ended up at West Point and graduated first in his class in 1839. He was in the Corps of Engineers and in charge of fortifications in New England beginning in 1841. In the Mexican War, when the nation stole half of Mexico to expand slavery, he saw a lot of action and performed quite well, rising to the brevet rank of major. He wrote a book on the war in 1851 that receive some attention. He returned to his New England fortifications until 1849, when he was promoted to the position of leading the Coast Survey Office in Washington.

Stevens was a hard-core pro-slavery northern Democrat, or doughface, as they were called. Thus, he was a big supporter of Franklin Pierce. When Pierce won, he rewarded Stevens governor of the new Washington Territory. He also got the job of surveying a route out there, as everyone was preparing for the eventuality of railroads crossing the country.

While in Washington, Stevens proved to be among the most disgusting people in all of American history, a committer of genocide against Native people. He spent his time there engaging in not only ethnic cleansing, but declaring martial law against any whites who opposed his rule. He forced Native people into all sorts of exploitative treaties and when they would not acquiesce, he committed violent depredations against them. He just started executing Native leaders for no good reason, such as the Nisqually leader Leschi. Stevens had forced Leschi into signing a treaty, but the land was terrible. He objected. War resulted. These were the Yakima Wars, that lasted between 1855 and 1858, though mostly it was done by 1856. That’s what they are known by today, even though whites didn’t even bother to spell the name of the Yakama correctly, either in the name of the war or the city. Stevens had no interest in stopping gold miners from rushing Yakama land. When a couple raped a Yakama woman, a man named Qualchin killed them. The white genocide was on. See, when Stevens had forced bigger tribes of what is today eastern Washington into treaties, it was with the stipulation that miners be kept out. But of course these were just lies. Stevens never had any intention of the sort. And he responded with maximum violence.

Everyone realized what this war meant. It was the last chance for Native people to have any control over their lives. For Stevens, it was a chance to ethnically cleanse Washington. The Yakama were mostly in what is today central Washington. The Nisqually were one of many tribes on the Puget Sound. Leschi led the resistance there, organizing the tribes to fight Stevens and his men. Leschi had actually been pretty friendly to white settlers early on, until Stevens came and run roughshod over them. Quite a few of the whites were sympathetic to him, seeing Stevens as a dictatorial racist monster, even for the 1850s, which is a really high bar. Stevens and others (the territorial governor of Oregon was just as awful) were determined to kill them all. In Stevens’ words, as he convened the territorial legislature, “the war shall be prosecuted until the last hostile Indian is exterminated.” Exterminated with extreme prejudice.

When Stevens realized that local whites, especially in Pierce County, were not all about his extreminationist policies, perhaps because many had intermarried into the tribes, he declared martial law. The other thing he hated about Pierce County is that lots of these settlers were Whigs. So this was a naked attempt to connect political extreminationism with race-based exterminationism. He had farmers he didn’t like arrested. When a judge overruled him, Stevens had the judge arrested too. This only ended when the territorial’s court chief justice, who was sick and bedridden, roused himself to overrule Stevens and had the sheriff back down Stevens’ personal militia.

Ezra Meeker, who was a setter and a Whig, said this about Stevens:

“He would take no counsel, nor brook opposition to his will. He believed in himself, and he was willing to take all responsibility. He would not shrink from the severest strain of labor nor tolerate idleness in others. He was scrupulously honest in the handling of public money . . . he was possessed of small measure of patience, a characteristic so essential in dealing with Indians. His education had been under military discipline of strict submission to those in command and his habits of obedience had been formed under the experience of war. With these defects of character and training, it is easy to see that his dealings with the Indians were from the first doomed to failure.”

Obviously, Native people did not have the firepower to win this war. So Stevens had Leschi tried for murder, not for killing a civilian, but for killing a soldier. Many said that as this was an actual war, Stevens couldn’t have his opponent tried in a court for normal actions committed during wartime. Stevens didn’t care. It took two trials, but he finally had Leschi found guilty of murder and hanged. The military would not allow him to be executed on their territory, as the commanders of Fort Steilacoom felt this was illegal. So he was just hanged outside of it.

All of this led to a good bit of pressure on Pierce to get rid of Stevens. But what did Pierce care? He told Stevens to knock it off, but wouldn’t remove him. The majority of whites in Washington Territory loved all of this. Genocide was their goal. So they elected Stevens as their representative to Congress in 1857 and again in 1858.

Stevens actually never returned to Washington Territory once he left for Congress in 1857. He rejoined the military when the Civil War began. He was a doughface, but like people such as George McClellan, was at least a unionist when it counted. He was promoted to brigadier general in September 1861. He led his troops in a lot of battles, first to take the Sea Islands and then in Virginia. He was under John Pope (another guy who was directly implicated in genocide, in his case the Dakota War) at Second Manassas. On September 1, 1862, Stevens was leading his troops at the Battle of Chantilly. Charging into Confederate lines while also carrying his regiment’s flag, he was shot in the head and killed.

Today, Stevens is basically unknown. He should be known as one of the worst people in American history.

Isaac Stevens is buried in Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island.

If you would like this series to visit other people mentioned in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Leschi is in Puyallup, Washington and John Pope is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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