McClellan in the PNW

A follow up to my Military Road post from last week, this time about one of the more infamous people to visit the PNW way back in the day: George Brinton McClellan. Known primarily for his perceived failures during the Civil War, which earned him Lincoln’s contempt, “Little Mac” arrived in Washington just as it became its own territory separate from Oregon.

He had been sent here by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. In March 1853, Davis had recently been tasked to “ascertain the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” He proposed four surveys, which would run near the 32nd, 35th, 38th, and 49th parallels. For the 49th survey, he chose Isaac I. Stevens, who had recently been appointed the first Territorial governor of Washington. His pick to lead the Washington section of the survey was McClellan.

Two months later, on May 9, 1853, Davis authorized McClellan to lead another project in Washington territory. This one would also require the skills of the 25-year old employee of the Army Corps of Engineers. McClellan’s task was to survey and lead construction of a “military road from Walla-Walla to Steilacomb, Puget’s Sound.” As Davis noted the goal of the road was to allow emigrants into Washington, in part by allowing them to veer off the Oregon Trail and go directly to Puget Sound instead of going to Portland and then heading north. The appropriation was $20,000.

Tasked beyond his abilities, McClellan focused his energy on Stevens’ railroad survey, traveling from Fort Vancouver up toward Mt. St. Helens, east toward Mt. Adams, then north toward Yakima, and eventually north and west to try and locate a low divide route (choosing between Naches, Meadow, Yakima, Stevens, Stampede, and Snoqualmie Passes, the latter three of which he failed to locate ) across the Cascades. He also made it almost to Hart’s Pass, camped along Lake Chelan, crossed the 49th parallel near Osoyoos Lake, and visited Fort Walla Walla.

As an engineer and member of a federal expedition, McClellan kept a daily journal. I doubt that anyone has offered such damning words about the lovely land southwest of Mt Adams: “The much abused portion of Texas west of the Pecos is a paradise in comparision with this.” In contrast, two weeks later he found a landscape to exclaim: “The most prominent feature is Mt. Regnier, a most magnificient mountain—it covers an enormous extent of ground—has a beautiful shape, and presents a most beautiful contrast of light and shade.”

The same day that he wrote of Mt. Rainier, he left one of his few permanent marks on the region: the modern name for Mt. Stuart, which honors McClellan’s “best and closest friend,” Brevet Captain James Stuart, who had died in June 1851. McClellan’s name was later applied to McClellan Butte (along I-90, west of Snoqualmie Pass), McClellan Meadows (south between Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams, where McClellan camped in August 1853), and McClellan Streets in Seattle, Spokane, and Richland. (McClellan St. in Tenino is named for a local businessman.)

By December 19, McClellan was back at Fort Vancouver. He was next told to head to Olympia, where he wrote his mom a rather snarky letter. “We have to pass the winter at Olympia on Puget’s Sound, a flourishing city of some 10 to 12 houses—fine prospect that…I expect to spend the winter in a tent—labored by the rain & mud until next summer—except at rare and short intervals of time—it is raining almost constantly…I don’t think much of it [the Pacific Coast]—it is surely vastly overrated in every prospect.”

So he did what any whiner would do, he ran, or rather was paddled, away. On December 23, 1853, he got in a canoe with several Corps’ colleagues and three Native guides and headed north on Puget Sound. Passing by Alki, he noted “about 8 houses, 1 steam saw mill, and almost 20 Indian houses.” Near Snoqualmie Falls they spent several days camped in snow and very cold weather: “as we are all old woodsmen we can probably kill the night.” Once again he was dismissive of what he called the “monotonous and uninteresting” landscape. Even the Olympics no longer seemed to impress the callow young engineer. “The mountains in full view—many elevated and jagged peaks and ridges---all perfectly white with new snow—the view is as bleak and cold as the Christian charity of a methodist parson.” I am not sure what that means but I was tickled reading it.

In regard to the Military Road, historian Thomas Prosch wrote in The Washington Historical Quarterly of January 1908: “Of this task McClellan also made an entire failure. He expended in unknown ways much of the money, but as far as the citizens and immigrants were aware not a dollar in actual road construction…McClellan was slow; he did not come when wanted, and when he finally arrived on the scene he was too late to be of use. He took a look at the mountains, found snow on them, concluded they were too high for him to get over, and relinquished the task.” Oh well, so much for an over the mountains Military Road.

Sadly, like many others of his era, McClellan generally wrote in negative terms regarding the Indigenous people though he was far less racist than many others who wrote in this era of this region. He was also able to see that the Native people had reason to be circumspect of the newcomers, who promised much and delivered little. During a discussion with Kamiakum, a leader of the Yakima, about the proposed road and how Governor Stevens would treat Native people, he wrote prophetically: “I must say that at the time I had my misgivings whether whites would ever be just enough to execute their part of the bargain.”

McClellan was one of many military men who spent time in the PNW before they achieved fame and infamy in the Civil War. I hope to write more about them in future newsletters.


On September 10, I will be the keynote speaker at the Great Peninsula Conservancy’s annual fundraiser. It’s sure to be a fun event.