Kootenai History
Who was Mullan? Answers are many
Jan 10, 2005, 12:12

Who was this John Mullan, the man who played such an important part in the development of the west, including the construction of the Mullan Road through this area?

Such a question has many answers.

First of all, when he constructed the Mullan Road, he was an army engineer with the rank of lieutenant. However, he later became captain and it is as Capt. John Mullan he best is known in history.

Also, he was a man small in stature yet a man who was mighty in his achievements.

He was a man unafraid to push into unexplored areas of the west, a man of determination, and he was human in that history records his decisions were not always right but he was big enough to admit those errors and do what he could to correct them—such as the realignment of the western section of the Mullan road when he found his original route flooded by high waters in the spring.

Early in life, Mullan described by historians as being “one to two inches below average height,” showed his determination when at 16 years of age, he walked into the office of President James K. Polk and asked for an appointment to West Point.

“Don’t you think you are rather small to want to be a soldier?” the president asked.

“I may be somewhat small, sir, but can’t a small man be a soldier as well as a large?” was Mullan’s reply

Mullan received his appointment, entered the Academy July 1, 1847, two weeks before his 17th birthday, and was graduated in 1852, 15th in his class and with the rank of brevet 2nd lieutenant.

He hadn’t been a soldier very long before he became a member of the party headed by Gen. Isaac I. Stevens and was on his way west to look over the area for a route for a through railroad.

This began the saga of Mullan’s accomplishments in the west, which included the building of the Mullan Road, and he left an indelible mark on the area in more ways than one.

Mullan and his party celebrated July 4, 1861, not far east from Coeur d’Alene, leaving the Mullan Tree as a testimonial, an event which gave the name of Fourth of July canyon to that section of his route, immediately east of Wolf Lodge.

The name is in general use today although the travel way has been realigned several times and today, closely paralleling the route he surveyed, is a four-lane highway known as the Fourth of July link of U.S. interstate 90.

Mullan was born in Norfolk, Va., July 31, 1831, the eldest of 10 children of John and Mary Bright Mullan, natives of Ireland.

The family moved to Annapolis when Mullan was 3 and when he was 9 he entered a government school and was graduated from St. John’s College at Annapolis with an A.B. degree in 1847 at the age of 16.

Other characteristics of the man, who became an outstanding leader, are disclosed in his reports of his military life as well as the reports of others. They picture him as a fair minded man, ready to give credit to the men under him and fair in his dealings with the Indians.

Soon after Mullan completed his military road, he resigned his army commission. This step was taken in April, 1863 and later in the same month he married Rebecca Williamson in Baltimore.

But the west was still in his blood and their wedding trip took them to Walla Walla, via the Isthmus of Panama. While stationed in the west Mullan had filed on land in the Walla Walla area and he had left three brothers in charge in his absence.

Later Mullan lost his title to the land and following a dispute with his brothers he and his wife returned to Baltimore.

Again the west called, and Mullan took a four-year contract to carry the mail between Chico, Calif. And Ruby City, Idaho. Again misfortune dogged him and the venture was unsuccessful, leaving him with a $12,000 debt.

It was then Mullan moved to San Francisco and opened a law practice at which he seemed to fare better than at his other civilian activities.

In 1878, Mullan was sent to Washington to represent the state in a collection of claims against the government. Afterwards he continued to practice law at San Francisco until his health failed and he died in that city in 1909. His wife and two of his five children preceded him in death.

Although Mullan has been dead for more than half a century, his name is kept alive today in many ways.

A town and a mountain pass have been named for him, and Mullan monuments stand in every community of any size along the Mullan Road route. Few, if any, of these communities fail to have a street or avenue named for him.

Mullan also received many honors during his lifetime.

In 1866, when it was estimated 20,000 people had traveled his road, the Washington legislature gave him a vote of thanks in recognition of his “industry, energy and ability.”

In 1883, he was invited to Gold Creek, Mont. To take part in the driving of the golden spike, marking the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad built over the route he had surveyed before he had undertaken construction of the Mullan Road.

As well as being an honor, it was for him a dream come true.

He had written that at night in camp while building the Road he dreamed of the days when train whistles and the churn of steamer paddles would be heard in the west.

Part of his dream came true when the NP Railroad was completed. The other part of the dream was still to come in this area.

It is doubtful if Mullan did not realize when he was cutting his Road through the area, was the part the Road would play in the history of Coeur d’Alene. For had there been no Mullan Road, it is possible Gen. William T. Sherman would have not visited here when he was sent to the area to look for a military site post.

But in 1877 when Sherman made this trip, the Road was here and Sherman traveled it, recommending for a military site the area bordering Lake Coeur d’Alene and the mouth of the Spokane river.

History also records that Sherman was no stranger to Mullan. At The Dalles, Ore., Mullan had served with Sherman as well as with another famous general of the Civil War, U. S. Grant, who was to become president of the United States.

The three soldiers were active in the Indian fighting days in several sectors of the nation. In 1856-57 when Mullan was stationed at McHenry near Baltimore, he was ordered to Fort Leavenworth for frontier duty to serve under Col. George Wright, a soldier, who also later was to write important chapters of the history of the present day Inland Empire.

Capt. John Mullan was among the men who had a colorful career during a colorful era of the nation’s history.

It spanned the years from Indian fighting to well into the first decade of the present century and no one has yet questioned that Mullan contributed much to the history and development of the nation.

Editors Note: On June 14, 2005, Professor Paul McDermott, issued the following correction to this story; "Your data on Mullan contains a small error. He did not die in San Francisco, He died in Washington D.C. and is buried in a small catholic cemetery in Annapolis, MD. He is buried there will other members of the Mullan family. In Washington, he lived near Du Pont Circle. He died impoverished with his daughter supplementing their income by taking in laundry. Hope this clarifys your article."


April 07, 2009

Dear Madam,

I read with great interest your comments regarding John Mullan and I am surprised that you say that the' AN ' spelling of the name is Scottish.

My name is a Mullan living in Dublin and my grandfather came from Co. Derry where today there are many Mullan's and the name is quite common throughout the entire Northern part of Ireland. All Mullan's that I have come across come from the Catholic and native Irish tradition and this is why I am extremely surprised to read your comments about the Scottish association with the name. There are also many Mullan's in North America ,particularly around Detroit and they are 99% Catholic and Irish.

It is entirely possible that your great grand father's people changed their religion upon arrival in America in an attempt to avoid the religious discrimination against Irish Catholics which was prevalent on many parts at the time, I do know that Ronald Reagan's family changed their religion for this reason.

Kind Regards

Bill Mullan

November 05, 2006

Captain John Mullan was my grandfather, Henry Harvey Mullan's, uncle.

My grandfather, 1870 - 1966, replaced his father as the minister at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Macomb, Illinois. (1915 - 1954) The church was located in Scotland Township in McDonough County. Our family is of Scottish descent. It was told to me that they changed their name when leaving Scotland to Mullan (using the Scottish ending AN which was different from the common Irish spelling of Mullen - EN). The family did stay in Ireland for a few years before coming to America. You may want to attempt to trace John Mullan back to Scotland (The Isle of Gaul) and change his descent from Irish to Scottish in your biographies.

Bonnie Kay Chase Pettay
(Daughter of Elda Alleyene Mullan Chase)

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Maya Angelou


© Copyright 2009 by, Inc