Book Review: Isaac I. Stevens | HistoryNet MENU

Book Review: Isaac I. Stevens

By HistoryNet Staff
3/23/2017 • Wild West Magazine

Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry, by Kent D. Richards, Washington State University Press, Pullman, 2016, $29.95

This re-release of Isaac I. Stevens (originally published in 1979 and reprinted in 1993) includes corrections and revisions, as well as an explanation by author Kent Richards of why he never liked the subtitle—though the publisher insisted the author’s own choice, A Regular Go-Ahead Man, was too arcane. The term, Richards counters, was common in 19th-century America, and Stevens was its very embodiment. Born in Massachusetts of Puritan stock, he seemed imbued with their traits, as one 17th-century Englishmen expressed it, of being “generally aggressive and self-reliant, somewhat intolerant of human weaknesses, hostile to compromise, inclined to impose their views on others and actuated by a craving for self-expression.”

Born in 1818 and rising to graduate at the head of his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Isaac Ingalls Stevens went on to a short but distinguished life as an Army officer, statesman, diplomat, engineer, explorer, scientific administrator and writer. He was the first governor of Washington Territory (which was formed on March 2, 1853) and as such remains controversial for the war and suffering visited on its Indian population in the push toward eventual statehood (which happened on Nov. 11, 1889). Here the author, in the spirit of his preferred subtitle, reminds readers prone to judge Stevens by a retrospective yardstick that neither he nor his contemporaries would have felt a shred of guilt over such actions.

Though a Democrat in the era of slavery, Stevens believed in human equality and returned to Union Army service in the Civil War with characteristic zeal and daring. That would finally be the brigadier general’s undoing at the Battle of Chantilly on Sept. 1, 1862. Stevens’ principal legacy, however, remains in the relatively neglected pioneer zone of the Pacific Northwest, whose history the author deftly encompasses.

—Jon Guttman

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