Gustavus Sohon, a native of East Prussia, arrived on the Columbia River in 1852 as a private in the U.S. Army. During the following decade, he accompanied four historic expeditions across Eastern Washington -- the 1853-1854 Pacific railroad survey, the 1855 treaty tour of Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the 1858 military campaign of Colonel George Wright (1803-1865) against the Plateau tribes, and the construction of a transmontane wagon road by John Mullan from 1859 to1862. A man of many talents, Sohon served as a guide, an interpreter, an explorer, and a cartographer, but he is best known as a self-taught artist whose surviving pencil sketches and watercolors of important figures and landmarks comprise valuable eyewitness records of a crucial transitional period in Inland Northwest history.
Gustavus Sohon, whose name was variously spelled as Gustav and Gustave, 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 17 in order to avoid conscription into the Prussian Army. The teenager settled in Brooklyn, where for 10 years he worked in an assortment of skilled trades, including bookbinding and woodcarving.
In July 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, earning seven dollars per month. Three days after enlisting, he sailed into the Atlantic aboard the SS Ohio, bound for the Pacific Coast. The regimental quartermaster for the Fourth Infantry was Ulysses S. Grant, whose memoirs include a vivid description of their arduous crossing of the Isthmus of Panama by rail, boat, and foot. Cholera and fever broke out among the troops, and more than 100 men died. The decimated regiment sailed on to San Francisco, and after a brief stay, Company K was ordered north to the Columbia River and the infantry’s new headquarters at Fort Vancouver, with a mission to protect the growing numbers of American settlers pouring into the Northwest.
Fort Vancouver was part of Oregon Territory when Sohon arrived in the fall of 1852, but the following March (1853), Millard Fillmore signed the bill creating Washington Territory north of the Columbia. Newly inaugurated President Franklin Pierce appointed Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) as Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the new territory. A week later, Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), Secretary of War, gave Stevens command of the survey of the northernmost of four potential railroad routes between the Mississippi River and the Pacific.
Stevens departed St. Paul, Minnesota, in June 1853 to explore the possibilities for a railroad between the 47th and 49th parallels. While the governor worked his way up the Missouri River, 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. Saxton left Fort Dalles on July 18, 1853, along with an astronomer and topographer to reconnoiter the route and a large pack train. A military escort of two officers and 18 soldiers of the Fourth Infantry accompanied the unit, Private Sohon among them. Nine soldiers marched at the head of the train, nine at the rear, on guard against attack by rumored hostile Indians in the interior.
The pack train followed the emigrant trail along the south side of the Columbia, arriving at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Walla Walla on July 27. There they were visited by Peo-Peo-Mox-Mox, a chief of the Walla Walla tribe, who pledged his friendship to the whites and offered help along the way.
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. 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. The midsummer heat in the arid country was so fierce that the men remained in camp the next day, then marched through the night to reach the Snake River.
They were making camp opposite the mouth of the Palouse River when about 50 Palus and Nez Perce Indians, having heard a rumor that American soldiers were coming to take possession of their home, arrived “in full costume, and with great formality, to hold a grand war talk.” After Saxton’s assurances of the peaceful nature of his journey, aided by a mollifying speech by the son of a former Walla Walla chief, the delegation accepted gifts and watched the soldiers display the firepower of their Sharpe and Colt rifles. The next morning at daybreak, the Palus and Nez Perce tribesmen loaded their canoes with the packers’ cargo and ferried it across the Snake, then promised to kill a fat ox for Governor Stevens when he arrived.
Marching northwest from the mouth of the Palouse for three and a half days, the party reached the Spokane River on August 6, where they met Chief Garry of the Spokanes, who had been educated in Canada by the Hudson’s Bay Company and spoke “tolerable English.” The Spokanes had also heard reports that soldiers were coming to make war. “They were delighted to find us friends, and came in great numbers to welcome us” (Stevens, Vol. 1, 257). Saxton gave out presents “sent by the Great Father at Washington” and made arrangements to leave three crippled horses in Garry’s care.
The next day, the Americans continued eastward for their rendezvous with Governor Stevens, whose party included the painter John Mix Stanley, hired as to record landscapes and tribal figures encountered by the expedition. Before continuing west, Stevens instructed Lt. John Mullan to establish winter quarters in the Bitterroot Valley and thoroughly survey the passes through the Rockies. Sohon was among the 15 men left to assist Mullan and he apparently found his new posting a congenial one. He applied his linguistic talents to the Salish language and began compiling a dictionary of Salish words and phrases. He also began sketching portraits of Flathead and Pend Oreille Indians as well as scenes of landscapes and events, possibly with the encouragement of Thomas Adams, a topographer and artist who served as Mullan’s assistant.
After a year spent exploring the Bitterroot range, Lt. Mullan’s detachment received 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. They made their way overland across the high rolling prairie to Fort Walla Walla, then down the emigrant road to Fort Dalles. Sohon spent at least part of the following months at Fort Vancouver, where he made a birds-eye sketch of the post that was later adapted for a lithograph in the official report of the expedition.
During the spring of 1855, Governor Stevens, in his role as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, had completed treaties with the Western Washington tribes and was preparing to negotiate with the Columbia Plateau and Rocky Mountain tribes within Washington Territory (present-day Washington, Idaho, and western Montana). Before embarking on his tour of the Inland Northwest, he arranged to have Sohon transferred to his command: “I also secured the services of a very intelligent, faithful, and appreciative man, Gustavus Sohon, a private of the Fourth Infantry, who was with Mr. Mullan the year previous in the Bitter Root valley, and had shown great taste as an artist, and ability to learn the Indian language, as well as facility in intercourse with the Indians” (Stevens Report 12:196). Historian David Nicandri believes that Stevens, who intended to publish an account of his treaty operations, was especially interested in Sohon’s pictorial talents, for the governor “knew that dramatic illustrations would greatly enhance the value of his treaty tour among easterners” (Nicandri, 11).
The first of the Eastern Washington treaty councils took place on a traditional tribal meeting ground in the Walla Walla Valley. On May 21, 1855, Stevens set up his headquarters on Mill Creek with General Joel Palmer, his counterpart from Oregon Territory. Three days later, in a dynamic pencil sketch, Sohon recorded the ceremonial arrival of hundreds of Nez Perce Indians and their reception by the American officials. The next day he documented the goodwill feast served by Stevens and Palmer to an assemblage of Nez Perce chiefs under an arbor built to shelter the diners. Lieutenant Lawrence Kip visited the Nez Perce camp that same day to pay his respects to Chief Lawyer. “We found the old chief surrounded by his family and reading a portion of the New Testament, while a German soldier of Governor Stevens’ party was engaged taking his portrait in crayon. He afterwards presented me with a copy, which I keep as a memento of these pleasant days in the wilderness” (Kip, appendix). Another sketch of the aged chief from the same day demonstrates Sohon’s habit of recording both native and English names of his subjects, as well as his method of noting colors of garments and accessories to be filled in later.
Representatives from other Plateau tribes soon swelled the council, and over the next three weeks, Sohon was busy with pencil and pen. He rendered likenesses of Chief Hirom from Kettle Falls and Chief Garry of the Spokanes, who rode in to observe the proceedings in preparation for their own tribe’s treaty council, which was scheduled for later that summer. Garry was garbed in a European collared shirt, with a ruffle touching his chin. A thick sash draped across one shoulder, set off by a fashionable cap. Sohon had his subject sign the portrait, then added a note: “The above Name is written by Garry himself.”
Sohon apparently spent additional time with Garry during the early days of the proceedings, possibly furthering his study of the Salish language from the previous year. Probably with Garry’s help, he translated the remarks of Commissioner Palmer at the formal opening of the council on May 30 into Salish, then copied out a parallel English-Spokane text of the speech.
Sohon sketched many of the Cayuse, DesChutes, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Yakama leaders as they negotiated the future of their homelands. His pencil captured not only those chiefs who favored a treaty, but also its most vocal opponents. His sketchbook included the only known image of Kamiakin, drawn on June 7, the same day that the young Yakama chief, tormented by the choice before him, declined to speak to the council. Two days later he rendered a likeness of the Nez Perce chief Looking Glass, whose dramatic arrival the previous evening after a long absence on a buffalo hunt had threatened to disrupt all progress toward an agreement.
Stevens, Palmer, and the leaders of the attending tribes eventually reached a compromise, and by June 11, 1855, three separate treaties ceding almost 60,000 square miles of land had been signed. The only surviving images of this signal event are two Sohon sketches showing six young Nez Perce seated on the ground with pens, paper, and inkwell in hand. They are both labeled “Nez Perce Indians preparing the records of the Walla Walla Council June 1855.”
The next afternoon, the artist took advantage of a rare opportunity to record a traditional scalp dance performed by Nez Perce women in celebration of Looking Glass's return. “The Indians entertained us with a scalp dance which was certainly an imposing affair. They had the scalp of a Blackfoot brought by Looking Glass' party and it was taken near the Bitterroot Valley only seven days since from a party of Blackfoot who had stolen horses from the Nez Perces, were pursued and overtaken, and in the fight which ensued, lost one of their number” (Doty, 31). Sohon’s drawings show a tight circle of Nez Perce in full dress surrounding a woman dancer who displays the scalp atop a long pole; an American flag flies in the background, while commissioners and uniformed soldiers stand on benches and observe with interest from the periphery.
Sohon’s eyewitness sketches “depict the Northwest chiefs as individuals, not ethnological stereotypes or allegorical symbols ... . Each portrait is like an archaeological specimen meticulously unearthed and carefully logged” (Nicandri, Northwest Chiefs, 31). Rich in anthropological detail, they document a culture in transition -- some of the men wear buffalo robes, headdresses, and traditional necklaces, while others have donned visored caps, collared shirts, and crucifixes. The historic scenes and portraits that Sohon captured on paper “immortalized what was arguably the most important generation of Indian leaders in Northwest history” (Nicandri, Northwest Chiefs, 31).
Having concluded the Walla Walla council, Governor Stevens quickly set off for western Montana, then part of Washington Territory, for the next stop on his treaty tour. Still intent on proving the case for a northern railroad, he determined “by proper care and management of time, and a little hard work, to make a good examination of the country ... . G. Sohon made the barometrical observations.” In addition to his linguistic and artistic talents, Sohon apparently also possessed skill with instruments. Stevens’ 13-year-old son, Hazard, accompanied his father and later described the pack train as it moved north from Walla Walla, “across the level valley prairie, covered with luxuriant bunch grass and vivid-hued flowers. A large, fine-looking Coeur d’Alene Indian named Joseph led the way as guide; then rode the governor with his son ... and Gustave Sohon, the artist, barometer carrier, and observer ... . It was a picked force, both men and animals, and made up in efficiency for scanty numbers. The artist, Gustave Sohon, a soldier of the 4th infantry, detailed for the trip, was an intelligent German, a clever sketcher, and competent to take astronomical observations ... .” Much of the information collected on this trip was later incorporated by Sohon into a map of eastern Washington Territory.
After completing treaty negotiations with the Salish tribes in the Bitterroot Valley and with the Blackfeet on the Missouri, aided by Sohon as intepreter, Stevens and his party turned back west in late October for their appointment with the Spokanes and Coeur d’Alenes. But they were only one day on the trail when a messenger brought news of the outbreak of war between Yakama tribesmen and whites. Twelve days after the last Walla Walla Treaty had been signed, the Oregon Weekly Times had published an announcement that seemed to invite settlers and miners into the country east of the Cascades. The Plateau tribes saw this as a clear violation of their agreements with Stevens; such encroachment, combined with increasing numbers of gold miners who were filtering into tribal territory, provided a recipe for violence.
Stevens pressed on across the Coeur d’Alene range through heavy snow and arrived at Antoine Plante’s farm on the Spokane River on November 28. Uncertain of the whereabouts of hostile tribes, he mustered his staff into a batallion dubbed the Stevens Guards and organized a volunteer unit of miners as the Spokane Invincibles. The ensuing council with the Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, and Colvilles, all of whom wished to avoid war with the whites, proved to be stormy and inconclusive. Spokane Garry and other leaders made a forceful argument that the tribes should be allowed to set the boundaries of their own reservations, and cautioned the governor that sending troops north of the Snake River would cause great alarm among the northern Plateau tribes. Garry insisted that the time was not right to make a treaty, and Stevens agreed that they should meet again at a later date.
No Sohon images from the council on the Spokane River are known to exist, and it is probable that the necessity for Stevens’ small party of 26 men to share guard duty around the clock precluded any time for sketching. After adjourning his meetings with the chiefs on December 5, Stevens and his men made a tense march south through potentially hostile territory, but arrived in the Walla Walla Valley without incident. They were back at Fort Dalles by mid-January of 1856, and the following April Private Sohon was assigned to Fort Steilacoom, Washington. That October he was transferred yet again, to the headquarters of the Topographical Engineers in Benicia, California, where he served as a draftsman and cartographer. July 1857 found him at Fort Walla Walla, Washington, where he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.
The Indian disturbances in the Northwest and increasing demands for a military presence in the interior called attention to the need for an overland link between the Columbia and Missouri Rivers. In March 1858 the War Department issued special instructions to Lt. John Mullan to supervise the survey and construction of a military wagon road between the Walla Walla Valley and Fort Benton. One of Mullan’s first acts was to hire Gustavus Sohon as his guide and interpreter. The men were just setting out from Fort Dalles when they received news of the defeat of Colonel Edward Steptoe and his soldiers near present-day Rosalia by a group of Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, and Palus Indians who were alarmed by the military advance into their territory. Since Mullan’s intended survey ran directly through the area of the battle, he was advised to delay his project until peace could be restored to the region.
Colonel Wright’s Campaign
Upon learning that Colonel George Wright was organizing troops to make a retaliatory strike against the Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, and Palus, Mullan saw an opportunity to perform at least a part of his planned explorations. He offered the services of himself, Sohon, and topographer Theodore Kolecki as a topographical crew, “stating that, having instruments and material, we were in a condition to collect and prepare any topographical facts and features that the march might develop” (Mullan, 9).
By early August, Sohon was once again camped in the Walla Walla Valley, pencil in hand, sketching another assemblage of Nez Perce leaders and American officials beneath a leafy arbor. After Wright received promises of friendship and cooperation from the Nez Perce, the first assignment of Mullan’s team was to select a site for a fortified base camp on the Snake River. While mule teams pulled wagonloads of supplies to the river, Sohon found a high vantage from which to sketch the new Fort Taylor, etched against stark basalt cliffs at the mouth of the Tucannon. On August 25 he documented horses, munitions, and 680 soldiers crossing the Snake. On the march north, Mullan, Sohon, and Kolecki worked ahead of the troops, throwing down bridges across creeks and scouting the best line of travel. On or shortly after September 5, Sohon rendered a dramatic scene from the prolonged Battle of Spokane Plains, showing Wright’s officers clustered on a bare hillside surveying a bank of flames from a grass fire set by Indian forces in hopes of stalling the Americans. Lines of infantry, armed with the modern rifles and howitzers that completely outgunned the tribe’s arrows and trade muskets, stretch along the flanks of the hill. Through a gap in the billows of smoke, groups of mounted Indians dash toward the base of the knoll. In the foreground, soldiers guard a tight circle of the pack mules so necessary to Wright’s survival. Nearby rests an open wagon -- the only wagon allowed to accompany the fast-moving troops, this carried the equipment of Mullan and Sohon.
Over the next few days, Sohon found opportunities to sketch several landscapes and encampments along the Spokane River. A haunting image labeled “Horse Slaughter Camp, Sept 9th, 1858; 800-900 horses killed” documents Wright’s controversial roundup and slaughter of a large herd of tribal horses discovered near present-day Liberty Lake.
By the third week in September, Wright had concluded a peace treaty with the Coeur d’Alene tribe and was camped on Latah Creek, about 10 miles east of the site of Colonel Steptoe’s defeat the previous May. On September 24 Wright dispatched a small party to attempt to recover the bodies of soldiers killed in the battle as well as artillery abandoned during the confusion. Lieutenant Mullan was “to determine the position of the battle ground, while his assistants will make a map and sketches of the place” (Kip, 111). Accompanied by two officers who had participated in the skirmish and were able to “point out the scene of each event in that hard day’s fight” (Kip, 111), Sohon sketched a panoramic view of the setting and troop positions, which he entitled “Battle of Col. Steptoe on the In-gos-so-man Creek, W.T., Fought 17th May 1858.”
The Mullan Road
At the conclusion of his service to Wright in early October, Mullan traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for additional funding to resume his interrupted work on the wagon road. An appropriation was approved in the spring of 1859, and by mid-May Mullan was back at Fort Dalles, where he immediately assigned Sohon to explore a potential crossing of the Bitterroot range. “Mr. Sohon’s early connexion with my explorations in 1853 and 1854, his knowledge of the Indian language, his familiarity with the general scope of country to be traversed, and the influence he had always so beneficially exerted over the Indians, all pointed him out as the proper person to explore the new and dangerous region” (Mullan, 11).
Sohon made the familiar journey to Fort Walla Walla, where he attempted to hire Nez Perce guides, “but when I mentioned to them the particular route that I wished to examine, they represented to me that the whole region was one immense bed of rugged mountains, and over which they never heard of any persons having traveled, and therefore they declined to join my party” (Mullan, 95). Instead Sohon hired a Palus chief named Slougharchy and with two other men trekked north to the Snake River, then worked his way up the Palouse drainage. The only known journal in Sohon’s hand is the one that he kept on this journey, which is filled with charts denoting the weather, his line and distance of travel, and sketch maps of creeks and landmarks along the way, denoted by their tribal names. He noted the presence of forage and water for pack animals, good camp sites, fords, and possible routes for a wagon road.
On June 20 he reached a large prairie where a band of Coeur d’Alene Indians were digging camas; here he had planned to secure a guide to show him a pass through the mountains. “During the day the chiefs and principal men, who had been my old friends, visited me in camp and exchanged news ... . They were evidently excited regarding the construction of the military wagon road, and inquired anxiously concerning its probable location ... . I saw then, from the mood of the Indians, that their services could not willingly be secured” (Mullan 98). Sohon did succeed in convincing Augustine to guide him a short distance into the foothills, but after two days, his guide refused to travel any further, announcing that “If all the Americans would work here a thousand years they could never make a road. I think a road through the Pend Oreille country is the best for you” (Mullan, 99).
Sohon returned to the prairies, where he encountered a camp of Nez Perce and again tried to obtain a guide through the mountains, without success. Writing to Mullan, he observed: “I satisfied myself of one thing: the extreme aversion that the Indians have against any wagon road passing through their country; and I have no doubt but that it affords a constant theme for conversation and discussion among them.” Mullan concurred that the only practical alternative was to pursue one of the routes around the shore of Coeur d’Alene Lake that they had previously contemplated.
The next year was spent in the arduous work of building a road across the Bitterroot Divide. During these months, Sohon led an advance party that examined the countryside and marked a trail for the construction team to follow. He also prepared maps of the route and continued to sketch scenes along the way.
On August 1, 1860, the road crew arrived at Fort Benton on the Missouri, the eastern terminus of the road. Here they met 300 Army recruits who had ascended the Missouri by steamboat and were bound overland via Mullan’s new road; Sohon was assigned as their guide and interpreter. Fifty-seven days later, Sohon led the recruits into Fort Walla Walla, having successfully guided the first wagon train to cross the mountains from the Missouri to the Columbia. In a report to the War Department, Mullan wrote that “the eulogistic manner in which each officer of the command referred to the trip, all constitute a sufficient commentary upon its feasibility for future military movements” (Mullan, 28).
Over the next two years, Sohon continued to work with Captain Mullan in improving the road. In May 1861 they mapped out a new crossing of the Snake at the mouth of the Palouse, then followed that river north past the picturesque Palouse Falls, “where Mr. Sohon made a very truthful sketch” (Mullan, 29). They proceeded northeasterly to a ferry on the Spokane River manned by Antoine Plante, whom Sohon had followed across the prairies of Eastern Washington almost a decade earlier as a green private.
After the field season of 1862, Sohon traveled with Mullan to Washington D.C., to assist in the preparation of maps and sketches for the official report on the road project. In the first edition of the published report, 10 colored lithographs of landmarks along the route were attributed to “C. Sohon.” The initial was corrected to G. in the second edition.
While in Washington, D. C., Sohon, now 37 years old, met Juliana Groh, whom he married in April, 1863. Around this time, Sohon sat for a photograph: peering out of an oval frame, he appears as a well-dressed, carefully groomed man with a solid gaze and the same intelligent eyes noted by the Isaac Stevens 10 years earlier. Six months after their marriage, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Gustavus established a photograph and ambrotype gallery on Market Street. His most famous sitter was Father Pierre De Smet, who for years had moved in the same Inland Northwest territory traveled by the artist and knew many of the same Salish and Kootenai individuals whom Sohon had sketched.
After two years in the Bay Area, the Sohons returned to Washington D.C., where Gustavus operated a shoe business and focused considerable attention on his and Julia’s eight children. But even from across the continent, he maintained an interest in events on the Columbia Plateau and kept in touch with certain acquaintances from that period of his life. His old Nez Perce friend Lawyer, “Bat that Flies in the Daytime,” stopped by the Sohon home while visiting the District of Columbia in 1868. When a Flathead Indian delegation under Chief Charlot came to the nation’s capital in 1884, they also called upon Sohon. One of the artist’s daughters later recalled that the only time she ever saw her father smoke was when a pipe was passed to welcome these old friends. In 1900, Hazard Stevens, who had traveled across Eastern Washington with Sohon as a 13-year-old, published a biography of his father Isaac Stevens, which he illustrated with lithographs based on Sohon’s field sketches.
Gustavus Sohon died in Washington, D. C., on September 3, 1903, at the age of 78. He was survived by his wife Julia and by five of their children, many of whom had embarked on successful professional careers in a variety of fields. In 1947 his daughter Elizabeth donated to the Smithsonian Institute 25 of her father’s original drawings. Archives at the Library of Congress, the Washington State Historical Society, and Washington State University hold many of his other sketches, treasured eyewitness documents from a crucial period of Northwest history.