John Mullan (road builder)

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John Mullan monument, Bonner, Montana.

John Mullan (31 July 1830 – 28 December 1909) was a soldier, explorer and road builder.


Mullan was born in Norfolk, Virginia and graduated from West Point in 1852. He became a member of Isaac Stevens's party to explore the newly created Washington Territory. Mullan was placed in charge of selecting a wagon route (now commonly called the Mullan Road) between Fort Benton (Montana) and Fort Walla Walla (Washington). Mullan, a topographical engineer, began gathering information in 1854.

While at Fort Colvile in the fall of 1853, John Mullan met and loved a beautiful Spokane maiden of sixteen. Mary Ann Finlay was a granddaughter of Jacques Finlay, who, with Finnan McDonald, had founded Spokane House for David Thompson in 1810. On June 9th of the following year, Mary Ann died giving birth to a son. The boy was baptized Peter Mullan and raised by Mary Ann’s parents, Patrick and Mary Finlay with the help of his uncle, Baptista Lauriente. Peter Mullan married Susan Inkster and settled on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation near De Smet, Idaho. They had only one child, a girl named Christine.

Mullan was promoted to First Lieutenant in February 1855 and transferred to Florida for two years. He returned to Washington Territory, and from 1858 to 1862, was engaged as chief of construction in building the wagon road across the Rockies.

Lt. John Mullan fought in the Wright Campaign in September of 1858 where he was in charge of the Nez Percé scouts. After two decisive victories and the killing of 900 Indian horses, Col. George Wright decided to hang 2 braves for the alleged murder of 2 miners on the Palouse River. In the words of Mullan’s wife, “… one was hanged; the other, a boy of about fourteen, Lieutenant Mullan begged for his life which was granted, provided he kept him and was responsible he did not return to his tribe. This boy called himself John in gratitude to his protector; he lived on the ranch of Walla Walla later, where he remained until the Fall of 1864, when the ranch was abandoned, proving always faithful and reliable.”

Mullan was promoted Captain in 1862 and married in 1863. He resigned to begin ranching near Walla Walla, an endeavor that failed. He opened a successful law practice at San Francisco, moved to Washington, D.C., in 1878, and died in that city in 1909. From 1883 to 1884, he succeeded General Charles Ewing as Catholic Commissioner for Indian Missions, (later the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions), which involved defending Roman Catholic mission interests and the rights of Native Americans.

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Further reading[edit]

  • Petersen, Keith (2014). John Mullan: the tumultuous life of a western road builder. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press. ISBN 9780874223217. 

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