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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Keith Peterson: Renaming Mullan Elementary a complicated decision

By Keith Peterson

Jim Allen’s article (“What’s in a Namesake,” 7/12/20) about possibly renaming Spokane schools contained this intriguing line: “Perhaps the most complicated, controversial figure of all is Mullan.” Deciding whether to change the name of Mullan Road Elementary is indeed complicated.

Lieutenant John Mullan spent spring 1858 preparing to construct a significant highway. The Pacific Northwest’s first engineered road, it would connect the Columbia and Missouri Rivers. As Mullan led his road crew out of Walla Walla in May, he received alarming news. A unified group of Inland Northwest tribes had roundly defeated troops under the command of Edward Steptoe near today’s Rosalia.

It is lucky Mullan had not left earlier. Those warriors were after him; Steptoe just got in the way. The Indians viewed the military road as a trespass. Though soundly defeated, Steptoe took solace that his engagement had prevented the death of Mullan’s civilian road builders, reporting, “Lieutenant Mullan’s party has been saved from destruction.”

Three months later, the Army sent George Wright to avenge Steptoe’s loss. Mullan signed on. Mr. Allen wrote, “Mullan fought Indians near present-day Airway Heights.” But history is nuanced. At the battles of Four Lakes and Spokane Plains, Mullan led 30 Nez Perce warriors, Army allies, against combined forces of Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, Palouses, and Yakamas. Indians fought Indians.

A few days later, Wright lured Yakama chieftain Qualchan into his camp along Latah Creek. There, without trial, he quickly hanged him and several others. A myth arose that Mullan tried to stop the hangings. But he was not in camp that day, having been dispatched to the Steptoe battlefield to recover soldiers’ remains. Another myth claims Mullan that day saved the life of an Indian boy whom Wright planned to hang. Again, inaccurate. Wright’s forces encountered the boy much earlier in the campaign, and Wright had no intention of hanging him. But Mullan did take him under his care, naming him John.

After Wright’s campaign, Mullan started road work, completing his 625-mile highway in 1862. Today, the Mullan Road is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Many early Spokane residents arrived to their new homes via the road. Cities like Missoula owe their existence to that highway. East of Spokane, through Idaho and into Montana, Interstate 90 retraces Mullan’s route, which has played a major role in our region’s history for more than 150 years.

When he completed his road, Mullan resigned from the Army. He moved to Walla Walla and later Washington, D.C., where he presided over the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. Mullan raised money for boarding schools, lobbied for federal funding, and advocated education as the only way “to save Indian tribes.” Viewed from a 21st century perspective, that is paternalism. But Mullan’s views of Indian education were progressive for his time.

History is complicated. The man who promoted Indian education and cared for an Indian boy also wrote that “negro suffrage was forced upon the people of the south,” and lobbied Congress to prohibit Chinese immigration.

Deciding to change a school name is challenging. Perhaps local history can play a role. Also under consideration for a name change is Sheridan Elementary. Spokane children might have a hard time identifying with Phil Sheridan, Mullan’s West Point classmate. Sheridan rode through the area in 1877–traveling the Mullan Road. But he has no real connection to our region. John Mullan built a road close to the school bearing that road’s name. That is nearby history, something young students can identify – and perhaps grapple – with.

The school is located near where the Glenrose Woman’s Club oversaw construction of a huge monument to the road. It still stands, one of many along Mullan’s road in three states. On October 28, 1934, hundreds of people gathered for the dedication, their tribute to the road’s importance.

Mullan Road Elementary students can today visit remnants of their school’s namesake. Some, perhaps, had relatives who helped build monuments commemorating the road, like those Glenrose residents. Others might have tribal relatives whose lives the road forever changed. Local history is intimately intertwined with our lives. It can provide an accessible avenue into complex historical discussions, providing unique teaching opportunities.

History is complicated. All the more reason to teach it. At a school named for the Mullan Road, the educational possibilities are expansive.

Keith Petersen is the former Idaho State Historian and author of “John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder.” (WSU Press)

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