George Washington Sutherland: A Young Man Goes West

  • By Jerome Peltier
  • Posted 3/29/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7248
Spokane historian Jerome Peltier interviewed pioneer George Washington Sutherland (1854-1949) in the 1940s and in 1989 prepared this account for The Pacific Northwesterner. It describes Sutherland’s trip West, his years as a cowboy, and his service as a volunteer in the Nez Perce War. This essay was originally published in the Spring 1989 issue of The Pacific Northwesterner (Vol. 33, No. 1), pp. 8-14, and is here reprinted with permission.

A Young Man Goes West

George Washington Sutherland's grand adventure began in 1872 when, as an 18-year-old, he felt the urge to see the wide-open spaces of the American West. He had read letters from William Purington to his father, Captain George Purington, of Bowdoinham, Maine, that described in glowing terms the fertile grasslands of Washington Territory and the opportunities available to anyone daring to leave home and start again in a new land. At the time, George had been working as a farmhand for Purington, who had been a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War. When the captain mentioned that he and his family would soon be leaving to join William at his cattle ranch, George asked if he could go with them.

Unfortunately, George had a serious problem. He had only $15 to his name. Somehow, George convinced the captain to lend him $140, and his father chipped in $25 making a total of $180. The Puringtons were leaving on Friday, so three days before that, George asked his mother for permission to go. After much hesitation, she reluctantly agreed. In the meantime, Captain Purington had gone to Boston and purchased George's train ticket to San Francisco for $122. George was on his way on August 20, 1872, with $58 that had to last him until he reached the Purington ranch somewhere in the southeast part of Washington Territory.

This is the story that George Sutherland related to me as he sat on his bed at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane in 1941, when he was 87 years old. He later told me of many other events that happened to him during his long and active life, but exciting as they were, all were but an anticlimax to his trip west.

West by Rail

The Puringtons had first-class tickets and George was traveling second class, so George didn't see them again during the entire trip. For the first time in his life, he was alone without friends or family. The train did not have a diner, so for the entire nine-day trip, George ate from a large basket of food his mother had packed for him. At night, he slept on his stiff uncomfortable seat in the unheated car, covered by a pair of blankets that his mother had insisted he take with him.

He crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis over the Eads steel bridge, an engineering marvel for its time. At Council Bluffs, Iowa, he walked across the bridge over the Missouri River to Omaha, where he boarded a Union Pacific train. He stopped over in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a day and a half. Wyoming was the first state in the nation to grant women the right to vote and he noted that many women in the town were voting. He continued his trip through Rawlins, Wyoming, and Ogden, Utah, passing bands of antelope as the train chugged along the plains. Once a herd of buffalo thundered down the tracks, almost destroying them. Finally the train crossed the deserts of northern Nevada and reached Sacramento. He arrived in San Francisco on August 29 to be met at the station by a confidence man who tried to swindle him out of his meager funds. George ignored him and hurried to the steamboat office where he bought a third-class passage to Portland, Oregon, for $20.

By Steamer

About 4 p.m. the next day, he left on what he called "the old tub, the Oroflame, a sidewheeler." He continued, "No one would travel on such a boat today. When we got outside the Golden Gate, the boat began to pitch and wallow for four days until we got to Astoria."

At that time, Astoria consisted of a cluster of huts on pilings. The boat tied up there for half-a-day while cargo and mail from the East were unloaded. He finally reached Portland by evening and learned that another boat would be leaving for Wallula the next morning. He hurriedly spent $12 of his rapidly depleting money for a ticket. He couldn't afford to buy meals or a berth, as they cost extra.

His boat left early the next morning and by 10 a.m. had reached the cascades of the Columbia River, where cargo had to be unloaded and carried by cars on a narrow gauge railroad six miles upriver to another steamer, which continued the trip to The Dalles. Following an overnight stay, freight and passengers were again transported by narrow-gauge railroad to another steamer eight miles upriver, which went as far as Umatilla, where it stopped for the night. At that time, Umatilla was a lively town of about 3,000 people. All supplies for eastern Oregon and southern Idaho came through there until the Oregon Steam Navigation Company constructed a rail line to its docks on the Columbia at Wallula. Supplies then went from there to Walla Walla, which became the main distribution point.

The Real West

The day he arrived at Umatilla was windy, and sand was piling up in the streets in drifts three or four-feet deep, according to George. After a night in town, he boarded another steamer, which took him to Wallula where he arrived penniless and hungry. He had spent the last of his money for a berth. He made a deal with a teamster to haul his rifle and baggage to Walla Walla while he walked, arriving there about 6 p.m. after a hot, dusty hike. He went to the St. Louis Hotel and told the proprietor that he wanted a meal and a place to sleep, but had no money. The proprietor said, "Young man, the world is yours. Help yourself." George took him at his word, had a good meal and a good night's sleep.

George recalled, "Every other door was a saloon. There were many teamsters. I watched some of them packing mules, as many as 75 to a train (for the trip to the mines), and the mule trains were strung out for miles. There were many large corrals mainly for the mules."

Walla walla was the supply center for the region. "The mules were hitched in teams of six, eight or 10 to large freight wagons. Horsedrawn stage coaches were coming and going through town. Men worked hard and played hard, and saloons had plenty of patrons. Card games were going on all of the time."

In his wanderings around town, George located a teamster who had heard about the Purington ranch and was passing by it. He agreed to transport George's belongings and guide George there if George was willing to walk all of the way. George borrowed $2.50 from his new-found friend, paid his hotel and food bill with it, and left that afternoon on the last leg of his journey. This would be a jaunt of 80 miles to the area around Penewawa on the north side of the Snake River approximately 25 miles due west of present-day Pullman, Washington.

The man's team consisted of a small mule hitched to an unkempt, scrawny cayuse pony, barely able to pull an unloaded wagon let alone a loaded one. George felt so sorry for the animals that he left his trunk behind, taking only his blankets, his rifle, a pistol, and a saddle bag. He had brought the guns as protection from the "Indians and badmen" that he understood "infested" the West at that time.

The first day's travel brought them to what George called Whetstone Hollow, which offered good grazing for the team. The road was merely an Indian trail showing traces of heavy use. In places, the ruts were two-feet deep, while in other places, the trail could barely be discerned. Drivers often deviated from the track, going where they felt they could make the best time.

The second day, George observed that the hills were dry and parched, although they were covered with nutritious bunch grass. By noon, they reached the Tucannon River where a man named Platter ran a crude rest station. After climbing out of the Tucannon Valley, they started down toward the Snake River on a narrow hilly road, the wagon nearly tipping over several times. Finally the river came into view, glistening in the distance, and Brown's Ferry became visible. While they were hastening down the Snake River breaks, a post rider charged past them, carrying the mail from Kelton, Utah, to points north via Walla Walla, Colfax, Spokan Bridge, Rathdrum, Idaho, and by boat across Lake Pend Oreille to Missoula, Montana.

Two other Snake River crossings existed at that time: Lyon's Ferry near the mouth of the Palouse River and the ferry at Lewiston where the Snake joins the Clearwater River. Dusty sign-boards advertised these ferries declaring that plenty of wood, water, and grass was present along the road.

George described Brown's rest stop as a square box shanty and a shed in which a man could rest himself and his horse. This was the first habitation George encountered since leaving the Tucannon River. After crossing the river, George helped pull the wagon up the hill where the team found good grass and water, as the signs had promised.

By noon of September 17, George arrived at Gooseberry Springs in Whitman County and his teamster friend told him that after they reached Alki Flat, he could easily find the Purington ranch by heading south toward the Snake River. George thanked him, gave him his pistol as a pawn for his $2. 50 debt, and they parted.

Riding the Range

With a feeling of loneliness, the youth started across the rolling hills. No other human being was in sight. It seemed as if there was always a hill ahead of him, but finally, he came to a ravine that led down to the Snake River, where he quenched his thirst. He realized that he had turned south too soon and was lost, but after walking several more miles, he saw a small shack ahead of him. The sun was setting and his pack was heavy, so the hut was a welcome sight. He knocked on the door and a surprised William Purington answered with a warm welcome for the weary traveler.

A man named Holbrook was staying with Purington at the time, and these two men were George's first acquaintances in Whitman County. He rested a few days and after getting a horse, went out with the other hired hands to learn how to be a cowpuncher. The next phase of his life had begun.

"My wages were $25 a month and board, and I wasn't worth that much as I was a green Easterner. I did become quite a cowboy eventually," George said. It was not long before George became fully trained in riding and rounding up cattle. Soon he was able to go on long trips in search of strays.

"There were thousands of cattle down there, and we had a huge range to cover. My employer ran a herd of from 500 to 1,000 head. Our range extended from Lewiston to the Palouse, 90 miles east and west, and from the Snake River to Spokane Falls." There were no fences. Cattle from various ranches mingled freely as they grazed, and were separated by brand at roundup time.

"Spokane Falls was a poor feeding ground, so we did not give it much attention. I think that the first time I was there, there were only two houses in the place. Colfax was the same."

In a conversation several years later, George described the rangeland in the Snake River country:

"Along the banks of the river, large portions of the hills at the north had slid down the canyons (in the past) due to cloudbursts and the continuous flow of small streams, and had formed bars ... which were very fertile. A number of Indians had claimed this land, but then the settlers started coming in, some of whom took squatter's rights on it. This, of course, caused trouble right away. The first place to become involved was four miles above the place that I was working -- Penewawa.

"There were two brothers named Smith who were cattlemen, who were the first to settle on this land and they thought that the Indians were not entitled to such good land and should be back on a reservation, so they took it for themselves. This land is in cultivation today [1945] with fine orchards of peaches, pears and cherries, and is worth many thousands of dollars.

"There were two other bars on the river that received freight from Portland from a steamer that called once a week. One was at Almota, where Henry Spalding, son of the missionary, ran a store and a hotel. The other was at Wawawai. Senator La Follette of Wisconsin and the Holt brothers had a large orchard there and shipped quantities of fruit all over the country. There was trouble here between the Indians and settlers and one Indian was killed by the man I was working for. The trouble was finally settled by Chief [Spokane] Garry, who was a noted Indian at that time.

"During those days, the Indians became rather insulting and would come into cabins if there was no man around and (ask the womenfolk) for something to eat, tobacco, or matches. Of course, the settlers were frightened by them at first, but later became somewhat used to them. The women would stand no nonsense and always kept a rifle or pistol handy. I was afraid of them at first, (but) after awhile picked up enough of their jargon to talk with them and was able to understand [them].

"At the Purington ranch, we planted peach, pear and apple trees. In the Spring of 1873 we planted all kinds of seeds and also sweet potatoes, tobacco, peanuts and cotton. They all grew well. The wind blew a gale at times so we set out a wind break of locust trees.

"The winter of 1874-5 was the worst I ever spent. Cattle died by the thousands, for the snow was deep and the springs were frozen so badly that it was impossible for the cattle to drink. It was frightfully cold. When Winter broke, dead cattle were everywhere. Great pieces of ice came down the Snake River. Some of the flows were 40 feet high."

George tired of the monotony of ranch life and left for the big city in 1875. He went to Portland where he started on a succession of jobs that took him from Walla Walla to Moscow, Idaho, and Newport, Washington. Employment was readily available for anyone willing to work and George tried everything from being a waiter, a barber, a sewing machine salesman, and a druggist. He even took a turn at practicing medicine.

Nez Perce War

In 1877, he was in Colfax when word arrived of the Nez Perce uprising. George provided me with a written account of his experience:

"On June 15, word came that a group of the Nez Perce Indians under the leadership of Chief Joseph had begun hostilities against the white settlers in western Idaho Territory by killing in cold blood several of the settlers. On Sunday, the 17th day of June, I, as well as many others, were at a camp meeting at what was known as Chase's Mill, about 18 miles east of Colfax, when a man by the name of Joe Evans came into camp about 11 o'clock with his horse covered with sweat, and said: 'The Indians are coming down Union Flat, killing and burning everything in sight.' (Actually, no fighting occurred in Union Flat.)

"The meeting broke up without waiting for the benediction, and everyone started for home or for Colfax. When I arrived back in Colfax, I found the streets barricaded and great excitement. An old man by the name of D. S. Bowman was upon the stoop of the only store in town, and he was saying, 'Gentlemen, I have lived in Indian country all of my life, and I can say to all of you people that we should organize a company of volunteers. Then you will be recognized by the government.' We organized a company on the spot. We appointed officers (and) all signed the roster and were sworn in. Then we were all told to go out and get all the firearms we had or could borrow. When we returned, all we could muster was 22 rifles, shotguns, and pistols. My duty, with two others, was to stand guard at the south end of town on the hills where it was supposed that the Indians would come through.

"The next morning, I was ordered to reconnoiter and report. I went first to Three Forks, where Pullman is now situated, but there was no one within five miles. From there I went to Palouse City. There were very few families there, but the men from town and country were building a stockade. I stopped over there to help where I could. The next day, I went on to Moscow. Only a few people were there, but they were building a stockade with a big cellar inside for the women and children. It was built on a sloping side hill, and we could see the Indians passing along the foothills [on] the trail between Spokane and Lewiston. I stayed there for two days and had a chance to send a report to Colfax. Then I went to Lewiston, arriving there the same evening that General Howard arrived by boat from Portland with company of Georgia troops. They had no experience in fighting Indians, but a company was ordered out to go up Craig's Mountain to Grangeville and Mount Idaho and White Bird Canyon. They were sent down in regular formation and the Indians were up on the sides of the canyon, and as I was told by one of the company, they had no chance at all ...

"After Joseph and his band eluded General Howard and fled over the Lolo Pass into Montana with the intention of reaching sanctuary in Canada, Sutherland and the members of his company of volunteers were ordered to watch for any stragglers who might circle back. We went to Mount Idaho, Grangeville, White Bird and many other places where we thought we might run into Indians, but we did not see any from that time on. The company was mustered out in August or September of the same year, 1877."

George's account concludes, "All the records [of the company's activities] ... were destroyed in the big fire, so we have no record of our company's doings. After our enlistment, we had to furnish all of our equipment, horse, saddle, blankets and eat where we could. After 60 years, I think I am entitled to a badge of some kind as five of my company were receiving pensions (and I was not). I have saved Uncle Sam quite a sum of money by not applying for one. I did not need the money and I did not think that I was doing anything but my duty. We had to protect our homes under any circumstances."

George continued traveling over the Northwest investing in various business enterprises including mining, all with mediocre success. He eventually settled in Newport, Washington. There, he was a member of the City Council, served several terms as Mayor, was County Commissioner of Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties and president of a bank. He died in 1949 after a long and active life in which he realized his ambition of being a pioneer in the American West.


Sources: Spokane historian Jerome Peltier interviewed pioneer George Washington Sutherland (1854-1949) in the 1940s.

Related Topics:   Pioneers

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