The 1846 West Point graduate came to the Vancouver Barracks in 1853 after serving in the War with Mexico. The Army assigned McClellan, an engineering officer since his graduation, to Isaac Stevens, Washington Territory governor. Stevens wanted the captain to survey the Cascade Mountains, probing probable routes for railroads and roads. McClellan assembled three months of rations, 66 men, 173 horses and mules and started from the Vancouver Barracks. At the time, Capt. U.S. Grant was the post quartermaster and Colonel B.L.E. Bonneville its commander.
This mission was the first influential fact-gathering effort around Mount St. Helens country. McClellan roughly followed the Klickitat people’s trail past Mount St. Helens, covering five plains near Fort Vancouver and then struggling through highly variable terrain. McClellan and his crew were struck by the number of bald eagles they saw along the Columbia River and its tributaries.
Gathering data about the volcano was of marginal importance for McClellan’s search, despite its eruption in 1842 — although 140 years later that information proved a valuable resource for geologists and historians. When the expedition passed the still-smoldering mountain, no one tried climbing the peak, but George Gibbs noted a crater on the northwest side. Near the Lewis River, the surveyors crossed a lava field left by the volcano as they trekked into the territory’s central and eastern regions.
The young officer wrote extensive reports about his preparations at Fort Vancouver and the struggle with old Hudson Bay Company pack saddles. He said he needed a large party because of the disposition of the Indigenous peoples. The U.S. government gathered McClellan’s reports, binding them into a dozen large volumes with other military surveys describing railroad routes through the Mississippi River Valley and Pacific Coast.
A few men left with Capt. McClellan on July 24, 1853, to clear brush and fallen trees from the trail so the larger group could pass. That group caught up with him four days later, near Yacolt. Repairing the old Hudson Bay Company packsaddles held them up for three days. The fir tree-laden land between Yacolt and Cathlapotle appeared too daunting for farming. Still, he noted the wealth of berries, including blackberries, tumbleberries, gooseberries, Oregon grape, wild cherries and hazelnuts as they pushed on to Mount Rainier. While McClellan saw no opportunity for farming, Gibbs commented that Natives grew potatoes.
When McClellan issued his findings, Stevens turned against him, and the two had a permanent falling out. The governor wanted a railroad through the center of the territory, and McClellan’s report recommended following the Columbia River as the only workable route. One of McClellan’s sympathetic biographers noted he was overly sensitive, even arrogant and highly critical of his superiors, traits that made him a problematic subordinate officer for any superior.
As a major-general in the Civil War, McClellan was well known for his criticism of superior officers and even President Abraham Lincoln. He and the president developed a mutual distrust. So much so that in the presidential election of 1864, the Democratic Party nominated McClellan as their candidate against the incumbent Lincoln. Lincoln trounced McClellan with a 212 to 12 vote in the Electoral College.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.