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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Gen. Harney, former Vancouver commander, remembered today as a brutal racist

By for The Columbian
Published: April 20, 2024, 6:05am

In 2016, the Federal Board of Geographic Names voted to rename South Dakota’s highest point, formerly Harney Peak, as Black Elk Peak. The move was part of re-examining Army Gen. William S. Harney’s treatment of Indigenous people while recognizing their original claim to the land. A school, a neighborhood and a street in Vancouver still bear his name. Whether they will be changed is anyone’s guess.

Harney was well-known for his flaws. He possessed a hair-trigger, lofty ambition and didn’t hesitate to exploit his connections. In 1833, he married Mary Mullanphy, the daughter of St. Louis’ wealthiest man. He used his friendship with Andrew Jackson to gain command of a Midwest expedition, allowing him to negotiate with Indigenous tribes. Before his marriage, Harney impregnated a mixed-blood Winnebago woman, Ke-Sho-Ko, then abandoned her and their child when new orders reassigned him.

Early in his career, Harney led a campaign in the Seminole War and was then sent to Fort Washita, Okla. He argued with a superior officer so uproariously he received a court-martial, one of his four. When two enlisted men at the fort refused to dig a latrine, he brutally beat one with a cane, hospitalizing him. He ordered the second man harnessed in a ball and chain and fitted for a spiked collar, then forced him to work in these for a month. Harney owned enslaved men and forced them to brawl with soldiers.

During the Mexican War of 1846, he disobeyed orders and crossed the Rio Grande River, earning him another court-martial. Again, he escaped punishment. After the war, he attacked Indigenous people several times, once massacring a village of 250, wounding and killing women and children. When he lost his keys, he blamed his enslaved woman and beat the African American with a rawhide strap for three days until she died. Northern newspapers picked up the story, calling Harney a monster. Only a change of venue kept him out of prison.

The red-headed Tennessean came to command Fort Vancouver and the Department of the Pacific in October 1858. While at Vancouver, Harney bought land from John Nye, the same man who had leased some of it to Capt. Ulysses S. Grant for his ill-fated potato venture in 1853.

Nye’s land claim ran north from the Columbia River, along present-day Devine Road to Mill Plain Boulevard, then west from Devine Road to Cedar Street and returned south to the river. After the general built a house on it, he sold it back to Nye for an unknown reason.

Although Harney emphasized enforcing peace, he opened lands near the Cascades to white settlers, straining Native affairs. After a British pig butchering, he occupied San Juan Island, starting the “Pig War” with the British, who sent warships. In 1860, President James Buchanan sent Gen. Winfield Scott to relieve Harney of his command.

Many living in the Pacific Northwest during the era praised Harney’s warlike predilection against Indigenous natives while overlooking his abuse of subordinates, his bullying tactics, his murder of Mexican War deserters and beating a slave to death. This lingering adoration led to slapping his name on landmarks across the West.