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Thomas Adams Papers


Held at: Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division [Contact Us]

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Overview and metadata sections

Adams, Thomas, 1830-1900

Thomas Adams (1830-1900) was twenty-three years old and a civil engineer when he set out in 1853 as part of a group traveling West with Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the newly-appointed (1853) Governor of the newly-created Washington Territory. Stevens had also been appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory, and as he traveled to Olympia, he arranged for the surveying of a railroad route across the northern part of the country, from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Puget Sound. Adams started as a low-ranking member of the party, serving as meteorologist, topographer, and sketch artist. By the time he returned to Washington, DC in 1859, he was twenty-nine years old and had served as assistant to Lieutenant John Mullan (1830-1909), who was in charge of the surveying. Adams also played a role as temporary Special Agent for the Flathead nation in the 1855 signing of the important government treaty with the Blackfeet which was eventually ratified in 1856. Following the signing of the treaty, Adams created topographical sketches of the new boundaries.

During his time in the West, Adams had become an experienced Westerner, learning to live off the land and survive the winters, regularly camping, hunting, and trading with the local Native Americans, raising cattle, occasionally panning for gold, and trading and maintaining a large herd of government-owned horses. He learned some of the Flathead language and created a small dictionary, was given an Indian name ("Pe-pah-hutsin"), and attended Native American ceremonies and celebrations. While he appears to have spent the bulk of his time with the Flatheads, he also interacted with the Blackfoot Nation (the Blackfoot, Piegan, Gros Ventre and Blood) and the Nez Perce.

An accomplished artist, Adams sketched what he saw around him, including camp life, forts he visited, the landscapes, and portraits of some of the Native Americans whom he met.

Adams returned to Washington, D.C. on November 10, 1859.

This collection consists of four journals and one letter book documenting Thomas Adams's life from 1852 to 1859. In addition to detailed descriptions of Adams's experiences, the journals also contain expertly drawn sketches of Native Americans, landscapes and forts, and animals.

The first journal dates from June 30 to August 8, 1852, and describes Adams's voyage on the S.S. Gallatin, possibly off the coast of Nantucket. The remaining three journals document Adams's travels to the West Coast with Governor Isaac Stevens, and his travels around Washington Territory, including Fort Hall in Idaho, Minnesota, Montana (particularly Fort Benton and Fort Owen), Oregon, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Washington State. During his journeys, Adams describes and sketches his day-to-day life, as well as the challenges of travel (including the number of miles marched each day, the weather, the food, shortages of wood for fuel, problems with horses and mules, etc.), building camps, the Native Americans he meets (the Assiniboin, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Flathead, and "Shoshonee" tribes), treaties, raising and trading horses, the Mormons, and panning for gold. At least two of these three journals appear to have been copied by Adams from earlier drafts, no longer extant, and illustrated in part with copies of published illustrations.

The letter book contains ten letters, all in Adams's hand: both copies of letters written to Adams and retained copies of Adams's outgoing letters. These letters concern the Council of Indian Tribes and the Blackfeet Treaty. The first letter, from Governor Stevens, appoints Adams as "Special Indian Agent" in preparation for these events. Correspondents include: Governor Isaac Stevens (seven letters); Rufus Ingals, Captain Army Quarter Master (one letter); and James Doty, Secretary to the Treaty Commission (two letters). The letters are particularly interesting for their expression of Governor Stevens' specific goals for white-Native American relations.

The journals are arranged chronologically, followed by the letter book.

Purchased in 2013.

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This collection was processed by Holly Mengel in 2013. Finding aid written by Holly Mengel in 2013.

No items were removed during 2013 processing.

Manuscripts Division
Finding Aid Author
Holly Mengel
Finding Aid Date
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Collection Inventory

"Journal of Thomas Adams, W.C.D.C. of Capitol Hill, A.D. 1852", 1852 June 30-August 8. 1 folder.
Scope and Contents

This volume, approximately 96 pages and 4 sketches, is titled, "Journal of Thomas Adams, W.C.D.C. of Capitol Hill, A.D. 1852." The journal includes details on his voyage on the S.S. Gallatin, twelve pages of notes from various publications, some verse, a pen-and-ink sketch of the U.S.S. Walker off Nantucket Bar, and three other miscellaneous pen-and-ink sketches.

Physical Description

1 folder

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Journal, 1853 May 5-1854 May 19. 1 folder.
Scope and Contents

This journal, approximately 132 pages of text and drawings, dates from May 1853 to May 1854 and narrates Adams's journey as part of a group traveling West with Isaac Stevens, the newly-appointed governor of the newly-created Washington Territory. Stevens was also appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory. As Stevens traveled towards Washington Territory, he also arranged for the surveying of a railroad route across the northern part of the country, from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Puget Sound.

Adams left Washington, D.C. with the party on May 5, 1853 and traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, where they stayed ten days before departing for the West. The journal describes the rivers they followed, where they camped, the Forts they visited on the way, the frequent divisions of the group under various leaders, and the subsequent re-unitings of the two or three groups. There are meticulous descriptions of the landscape through which they traveled, and there are continuous mentions of the number of miles marched each day; the weather; the food, including buffalo, fish, Rocky Mountain sheep, Big Horn does, roasted beaver and beaver tail, and baked beaver feet; and the shortages of wood for fuel. Adams also wrote about the horses and mules, several of whom he was very attached.

Also described in detail are the many meetings with Native Americans. In addition to the "half-breed" guides who traveled with them, Adams met members of the Assiniboin, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Flathead and "Shoshonee" tribes. He, along with Governor Stevens, met with the Grand Council in July 1853 and he described the peace pipe and ceremonies relating to it and the gifts exchanged by chiefs at Native American meetings.

The party stayed at Camp Stevens (or "Cantonment Stevens") for the month of November building winter quarters, giving up their goal of reaching Fort Hall before the winter. Entries from January and February describe life at camp and various short forays.

At the end of the journal is a 19-page English to Flathead wordlist with phonetic spellings.

Physical Description

1 folder

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Journal, "Volume II", 1854 June 26-1855 April 26. 1 folder.
Scope and Contents

"Volume II," as Adams titled it, contains approximately 86 pages of text and drawings and features many more extensive, anecdotal, and undated entries than the first journal. Beginning in June 1854, Adams, as a part of three parties of the expedition, left Cantonment Stevens. Adams accompanied Harry Pierson to Olympia on the Puget Sound; crossing the Missoula River, proceeding up the Snake River to Fort Walla Wallah, to the Cascades, down the Columbia River by steamboat to Vancouver, to Portland and Oregon City, and to Olympia. In Olympia, Adams waited for Governor Stevens' return, and during that time, traveled to Fort Steilacoom, Hudson Bay Trading Post, Vancouver, Portland, and the Coeur d'Alene Mission. He finally traveled to Fort Owen.

At Fort Owen, Adams waited for news and provisions, and while there, noted that the Flathead Indians suffered from a scarcity of buffalo and hoped that the United States government would help them make peace with the Blackfeet and provide teachers to instruct their children. During the several months that Adams stayed at Fort Owen, he became acquainted with the Flathead chief, Victor, learned of inter-tribal problems and violence, and attended Native American ceremonies and events.

In April, Adams was notified that Governor Stevens would arrive in July and that treaties were to be made with Native Americans, including the Blackfeet, during the summer.

At the end of this journal are brief biographies of thirteen Native Americans along with pencil sketches of each. There is also a six page English to Indian language dictionary.

Physical Description

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Journal, 1855 July 30-1859 November 10. 1 folder.
Scope and Contents

Adams's final journal contains approximately 190 pages of dated entries and one sketch, and documents his life from July 1855 to November 1859, when he returned to Washington, D.C.

Adams left Fort Owen in Montana on July 30, 1855 to meet with Governor Stevens and Colonel Cumming, who was the superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Missouri District. After meeting with the governor and colonel, Adams was sent as a messenger to the Crow tribe whith the goal of asking them to attend the Council of local tribes. During his travels to the Crows, he learned of epidemics of smallpox and measles which were decimating the Crow population and causing the survivors to move to new locations. He traveled to the Judith River for the Council, without succeeding in his effort to bring members of the Crow Tribe.

From October 14 to 15, 1855, there were informal conferences between the Native Americans and the Commission before the Grand Council met on October 16, with representatives of the Blackfoot, North and South Piegans, Blood, Gros Ventres, Flatheads, Spokans, Coeur d'Alenes, Kootenay, Nez Perce, and Snake tribes. The treaty was signed on October 17, and shortly thereafter, Adams made topographical sketches of the new boundaries fixed by the treaty.

At the end of October, Adams traveled to Fort Owen where he heard that the Sioux and Yakima were at war with the white population. He remained at Fort Owen during the winter before traveling to Fort Benton and back to Fort Owen between March and April. By the end of April 1856 through 1859, Adams began working as a horse trader and traveled to Salt Lake City where he stayed with Mormon families and described the polygamous relationships; heard Brigham Young, Heber and George A. Smith make speeches; and detailed the speculations of the population on a war between the Mormons and the United States. During the years, he returned regularly to Fort Owen, focusing his efforts mostly on the horse trade, although he did, in fact, pan for and find some gold.

On November 10, 1859, Adams returned to Washington, D.C.

Physical Description

1 folder

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Letter Book, 1854-1855. 1 folder.
Scope and Contents

The letterbook contains ten letters, including:

A letter from Governor Isaac I. Stevens, Washington, D.C. to Thomas Adams (1854 June 2), wherein Stevens appointed Adams "Special Indian Agent for the Eastern District of Washington Territory comprising the country of the Flathead, Upper Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenays," with the mission to "continue the efforts of Lieutenant Mullan to foster ... friendly feelings towards the whites and other Indian tribes, to encourage any disposition to get their subsistence from the soil," and to keep the Department abreast of relationships.

A letter from Rufus Ingalls, Captain Army Quarter Master to the Indian Agent, Flathead Country, Oregon Territory (1854 September 18) introducing Mr. Van Etten, a traveling businessman who "seems an honest an reliable person."

A letter from Thomas Adams to Governor Stevens (1855 January 16), wherein Adams reported on the whereabouts of the Kootenays and the Pend d'Oreilles, and that the Flatheads were disappointed that there was no news of governmental aid in response to the scarcity of buffalo. He also described the removal of a Catholic Mission to the Iocko River area and expected that there would be a settlement of Kootenays and Flatheads near the Mission's new location.

A letter from Governor Stevens to Thomas Adams (1855 January 11), wherein Stevens asked that Adams make a monthly report referring to any "special operation within the month and any changes ... in the temper and condition of the Indians."

A letter from Governor Stevens to Thomas Adams (1855 January 18), wherein Stevens sent Adams $500 for agency expenses and asked that Adam send his report on local Native American activities. Stevens wrote that he planned to convene the Blackfeet Council on July 1 and stated that his goal for the council was to unite the Flathead, Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenay tribes "into a single reservation."

A letter from Governor Stevens to Thomas Adams (1855 January 17), wherein Stevens asked that Adams help prepare for treaties and to expect to participate in "the survey of the Indian country westward to the Puget Sound."

A letter from Thomas Adams to Governor Stevens (1855 March 24), wherein Adams reported on Flathead and Kootenay activities and wrote that "war parties of the Blackfeet" were traveling towards them. Adams also described his dissatisfaction with his inactivity.

A letter from James Doty, Secretary to Treaty Commission to Thomas Adams (1855 April 10), wherein James Doty instructed Adams to inform the local Native Americans that Governor Stevens would be arriving to request that they attend the Blackfeet Council, the date of which was changed to August 1.

A letter from Thomas Adams to James Doty (1855 April 25), wherein Adams stated that he would inform the local Native Americans about Governor Stevens' visit, but could not inform the Forts because "the mountains are full of Blackfeet war parties."

A letter from Thomas Adams to Governor Stevens (1855 April 25), wherein Adams reported on Blackfeet war parties and horse thefts, and stated that he thought that the local Native Americans would welcome settling on a reservation and that he did not need a translator because he had "already acquired sufficient knowledge of the language to answer on all ordinary occasions."

Physical Description

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