by Karen Meador
For most people, the phrase Jefferson Davis and the Pacific Northwest sounds like the ultimate historical paradox. But before he became President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, Davis had had a long career of public service to the United States as a West Point graduate and Army officer, Congressman, Senator, Secretary of War and closest adviser to President Franklin Pierce. Matters concerning the Pacific Northwest commanded his close attention.
As an ardent expansionist, Jefferson Davis was a great supporter of creating a continental nation. From the time he entered Congress in 1845, through his final term in the Senate as Chairman of Military Affairs, he sponsored numerous bills and secured appropriations to promote American settlement of the West. In the 1840s, many in government discounted the value of the remote Oregon Country. Yet, in his first congressional speech, Davis addressed the boundary dispute with Great Britain, calling for the U.S. to assert its claims to the region. Expanding the Army presence along the Oregon Trail and throughout the Northwest, as well as sponsoring numerous surveys, topographical expeditions and scientific studies were among his top priorities. Advocating the initiation and expansion of mail service as well as securing pay increases for soldiers serving in the “Pacific possessions” were also among his efforts.
Jefferson Davis’ most enduring legacy to the Northwest may be his patronage of numerous engineering projects, among them the Pacific railroad surveys. On a more topical note is his enthusiastic sponsorship and supervision of the construction of the early military roads, including the Military Road which runs through South King County today. Despite rising sectional differences in the prewar years, Davis maintained his longstanding dedication to addressing the needs created by America’s recent territorial expansion and “binding the Pacific slope more permanently to this Union.”
This came to a halt with the election of Lincoln as President. Although he had argued against secession as a senator from Mississippi, southern-born Davis felt compelled to side with the South. At the end of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was charged with treason against the United States. Though he never was tried on those charges, he was prevented from ever running for public office again. In 1977, however, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield called for the restoration of Davis’ U.S. citizenship. In introducing Senate Resolution 16, he made a stirring speech alluding to many of Jefferson Davis’ little-known contributions to the United States, calling him “an outstanding American.”
Historian and writer Karen Meador has done extensive research on the building of Military Road. She will speak on Jefferson Davis’ support of Pacific Northwest settlement on Saturday, February 23, 1-3 PM, at the Kent Senior Center, 600 E Smith Street in Kent. For more information, visit SoCoCulture’s online calendar.