William Craig among the Nez Perce’ by Lin Tull Cannell
I’m originally from the Northwest, Oregon in particular, but for nearly 35 years I’ve made Virginia my home. I will always have a fondness for the Northwest with its majestic mountain ranges, lush forests, deep canyons and great rivers.
Venturing west into the 1800s from the sedentary safety of Eastern cities is an adventure to imagine. But many did, those looking for a fresh start and perhaps fame and fortune.
If you’re a history buff, especially of those western states like Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, you’ll find that Cannell’s “The Go-between: William Craig Among the Nez Perce” is a good account. documented of such a warm individual: a tall, red-haired man who was heralded as the “Father of Idaho”.
An enterprising adventurer
William Craig was born in Virginia in 1807. In the late 1820s, after allegedly killing a man (some accounts call it self-defense), he fled west and entered the lucrative fur trade of the Rockies. Since the late 1700s, the French, English and Americans have profited from the riches of trapping and the trade in animal skins.
Part of their success was due to alliances with the various Native American tribes that allowed them to navigate the landscape and survive.
The Nez Perces knew the white trappers well and for the most part got along quite well. They had fond memories of when Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition across America in 1805-1806. They were allies and friends.
In 1838 Craig married Pah-tis-sah, the daughter of Thunder’s Eye, a Nez Perce healer. He called her Isabelle. Their marriage was long and fruitful, giving him several children who inherited his eventual inheritance.
In 1840 Craig agreed to help forge a trail (later known as the Oregon Trail) from Fort Hall near the Porfneuf River to the Whitman Mission near the Columbia River.
His exploits only seem to get bigger and wider. He secured several hundred acres and built a comfortable home in the Lapwai Valley. He befriended missionaries. It sheltered and saved missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding from the cruel fate inflicted on Marcus and Narcissa Whitman by angry Cayuse warriors in 1847.
He was fluent in the Nez Perce language. As such, his services as an interpreter were invaluable. In 1855, he served as interpreter for the Nez Perces at the Walla Walla Treaty Council. The same year, he was appointed agent of the Nez Perces and received the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Washington Territorial Volunteer Militia.
Craig was described by those who knew him as generous and helpful. He had a jovial nature, a keen sense of humor and a caring heart for the Nez Perce, given the inevitable conflict of various cultures and the hostilities inherent in Western expansion.
Complicating Craig’s role as a peacemaker, events beyond his control, such as the discovery of gold that led to a flood of miners, the introduction of whiskey to Indian reservations, and a major disruptor, the Civil War in 1861. The war brought attention to the North. and the South withdrawing the necessary resources from the promised services. The war also alienated many military officers and government officials.
In 1859 Craig was relieved of his position as Native American agent. With politics still in play, there was speculation that one of the reasons was Craig’s Southern sympathies. It was the same year that Oregon was vying for statehood.
The book is filled with many stories of Craig’s efforts to help Indigenous people. One story goes that Craig donated many of his cattle to feed the Native Americans so they would stay and attend an upcoming council and not leave in anger. His efforts were applauded as an act that prevented a war.
The book also portrays a loving family man, shrewd businessman, farmer, smuggler, and a host of other roles he played during a pivotal time in the colonization of Western states.
A creative collaboration
The author, Lin Tull Cannell, was born in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, but grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Upon her return to Idaho after decades away, she became curious about all the landmarks that bear Craig’s name. This curiosity led her to years of research as there was not much information readily available about her.
That changed when help came from Gloria Manning, William Craig’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who offered to help with the search. As a descendant, she expanded information about the Craig family.
Their partnership and collaboration, together with their mutual love and connection to the land and its people, has created this volume. It not only brings to life the legacy of William Craig, but it gives the reader a richer understanding of a dynamic time: when natives met newcomers and when the Pacific Northwest attracted thousands of new settlers.
Craig died in 1869 at the age of 62. For more than 30 years, he lived among the Nez Percé. His story intertwines with theirs. It’s a story not without injustices, but it’s also a story of hope and triumph and how one man made a difference in many ways for many lives.
‘The Intermediary: William Craig at the Nez Perces’
By Lin Tull Cannel
Ridenbaugh Press, October 20, 2010
Paperback: 244 pages