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John Mullan

The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder

Keith C. Petersen


West Point engineering graduate John Mullan completed the West’s first highway–625 miles that eventually became an important link in Interstate 90. Former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen takes a fresh look at the celebrated road builder–probing the dashing young soldier/explorer’s complex personality and continuing a story that includes business partnerships and personal relationships with some of the West’s most intriguing characters.


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John Mullan’s celebrated road—a 625-mile link that connected the Missouri and Columbia Rivers—established the West Point graduate as an accomplished engineer. After completing the Northwest’s first engineered highway at age thirty-two, he lived for nearly another half century, a period of dynamic change. When he died in 1909, automobiles were making their initial crossings along his route. The arterial eventually became a critical link in America’s longest interstate freeway, I-90. Yet despite frequent mentions in books about the nineteenth century Northwest, the soldier/explorer has remained little more than a caricature: a dashing young Army officer who comes West, builds one of its most important thoroughfares, and then disappears from regional literature.

Now, in lively prose, Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen takes a fresh look at Mullan, whose road significantly impacted the development of the Northwest. Mullan’s story includes business partnerships and personal relationships with some of the West’s most intriguing characters: Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, General William T. Sherman, Chico founder John Bidwell, Idaho gold discoverer Elias Pierce, Yakama Indian chief Owhi, and others. The first comprehensive portrayal of John Mullan’s life, this deeply researched biography probes the explorer’s complex personality, his rise to fame, and his fall from grace.

Illustrations / map / notes / bibliography / index / 352 pages (2014)


“A compelling addition to the literature of western history…This biography of John Mullan is in every way a real gemUntil I read Petersen’s biography, I knew little about Mullan the manPetersen’s biography does not shy away from the less edifying aspects of Mullan’s life. In fact, from beginning to end this book is compelling in its study of the man and his times. It is rich in personal details. The scope and depth of Petersen’s research is impressive. This book will serve as the definitive biography of Mullan.”—The Western Historical Quarterly

“Well researched and well written…This book is historically accurate and well worth purchasing and reading. ”—Overland Journal

“It turns out John Mullan was a human being. Aspects of Mullan’s life have been studied in depth, but few, if any, had taken a clear-eyed look at the whole picture until Keith Petersen came along to fit the pieces together—Mullan’s boyhood days, the hunger for success and fame that drove him—sometimes to maniac extremes—in family and professional relationships, in explorations and road building exploits, and in his later careers as a developer and attorney.”—Kim Briggeman, Missoulian reporter and Mullan Road historian

“Petersen’s biography infuses John Mullan’s many-sided story with both the road-builder’s personal energy and a thorough context of the forces that drove his work. It also casts an unflinching eye on the military aspects of Mullan’s experience in the Interior Northwest, and what that meant for the tribes. A full account, gracefully rendered.”—Jack Nisbet, author of Sources of the River; The Mapmaker’s Eye; and The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Pacific Northwest.

John Mullan places Mullan’s life squarely within the context of the times and explains how his driven and sometimes knotty personality led to his success and his failures.”—Jon Axline, author of Conveniences Sorely Needed: Montana’s Historic Highway Bridges, 1860-1956; and Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History

“In this biography and history, Petersen builds a complete historical context that demonstrates an extraordinary depth of nineteenth-century historical knowledge while remaining accessible to the general reader. The work, in one consistent voice, successfully spans nineteenth-century Baltimore Catholic upper-social strata to the bordellos of Walla Walla, Washington without missing a beat…I recommend this book for anyone interested in the life of John Mullan, Mullan’s Road, or the Pacific Northwest in the nineteenth-century.”—Luke Sprague, M.A., Professional Historian

Additional information

Dimensions 9 x 6 in