Somewhere down the road a future Idaho governor is going to take a page from a President’s Book of Plays, and is going to create, maybe even endow, an annual award to an Idaho writer, artist, composer, or outstanding college teacher.
Let’s call it the “Gem” Award, and attach a cash component of say $100,000. Ask the Idaho Humanities Council (The Council has established a similar award, but no money) to submit three names to the Governor.
Yes, Idaho already has the “Esto Perpetua” award that goes annually to the person or organization that during the previous year has best promoted Idaho heritage. It is awarded by the Idaho State Historical Society. While prestigious it too carries no monetary award.
My nominee for the First Gem Award would hands down be Idaho’s State Historian, and one of the state’s finest writers, Keith Petersen. Born in Vancouver, Washington in 1951 and a graduate of Washington State University, Keith has immersed himself in Idaho history like no other Idahoan.
His ability to relate fascinating details and place them in a meaningful context is superb. It is also the product of meticulous research and an innate curiousity that asks “what else was going on then that could have impacted this event or shaped people’s perceptions?”
Did you know that Father DeSmet, one of the first Jesuit missionaries to come to Idaho and the inspiration behind the state’s oldest structure, the Cataldo Mission, was a confident of Northwest road builder John Mullan? Mullan first came west in 1853 as part of a Pacific Railroad survey expedition headed by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, who “negotiated” (read dictated) the famous treaty of 1855 the effects of which we are still living with today.
If you did not know those facts then read Keith’s most recent endeavor, a biography of Captain John Mullan, who engineered the Mullan Road that started at Fort Walla Walla and ended up at Fort Benton in Montana on the Missouri River. Much of Interstate 90 today follows the road that he mapped and engineered over 150 years ago. Even if one is not a reader of history or biographies, this book is well worth one’s time.
The book is entitled John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder and is published by WSU Press.
Keith begins the book with Captain Mullan’s delivery of a speech in New York City in 1863 at the height of his fame for his explorations, mapping and road building in the west. Mullan is actually the warm up act at the speech forum but drones on and on for a couple hours.
Keith portrays this as the apogee, the high point of Mullan’s story, for at age 36 it is bascially all downhill for the intrepid but ambitious Mullan from there to the end of his life. While Mullan displayed incredible discipline in his younger years, was a diligent and obedient student while mastering the intricacies of engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and clearly an exceptional leader of his map-making and road building crews he appears to have had a classic fatal flaw. (more…)