Category: Background

Generations of historians and regional writers came and went, and no one in Idaho pursued the hard-to-develop story of William Craig. Until, that is, Lin Tull Cannell spent years filling a major gap in the history of the Pacific Northwest by telling that story.

Here is some of what she says about that, from the preface of The Intermediary:

Perhaps because Craig so successfully hid his past, historians interested in America’s fur-trapping era stopped short of committing the time and travel needed to research his life. There were, after all, mountain men who left a more flamboyant—and easier—trail. Idaho’s historians who wanted to learn about the first white man to be granted a homestead in what is now their state must have been discouraged by the paucity of information about him. And Nez Perce historians were not inclined to honor William Craig as one of their heroes, for he was not ni·mi·pu· (Nez Perce people). While he was in many ways their steadfast friend, his aim was not that they retain their ancestral land and hold fast to their culture but that they share their land and meld their culture with his people.

Now, however, more than 140 years after his death, Craig’s activities in the west have at last been identified, documented, and placed in the context of his times. It is clear that he was a man who contributed in a unique way to the United States’ push to control the Far West. He was not only a trapper but also a trader and explorer in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. He married into and lived with the Nez Perce people, neighbored with the earliest American missionaries to reach the Columbia Plateau, and, after killings at the Whitman mission, acted as liaison between the Nez Perce and an encroaching settler militia. He acted as a middleman between a territorial governor and some Nez Perce leaders. He interpreted in treaty councils and participated, along with Nez Perce warriors allied to the United States, in the resultant wars. He was appointed the first U.S. agent to the Nez Perce people and he sanctioned the first hanging of a man in what is now the Lewiston, Idaho, region. He was an entrepreneur—a trader, farmer, stock raiser, innkeeper, ferryman, and guide.

Notwithstanding our divergent pasts (and presents), both so·yá·po· (white Americans) and ni·mi·pu· can agree that William Craig thrived on the Columbia Plateau during a pivotal period in Northwest history.

I was born and bred in the interior Northwest, but it was not until I had spent almost 30 years working elsewhere and retired back to north central Idaho that I questioned that which I had always accepted. Returning to my childhood home with the “new eyes” of experience, I especially noticed—and puzzled over—the predominance of non-Indian residents (even towns occupied mostly by white people) on the Nez Perce reservation. Curiosity up, I read old treaties between the United States and the Nez Perce Indian tribe: those, and Francis Paul Prucha’s The Great Father, answered many of my questions about how non-Indians could now be living on Indian reservations.

As I meandered through the hills and canyons around Orofino, I noticed the name “Craig” here and there on the Clearwater River watershed: the village of Craigmont on the Camas Prairie, Craig’s Ferry on a sign along the Clearwater River, and, in the Lapwai Valley, a Highway 195 marker declaring that William Craig, a former fur trapper and a “bluff, jolly good fellow,” had once lived there. But local libraries yielded little information about Craig. There was no Craig biography other than a magazine article by a local historian, and the usually verbose literature of the fur trade offered but scant paragraphs about him.

In time my curiosity about William Craig led me to do a little research. A person began emerging, one who had participated in important national events and had lived not far from Lewiston, Idaho, where I had attended grammar school. As there was little written about the history of the entire region, I became motivated to learn more about both Craig and the region in which he settled. It soon became evident that telling the story of William Craig and his family would fill a void in the history of the interior Pacific Northwest in general and my little corner of it in particular.

When I was well into the research phase—and discouraged by Craig’s trail going cold—assistance came in the form of a slim woman with a serious nature and a strong desire to learn more about her heritage. Gloria Manning is a great-great-great-granddaughter of William and Isabel (Pahtissah) Craig, and she offered to help me with the research. We began an informal partnership. During our years of collaboration, a special friendship developed based upon our common interests and mutual respect. My lifelong ties to the land and its people, along with perennial curiosity, started this book, but Gloria Manning, one of William and Isabel Craig’s descendants, is responsible for the breadth of its content.

Examining the conditions that enabled William Craig to become a landowner was eye-opening. After (probably) killing a man in Virginia, young Craig fled the United States and lost himself in the vast expanses west of the Mississippi River, far from cities, laws, and police. He survived and earned a living in the fur trade. As more Americans—missionaries at first, then others—traveled to the Far West, the possibility of the United States expanding its western border from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean became more than a dream. The fact that Craig and other trappers adopted the “manifest destiny” mindset of the American majority puzzled me: most of the mountain men had loved the Indian way of life so much that they copied it, and title to western lands was recognized by the United States as lawfully vesting in the Indian tribes. Craig was able to build a successful life with his Nez Perce family and friends on their ancestral lands, and yet at first opportunity he assisted his government in its plans to take that land from them. Following Craig’s footsteps gives the reader better understanding of the dynamics between natives and newcomers during the period when multitudes of Euroamerican settlers first came to the Inland Northwest.

The lack of personal letters, journals, and diaries made it difficult to get to know William Craig as a man, to hear his own voice. He kept a low profile: he was, after all, hiding out. He did not wax philosophical in any of his surviving business letters, even though some were written during war.

My research has unearthed no letters written by Craig to his parents or siblings, wife, children, or grandchildren. To fill that void, I have drawn upon documentation of William Craig’s involvement in activities that is found in the National Archives and manuscript repositories. Actions speak louder than words—and by blending the words in Craig’s straightforward, non-self-aggrandizing letters with observations about him by others, I have tried to provide some understanding of what a unique person William Craig was.

Since Craig lived more than 30 years among the Nez Perce people, his story is a part of their story, and vice versa. The Nez Perce Tribe’s Cultural Resource Program was furnished an outline of the Craig manuscript, and I was directed to Aoki’s Nez Perce Dictionary for my language-related questions. For a number of years, along with Nez Perce children and a few other adults (both Nez Perce and non-Indian), I have been a student in a language class, “Tewéepuu Nimiipuutímt for true beginners.” Since some of Craigs’ descendants live on the Walla Walla Cayuse Umatilla reservation, my research has taken me to the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton, Oregon, where the staff has been gracious and helpful.