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Collection Overview

Adams, Thomas, 1830-1900
Thomas Adams Papers
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1 box and 0.4 linear feet
Storage Note:
Firestone Library (mss): Box 1


Thomas Adams (1830-1900) was a civil engineer, topographer, and surveyor who traveled west with Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the newly-appointed governor of the Washington Territory. From 1853 to 1859, Adams served the party as meteorologist, topographer, sketch artist, and eventually, as assistant to Lieutenant John Mullan (1830-1909), who was in charge of the surveying. This collection consists of four journals and one letter book documenting Adams's life from 1852 to 1859. In addition to detailed descriptions of Adams's experiences, the journals also contain expertly drawn sketches of landscapes and forts, Native Americans, and animals, as well as home-made dictionaries of the Flathead language.

Collection Description & Creator Information


This collection consists of four journals and one letter book documenting Thomas Adams's life from 1852 to 1859. In addition to detailed descriptions of Adams's experiences, the journals also contain expertly drawn sketches of Native Americans, landscapes and forts, and animals.

The first journal dates from June 30 to August 8, 1852, and describes Adams's voyage on the S.S. Gallatin, possibly off the coast of Nantucket. The remaining three journals document Adams's travels to the West Coast with Governor Isaac Stevens, and his travels around Washington Territory, including Fort Hall in Idaho, Minnesota, Montana (particularly Fort Benton and Fort Owen), Oregon, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Washington State. During his journeys, Adams describes and sketches his day-to-day life, as well as the challenges of travel (including the number of miles marched each day, the weather, the food, shortages of wood for fuel, problems with horses and mules, etc.), building camps, the Native Americans he meets (the Assiniboin, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Flathead, and "Shoshonee" tribes), treaties, raising and trading horses, the Mormons, and panning for gold. At least two of these three journals appear to have been copied by Adams from earlier drafts, no longer extant, and illustrated in part with copies of published illustrations.

The letter book contains ten letters, all in Adams's hand: both copies of letters written to Adams and retained copies of Adams's outgoing letters. These letters concern the Council of Indian Tribes and the Blackfeet Treaty. The first letter, from Governor Stevens, appoints Adams as "Special Indian Agent" in preparation for these events. Correspondents include: Governor Isaac Stevens (seven letters); Rufus Ingals, Captain Army Quarter Master (one letter); and James Doty, Secretary to the Treaty Commission (two letters). The letters are particularly interesting for their expression of Governor Stevens' specific goals for white-Native American relations.


The journals are arranged chronologically, followed by the letter book.

Collection Creator Biography:

Adams, Thomas, 1830-1900

Thomas Adams (1830-1900) was twenty-three years old and a civil engineer when he set out in 1853 as part of a group traveling West with Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the newly-appointed (1853) Governor of the newly-created Washington Territory. Stevens had also been appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory, and as he traveled to Olympia, he arranged for the surveying of a railroad route across the northern part of the country, from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Puget Sound. Adams started as a low-ranking member of the party, serving as meteorologist, topographer, and sketch artist. By the time he returned to Washington, DC in 1859, he was twenty-nine years old and had served as assistant to Lieutenant John Mullan (1830-1909), who was in charge of the surveying. Adams also played a role as temporary Special Agent for the Flathead nation in the 1855 signing of the important government treaty with the Blackfeet which was eventually ratified in 1856. Following the signing of the treaty, Adams created topographical sketches of the new boundaries.

During his time in the West, Adams had become an experienced Westerner, learning to live off the land and survive the winters, regularly camping, hunting, and trading with the local Native Americans, raising cattle, occasionally panning for gold, and trading and maintaining a large herd of government-owned horses. He learned some of the Flathead language and created a small dictionary, was given an Indian name ("Pe-pah-hutsin"), and attended Native American ceremonies and celebrations. While he appears to have spent the bulk of his time with the Flatheads, he also interacted with the Blackfoot Nation (the Blackfoot, Piegan, Gros Ventre and Blood) and the Nez Perce.

An accomplished artist, Adams sketched what he saw around him, including camp life, forts he visited, the landscapes, and portraits of some of the Native Americans whom he met.

Adams returned to Washington, D.C. on November 10, 1859.

Collection History


Purchased in 2013.


No items were removed during 2013 processing.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Holly Mengel in 2013. Finding aid written by Holly Mengel in 2013.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. No further photoduplication of copies of material in the collection can be made when Princeton University Library does not own the original. Inquiries regarding publishing material from the collection should be directed to RBSC Public Services staff through the Ask Us! form. The library has no information on the status of literary rights in the collection and researchers are responsible for determining any questions of copyright.

Credit this material:

Thomas Adams Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184