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date: 04 March 2021

Chittenden, Hiram Martinfree

(25 October 1858–09 October 1917)
  • Gordon B. Dodds

Chittenden, Hiram Martin (25 October 1858–09 October 1917), historian and civil engineer, was born in Cattaraugas County, New York, the son of William Chittenden and Mary Wheeler, farmers. Chittenden was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy, but he spent two terms at Cornell University in 1879–1880 to broaden his education before entering West Point in the spring of 1880. He graduated from the military academy in 1884, ranked third in a class of thirty-seven cadets, a position that earned him an assignment in the Corps of Engineers. After marrying Nettie Parker later that year (a union that produced three children), Chittenden spent the next three years in postgraduate study at the Engineer School of Application in New York City. Then, after a year of mapping and surveying for the Department of the Platte, he was transferred to river and harbor work on the Missouri and Ohio rivers, where he remained until 1896.

The only bright spot in this last assignment was summer work in 1891–1893 building roads in Yellowstone National Park, a service that also produced Chittenden’s first book, The Yellowstone National Park: Historical and Descriptive (1895). While on duty in Yellowstone he joined with others, such as Theodore Roosevelt, in opposition to the building of a railroad through the park. His contribution to this cause was to publish articles in Harper’s Weekly and Forest and Stream.

Chittenden first gained a national reputation as a pioneer advocate of federal aid to irrigation in the American West. In 1896 Congress authorized a survey of reservoir sites in Wyoming and Colorado and an investigation of the function of reservoirs in general. Assigned to conduct this investigation, Chittenden made three trips into the arid West, organized his data, and completed his report (Preliminary Examination of Reservoir Sites in Wyoming and Colorado) in November 1897, all within fifteen months. Chittenden’s recommendations were that reservoirs were feasible means for regulating stream flow and for irrigation and—more important—should be constructed by the federal government. During the next five years the report gained increasing attention and support from individuals and organizations, including George Maxwell of the National Irrigation Association, the conservationist Gifford Pinchot, and Frederick Newell, chief hydrographer of the U.S. Geological Survey, and was a powerful force (“the strongest single influence,” in the words of one U.S. senator) in the passage of the Newlands Act of 1902 that first authorized federal construction of irrigation dams. After service (at home) during the Spanish-American War, Chittenden returned to rivers and harbors work (which he believed was a waste of time and taxpayers’ money) on the Missouri River until 1906, leavened by special assignments. The first of these tasks was to chair in 1904 a commission to investigate conditions in Yosemite Park. The most important results of this survey helped to convince Congress to acquire the Yosemite Valley from California to add to the surrounding highlands already in the park, to keep a railroad out of the park, and to reduce its area to eliminate timber and mining interests within it.

During these years Chittenden spent many of his winter evenings and weekends working on a study of the fur trade of the trans-Mississippi West: “I didn’t care enough about the Missouri River to waste any unnecessary energy thereon, for I felt as certain then as I do now that it would be all labor lost. I, therefore, had no compunction in directing as much of my time as I could to work which I believed would be of a great deal more use to my countrymen.” The American Fur Trade of the Far West was published in 1902. Beginning with a brief overview of the origins of the fur trade in eastern North America, it provided a detailed description and analysis of the major fur-trading companies operating west of the Mississippi River (except for the omission of those in the Southwest). The work was a great pioneering venture in scholarship, for there was nothing that had paved the way except for Washington Irving’s Astoria (1836) and Captain Bonneville (1837).

Chittenden, a conscientious historian, went to the sources to ground his massive work. He located in private hands the papers of the great St. Louis fur-trading families of the Chouteaus and Sublettes. He interviewed, consulted newspapers, visited document repositories in St. Louis and throughout the West, and corresponded with experienced historians. The American Fur Trade remains the standard overview and has never been imitated. It has the faults and virtues of its age but nevertheless has remained the authority. Chittenden’s writing style is clear although the topical organization of the book is confusing in places. He was sparing in the use of footnotes and somewhat imprecise about the value of his bibliographical sources. In addition to the Southwest, Chittenden neglected or deemphasized the domestic and international political ramifications of the trade and the economic side of the fur business. He also made several errors of fact, such as his crediting the discovery of South Pass to Etienne Provost in 1823 rather than to the returning Astorians in 1813. In spite of these flaws, the work’s enduring power confirms its author’s evaluation: “This work I put down as emphatically a thing well done and this view is confirmed as time goes on.”

Chittenden’s two other large historical works, both of which he edited, lack the superb quality and influence of The American Fur Trade. History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (1903) was constructed around the colorful memoirs of Joseph La Barge, a retired river pilot whom Chittenden had met in St. Louis. It included documentation and remained the standard in the field until 1962. Life, Letters, and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, S.J., 1801–1873 (1905), written and edited with Alfred T. Richardson, a businessman and newspaper editor from Nebraska, was a four-volume work that contained a brief (144-page) biography of the Jesuit missionary that introduced the letters section. Unfortunately, the collection contains only about 30 percent of Pierre-Jean De Smet’s correspondence and was edited in a careless manner.

In historiographical terms, Chittenden was a transitional figure. Methodologically, in his reliance on sources, his use of footnotes, and his attempt to be objective in his scholarship, he represented the newer scientific study of history. More important, he used Darwinian evolution to explain matters such as Great Britain’s victory in the Boer War, U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, and the displacement of the Native Americans. Essentially, however, Chittenden’s historical work was in the traditional romantic vein that glorified primitive heroic individuals such as Jim Bridger, colorful institutions such as the disappearing steamboat, and historic sites such as the Oregon Trail.

Chittenden had a second tour of duty in Yellowstone Park (1899–1906), served as the Corps of Engineers’ district engineer in Seattle (1906–1910), and, after retirement from the army in 1910, served as chairman of the first board of port commissioners in Seattle (1911–1915), in which position he protected the interest of the public against developers. Chittenden also became embroiled in a controversy concerning the new conservation movement of the Theodore Roosevelt years. One of the arguments for forest conservation was that they regulated stream flow. Basing his position on his experiences in Yellowstone Park and others’ studies of the problem, Chittenden attempted to refute this view in an article published in the Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1908. His article was highly publicized (and even attacked by President Roosevelt), but it did not stop the passage of the John Wingate Weeks bill to create an Appalachian National Forest, a measure its supporters defended by stating that the government reserves would play a part in controlling floods.

Chittenden died in Seattle of locomotor ataxia. His significance lies primarily in his historical work. However, his efforts to preserve Yellowstone and Yosemite also created an enduring legacy. The roads in Yellowstone Park follow—with one exception—the roads that he constructed. Finally, his investigation of reservoir sites was enormously influential in bringing the national government into the irrigation business, helping to transform the economic life of the American West.


The bulk of Chittenden’s personal papers are located at the Washington State Historical Society, with an additional few pieces located at the University of Washington library. Another major deposit is his official correspondence with the Office of the Chief of Engineers contained in the Records of the Chief of Engineers in the National Archives. Several of Chittenden’s unpublished writings are in H. M. Chittenden: A Western Epic, ed. Bruce Le Roy (1961). Chittenden is also the author of War or Peace: A Present Duty and a Future Hope (1911). A biography of Chittenden is Gordon B. Dodds, Hiram Martin Chittenden: His Public Career (1973). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, both 10 Oct. 1917.