It was a long way from West Point to the remote frontier post of Ft. Spokane. John McAdams Webster, from Warrenton, Ohio, began his military career by joining the 197th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1865. Though he was only 16 years old, Webster was commissioned as a second lieutenant. In September of 1865 he went to West Point and due to health issues, he remained there for six years. His commission as a second lieutenant was to the 22nd Infantry, which was on frontier duty at the time. Promotions were hard to come by, and Webster would wait until 1879 to become first lieutenant and until 1891 to become captain. All the while, he served with quiet distinction in staff positions at several posts.
An accident in 1895 resulted in a spinal injury that restricted the use of his right leg, causing him to depend on a cane. Unable to participate fully in Army activities, Webster retired in December of 1898 and took up residence in his home state of Ohio. But in 1904, at the request of the commander of the Army, Webster was appointed to the Deptartment of the Interior. This Superintendent appointment put him in charge of the Indian boarding school at Ft. Spokane.
In contrast to his predecessor, Webster is remembered for leading with awareness and sensitivity to the natives’ problems. According to some, Webster always took a “paternalistic posture” towards natives and attempted to “educate” them in the white man’s ways. Webster took over the Colville Indian Agency (August 1, 1904) after an embezzlement scandal ended Agent Anderson’s tenure. Webster aimed to reform the boarding school system, advocating for a day school where families would not have to send their children from far away. The local tribes had plead for a day school so that they could see their children every day.
As attendance at the school dwindled, Webster suggested that Ft. Spokane should become a clinic for tuberculosis. He reasoned that the tribes would be better served by a hospital when one out of every four Indians in the area suffered from tuberculosis. Webster converted an old officers’ quarter into a clinic with a wraparound deck so that the patients could sit out in the cold, dry air, tilted up in bed so as not to drown in their own fluids.
As superintendent, Webster had authority over three reservations: Spokane, Colville, and Nez Perce. His responsibilities included their general welfare and their legal relationship with the U.S. government. Webster could appoint tribal judges to oversee the Court of Indian Offenses. One of these judges was William Three Mountains (the younger,) who earned Webster’s admiration as a great leader who wanted the best for the Spokane people.
While the reasons are murky, the Bureau of Indian Affairs came down hard on Webster. Suffering from ill health and wary of new department policy changes, Webster first resigned from his post in February of 1912. It was said that he had put his wards above his normal duties. He would later return to Eastern Washington as an Indian agent for the Spokane Reservation before resigning again. Webster finally returned to his home on Mackinac Island, Michigan, where he lived until his death in 1921.