Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


From 1777 until 1863 the U.S. Army included topographical engineers among its professional officers. The Topographical Bureau was created as a branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on March 3, 1813, and remained only a small, elite corps until John James Abert, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, became its head in 1829. A good politician as well as a capable engineer, Abert succeeded in getting the Corps of Topographical Engineers created in 1838 as an independent army unit separate from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sixty-four of its seventy-two officers were West Point men, testifying to the unit's superior composition. The Corps was in tune with the romantic interests of a nation curious about the West and anxious to unlock its secrets. On March 3, 1863, Congress eliminated the independent unit, merging it with the Army Engineers.

One of the first six officers in the Corps, Stephen H. Long explored along the Platte, Arkansas, and Red Rivers in 1820. His report included a map of the Great Plains across which was printed "Great American Desert." Although the description is today considered incorrect, Long (and Zebulon Pike before him), in their pessimistic forecasts denying the possibility of white settlement, were accurate within the context of the technology of the times.

The Topographical Engineers were most active in the 1840s and 1850s. John C. Frémont's western explorations began in 1841 with an exploration of the North Platte River. Frémont's next exploration took him west to present Pueblo, Colorado, then north to the Laramie Plains. Returning east a year later, Frémont took a southerly route via Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River. His report of this twoyear reconnaissance (1843–44) greatly expanded the geographical knowledge of the Great Plains.

The Southern Plains gained o.cial attention with the advent of the Mexican War. Topographical engineers accompanied military forays searching out the best routes, and sites for artesian wells, into New Mexico and California. They were involved in the running of the Mexican American boundary. Colonel Abert's son, Lt. James W. Abert, Bvt. Maj. William Hemsley Emory, Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, and Lt. James H. Simpson are but four of the many topographical engineers whose activities added further to the knowledge of the Southern Plains.

The Topographical Engineers were deeply involved in the Pacific Railroad surveys. These explorations resulted in the delineation of several viable railroad routes ranging, in the north, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Oregon and, in the south, from Vicksburg to southern California. Lt. Gov. K. Warren, Capt. John W. Gunnison, Isaac I. Stevens, and Capt. William F. Raynolds were among the engineers who traversed the Great Plains in the course of their assignments. In addition, scientists accompanied the surveys, and their Pacific Railroad reports–magnificent volumes gathering dust in research libraries–offer a proud beginning to the scientific investigation of the entire West, including the Great Plains.

Richard A. Bartlett Florida State University

Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration of the American West, 1803–1863. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1959.

Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1966.

Wallace, Edward S. The Great Reconnaissance. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1955.

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