Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

LONG, STEPHEN H. (1784-1864)

Stephen Harriman Long, army engineer and explorer, helped foster the idea that the Great Plains was the Great American Desert. Son of Moses and Lucy Long, he was born on December 10, 1784, at Hopkinton, New Hampshire. In 1809 he graduated from Dartmouth College, and for the next five years he taught school and worked as a surveyor. Near the end of the War of 1812, Long became a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. He remained an army officer for nearly fifty years.

Long hoped to become the next important western explorer after Lewis and Clark, and in 1818 he received orders to organize and lead a scientific expedition west. That year he designed a steamboat, the Western Engineer, to carry the scientists up the Missouri River, but it proved unable to navigate that river successfully. In 1820 Long led a small party of scientists and soldiers west to the Rocky Mountains. They examined the land, streams, animals, plants, and minerals along the way. At the Rockies they turned south, searching for the headwaters of the Red River without success. After nearly starving in the Plains, they returned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, late in the summer.

The explorers brought back specimens of plants and animals, as well as new geographic information about the Central Plains. Their report and maps clearly labeled the region as desert. When taken with similar comments from Zebulon Pike, Long's descriptions persuaded many that the Plains was unfit for agriculture. After this, his duties shifted to planning railroads and clearing obstructions out of some of America's larger rivers. His army career ended in 1863, and he died the next year at Alton, Illinois, on September 4.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Great American Desert.

Roger L. Nichols University of Arizona

Nichols, Roger L., and Patrick L. Haley. Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980.

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