- Historic Sites
Death Stalked The Grand Reconnaissance
Our half-known new western empire was mapped, in a great mass exploration, by the Army’s Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853 —a grand national reconnaissance extending over half a continent and led by men who would later be counted among the most prominent soldiers and scientists of the Republic
—were the capstone of an American age of exploration in the Far West. They were packed with adventure and stalked by death, and they were conceived in desperation by a preCivil War Congress hopelessly deadlocked over the proper location for the first vital transcontinental railroad, which would link the Mississippi Valley with golden California. Should the route go north, or south? Sectionalism offered loud answers but no agreement. The railroad surveys were an attempt to let science decide a question that, after eight years of continuous debate, appeared to be beyond the powers of mortal men. Not since Napoleon, in the midst of his short-lived conquest of Egypt, had taken a large corps of savants to study that country’s lands and culture had such an array of scientific talent been marshalled in the service of geographical conquest. And not since that celebrated Egyptian foray were the scientific results to prove so rich and overwhelming while the practical results appeared to lead only to frustration. For the first actual railroad to the Pacific was not completed for another sixteen years.
The great exploration provided the first panoramic view of what the vast West was really like. It produced an encyclopedia of western experience in thirteen massive calfskin volumes—government reports now consigned to dust and obscurity in public libraries and archives. In them was a matchless picture of the Old West before its settlement. The surveys likewise produced a cast of heroes —military and scientific explorers whose names and deeds, like the records of the surveys themselves, are now almost forgotten.
On the second of March, 1853, Congress ordered the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to “employ such portion of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and such other persons as he may deem necessary, to make such explorations and surveys as he may deem advisable, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” Davis was to see to the organization and execution of the program and the compilation of a report on the findings by the first Monday in January of 1854—within ten months from the day of the order. It was a staggering assignment—one that seemed virtually impossible to complete in the time allotted, even allowing for the fact that the men were required to make only a rapid reconnaissance of the feasible routes. Moreover, with the whole project under the direction of such an archSoutherner as Jefferson Davis some people wondered why there was to be a serious study at all, since the selection of a southern route appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
Almost immediately Davis set to work organizing the task. He established the Bureau of Explorations and Surveys, headed first by his old friend from the Topographical Corps, Major William H. Emory of Maryland, and commanded later by Captain Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, the Army hydrographie engineer who had tamed the Mississippi at the New Orleans levee. Together Davis, Emory, and Humphreys decided which routes were to be explored and who was to command each of the field parties. In general the routes considered for the surveys were those that appeared to have the most political backing in Congress. Thus, four main transcontinental parties were sent into the West, each corresponding to an important sectional interest. The northern survey, which was to operate between the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels, was led by Isaac Ingalls Stevens, a brilliant and energetic young Army officer who had just resigned his commission to accept the post of governor of the new Washington Territory. This railroad route was to connect the Great Lakes to the Pacific at Puget Sound by way of St. Paul and the great bend of the Missouri River [see pages 46-47). As the new governor, Stevens had a direct interest in bringing back a favorable report on the possibilities of the route. Moreover, his political fortunes were closely tied to those of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, chief financial backer of this northern venture.
Another expedition moved west along a line much farther south. It was led by Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, and it followed the thirtyfifth parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Santa Fe and farther westward, carrying with it the hopes of the citizens of southern Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Douglas also stood to profit if this line was selected, since it would connect with his new Illinois Central Railroad at Cairo, Illinois. Far to the south appeared to be the likeliest route. In fact, so convinced in its favor was Davis that at first he did not even deem it necessary to send a party out to explore it. Ultimately, however, he yielded to political pressure and ordered two expeditions into the field to survey the thirty-second parallel line one from the west, led by the veteran explorer of New Mexico, Lieutenant John G. Parkc, the other from the east, commanded by Captain John Pope, even at this earlystage of his career addicted to the same self-advertisement from his “headquarters in the saddle” that would make him the laughingstock Union commander at the Civil War disaster of Second Manassas.