- 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
Out in California other expeditions coursed north and south between the Coast Ranges and the Sierras looking for passes over the mountains and for a connection between California and the Northwest.
Perhaps the most interesting survey activity took place dead in the center of the map. Here, at the behest of the all-powerful Thomas Hart Benton, the perennial statesman from Missouri, who repeatedly called for “a grrreat central Highway to the Pacific,” the Secretary sent out one of the largest and best-equipped expeditions, under Captain John Williams Gunnison of the Topographical Engineers. This expedition was to follow a line west between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels, cross the Rocky Mountains through the Cochetopa Pass between Kansas and Utah territories, and make its way to the Great Salt Lake —which Benton and his son-in-law John Charles Frémont appear to have thought lay just due west of the celebrated Cochetopa. It was the most difficult of all the routes, and the San Juan Mountains directly in its path had been the scene of Frémont’s epic disaster in 1848, when the whole party almost perished in the wintry snows and the flesh of one dead explorer was said to have been sampled by some of the starving survivors of the Pathfinder’s party. Gunnison and his men seem to have believed the route to be impractical even before they started out, and the evidence indicates the possibility that Davis sent the party into the field with the object of proving Benton wrong rather than of locating a railroad route of any kind. As it was, the Gunnison survey through what is now south-central Colorado proved to be one of the most dramatic and interesting of the surveys, and thus, perhaps, it can stand here for the whole massive operation.
At the outset politics proved troublesome to Captain Gunnison. Benton, disappointed that Frémont was not picked to lead the party, thundered his defiance, and before he was through, one of Frémont’s friends, Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a hero of the war in California (he also brought the news of the gold discovery to the East), found himself made the Indian commissioner for California with a princely appropriation of !250,000 (more than the railroad survey appropriation) and orders to head west along the shortest and most practicable route. Naturally he took the great central Cochetopa Pass route, leaving in May, 1853, and arriving in Los Angeles in August. And when his friend and kinsman, newspaperman Gwin Harris Heap, finished writing a privately published report on the western march, the line through the Cochetopa Pass seemed almost incredible in its economic possibilities.
Meanwhile, back in New York Frémont himself was assembling still another force, an exploratory “truth squad,” as it were, to take to the field on the heels of the Gunnison party and, presumably, challenge any unfavorable report. But Captain Gunnison was not one to be awed by such formidable competition. A tough, serious New Englander of Swedish ancestry, he was a career soldier and veteran explorer who knew the West almost as well as Fré mont did. Born in 1812, Gunnison gre,w up on his father’s farm near Goshen, New Hampshire. He attended Hopkinton Academy, taught at the age of nineteen in a one-room log schoolhouse, won an appointment to West Point in 1833, graduated second in the class of 1837, and ultimately received an appointment to the elite Corps of Topographical Engineers. As a career soldier Gunnison had an extremely varied record. He had served in Florida as an Everglades scout under Zachary Taylor. He had assisted in the sad removal of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma. He had explored and mapped parts of northern Wisconsin and had worked seven years on the Great Lakes Surveys learning the difficult arts of geodesy and topographical cartography. In 1849 he had ventured into the Far West as assistant to Captain Howard Stansbury in an expedition to map and explore the valley of the Great Salt Lake. There he and Stansbury spent the winter among the sometimes hostile Mormons; together, the two men got to know the ways of the West, the mountain men and hunters, the Indians, the settlers, and the mysterious Mormons themselves.
As a result of his western experience Gunnison wrote in 1852 what was perhaps the first objective book ever published about this people who so fascinated our nineteenth-century forebears: The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake . By 1853, then, Gunnison had achieved some prominence as a soldier, author, and explorer-engineer. And though he was an outspoken advocate of a Pacific railroad, he had no sense of dedication to either St. Louis or a central route. He could be relied upon to be honest and fair in his report. In short, Gunnison was the ideal man for the job.