- 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
On June 4, 1853, one month from the date he received his orders, Gunnison had secured his scientific personnel and equipment in Washington and arrived in St. Louis for the final outfitting of his expedition. Soon he moved out onto the prairie, establishing a base camp at a onestreet ramshackle trader’s outpost on the Kansas River. Here he assembled his party. One of its most important members was Lieutenant Edward Griffin Beckwith, an artillery officer assigned to the Topographical Engineers who was on his second western expedition, having escorted the Collier party by way of the GiIa Trail to California in 1850. Others included Frederick O. Creuzfeldt, a German botanist who had survived the disaster of Frémont’s 1848 expedition; Jacob Heinrich Schiel, a geologist and Heidelberg graduate who had come all the way from Prussia to help explore the West; Sheppard Romans, the astronomer; J. A. Snyder, assistant topographer; and Richard H. Kern, youngest of four brothers, three of whom were artists. Richard, his brother Edward, and their doctor brother Benjamin had gone along with Frémont in 1848, and Benjamin had perished somewhere in the San Juan Mountains.
By June 22 the wagons were assembled, mules broken, and equipment packed, and the Gunnison party was ready to move out—sixteen sixmule wagons, an instrument cart, and a crude canvas-topped ambulance, escorted by a contingent of thirty-two cavalrymen. They headed west along the Santa Fe Trail with the Kansas River on their right and the prairie to their left stretching away like an ocean through the rain and gloom.
Three days after the start, taking the advice of the fur-trade veterans William Bent and Tom Fitzpatrick, Gunnison divided his forces. Keeping Kern, Homans, Captain Morris of the cavalry, and a few men from the escort with him, he coursed westward along the line of the Kansas River, past Fort Riley, then only a few low adobe barracks in the process of construction, past the confluences of the Republican, Solomon, Saline, and Smoky Hill rivers with the Kansas, to an appointed rendezvous near Walnut Creek where it flowed into the great bend of the Arkansas River. Lieutenant Beckwith led the main party via the regular Santa Fe Trail until he made contact with Gunnison on the twelfth of July. At Walnut Creek they met on a great dividing line of the prairie. Behind them were the rolling swells and lush grasses of the well-watered region. Ahead lay sand and short grass, buffalo-wallow water, and prairie-dog holes, country that the earlier explorers Zebulon Pike and Stephen H. Long had called the Great American Desert.
For two weeks Gunnison pushed his party up the Arkansas, through arid buffalo plains to Bent’s Old Fort far upriver near present-day La Junta, Colorado. The fort, which William Bent had blown up himself in 1849, stood a squat and deserted adobe ruin, its rooms open to the sky, its round, castlelike tower barely discernible and fast mouldering back into the earth. It was still a landmark on the way west, but it would never again be the colorful center of frontier life it had been back in 1846, when Kearny’s Army of the West camped there on the way to the conquest of Santa Fe. Beckwith, however, thought it an ideal site for a new military post at the entrance to the Southwest.
The next few days saw the explorers moving due west along the upper Arkansas, past Timpas Creek to a point on the left bank opposite Apishpa Creek, which they took to be the Huerfano River. With the utmost difficulty they managed to cross the Arkansas by sending out an advance party of several Delaware Indian scouts, who swam the river with ropes in their teeth. By August i the whole party had made the crossing, and far in the distance, just above the horizon, they could see the Wahto-Yah, or Spanish Peaks, in full view.
Lacking a competent scout, they followed the Apishpa Creek southward for several days, still thinking they were on the Huerfano and that it would lead them directly to Fort Massachusetts, an Army outpost on a branch of that river in the midst of the wild and beautiful San Luis Valley. Instead the whole party became lost, and it took the services of a Spanish-New Mexican mountain man whom they ran across along the way to lead them finally into the San Luis Valley and Fort Massachusetts. Fort Massachusetts vied with Fort Yuma as the Botany Bay of American military outposts. Situated at the base of the Sierra Bianca in the southern Rockies, it guarded the northern approaches to New Mexico, but aside from an occasional foray against the local Indians there was little else to do. In one of his few letters from the expedition Gunnison provided a vivid description of an officer’s life on the New Mexican frontier: It is amusing, surprizing and disgusting to hear the officers describe society in New Mexico. According to their observation, there’s nothing like chastity regarded by man, woman, or priest. … Few girls are married until they have been seduced and have a child. … They arrive at puberty at eleven or twelve years and marry from eleven to fourteen. One beautiful woman was named who was a grand mother at 29 and though now appearing in the flower of her age, her grand daughter is ready to be married.
With its limited range, social life at Fort Massachusetts did not detain Gunnison’s party for very long.