- 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 rest of the story belongs to the attackers, young braves from Chief Kenosh’s band of Sevier River Paiutes. On the afternoon of the twenty-fifth several young Paiute Indians were out hunting ducks when they heard the firing of the soldiers in the marshes along the river. Incensed at all white men for the recent murder of one of their chiefs, they followed the hunters back to camp, observed it, and then hurried to their own village, where, in a wild dance, they whipped up a war party to ambush the soldiers. About midnight they departed. There were about a score in all—Mishoquop, Sam, Pants, Tomwants, Jimmy Knights, Toady, Doctor Jacob, Nunkiboolits, Shipoke—their names absurdly incongruous with the mission they were set on performing.
When they reached the campsite, Mishoquop deployed his forces professionally. One group hid in the willows along the river to the south of the camp, others to the east. The rest stationed themselves behind a ridge to the north and somewhat back from the river. All three sides were covered in crossfire, and the river itself on the west offered little chance for escape. Then they waited.
At dawn the cook arose, raked up the fire, and began his breakfast chores. Professor Creuzfeldt stood, hands outstretched, warming himself by the fire. One by one the men began to stir. It was rapidly getting light. Captain Gunnison, who had left his tent to go to wash, had just moved past the door of his tent into the center of the camp when Mishoquop gave the signal to fire. At the first barrage the soldiers panicked. They ran in all directions, some without trousers, some without tunics, most without any thought of guns or resistance. The coolest ran for the horses, the rest just anywhere away from the enemy. One dragoon managed to mount his horse and start out of camp. At the flash of a gun his horse reared, and at the same instant the dragoon fell pierced with arrows. Another soldier vaulted onto the horse from a dead run and dashed away to safety. Whooping and howling as loudly in fright as the Indians did in triumph, the soldiers were shot down as thev ran or rode away from camp right into the Indians concealed behind the ridge to the north. Creuzfeldt and Kern fell by the fire. With the first barrage Gunnison rushed forward to rally his command. He too went down, riddled with arrows. In all, three men died at the riverside and six on the plains beside the willow grove. Four managed to escape: two on horseback, one by hiding in the bushes after his horse threw him, and the fourth by swimming the river. In a few minutes it was all over, and the savages, full of triumphant revenge, swarmed onto the field to mutilate the dead explorers.
It was the only great disaster of the Pacific Railroad Surveys and would have a strong impact upon the people of the day. The leadership of the exploring party devolved upon Lieutenant Beckwith, who led what was left of the command on a sad march north to Salt Lake City and comparative civilization.
After a winter of recuperation at Salt Lake City, Beckwith’s partytook to the field again in an effort to complete the task assigned to their thirty-eighth-parallel survey. In the early spring, even before the snows had melted, they explored eastward, searching for suitable railroad passes across the Wasatch Mountains and into the valley of the Green River, where Beckwith hoped to link up with Stansbury’s route of 1850. ByApril 22 he and his men had completed their task, and a practicable central railroad route had been located from the Platte River as far west as the Mormon capital.
Upon receiving authorization from Washington, Beckwith determined to finish the central survey all the way across the Great Basin to California. On May 5, 1854, he led his surveyors out across the Basin, where for days they threaded their waythrough mountain passes and over the arid and dustv vallevs of what had once been a primeval lake bed, seeing no one except a few wretched Digger Indians who lived on rats and crickets and slept in crude stick huts called wickiups. When at last the surveyors reached the Sierra Nevada, on the far side of the Basin, they searched out a new railroad pass (Madelin Pass) and crossed over into California, linking the valley of the Mississippi with the Sacramento Valley on a great central route that ran north of the one that Senator Benton had proposed. In the light of their own hard-won experience, however, it was one that appeared to be far more useful. It offered few mountain obstacles. And it could take advantage of the already existing Mormon settlements for labor in constructing the road as well as for a ready-made market for some of the products that the road would carry.
The results of all the Pacific Survey expeditions had indeed been startling. Every commander of a field party—Stevens, Parke, Pope, Whippie, and Beckwith—reported the discovery of “the most practicable and economical railroad route to the Pacific Ocean.” The tired Congress was right back where it had started. But for Davis there was no doubt: the southern route along the thirtysecond parallel was the best. It mattered little that Beckwith and the weary men of the Gunnison expedition had discovered what was perhaps a superior line or that the equally intrepid Whipple had led his expedition upon what was plainly another practical line along the thirty-fifth parallel. Davis was sure he saw things more clearly than most people, and his subordinates in the topographical bureau backed him up. It was the southern course or none.