by Walter Mow
The Public Land Act of 1796 mandated the surveying of public lands for sale. The meticulous job of platting the land had begun.
From the myriad of rude maps and recollections of geographic features and locations amid the tales of the mountain men, the next group would advance. They would sort, collate and correct the mistakes in location with scientific precision while naming many of the features of the land, enter… “The Map Makers”.
The surprise purchase of Louisiana in 1803 that doubled the land mass of the United States created the need to know what that purchased entailed; President Thomas Jefferson would put five expeditions to that task.
The Louisiana Purchase and its promise of a water route to the west coast would spur the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. In an effort to learn more of the huge purchase Jefferson dispatched astronomer and naturalist John Dunbar to follow the Red River of Texas to its source in 1804; the expedition would not complete its mission. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike headed an expedition to locate the source of the Mississippi, August 9, 1805- April 20, 1806. The Red River Expedition of 1806 under the command of Captain Richard Sparks and astronomer Thomas Freeman would be halted by Spanish troops in late July 1806. Lieutenant Pike would head another expedition to find the head waters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers July 15, 1806; Pike would be arrested by Spanish officials detained and released to US officials at Natchitoches, Louisiana July 1, 1807.
President Madison created the General Land Office in 1812 to meet the demand for the sale of public lands in the expanding west.
President James Monroe would continue a rigorous pattern of exploration:
Major Stephen Harriman Long explored parts of the upper Mississippi; selecting sites for Fort Smith on the Arkansas River and Fort St. Anthony at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in 1817. Colonel Henry Atkinson and Major Stephen H. Long began the operation termed the Yellowstone Expedition August 13, 1819 tasked with mapping the uncharted lands between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Financial difficulties doomed the expedition; it was abandoned by June 1820. General Henry Atkinson led a second expedition to the Yellowstone country in 1825.
July 4, 1832 marked the beginning of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. In the years before the Civil War the Corps’ officers using the latest technology mapped much of the west, inventoried its assets and laid out the nation’s borders. Of the Corps William Goetzmann wrote: …”the Corps of Topographical Engineers was a central institution of Manifest Destiny”. Many were graduates of West Point with a degree in engineering who would rub shoulders with other learned men. Men of many and varied disciplines, botany, geology and astronomy; as a result they were advocates of scientific journals and staunch supporters of the Smithsonian Institute.
In an unintended action, a mapping error by Zebulon Pike was discovered by Joseph Nicolas Nicollet that would spur the fledgling Corps to begin a series of extensive, high profile mapping and scientific expeditions to explore and inventory the geography, geology, flora and fauna of what would become the western United States.
In the first major move to correct the mapping error, the Corps would hire Nicollet and assigned Lt. John Charles Fremont as his assistant. Nicollet would head a mapping expedition in 1838 to correct the maps between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers; Fremont would finish the survey as Nicollet’s health forced him to leave the field before the mission was complete. Major James D. Graham would conduct a border survey of the Republic of Texas over a two year period (1841-1842).
John Fremont was appointed leader of the 1842 expedition to map the country between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains paying particular attention to what would became the Oregon Trail to South Pass. Fremont would return to the field in 1843 to complete the mapping of the Oregon Trail (with a side trip to the Great Salt Lake) to its terminus at The Dalles. Turning south they flanked the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fremont decided to cross the Central Sierras to reach Sutter’s Fort in Alta California. After resupplying Fremont led his men south to a junction with the “Spanish Trail” that ran between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. Turning east across the Great Basin following Jed Smith’s route to South Pass, Fremont determined the basin was “endorheic”, meaning that the basin was land locked with no outlet the world’s oceans.
With this determination he was able to disprove the myth of the Buenaventura River, returning to St. Louis in August 1844. June 1st 1845 and Fremont is headed west again, become embroiled in the Bear Flag Revolt, be appointed Military governor of California and return to the United States only to be tried for insubordination and pardoned by President Polk. The Corps would conduct a Boundary survey of the border between the United States and Canada led by (Major?)William H. Emory 1844-1846. In August 1845 Lieutenants James Abert and William Peck are dispatched to survey and map the watershed of Purgatory Creek and the Canadian River in present day Colorado and New Mexico.
Lt. Colonel William H. Emory would return to the field as Brigadier General Stephen Kearny’s cartographer as Kearny invaded New Mexico and California in 1846; it was Emory’s journal (Notes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego) that became a guide book for travelers to southern California. Emory would be deeply involved in the US/Mexico Boundary Surveys conducted between 1848 and 1855. Beginning in 1849 Lt. Howard Stansbury would lead a two-year evaluation and survey of the Great Salt Lake and surrounding areas while examining the condition of the Oregon and Mormon trails. September 4, 1851 Brevet Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves began the first systematic survey of the northern Territory of New Mexico from the Zuni Pueblo to the Yuma Crossing of the Colorado River arriving the crossing November 30, 1851.
The Corps would take a very active role in conducting Trans-Continental Rail Road surveys beginning in 1853 with the Northern Pacific Survey.
President Franklin Pierce would appoint Isaac Stevens Governor to Washington Territory March 17, 1853. A route for a northern trans-continental rail road was planned from St. Paul, Minnesota to Puget Sound. Stevens, as a civil engineer, assigned himself the task of surveying the eastern end of the route to Puget Sound. Stevens and his party began surveying the route west as Captain George McClellan’s party surveyed a route east from Puget Sound, the two parties conducting their surveys between the 47th and 49th parallels would meet September 8, 1853.
Surveying for a central route between the 37th and 39th parallel to connect St. Louis and San Francisco began May 3, 1853 under the command of Lt. John W. Gunnison. Lt. Gunnison was killed by a Ute Indian party in present day central Utah. Lt. Edward G. Beckworth assumed command; Lt. Beckworth’s secondary survey on the 41st parallel would be the route selected for the First Trans Continental Rail Road.
Two Southern Pacific surveys were conducted; Lt. Amiel W. Whipple conducted the survey that ran from Oklahoma Territory to Los Angeles along the 35th parallel. The other, a more southerly route that ran from Texas to San Diego and preferred by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, surveyed by Lt’s. John G. Parke and John Pope.
A Pacific Coast route was surveyed from San Diego to Seattle by Lt’s. Robert S. Wilkinson and John G. Parke.
The Corps of Topographical Engineers completed the rail road surveys and committed its initial report to the government printing office in 1855.
The Corps would continue its survey of the west with Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives contribution (1857-58); setting navigation limits from the mouth of the Colorado River to Black Canyon, the site of today’s Hoover Dam. Taking his command east along the south rim on the Grand Canyon, his expedition produced the first accurate map of the south rim.
March 31, 1863 the Corps of Topographical Engineers was integrated into the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado (the upper Colorado then called the Grand River), continuing through the Grand Canyon named and mapped many of the lesser streams that entered the Colorado.
The building of a Trans-Continetal Rail Road would be delayed by the Civil War, but completion of the first Trans-Continental Rail Road came to fruition May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point in present day northern Utah.
Following the Corps of Topographical Engineers, the surveyors of the General Land Office carried out the platting of public lands for sale. The General Land Office was integrated with the U. S. Grazing Service on July 16, 1946 to become the colossal Bureau of Land Management.