Edward F. Beale, Sailor, Adventurer, Explorer


Edward Fitzgerald Beale was born February 4, 1822, to George and Emily Truxtun Beale. They lived on a farm in the District of Columbia. He went to Georgetown College in 1832. He dropped out in 1835 when his father died. Continuing the tradition of his father and grandfather, he joined the Navy on February 4, 1837. He was 15, the minimum age to join. His job assignment would be midshipman. Training took place directly on ships in those days, and Edward got his on the U.S.S. Independence. He also received formal education in geography, grammar, history, foreign languages, and math. He graduated in August, 1842 with the rank of midshipman. He was promoted to acting sailing master in 1845.

About that time the U.S. entered into war with Mexico over the far western territories, particularly California. Beale was sent on an urgent errand to Washington D.C. He reported that British ships were amassing on the California coast. Britain was also interested in that territory. Beale was ordered back to his mother ship, the U.S.S. Congress. He sailed the Atlantic, then crossed the Panama overland to meet up with her on the other side. In California, he commanded a contingent of cavalry. Fortunately he was able to subdue the Mexican towns without engaging them in battle. The Mexicans did attempt to take back Los Angeles, and Beale was sent on an important mission to find Captain Fremont in Northern California. When he found them, Fremont’s battalion was sailed to Los Angeles to put down the uprising.

Beale was next ordered to escort General Kearney, commander of the Army of the West, who was leading a small force to San Diego. He had come overland after conquering the Mexicans at Santa Fe. His men were tired and their animals were in bad shape. Beale advised Kearney to take the south road to San Diego and avoid confrontation with the Mexicans. However, Kearney was spoiling for a fight and went north. His force was decimated by the Mexicans. Kearney did not plan his tactics well and many could not discharge their weapons after overnight rain dampened their powder. Beale and two others were in charge of the field artillery but unfortunately Kearney had placed it at the back of his force, where it did little good. He sent word to San Diego to send relief, but the messengers were stopped by the Mexicans. They were forced to transport the wounded the Indian way, on travois built by Kit Carson. Beale, Carson, and a Delaware Indian scout finally reached San Diego. Commodore Stockton sent animals and food in a relief column. Beale was promoted to acting lieutenant for his bravery.

In January 1847, Beale led cavalry, along with Kearney’s men and Stockton’s sailors. Finally the Americans conquered the Mexicans. Afterward, Beale was assigned the overland journey to bring the news to the Secretary of the Navy. Kit Carson and ten of his trappers led the way. The journey was uneventful. They arrived in Washington D.C. three months later. While there Beale visited his girlfriend Mary Edwards and got engaged.

After several months, Beale was ordered back to the U.S.S. Congress. He journeyed overland to Panama where he boarded the U.S.S. Ohio. He then met his ship on the Mexican coast. He was there only a few months when Commodore Jones sent him on another overland journey. He was to deliver important dispatches to the Secretary of the Navy, one of which announced the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California.

The overland journey across Mexico was rough. He was plagued by storms the entire time. He dodged mud slides and avalanches and crossed raging streams. He was attacked at least three times by bandits. Throughout this trip, he just had one Mexican guide with him. He reached Vera Cruz on the Atlantic Coast and sailed from there to Mobile, Alabama. From there he steamed up the Mississippi River to Pittsburgh and from there rode a stagecoach to Washington D.C. He was hailed as a national hero for bringing the news of the gold strike.

A month later he was heading back West with dispatches for Santa Fe, California, and Oregon. From Fort Leavenworth, a dozen troops accompanied him since their new assignment was Oregon. It was a severe winter and many of the men suffered. As always, the hardy Beale kept on and reached Santa Fe on Christmas Day 1848. He reached San Francisco on April 10, 1849. From there another courier was sent to deliver the mail to Oregon and escort the troops. Beale rested for just two days before boarding a ship for the east coast.

He just barely had time to get married on June 27, 1849, in Chester, Pennsylvania. He left for the West later that same day. He spent the next several months delivering various dispatches in California. He also spent time with Jessie and Colonel Fremont in San Francisco. He returned home early in 1850 when he finally got to spend some time with his wife. Their first daughter Mary was born in March 1850.

He spent the next year and a half back in California. This time, Mary and baby accompanied him. He represented Stockton and Aspinwall, two New York businessmen, whose mining business was failing. Beale sold off the equipment and started a freighting business supplying the most prosperous mines. He made $100,000 profit for the two men. He so enjoyed the venture that he resigned from the navy soon after.

On March 4, 1852, he was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California. He favored the reservation approach vs. extermination. He successfully appropriated funds to establish five reservations. He also appointed agents to oversee them and assist Indians with learning farming. Conflicts between whites and Indians dwindled. Indians got their promised allotments of beef and horses.

Next he was contracted by his good friend Senator Thomas Hart Benton to scout a route for a wagon road and ultimately a railroad. Benton wanted the route to start at St. Louis. It would be known as the Beale-Heap expedition, after himself and a relative Gwynne Harris Heap. He hired ten other men and bought a number of animals. They left Westport, Missouri on May 15, 1853. He followed the Santa Fe trail for the first leg of the journey.

From there he went due West through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They followed the Gunnison River, which was overflowing its banks. They lost a boat full of rifles, Indian trade goods, and food supplies. He waited while some men journeyed to Taos to buy more supplies. They followed the Colorado River until they reached the Green River, which they followed into Utah. From there they reached the summer route of the Old Spanish Trail, which they followed most of the rest of the way. They got supplies at the Mormon town of Parawan, Utah. The entire trip took 100 days. He immediately submitted his reports on the suitability of the route.

His next duty was to establish the Indian reservations. After extensive exploration in the northern part of California he selected territory in the south at Tejon Pass near modern day Bakersfield. He felt there would be too much chance for conflict with whites if they were to remain in the gold rush north. He named the area Sebastian Indian Reservation. It took half of his allotted $250,000 to buy the animals, farm implements, clothing, etc., that the Indians needed. Commissioner George Manypenny was not happy about the expense. Ultimately Beale was accused of theft of government funds. He was later cleared of the charges but he resigned from the job.

He and his wife returned to the Tejon area to live. He bought a ranch of 48,825 acres, part of which the reservation occupied. Beale’s predecessor had so messed up what Beale had started that Beale felt compelled to do as much as he could to help unofficially. Those Indians living on his property were encouraged to stay and work.

They lived in San Francisco for a short time afterward. While there their second child was born on March 6, 1856, a boy named Truxtun. While there they learned of an Indian uprising back home. Beale received a military commission to deal with it. He reached an agreement with them and avoided war. Local commissioner Henley accused Beale of creating the situation but it was actually Henley’s doing. In the summer of 1856, Beale was elected sheriff of San Francisco, when a vacancy was created by redistricting of the county. He was defeated in the general election in November. But by then, he had been offered the chairmanship of the state Democratic Committee in Sacramento. He worked tirelessly to secure the presidency for his old friend James Buchanan.

Next Beale was involved in an experiment for using camels for military and trade purposes in the western desert areas. He was selected by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. He would take a contingent of camels and blaze a wagon road from Texas to California. He picked up his 25 camels at Camp Verde, Texas. At first, the pack animals were afraid of the camels but soon calmed down. However, the men didn’t particularly care for the odor or the spitting of the camels. It took a month to go the 500 miles to El Paso. But the camels did well as they allowed themselves to be packed without a fight. They also would eat bushes and other desert vegetation and did not need grass. They also could carry at least twice the weight.

He headed west through Albuquerque then on to the Zuni village near the modern-day Arizona-New Mexico border. From there the territory was virtually unknown. They did not know where they would be able to find water. They followed the Little Colorado River then west toward the San Francisco Mountains. The mules and horses suffered from lack of water but the camels were just fine. In fact, at times the camels carried kegs of waters for the others. They finally reached Fort Tejon, near his ranch, in November 1857. A month later, he started on the journey back east. He left the camels there, for it looked like the military might need them in a battle with the Utes. The road he blazed came into immediate use and they called it Beale’s Road for years. Today’s Interstate 40 closely parallels it.

Beale arrived back in the east in March 1858. He spent several months with his wife in Chester, Pennsylvania, her family home. In August he received another commission to improve the road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Albuquerque to meet up with the rest of his road. The project was largely uneventful. But he knew the road could not be successful until the military built some forts along the way to protect travelers from Indians. He returned home for a short time and his second daughter Emily was born during that time. He returned to the wagon road later in the year to rebuild the bridges out of iron.

In May 1861, he was appointed U.S. Surveyor General for California. He moved his family temporarily to San Francisco. His job was quite a challenge because of the confusion of Mexican, Spanish, and American claims. Surveys and resurveys were necessary including his own property. He was also appointed Surveyor General of Nevada. He also invested in two promising mining companies. Ultimately he butted heads with Washington bureaucracy once too often. He asked to be removed and received his wish in April 1864. He turned his attentions to his ranch. He had to guard himself against rustling which was becoming a problem. He bought some more land to add to his considerable holdings. He also invested in petroleum drilling in Southern California.

In 1868, U.S. Grant was running for reelection. Beale campaigned vigorously for his old friend. Afterward Grant wanted Beale nearby as his advisor for western matters. Beale bought a home in Washington D.C. He also bought a home in the country where he could operate horse stables for show and racing. From here on, Beale did not spend much time in California and allowed his employees to take care of his interests. In 1876, Grant further showed his confidence in Beale and appointed him as U.S. ambassador to Austria. The appointment lasted just one year but it was long enough for his daughter to meet and marry a Russian diplomat.

In 1885, U.S. Grant died. They had been such good friends Beale was devastated. He lost interest in day to day business. He was also getting physically weaker. Meanwhile, his oil investments had done well and made him very rich. After six weeks of jaundice, he finally died on April 22, 1893. Mary died on April 6, 1902.

He left instructions that his remains be cremated. After a well attended service at their Washington house, he was buried at the family plot in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1900, Truxtun gave Bakersfield, California, a library building as a memorial to Beale. He also gave the city an adjoining clock tower and an outdoor Greek theater. Truxtun sold the Tejon ranch in 1911 for $3 million. An earthquake destroyed the library in 1955. The new library had one wing named for Beale. There is also an Air Force Base in Marysville, California named for him. Decatur House, his home in Washington D.C., where he lavishly entertained the movers and shakers of society, was deeded by the family to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1956. The agency maintains an office in the building.