The Whipple Expedition to the Southwest


Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple had just finished surveying the border between the U.S. and Mexico when on February 4, 1853, he received orders to return to the headquarters of the Corps of Topographical Engineers in Washington, D.C. The Corps had become a permanent part of the army in 1838 and consisted of graduating officers of West Point. Initially they had been organized to build army projects, but their main purpose evolved into exploration and development of the west. As an officer of the Corps, Whipple would be surveying a southern transcontinental route for the United States Pacific Railroad.

Whipple had graduated from West Point in 1841, fifth in a class of 41. He was assigned to the Corps and had acted as surveyor on several projects in Maryland, New Hampshire, and Louisiana. He spent five years surveying the northeastern boundary between the United States and Canada. After that, he was surveyor and astronomer for the border survey between the U.S. and Mexico. He was well qualified for the appointment to survey the railroad route. He would provide exact information elevations and grades of mountain passes and meteorological and astronomical observations. He would also report on availability of water and timber and the type of mineral resources, rocks, and soil. He would map the route, report on plant and animal life, established settlements, and disposition of the Indian tribes.

The wagon train left Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 15, 1853, and would arrive at Los Angeles on March 21, 1854. A wagon train, rather than a pack train, was used since the route would later have to be used by wagons. With him on the expedition was his second in command, Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives, chief assistant astronomer. Lt. David S. Stanley served as quartermaster and Lt. John M. Jones commanded the military escort. The senior civilian scientists included John M. Bigelow (botanist), Albert H. Campbell (engineer), Dr. C. B. R. Kennerly (zoologist), H. Balduin Mollhausen (artist and naturalist), and Jules Marcou (geologist and mining engineer). Other men on the expedition were Hugh Campbell, George G. Garner, and Thomas J. Parke, who were assistant astronomers, William White (meteorological assistant), and H. Henry Hutton and Walter Jones, assistant surveyors. Whipple also hired a number of herders and teamsters, when he arrived in Arkansas. John P. Sherburne, the writer of the diary that provides the source for this article, was the brother-in-law of Whipple.

The route would take them along the Canadian River through Indian territory. Then they would cross the Pecos River and head toward the Rio Grande at Albuquerque, New Mexico. This part of the route was already well traveled by traders, but they needed to survey it for other considerations. The biggest problem was likely to be the Comanches that lived along the route. Beyond that area, the country was less known. They were to find the most practical route through the mountains in northwestern Arizona to reach the Colorado River. From there, they would travel west to San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles.

Whipple chose to leave from Fort Smith, as it had a sizeable population from which he could draw the additional staff he would need and supply provisions for the journey. He also bought a large flock of sheep and a herd of mules there. Now he only waited for his assistant William White to arrive with the tents, supplies, and wagons. He received a letter from him, with the bad news that he had been delayed in Kentucky. Whipple decided to push on with the crew, ordering the military escort to wait for White and catch up with them later. He borrowed wagons from the military post. On July 15, 1853, the expedition launched. Their first challenge was to cross the Poteau River. Beyond that was Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma.

By July 24, the White party caught up with Whipple at the Choctaw Agency at Skullyville. There Whipple obtained an encyclopedia of the Choctaw language from the their white preacher. The Choctaw were peaceful and gave the expedition no trouble. They had occasional problems with muddy roads and wild mules. The party continued to an old army post known as Old Camp Arbuckle. Sherburne and others surveyed the route and constantly monitored meteorological information. Up to that point, the land was fairly level and could easily accommodate a railroad.

From Arbuckle, Whipple hired a guide to take them across Indian territory farmed by Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee, and Creek Indians. The guide was necessary because Whipple had a difficult time finding the old trail blazed by Captain R.B. March in 1849. This stretch was difficult with muddy roads and difficult water crossings. It took 38 days to travel just 198 miles. Upon reaching Arbuckle, two members of the expedition decided to quit due to poor health.

The expedition continued along the Canadian River, then through the Washita River Valley to the Antelope Hills in the Texas panhandle. Here they encountered Kiowa and Comanche Indians, tribes who were known for the war-like behavior. The expedition had to remain cautious throughout this area. A short way out they were plagued by prairie fires, some natural and some set by Indians. Another man left the expedition at this time too. There was one highlight during this portion of the journey–-for several evenings the members were able to observe comets in the sky.

They also met a party of Kiowa Indians. These Indians were fiercely protective of their territory. The Indian camp had three Mexican captives and the Americans thought they would negotiate for their release. The Mexicans assured the Americans that they were probably better off with the tribe than there were at home. Whipple didn’t interfere since it might jeopardize his mission. One of them provided Whipple with a list of vocabulary words.

In mid-September, the expedition reached the settlement of Anton Chico in New Mexico territory. They crossed the Tucumcari Mountains at 4,000 feet above sea level, but the weather was still in the 80s. They experienced a bad thunderstorm that blew down their tents and soaked their supplies. They passed by a high peak known as Egyptian Pyramid where they took topographical readings and recorded plant and animal life. They reached another Mexican town, where the locals threw a fandango, which all enjoyed. Sherburne especially enjoyed the pretty senoritas, who smoked cigarettes and danced vigorously, something fairly scandalous for those Victorian times.

They passed through several small Mexican towns before arriving in Albuquerque on October 5. In most places the Mexicans were not welcoming, but the Indian populations were eager for trade. They explored the immediate vicinity around Albuquerque. Lieutenant Ives was supposed to meet them there with supplies, but he arrived one day after their arrival. This, plus the fact the soldiers were busy battling Indians, delayed the expedition four weeks. He used the time to catch up on his notetaking and test some new instruments brought by Ives.

They left once the military was free to supply them with new animals and give directions. Whipple sent Sherburne and others south to explore the Rio Grande, while Whipple headed directly west. The two groups met on November 14 and followed the San Jose River and crossed the Sierra Madre Mountains. On November 20, they reached a Zuni village that had been nearly wiped out by smallpox. Whipple met with town officials and collected Zuni vocabulary words. He also made numerous notes on Zuni customs and culture.

The group reached the border of modern-day Arizona on November 29 and six days later reached the Little Colorado River. Some troops from a nearby fort joined them there. Some of this terrain was very rough with volcanic soils and peaks. The temperature was now below freezing at night and one time it was only reached 9°F.

From the river they were blazing a new road west since the previous trails were suitable only for pack trains not for wagons. Zunis guided them for part of the route and led them to better river crossings. They also passed through the petrified forest area in northeast Arizona. The geologists were fascinated by the phenomena. From there they went west to the San Francisco mountains. They explored the volcanic cinder cones and lava caves.

Winter was starting to take its toll. Ives, Kennelly, H. Campbell, and others were suffering from smallpox. There was snow on the ground and cold temperatures. They kept going, despite the snow and sleet and rough terrain. Finding enough water for the stock was getting difficult. The mules suffered from lack of grass. They were also running low on provisions and coffee. One advantage was that the Indians didn’t bother them at all in this area.

Whipple discovered that the previous Sitgreaves trail map was incorrect about where the Bill Williams Fork entered the Colorado River. This caused him to go several days north out of his way. Whipple finally found the Big Sandy and followed it to the Colorado River. At that time several wagons had to be abandoned. Even some of their instruments had to be left behind.

When they reached the Colorado River on February 20, they traded with some Mojave Indians for much needed food. These Indians helped them locate a good crossing of the Colorado River near modern-day Needles, California. Several boats capsized, dumping much of their kitchen utensils. All the expedition notebooks were dumped into the river, but were saved by their Indian helpers. They also nearly lost a herd of sheep, when they became entangled in their lead. Their Indian friends once again saved the day. The Mojave also guided the expedition through the Mojave desert.

Whipple obtained an extensive list of their vocabulary. The area did not have much water and they lost quite a few mules in this stretch. They split the party into three groups so that watering holes could refill by the time the next group arrived. On March 13 they reached the Mormon Trail, a route from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, California. They decided not to go to San Bernardino but headed directly west to Los Angeles. Much of the army escort led by Lt. Tidball left the expedition here to go to the garrison at San Diego.

Whipple reached Los Angeles on March 21. White and Sherburne were the only members to stay in California. The rest went to San Francisco to sail on the next ship east. Some months after their return, Whipple’s report was published, with an estimated completion cost of $94 million.

His estimate was far higher than the other surveys. His report was far more detailed, however, because of the extensive topographical, biological, and meteorological data he included and all the detailed illustrations by Molhausen. His route was not selected for the first transcontinental railroad, but a route would later be built there. The Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad followed his route from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. The exploration was also valuable in that the first accurate maps of the southwest were produced. Cases of specimens had been collected and sent to the Smithsonian. Whipple produced the most comprehensive report on the native tribes and the most extensive list of Indian languages. He realized that white man’s impact on them would be huge and he urged the government to protect the Indians’ rights. How right he was.