West Point in the Making of America






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Exploring the Nation’s Vast New Lands

Benjamin L. E. de Bonneville
Captain Bonneville Explores the Oregon Territory

AREA: Pacific Northwest
Officially on army leave, Benjamin L. E. de Bonneville (Class of 1815) crossed the Rockies in 1832 to become a fur trader. He may have had secret orders to spy on the British in Oregon Territory (present-day Oregon and Washington, plus part of British Columbia), claimed by both countries. Bonneville also sent men to Mexican-ruled California seeking a route across the Sierras for American settlers.

Alexander Dallas Bache
Alexander Dallas Bache Charts the Nation’s Coasts

AREA: U.S. Coast
For almost a quarter-century, Alexander Dallas Bache (Class of 1825), a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, headed America’s first major federal science enterprise, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Besides charting coasts, sea lanes, currents, and obstacles to navigation, the agency pioneered research in oceanography—the science of the oceans, their physical features, and their phenomena.

Capt. A. A. Humphreys
Captain Humphreys and Lieutenant Abbot Define the Flow of the Mississippi (1850–1861)

AREA: Lower Mississippi
During the 1850s, Capt. A. A. Humphreys (Class of 1831) and Lt. Henry L. Abbot (1854) conducted a thorough scientific survey of Mississippi River flow from the river’s junction with the Ohio southward to its emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Their 1861 Report on the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River was a major scientific and engineering contribution.

Lieutenant Abert
Lieutenants Abert and Peck Reconnoiter Comanche Country (1845)

AREA: New Mexico & Texas Boarder
In 1845 Lt. James W. Abert (Class of 1842), Col. Abert’s son, and Lt. William G. Peck (1844) explored Comanche country and Texas’s northern border. Starting in the southeast corner of Colorado, they followed the Canadian River from its headwaters in the mountains of northeast New Mexico across Texas and into eastern Oklahoma, ending at Ft. Gibson, where the Canadian meets the Arkansas.

Lt. William H. Emory
Lieutenant Emory Finds Ancient Ruins along the Gila River

AREA: Border with Mexico
When war with Mexico exploded in 1846, Lt. William H. Emory (Class of 1831) accompanied the Army of the West in its conquest of Santa Fe, then on its march along the Gila and Colorado Rivers to California. On the way he surveyed, mapped, and collected specimens of plants, animals, fossils, and rocks. He also identified the remains of centuries-old Indian towns on the banks of the Gila.

Prehistoric Anasazi Pueblos
Two Classmates Find Prehistoric Anasazi Pueblos in the Southwest (1849–1851)

AREA: Southwest
Accompanying separate punitive expeditions against the Navajos, two 1832 graduates of West Point found spectacular prehistoric Anasazi Indian pueblo sites in northern New Mexico and Arizona. The two topographical engineers were Lt. James H. Simpson in 1849–1850 and Capt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves in 1851. Sitgreaves continued west, unsuccessfully seeking a railway route to the Pacific.

Robert S. Williamson
Lieutenant Williamson Scouts California for Railway Routes through the Sierras (1849–1855)

AREA: California Railroad
Lt. Robert S. Williamson (Class of 1848) participated in three surveys of possible transcontinental railroad routes through the Sierras, as well as potential routes north from California: one in the company of Capt. William H. Warner (Class of 1836) in 1849, a second in 1853 with Lt. John G. Parke (Class of 1849), and a third in 1855 with Lt. Henry L. Abbot (Class of 1854).

Isaac I. Stevens
Governor Stevens Surveys a Northern Route for the Transcontinental Railroad (1853)

AREA: Transcontinental Railroad, Northern Route
In 1853, Isaac I. Stevens (Class of 1839), the governor of Washington Territory and a former topographical engineer, surveyed a railroad route across Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The prospective transcontinental railroad would run between the 47th and 49th parallels, from St. Paul on the Mississippi to Fort Vancouver near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Central Transcontinental Railway Route
Lieutenants Gunnison and Beckwith Survey a Central Transcontinental Railway Route (1853)

AREA: Transcontinental Railroad, Central Route
When Ute warriors killed Lt. John W. Gunnison (Class of 1837) near the Great Salt Lake, Lt. Edward G. Beckwith (1842) took command, continuing the search between the 38th and 39th parallels for a central cross-country railway route. Although little noticed at the time, Beckwith had found the Sierra mountain pass through which the tracks for the first transcontinental railroad were later laid.

Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple
Three Expeditions Seek a Southern Route for the Transcontinental Railway (1853–1854)

AREA: Transcontinental Railroad, Southern Route
Starting from Ft. Smith, Arkansas, in 1853, Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple (Class of 1841) surveyed the southern railway route along the 35th parallel to Los Angeles. The next year Lt. John G. Parke (1849) and Capt. John Pope (1842) surveyed further south, Parke from San Diego eastward through the newly acquired Gadsden Purchase (1853) to the Rio Grande, Pope from there through Texas to the Red River.

Lt. Gouvernour K. Warren
Lieutenant Warren Explores the Northern Plains

AREA: Northern Plains
In 1855, 1856, and 1857, Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren (Class of 1850) surveyed large portions of the Nebraska and Dakota Territories. He collected natural history and ethnological data and specimens, much of which he shipped for study and safekeeping to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. These surveys contributed to Warren’s comprehensive 1859 map of the country west of the Mississippi.

Capt. A. A. Humphreys
Lieutenant Ives and Captain Macomb Explore the Grand Canyon Country (1857–1859)

AREA: Grand Canyon
West Pointers led two of the expeditions that explored the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River and surrounding areas in the late 1850s. Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives (Class of 1852) led a party up the Colorado into the Canyon in 1857–1858, then struck out across the desert to Ft. Defiance in Colorado. In 1859 Capt. John N. Macomb (Class of 1832) explored the upper reaches of the Colorado River system.

Lt. George M. Wheeler
Lieutenant Wheeler Surveys West of the 100th Meridian

AREA: West of the 100th Meridian
Lt. George M. Wheeler (Class of 1866) spent five years, from 1867 to 1872, systematically exploring and surveying the states and territories west of the 100th meridian. The expeditions he led passed through portions of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico. In 1879 Congress made Wheeler’s findings part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Cyrus B. Comstock
Colonel Comstock Oversees the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway Survey (1870–1885)

AREA: Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Seaway
Established in 1841 under the Corps of Topographical Engineers, the Great Lakes Survey outlived its parent organization by over a century. From 1870 to 1885, Col. Cyrus B. Comstock (Class of 1855) headed the systematic survey of shorelines, adjacent rivers, and other physical aspects of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as shoals and other hazards to navigation.

Capt. A. A. Humphreys
Captain Barlow Seeks the Headwaters of the Yellowstone River (1871)

AREA: Yellowstone
From 1869 to 1871, four scientific expeditions explored the Yellowstone country in the northwest corner of Wyoming adjacent to Montana and Idaho. The last of the four, in 1871, was led by Capt. John W. Barlow (Class of 1861). He followed the entire course of the Yellowstone River and explored substantial portions of what later became Yellowstone National Park.

Henry T. Allen
Lieutenant Allen Explores the Alaskan Interior

AREA: Alaska
Bought by the United States in 1867, Alaska was initially under military control and the army conducted much of its exploration. The most remarkable expedition was led by Lt. Henry T. Allen (Class of 1882). From March to August 1885, he traversed 1,500 miles of wilderness, exploring and charting three huge but virtually unknown interior river systems—the Copper, the Tanana, and the Koyukuk.

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