Long, Stephen Harriman (1784–1864)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: November 22, 2020

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Stephen Harriman Long, explorer and surveyor, son of Moses and Lucy (Harriman) Long, was born on December 30, 1784, in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, one of thirteen children. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1809 and taught school for a time before entering the United States Army in December 1814 as a second lieutenant of engineers. He taught mathematics for two years at the United States Military Academy at West Point; in 1816 he was brevetted a major in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. His first western ventures occurred in 1817, when he surveyed the portages of the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, explored the upper Mississippi, and helped establish Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Long married Martha Hodkiss on March 3, 1819, and established residency at Philadelphia. In July he joined Gen. Henry W. Atkinson's "Yellowstone expedition," bound from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains. Soon after the establishment of Fort Atkinson at Council Bluffs, Iowa, he returned east for the winter, but in the spring of 1820 he was back at Council Bluffs. By then Congress had abandoned the expedition because of unexpected delays and expenses. Acting under amended orders to explore the headwaters of the Platte, Arkansas, and Red rivers, in June of 1820 Long set out west with nineteen men. Among those with him were Titian R. Peale, a naturalist and one of a distinguished family of artists, and Edwin James, a physician knowledgeable in both geology and botany. The men ascended the Platte and its South Fork to the Colorado Rockies, where they discovered and named Long's Peak. On July 14 James and two others made the first successful ascent of Pike's Peak. Afterward, Long continued southward to the upper Arkansas, where, on July 24, he divided his party. One group, under Capt. John R. Bell, followed the Arkansas, while the other, led by Long and including James and Peale, went south to explore the Red River. Long and his party came upon the Canadian River on August 4, 1820, and mistook it for the Red. At one point they endured thunderstorms on the plains of eastern New Mexico before reaching Ute Creek, which they followed back to the Canadian. Continuing east along that stream, Long's party entered what is now the Texas Panhandle. At first food was scarce, and the men subsisted for a few days on meat from mustangs and buffalo. On August 11 they encountered a band of Kiowa-Apaches, whom they labeled Kaskaias, or Bad Hearts. At the Indians' insistence Long and his men camped with them and received assurances from them that the stream they were on was the Guadal-P'a, or Red River. The next day, tensions mounted when the Kaskaias tried to take several horses and other property belonging to the Whites, but in the end the two groups parted amicably; this was probably the first recorded contact between Kiowa-Apaches and Anglo-Americans on the Llano Estacado. No more Plains Indians were seen by Long's men for the remainder of the expedition. Long and his party followed the winding Canadian, weathered a violent hailstorm, and by August 18 had crossed the present Oklahoma boundary, after having spent about fifteen days in the Panhandle. Only when they reached the Arkansas did Long and his men realize that the river they had been following was not the Red. In September the Long and Bell parties were reunited at Fort Smith.

Throughout the journey Dr. James kept a detailed journal in which he described the vegetation, topography, climate, geology, and animal life of the plains and the Canadian valley. Peale likewise produced several drawings and paintings of native wildlife and gathered numerous specimens. By keeping close to the main river, the Long expedition missed the fresh springs that feed its tributaries and often had problems finding suitable drinking water. Furthermore, the fact that they likely had come through during a relatively dry period probably influenced Long's subsequent designation of the region as the "Great American Desert." Yet, even though his maps contained several errors and the source of the Red River remained a mystery for some time, Long's expedition was the first Anglo-American venture across the Panhandle and the first scientific survey of the region.

In 1823 Long explored the sources of the Minnesota and Red rivers in the north and the United States-Canadian boundary west of the Great Lakes. He was brevetted a lieutenant colonel in 1826 and assigned by the War Department as consulting engineer to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827. In that position he promoted the adaptation of wooden bridges to railroad use and formulated a series of tables for determining curves and grades, which he published in his important Rail Road Manual in 1829. Long remained with the B&O until 1830 and from 1834 to 1837 surveyed railroad routes in Georgia and Tennessee. For the next three years he was chief engineer of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad, in which post he was promoted to regular major when the Topographical Engineers became a separate corps in 1838. Along with his army duties, Long continued his consulting services to various railroads until 1856, when he was put in charge of navigation improvements on the Mississippi. In 1858 he moved his home and headquarters to Alton, Illinois, where four of his brothers had settled. In 1861 he was promoted to colonel and called to Washington, D.C. , to succeed Col. John J. Abert, father of James W. Abert, as commander of the Topographical Engineers. Long remained in that position until his retirement from the army in June 1863, three months after his corps had been merged with the Corps of Engineers. He died at his home in Alton on September 4, 1864.

W. H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959; 2d ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991). Frederick W. Rathjen, The Texas Panhandle Frontier (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973). Webster's American Military Biographies (Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam, 1978). Richard George Wood, Stephen Harriman Long (Glendale, California: Clark, 1966).


  • Exploration
  • Explorers (American)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

H. Allen Anderson, “Long, Stephen Harriman,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 18, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/long-stephen-harriman.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 22, 2020