Whipple Expedition

By: Mary McDougall Gordon

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

In March 1853 the Thirty-second Congress authorized a number of surveys of potential routes for a transcontinental railroad. One of these expeditions, commanded by United States Army Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, would proceed westward along the thirty-fifth parallel. The Whipple expedition, a wagon train with about seventy men, left Fort Smith, Arkansas, on July 15, 1853. Accompanying the soldiers, teamsters, herders, and servants was a group of scientists closely associated with the Smithsonian Institution; Whipple himself, a member of the elite Corps of Topographical Engineers, was a competent astronomer and an amateur ethnologist. The train followed a route, rapidly explored in 1849 by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, across Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), the Panhandle of Texas, and New Mexico Territory, reaching the frontier town of Albuquerque on October 5. Beyond the Rio Grande the expedition crossed present-day Arizona, forded the Colorado River on February 27, 1854, and some three weeks later, on March 21, finally reached Los Angeles.

On September 6, 1853, the wagon train made its first camp in Texas, just beyond the 100th meridian that denoted the western border of Indian Territory. During the journey across the Panhandle, members of the expedition saw plenty of game and shot their first buffalo. They glimpsed their first field of cacti, and on September 17, in a hard day's march of nearly twenty-eight miles, crossed the Llano Estacado, a "level table land without sign of bush or shrub," noted one of the expedition's diarists. The party made its way across the Panhandle without any dangerous encounters with the dreaded "wild" tribes of the region, the Comanches and the Kiowas. On September 7 the expedition met two Comanche horsemen, but both were elderly and peaceable. Two days later it came upon a large camp of Kiowa warriors, women, and children beside a stream leading into the Canadian River. Although there were some tense moments when Lt. Whipple unsuccessfully requested the return of three Mexican captives, the expedition proceeded on its way after Whipple decided that it was not his mission to take the captives by force. On September 19 it passed into New Mexico Territory.

The most difficult part of the western journey was beyond the Rio Grande. The expedition struggled for more than three months to blaze a trail from the Zuni Pueblo to the Colorado River. After abandoning all but one cart that carried delicate scientific instruments, the bedraggled expedition crossed the California desert, experiencing its only casualty when Paiutes killed a laggard herder. The threat of such Indian attacks had shaped the organization of the wagon train, and Whipple secured an additional escort of soldiers after leaving Albuquerque. But contrary to expectations, the expedition received aid and hospitality from Indians all along the trail. So-called "civilized" Indians like Creeks and Shawnees guided the train across Oklahoma, and Zuni guides accompanied it from their pueblo to the Little Colorado River. Without the help of Mohaves, the expedition would have experienced great difficulty in crossing the Colorado River and the desert beyond.

The Whipple expedition laid the foundations for change in the southwest region it explored for more than eight months. Though no transcontinental railroad would follow the thirty-fifth parallel in its entirety, a federal wagon-road program established in 1856 led to improvement of the Whipple trail. Eventually short railroad lines moved along the Marcy-Whipple route near the Canadian River, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway followed Whipple's trail for much of the way from Albuquerque to California. The Whipple expedition served another purpose by expanding scientific knowledge about the mysterious West. Along with those from the other railroad surveys, its reports were published in twelve massive volumes, the Pacific Railroad Reports. The expedition's maps contributed to the production of a map in which the contours of the trans-Mississippi West clearly emerged for the first time. The Pacific Railroad surveys served as "great graduate schools" for a generation of American scientists, their specimens swelled the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, and the scientific reports are considered a "glorious chapter" in the history of American science. For historians of the Southwest the detailed, illustrated reports of the Whipple expedition, and the diaries kept by some of its members, remain fascinating archives, conveying a rich history of a region long since changed and of a way of life forever lost.

A. Hunter Dupree, Asa Gray, 1810–1888 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1959; rpt., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1988). A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957; rpt., New York: Harper and Row, 1964). 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). William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York: Knopf, 1966). W. Turrentine Jackson, Wagon Roads West: A Study of Federal Road Surveys and Construction in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1846–1869 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952). Baldwin Möllhausen, Diary of a Journey from the Mississippi to the Coasts of the Pacific with a United States Government Expedition, trans. Mrs. Percy Sinnett (2 vols., London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1858; rpt., New York and London: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1969). Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (12 vols., Washington: Nicholson, 1855–60). Through Indian Country to California: John P. Sherburne's Diary of the Whipple Expedition (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988). Amiel Weeks Whipple Papers, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Amiel Weeks Whipple, A Pathfinder in the Southwest, ed. Grant Foreman (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941).
  • Exploration
  • Expeditions

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

Mary McDougall Gordon, “Whipple Expedition,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 06, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/whipple-expedition.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996