Reports of Explorations Printed in the Documents of the United States Government

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Reports of Explorations Printed in the Documents of the United States Government

Thomas Jefferson set a precedent of enormous significance to the United States when he persuaded Congress to fund the exploratory journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Through the rest of the nineteenth century the United States government would send out a wide variety of missions to explore and document the vast new holdings of the country as well as its coastal waters and far beyond. The federal government funded studies and surveys relevant to American economic development throughout the Western Hemisphere as well as in Africa and across the Pacific to Asia. Of equal importance, the government published the reports of these explorations, making available to the contemporary public and later scholars a vast body of scientific knowledge and historical information.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition and its reports set the standard for future American explorations. Like most of its successor journeys of exploration, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was carefully planned and bore a military character. Both Lewis and Clark were military officers with experience of the frontier, and they intended to maintain discipline and adherence to the mission. That mission in turn was crafted by Jefferson and his many scientific friends, especially Dr. Benjamin Rush and the surveyor Andrew Ellicott. While Jefferson laid down lengthy and explicit instructions, he also encouraged his explorers to follow their own reason and pursue anything that might lead to useful knowledge. This mix of flexibility and a clear scientific mission statement helped to make the Lewis and Clark Expedition one of the most successful explorations ever undertaken, and their reports from the field still make for exciting and fascinating reading.

A series of exploratory parties followed on the model of Lewis and Clark. In 1806 and 1807 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike led an exploration of the southern parts of the Louisiana Purchase, crossing the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains. While searching for the headwaters of the Red River, Pike and his command became lost in the area around what the Spanish called El Capitan—soon renamed Pike's Peak—and were arrested by the Spanish for violating their territory. While in captivity, Pike learned a great deal more of the area of the southern Great Plains. Though the Spanish confiscated his journals—which the U.S. government finally recovered from Mexico in the twentieth century—Pike wrote a thrilling account of his travels from memory. An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi (1810) became an instant success and was translated into numerous foreign languages.

Private enterprises attempted to take part in these journeys of exploration, though many of the expeditions failed or had to call on the U.S. government for support or rescue. For instance, John Jacob Astor sent out exploratory groups between 1810 and 1812 in an effort to find an effective overland trail in support of his Pacific Fur Company, but they met with multiple disasters along the way, and Astor soon abandoned his plans for a Pacific station.

In the ensuing forty years the United States sent out a number of smaller military expeditions intent on establishing military bases and seeking routes across the Great Plains to the Pacific coast. Many of these companies failed in their military objectives but added to the store of knowledge about the American West. For instance, in 1818, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun sought to increase economic activity in the Northwest by sending Colonel Henry Atkinson to establish forts along the Missouri River to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Atkinson's expedition failed miserably and was abandoned in 1820, producing charges of incompetence and procurement corruption. However, Atkinson's command also included a contingent of scientists and artists led by the Army topographical engineer Major Stephen H. Long, which marked the first time a U.S. exploratory mission included skilled scientific observers charged with documenting the western territories. Long collected their findings in an impressive two-volume work, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains (1822–1823), which provided a great deal of valuable information about this area. (The collection also contains Atkinson's justification of events in his “Report of an Expedition up the Missouri River.”)

These expeditions not only advanced scientific knowledge but also opened up the North American West and other areas of the globe to economic exploitation. Of greatest importance in this regard were the Pacific Railroad Surveys of the 1850s. The purpose of these seven major surveys was straightforward: to find the best route for a transcontinental railroad. But the project was complicated by political intrigue and competing economic interests. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi hoped for a southern route, backing the journeys of Lieutenants Amiel W. Whipple and John Pope, while the influential Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton and his son-in-law, John C. Frémont, supported the expedition of Captain John W. Gunnison, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, a powerful voice for northern railroad interests, favored the survey of the first governor of Washington Territory, Isaac I. Stevens. The Civil War would ultimately interrupt these political machinations, but they proved largely irrelevant in any case because several of these explorers, particularly Stevens and Gunnison, devoted more energy to their actual jobs than to biasing reports for this or that economic interest.

The independence of these commands was reinforced when Davis established the Bureau of Explorations and Surveys, headed by Major William H. Emory of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, followed by the Army's top hydrographic engineer, Captain Andrew A. Humphreys. These two officers saw that the surveys were accompanied by numerous noted scientists whose interests did not coincide with those of the railroads. The expeditions also included many talented illustrators, such as F.W. von Egloffstein and Richard H. Kern, whose works dramatically enhance the twelve volumes of the Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. These volumes constitute an encyclopedic study of the western United States and remain an essential source to this day.

An unexpected side effect of these volumes' outstanding woodcut illustrations was the degree to which they spurred popular interest in the West. The illustrations were widely reprinted as the public clamored for more views of western wonders. That desire to see the reality of the western terrain was further promoted by one of the most significant additions to the equipment of these expeditions: the camera. The photographer Timothy O'Sullivan joined Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey of the late 1860s and early 1870s, and for the first time Americans were able to see their western territories in realistic detail, expanding public interest in further exploration. So successful were O'Sullivan's photographs, available in the seven volumes of the Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (1870–1880), that all future expeditions made it a point to include photographers, often competing for the best of them. The works of John K. (Jack) Hillers, E.O. Beaman, Walter C. Powell, and James Fennemore can be found in several of the volumes in these collections. But the most prominent and widely respected of these photographers was William Henry Jackson, who set the tone for portraying the West as a world of majesty and wonder and its inhabitants as a study in primitive dignity. The latter photographs are well represented in the 1877 Geological Survey volume Descriptive Catalogue of Photographs of North American Indians. With time these photographs became more realistic, often serving broader social purposes, as when John Wesley Powell, the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, used Hillers' photographs to demonstrate the dire poverty of Native Americans.

On the opposite end of this spectrum of concern for the Plains Indians and independence of command was the Black Hills Expedition of 1874 commanded by the consistently disobedient Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Though President Ulysses Grant had promised to protect the Black Hills, which the Lakota people held sacred, Custer accommodated mining and land speculating interests by leading his command into the hills in search of valuable minerals. The expedition's discovery of gold led to a land rush into the Black Hills that shattered Grant's peace policy and led to a devastating war punctuated by Crazy Horse's overwhelming defeat of Custer's command in 1876 and the ultimate termination of the native inhabitants' freedom as they were confined to reservations.

U.S. explorations were by no means limited to the North American landmass. The U.S. Navy played an active role in expanding scientific knowledge and American economic interests, starting with the United States Exploring Expedition under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes in 1838. For four years the six ships under Wilkes's command explored the Pacific Ocean from Antarctica to the Hawaiian Islands, from the Puget Sound to the Philippines, before circumnavigating the globe with a return journey around the Cape of Good Hope, traveling 87,000 miles in total. This undertaking was marred, however, by a violent conflict with the Fijians, the loss of two ships, and Wilkes's court-martial for mistreating his officers and men. Wilkes spent the next two decades editing the massive twenty-volume journal of this voyage, published as the United States Exploring Expedition, During the Years 1838–42 (1844–1874). The atlases are of particular historical value, including the first map of the Pacific Northwest, while the scientific papers include works by James Dwight Dana, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray.

The Navy followed up Wilkes's expedition with numerous scientific and exploratory missions, such as the U.S. Surveying Expedition to the North Pacific Ocean from 1853 to 1856, led first by Commander Cadwalader Ringgold and then Lieutenant John Rodgers; an astronomical expedition to the Southern Hemisphere; Captain William L. Herndon's exploration of the Amazon; Commodore Matthew C. Perry's expedition to East Asia and the opening of Japan to the West; the Polaris Expedition seeking a route to the North Pole in 1871; Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr.'s surveys of Central America in an effort to find a canal site in the early 1870s; and numerous explorations of the coast of Alaska.

It is difficult for modern readers to appreciate the degree to which these voyages of discovery captured and held the public imagination. Only those who recall the early days of NASA's space program can grasp public enthusiasm for these scientific undertakings. In 1881 Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely of the Army Signal Corps set out to establish a meteorological station as close to the North Pole as possible and to gather astronomical data. Greely and his twenty-five-man team established their base on Ellesmere Island, just 500 miles south of the North Pole. Not only was this the farthest north that any man was yet known to have reached, but Greely's post was also the farthest north of the observation stations set up by eleven nations as part of the International Polar Year. The American public followed Greely's mission closely, feeling pride in his accomplishments. But the following year the supply ship could not reach the Ellesmere base, and in 1883 a successor ship, the Proteus, was crushed by the ice. In desperation, Greely set off with his men to a relief site that did not exist. In the United States, the newspapers followed the tragedy as best they could, calling on the government to rescue the brave men. Speculation and accusations ran wild, members of Congress demanded investigations, the Army charged the Navy with incompetence, and the Navy returned the favor. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln assumed the entire command was already dead. As the government vacillated, Henrietta Nesmith Greely, the commander's wife, launched a public campaign to rescue the stranded men, whom she was confident were still alive. Caving in to public pressure, Lincoln finally sent a relief expedition in 1884, which found Greely and just five other men still alive. They received a hero's welcome in New York, and Greely produced a rich and adventurous account of his team's struggles, Report of the Proceedings of the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay (1888), never once mentioning Robert Todd Lincoln.

This collection provides documents on all of these expeditions and many others, some well known, such as John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, others long forgotten, such as the earlier Sitgreaves Expedition of 1851, which was the first scientific study of the Zuni and Colorado Rivers. Many of these military and scientific explorations deserve to be better known, such as Lieutenant George M. Wheeler's massive survey, beginning in the early 1870s, of lands lying west of the 100th Meridian. Many expeditions had immediate consequences, such as the 1871 Geological Survey of the Territories led by the geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, which played a major role in persuading Congress to create Yellowstone National Park the following year; others had unexpected consequences, such as an Franz Boas' 1883–1884 expedition to Baffin Island, which led to his publication of The Central Eskimo and helped to define the course of American anthropology.

History is packed with unintended consequences. As is apparent from their writing, the majority of these explorers and scientists held their subject areas in the highest regard and longed to preserve their discoveries for future generations. But they instead helped to destroy the world they described so well. Not only did their published reports attract the avaricious attention of those who would exploit the resources uncovered, but they also led the way in wiping out native species and peoples. No more profound example of that development can be found than on the Great Plains. Initially called the Great American Desert, the plains were portrayed by those first travelers from the United States as a vast territory full of potential and rich in minerals and other natural resources. The journeys of John C. Frémont and his successors set the stage for the Transcontinental Railroad, the Homestead Act, the near extermination of the buffalo, and the destruction of the Plains Indians and their way of life. It is fitting that a government agent, James Mooney of the Bureau of American Ethnology, was present for the final tragedy in this story. While working on his pioneering ethnographic study of the Sioux, Mooney arrived at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. His interviews and photographs, published as The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, graphically portray the horror of the massacre and the devastation wrought on Native American culture and societies.

Taken together, Reports of Exploration is a treasure trove of portraits of and insights into the geography, environments, scientific attitudes, societies, and cultural values of the nineteenth century. Their vivid descriptions, maps and charts, startling photographs, and personal accounts remain the best source for exploring the world we have lost.


  • Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  • Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. New York: Knopf, 1966.
  • ———. New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery. New York: Viking, 1986.
  • Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Collection Facts

Date Range:
578 monographs; 118,863 pages
Source Institution:
Library of Congress
Mid-nineteenth century engraving of Cape Palmas, Liberia.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.