Scientific Expedition of Major Stephen H. Long

A scientific expedition commanded by Major Stephen H. Long visited the country later to become Kansas in the years 1819 and 1820. The expeditions of Lewis and Clark and Lieutenant Pike had added much to the geographical knowledge of the country. The Government evidently believed it was in duty bound to secure as much information as possible concerning the extensive regions known as Louisiana, so the expedition in the interest of the scientific features of the country was organized and sent out. Some other portions of the United States were included in the scope of the work assigned Major Long, but the principal work was done in Louisiana. The country west of the Mississippi assigned this expedition for exploration extended from the Red River flowing north of Texas to the Platte, and westward to the summit of the Rocky Mountains—much of it later included in Kansas. It was an extensive domain, and was still almost an unbroken wilderness.

The expedition was sent out by John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, and was made up as follows:

  • Stephen H. Long, Major U. S. Engineers, commanding.
  • J. R. Bell, a Captain in the expedition, but a Lieutenant of Artillery, and the Journalist of the expedition.
  • W. H. Swift, Lieutenant of Artillery Assistant Topographer, and commanding the guard.
  • T. Say, Zoologist, etc.
  • E. James, Botanist, Mineralogist, and Surgeon.
  • T. R. Peale, Assistant Naturalist.
  • S. Seymour, Landscape Painter, etc.
  • Joseph Bijeau, Guide, and Interpreter.
  • H. Doughearty, Hunter.
  • Abram Ledoux, Farrier and Hunter.
  • Stephen Julien, Interpreter.
  • Zachariah Wilson, Baggage Master.
  • Duncan J. Oakeley, and D. Adams, Engagees.
  • John Sweney, Private of the Corps of Artillery.
  • Joseph Verplank, William Parish, Robert Foster, Mordecai Nowland, Peter
  • Bernard, and Charles Myers, Privates of the Rifle Regiment, Pack-horse Men, and Hunters.

The movements of the expedition which in any way relate to Kansas began at Fort Osage, located near the site of the present town of Sibley, Jackson County, Mo. It was desired that the country from Fort Osage to the Platte should be explored, examined, and described, and for that purpose a party was sent inland from the Fort with instructions to ascend the Kansas River (called in the record Konzas River) to the town of the Kansas Indians. From that point this party was to continue overland to the Pawnee towns on the Platte. This party consisted of, Mr. Say (in command), Mr. Jessup, Mr. Peale, Mr. Seymour, Mr. Swift, Mr. J. Doughearty, and five soldiers. They were accompanied by a Major Biddle and his servant. They were supplied with provisions for ten days and given three pack-horses to transport their supplies and baggage. They left Fort Osage on the 6th of August, 1819.

Having dispatched this detachment overland, the expedition continued its course up the Missouri in its steamboat, the Western Engineer. The departure from Fort Osage was on the 10th of August. The mouth of the Kansas River was reached on the 12th, and found to be so filled with mud from the recent flood in the Missouri that the boat could scarcely effect an entrance. It was with difficulty that the stream was ascended a mile, from which point the steamboat came back to the Missouri. This is the first steamboat known to have disturbed the virgin waters of the Kansas River.

The rudeness of the white hunters and trappers then operating on the Missouri was well illustrated by the manners of a party of trappers found in camp a few miles above the mouth of the Kansas River. In deportment and dress they were more savage than the Indians among whom they spent their lives. The expedition noted the places visited and described by Lewis and Clark. The old Kansas village between high points of land, with the chimneys, of the vanished French cabins standing like skeleton sentinels, was observed as a place of interest. At Cow Island, Captain Wyly Martin was found with three companies of soldiers. He had been in camp there awaiting supplies since the previous October. The soldiers had killed three thousand deer and much other game during the winter.

From Fort Osage a messenger had been sent across the country to the village of the Kansas Indians to summon that tribe to a council at Cow Island. The Indians were expected on the 18th of August, but as they were on a hunting excursion when the messenger arrived at their town, they were delayed in their journey, not appearing until the 23d. An arbour had been erected on the ground where the council was to be held. On the 24th more than one hundred and fifty of the Kansas Indians assembled there and were addressed by Major O’Fallon, the Indian Agent for that region. They were accused of insolence towards the white people and of having committed depredations against them. These charges they admitted to be true, but they promised to cease such practices and to make amends. The most distinguished chiefs of the tribe were present—Long Neck, Little Chief, Big Knife, and Plume Blancher, or White Plume. The latter was then just rising to prominence in the tribe, and later he became one of its greatest chiefs. The peace effected by Lieutenant Pike between the Kansas and the Osages still continued, and there were thirteen Osages with the Kansas at the council. All the Indians were interested in the demonstrations made by the steamboat, the construction of which was calculated to cause astonishment in those primitive inhabitants of the Plains. The how of the boat was in the form of a serpent of giant size, having a carved head reared as high as the boat’s deck. Smoke was forced out of the mouth of the monster, and the Indians believed the craft to be a huge serpent carrying the boat on its back. The council and the entertainments continued for some time. Presents were distributed. The Indians were satisfied with the articles given them, and they finally departed with expressions of gratitude and friendship.

The expedition made some addition to its force at Cow Island, securing fifteen soldiers provisioned for sixty days and carried on a keelboat. All set sail on the 25th of August, and aided by a favorable wind, made a distance of twenty-three miles, camping at the mouth of Independence Creek. The site of the ancient Kansas village was visited, and it is noted on the Journal of the expedition that the town had formerly been called the village of the Twenty-four.

On the first of September the expedition was encamped at the mouth of Wolf River, in what is now Doniphan County, Kansas. The machinery of the steamboat was in process of repair and adjustment. The hunters came in with a deer, a turkey, and half a barrel of honey taken from the homes of three swarms of wild bees. The boat then got under way, and had gone a little distance from the encampment when a messenger, Mr. Doughearty, hailed from the shore. The boat put to, and found a party awaiting to report the progress made by the detachment sent overland from Fort Osage. This party, which had followed the boat, consisted of Mr. Doughearty, Mr. Peale, Mr. Swift, Mr. Seymour, the Interpreter Chaboneau, and one of the soldiers. The overland detachment had reached Cow Island five days after the departure of the main expedition on the steamboat, and had followed up the river in the hope of overtaking it.

The detachment sent out overland had left Fort Osage on the 6th of August, as we have seen. It consisted of twelve men and a boy, and had three pack-horses to carry baggage. It took its way over the virgin prairies east of the Big Blue, in what is now Jackson County, Missouri, coming out on the fine plains of Johnson County, Kansas. It followed the high lands dividing the waters of the Kansas River from the streams to the south, much of the distance being along the route later followed by the Santa Fe Trail. On the larger creeks of the way were found numerous abandoned camps of Indians. These were usually in the horse-shoe bends, where the water on all sides afforded a protection against surprise. But no Indians were encountered. About the head branches of the Wakarusa (written at that time Warreruza) much game was found and many rattlesnakes killed. Flocks of ravens appeared in that region, and the large green flies became a plague. The detachment came upon the highlands bounding Mill Creek, on the 11th of August, and from these hills had a fine view of the fertile valley of that stream, then known as Full Creek, or the Wahrengeho. The head waters of some of the branches of Mill Creek were gone around, and the poverty of the rocky ridges bearing west was noted. And the absence of timber was considered cause for remark. The detachment must have crossed Mill Creek near the present town of Alma, going thence directly north, and reaching the Kansas River on the night of the 13th. Owing to sickness which had attacked some of the men only two miles were made on the 14th. On the 16th considerable progress was made in the ascent of the Kansas River, the record showing an advance of some fifteen miles, though the actual distance covered must have been much less. The detachment was at this time in a measure lost, not knowing the exact location of the Kansas village nor their own position in relation to it. From the camp a detail was sent out to determine whether the Kansas town had been reached or had been passed, but as nothing was found to throw light on that subject, the whole party moved on. The Kansas River was crossed and re-crossed in the fruitless search for the Indian town. The company beat aimlessly about, going both up and down the river in the vain quest of some traveled way. On the 18th, being on the north side of the river, such a path was discovered, and on the 19th, bearing up the river, over a broad prairie, the Vermilion was reached. It was found to be four feet deep and twenty yards wide. Along its course were scattered oaks, and the country bore a park-like appearance. On the banks of the Vermilion the party dined on the flesh of a black wolf, the only game found that day.

The movement of the detachment must have been exceedingly slow, for the Kansas village was not sighted until late on the 18th. Upon coming within view of it the party halted to examine its firearms, not knowing the nature of the reception which might be accorded it, a party of the Kansas Indians having been recently defeated at Cow Island by the soldiers stationed there. Coming into closer proximity, the tops of the lodges were seen to be crowded with Indians. And soon the chiefs and warriors, painted in war fashion and decked with feathers and plumes, dashed out on horseback to meet and welcome the strangers. A throng of natives on foot followed the mounted party. The Americans were met with cordial demonstrations and escorted into the Indian town. There they were assigned a commodious lodge. The crowds followed them in and were kept back by a rank of the chiefs and principal men. After smoking the pipe of amity and friendship with the chiefs, the Americans explained the objects of their visit. Permission to pass on through the country was requested, and this was readily granted. Jerked buffalo meat and boiled corn were served to the strangers, after which they were invited to attend six feasts in quick succession.

It was found that the Indians were preparing to visit Cow Island to meet the main expedition, having been summoned by Chaboneau and another Frenchman sent out from Fort Osage for that purpose. After dispatching runners to Cow Island to acquaint the expedition that a party would soon appear there, the chiefs and some of the head warriors set out to keep the appointment, which it did, as had been shown. But before they departed complete arrangements were made for the comfort and convenience of their white guests.

The detachment, under command of Mr. Say, remained at the Kansas village until the 24th. Much of the time was spent in studying the habits and customs of the Indians dwelling there. The town was in the bottom some two miles below the mouth of the Big Blue (or Blue Earth River, as it was then called) and about a quarter of a mile from the north bank of the Kansas River. A captive Pawnee was purchased from the Kansas Indians to be taken and restored to his family in the Pawnee towns. Setting out in the afternoon of the 24th, the detachment followed up the east bank of the Big Blue River a distance of some seven miles, and there camped in a fine bottom. Hunters were sent out to procure game, and the commander sat down to a meager dinner. A sentry called attention to a whirling dust-cloud approaching over the rolling plain. A close scrutiny of this agitated cloud revealed a charging band of Indians. The sudden and unexpected flight of the Kansas Indians made it certain that the visitors were at least hostile to that tribe. The Americans were hastily thrown into line, where they prepared to defend themselves. The charging savages were in battle garb, but approached the Americans in the most friendly manner, making the most ardent avowals of peaceful intentions. These pacific professions were not, however, borne out by their subsequent conduct. These treacherous savages proved to be a band of Republican Pawnees from Pike’s village on the Republican River, and they began to steal and plunder whatever they could seize upon. They numbered about one hundred and forty, and they soon got possession of the horses of the Americans, when they made off across the plains with the same speed which had carried them in upon the unsuspecting encampment.

The loss of these horses put an end to the further prosecution of the overland expedition. There was no alternative but to return to the sheltering village of the faithful Kansas. On the way there they met the Kansas chief, who had so precipitately fled, returning with a bunch of warriors to aid in the conflict with the Pawnees. He followed the trail of the retreating savages for some time and recovered some stolen goods flung away in the mad ride to get clear of their pursuers.

Upon their return to the Kansas town the Americans were again kindly received and assigned to a lodge. Into this lodge a motley throng of Indians in fantastic adornment crowded as the Americans were retiring to rest. They were dancers, and the dog dance was performed with all its savage ceremonies. Yells and barbarous music broke up the night.

There was nothing left for the detachment but to try to form a junction with the main body of the expedition. Having secured two packhorses to transport the baggage and a saddle-horse to bear Mr. Say, the journey back to Missouri was begun on the 25th. A direct route to Cow Island was taken, which carried them over the Grasshopper near the present town of Valley Falls. Cow Island was reached on the 29th, but the boat, with Major Long’s party, had been gone some time. At Mr. Doughearty’s suggestion the overland party started under his command to overtake the boat, which it fortunately did at the mouth of Wolf River.

In going to the Kansas Indian town the overland party passed through Johnson, Douglas, Shawnee, Wabaunsee, and Pottawatomie counties. In the return journey to Cow Island it traversed Pottawatomie, Jackson, Jefferson and Leavenworth counties. To overtake the boat it passed out of Leavenworth, crossed Atchison, and entered Doniphan.

The reunited party ascended the Missouri River in the steamboat. As the season was late it was necessary soon to prepare for winter. The point selected for winter quarters was on the west bank of the Missouri, about fifteen miles above Council Bluffs, and three miles above the mouth of Boyer River, which falls in from the east or Iowa side. It was half a mile above Fort Lisa. The camp was named Engineer Cantonment. Councils were held with various Indian tribes, and much scientific data was gathered. By order of the Secretary of War further exploration up the Missouri River was abandoned for the time, and the expedition was directed to explore the Platte to its sources—then return by the Red River to the Mississippi. On the 6th of June, 1820, Engineer Cantonment was dismantled and deserted, and the expedition took up the trail for the Pawnee towns. There was nothing of vital importance to Kansas history in this tour, until the 12th of July, when the Grand Peak of Lieutenant Pike’s exploration was sighted. On the 13th Dr. James was furnished four men, and he departed with the purpose of ascending the peak. Two of these men were to be left with the horses at the foot of the mountain, and two were to go on with Dr. James to the summit. At noon the party dined at Maniton Springs—called then, Boiling Springs. The ascent of the mountain began there. The night was spent on a steep slope, in much discomfort, because of the cold. On the 14th the party early began the final and most difficult climb. The day was bright, and as the party rose above the minor elevations a grand panorama revealed itself. At four o’clock the summit was reached—for the first time, so far as is known, by Americans. The party remained less than an hour there, but in that time many important observations were made. Major Long called this snow-capped sentinel of the Great Plains James’s Peak, but this name did not stick. With an unerring sense of justice the people called it Pike’s Peak, and it is Pike’s Peak now and ever more.

One of the objects of Long’s expedition was to discover the sources of the Red River which flows on the north boundary of Texas. On the 18th of July the whole company began the descent of the Arkansas River, leaving the grand and interesting mountains at their backs. Preparations were made on the 21st to divide the party, one detachment to continue to descend the Arkansas, while the other should strike south to come upon the head branches of Red River. The separation occurred on the 24th, when Major Long with his party crossed the Arkansas and turned to the south. There was at that time a confusion of the head waters of the Canadian, sometimes called Red or Colorado River in its upper reaches, with the sources of the Red River flowing along the north line of Texas. Major Long supposed he was descending and exploring the latter stream, when he was in fact all the time on the Canadian, the mouth of which he reached on the 10th of September, 1820. The Spaniards had probably known the true courses of these two rivers for many years, but correct geographical knowledge of the Canadian was first secured to the Americans by Major Long.

The other division of the expedition was composed of Captain Bell, Mr. Say, Mr. Seymour, Lieutenant Swift, the three Frenchmen, Bijeau, Le Doux, and Julien, and five soldiers. It continued down the Arkansas, passing through all the present counties of Kansas bordering that stream. The south line of the State was crossed on the 17th of August. Wild horses were seen. Great herds of buffalo were encountered. In the record of the journey may be found much relating to the wild tribes. The parties of the expedition were reunited at the mouth of the Canadian on the 13th of September. The company entire continued down the Arkansas River to Fort Smith, from which point it went across the country to Cape Girardeau, where it arrived on the 10th of October.

The expedition of Major Long made some discoveries, but not many, and what were made were of little comparative importance. A vast amount of scientific data was secured, and the knowledge obtained about the various tribes of Western Indians becomes more valuable with the passing years.

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