WHIPPLE EXPEDITION. 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.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Mary McDougall Gordon, "WHIPPLE EXPEDITION," accessed July 12, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/upw01.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.