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Long, Stephen H., Explorations of


LONG, STEPHEN H., EXPLORATIONS OF. Major Stephen H. Long (1784–1864), army topographical engineer, commanded a scientific expedition that explored portions of the Rocky Mountains and the Platte, Arkansas, and Canadian Rivers during the summer of 1820. His party departed Pittsburgh on 5 May 1819 as the scientific arm of a larger expedition with orders to explore the Upper Missouri by steamboat. Technical difficulties, disease, delay, and lack of funding compelled the abandonment of this venture during the winter of 1819– 1820. As an alternative, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun ordered Long's party to travel overland from its winter quarters at Engineer Cantonment near Council Bluffs to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers.

Long's party, which included the entomologist Thomas Say, the artists Titian Peale and Samuel Seymour, and the physician-naturalist Edwin James, began its journey on 6 June 1820. They moved westward along the Platte and arrived in early July at the Rocky Mountains, where James and other members of the party made the first recorded ascent of Pike's Peak. The party then divided into two groups that turned south and east. One group was ordered to travel down the Arkansas River, and the other, led by Long himself, intended to find the source of the Red River. It failed to do so, mistaking the Canadian River for the Red. Exhausted by hunger and thirst, the two groups reunited at Belle Point on the Arkansas River on 13 September 1820.

Though Long failed to make any significant contributions to formal geographical knowledge of the region, his party gathered extensive scientific and ethnographic data, recording their observations of the Pawnees and identifying numerous new plant and animal species. In 1823 James published a compilation of the expedition's journals, which brought the results of the expedition to a wider audience. Some historians have chastised Long for characterizing the Great Plains in present-day Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma as a "Great American Desert" in his report to Calhoun. However, others have pointed out the accuracy of Long's description of the arid plains as unsuitable for agriculture, given the technological resources of his era. Long undertook another major exploration, this one of the Minnesota River and the Great Lakes, in 1823. This expedition concluded his career as an explorer, though he remained an active member of the army engineers until a few years before his death.


Benson, Maxine, ed. From Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains: Major Stephen Long's Expedition, 1819–1820. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1988. Edited and annotated version of the James report.

Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991. A reprint of the 1959 edition with a new introduction by the author.

———. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1993. Originally published in 1966. With Goetzmann's other works, the most comprehensive discussion of Long's expeditions within the wider context of American history.

James, Edwin. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains. March of America Facsimile Series, no. 65. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1966. Reprint of the 1823 edition in its entirety.

Nichols, Roger L., and Patrick L. Halley. Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980.


See alsoExplorations and Expeditions: U.S. ; Great American Desert .

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