Monday, May 04, 2009

Officially American

Major Stephen H. Long of the United States Army was the most important government-sponsored explorer in the decade after the War of 1812. He led three major and several minor expeditions up the Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas rivers and the Red River of the North, as well as exploring the central and southern Plains, the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Lakes. His companions included engineers, cartographers, naturalists, ethnologists, and artists, and they gathered a wealth of scientific, military, and artistic data about the interior of North America. For years Long's expeditions have been overlooked or misunderstood; here for the first time they are placed in the context of American scientific development.
When they reached Pembina on the Red River, the explorers paused. There, they had only one task - to decide whether the village lay north or south of the 49th parallel. Once they had done that they would begin their journey back to the eastern states. The return trip would take them along the virtually uninhabited north shore of Lake Superior and then south across the Great Lakes, a region that offered them little scientific challenge. In fact, rather than examining animals and plants along their route of march, the naturalists found their chief task to be getting themselves and their equipment back to civilization before the early northern winter blocked travel. This they succeeded in doing. yet, they encountered so little of interest or significance that the last half of the expedition proved anti-climactic for them.

On August 5, 1823, the explorers rode into Pembina and found the settlement virtually deserted. Most of the villagers had left on their annual buffalo hunt nearly seven weeks earlier and had not yet returned. The next day, the hideous screeching of 115 wooden carts loaded with fresh buffalo meat announced the villagers' return as 300 men, women, and children marched into town, shouting and singing. They had good reason for joy. Each of the wagons carried some 800 pounds of buffalo meat, enough to last for the winter. For a community with almost no domesticated animals, the annual hunt was a matter of grim necessity and this had been a good hunt.

The happy townsfolk straggled into their rude community, which consisted of about sixty log cabins strung out along the banks of the river for nearly five miles. A Hudson's Bay Company trading post had operated there until earlier that same summer, when company officials guessed that the settlement lay within the United States. Now the building stood empty. By August 8, Long and Colhoun completed their survey and astronomical observations and decided that the village did indeed lie south of the 29th parallel. Accordingly, on that day the major had an oak post placed in the ground at the border. On the south side of the pole he put the letters U.S., while G.B. faced to the north. At noon the troops raised the American flag and fired a salute. Then, in the presence of the villagers, Long proclaimed that "by virtue of the authority vested in him by the President...the country situated upon the Red River, above that point...was within the territory of the United States."

This simple ceremony completed the explorers' last specific assignment, and all that remained was their return trip. Long's orders called for the detachment to follow the 29th parallel east, but the settlers urged him not to try that route. They described the entire region between the Red River and Lake Superior as a maze of marshes, small lakes, and boulder-filled streams - all virtually impenetrable by a party as large as Long's. Instead, they claimed that the only practical way to travel east was by canoe via the larger streams. This advice convinced the Major to use his discretion, as Secretary of War Calhoun had suggested, and he chose to proceed north into Canada before turning east. Accordingly, the party prepared for the last part of their journey.

The brief stay at Pembina precipitated several bitter quarrels within the detachment, and, as a result, Mr. Beltrami quit the expedition. Long noted that the mercurial Italian, "having taken offense at the party generally, and being highly provoked at my objecting to his turning an Indian out of our lodge, left the party in a very hasty and angry manner." The Italian had proved a troublesome companion, and few of the other explorers expressed any regret when he left. James Colhoun claimed that the Indians said that one of the explorers "must be a foreigner, because he wanted the mild expression of countenance, which they said is universal with Americans. Their judgment was correct," he concluded. When the argument ended, Beltrami bought a horse from Long, and with a single companion rode south to find the source of the Mississippi. They failed to do so, but did find and name Lake Julia.

- From Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration (1995)