BOUNDARY SURVEYS SOUTH and NORTH
After the Mexican War the boundaries of the United States changed dramatically. By the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, formally proclaimed by President Polk on Independence Day, 1848, Mexico gave up its claim to Texas and the vast domain that included what would become Utah, Nevada, and California, as well as much of New Mexico and Arizona. Larger than the Louisiana Purchase and almost the size of India, the cession, including Texas, added nearly 1,200,000 square miles to the United States. As diverse as it was large, the new country included the snow-capped sawteeth of the Sierra Nevada and the bone-dry floor of the Mohave Desert, the fantastic canyonlands of the Colorado and the verdant Rio Grande valley of New Mexico.
The Topographical Engineers' first major postwar assignment was surveying the border between the new domain and Mexico. A precise line had to be drawn over 1,800 miles of extremely rugged terrain. Shifting rivers, hostile Indians, and diplomatic disputes added to the difficult conditions. Requiring over six years to complete, the Mexican boundary survey would be one of the topogs' sorest trials.
Under the terms of the treaty, a joint American-Mexican commission would "run and mark the said boundary in its due course" from a point just south of San Diego to the mouth of the Rio Grande and agree to its exact location. Article Five of the compact defined the border as running up the Rio Grande all the way to El Paso del Norte. From this town, also called Paso and later Ciudad Juarez (it should not be confused with the neighboring Texan city of El Paso on the other side of the river), the line would extend westward to the Gila River, follow it to its junction with the Colorado, then run along the border between Upper and Lower California. 
Representing the United States was a mixed group, part civilian and part military, under control of Secretary of State James Buchanan. For the office of commissioner, President Polk chose lawyer John B. Weller, a former congressman from Ohio and recent unsuccessful candidate for governor of the state. In a second political appointment, Polk gave the surveyor's post to Andrew B. Gray, a Texan with limited experience in topographical work. For scientific talent, the commission drew on the Topographical Corps. Emory, now a brevet major, became the ranking military member with the title of chief astronomer, assisted by Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple, who had spent five years on the northeastern boundary survey, and Lieutenant Edmund L. F. Hardcastle, who had mapped the Valley of Mexico in late 1847. The makeup of the commission gave little joy to northern Whigs and Free Soilers, who opposed the expansion of slave territory. Weller was a proslavery Democrat; Gray was friendly with promoters of a southern Pacific railroad; Emory, scion of a Maryland slave-holding family, advocated a Gila valley route for a transcontinental railroad; and Hardcastle, also a Marylander, was linked to the movement for annexing all of Mexico. With sectional rivalries becoming sharper and a Whig administration about to take office, the commission seemed headed for trouble.
Even before the American commission left New York, there were intimations of diplomatic troubles ahead. Both sides had accepted John Disturnell's 1847 map of North America as the basic reference document for the survey. A compiler but not a cartographer, Disturnell was well-known for his many guidebooks.  When his map proved faulty, the commission faced one of its most aggravating problems.
Engineer Lieutenant William H. C. Whiting discovered a major flaw in Disturnell's map while on a reconnaissance of western Texas. In March, 1849, while the commission sailed toward the Isthmus of Panatna, Whiting fixed the true location of El Paso del Norte about thirty miles south of its position on the map. Since the Rio Grande line would end and the New Mexico boundary would begin at a point just north of the town, its location was of crucial importance. 
Ignorant of Whiting's findings, the members of the commission were having trouble enough. Arriving at Chagres in mid-March, they found the isthmus jammed with fortune seekers bound for the California El Dorado. Not until May could they complete their journey; and not until July, when the Mexican commission under General Pedro Garcia Conde arrived, could parties take the field. Meanwhile, soaring prices strained their funds, and visions of gold nuggets induced escorting troops to desert. Personal relationships also caused problems. While Weller established a cordial working relationship with his Mexican counterpart, he was less successful with his astronomer. Major Emory, unhappy with his subordination to political appointees and already gently cautioned by Colonel Abert to "avoid getting upon stilts,"  contained himself only with difficulty. When Weller and Gray met with the Mexicans at San Diego to plan operations eastward to the Gila, they refused to include Emory in the meeting because the treaty recognized only the commissioner and surveyor as official representatives. Emory contented himself with a short note of protest, and the initial point of the boundary was established in October. 
While Gray and Emory marked the initial point just south of San Diego with a stone monument, topogs Hardcastle and Whipple took parties east into the California desert. Hardcastle reconnoitered the country between the Pacific and the confluence of the Colorado and the Gila, Whipple, meanwhile, set out across California to erect a boundary marker at the junction of these rivers.
Because a survey by triangulation over the rugged Gila valley presented great difficulties, Emory's instructions required Whipple to fix his positions astronomically. After arriving on the river, Whipple built an observatory on an eminence he dubbed Capitol Hill, and commenced the series of astronomical observations necessary to establish the longitude and latitude of the boundary marker. He approached the painstaking and exhausting work with almost maniacal dedication. Observation of the stars at night and computations during the day left him drained and sometimes too nervous to sleep. On 25 November 1849, Whipple erected a stone pier that marked the point of the boundary at the mouth of the river. 
Whipple's report of his activities on the Gila concluded with a vocabulary of the Yuma Indian language.  Keenly interested in the southwestern tribes, he established an excellent rapport with them. The commander of his escort, dragoon Lieutenant Cave J. Couts, viewed such scholarly interest in the Yurnas with astonishment and disgust. Snubbed and considered a nuisance by the aloof, bookish Whipple, the loquacious outgoing Couts dismissed the topog as "not worth a tinker's dam for anything under God's heaven" without his books.  Few officers, including Couts, matched Whipple's sensitive and sensible concern for the native population.
Too preoccupied to smooth Couts's ruffled feathers, Whipple was ever mindful of his principal tasks. Shortly after his arrival on the Gila, in a letter dated "Capitol HillRight Bank of Rio Colorado, opposite the mouth of Rio Gila," he alerted Emory to an important problem. In the course of a mere eight days, the wild-running Gila had already erased a long sandy point at its mouth. The river, designated by the Treaty as part of the boundary, did not always run in the same bed.  Therefore, as Emory said, "the survey of that river . . . fixes nothing, determines nothing ...." 
While work progressed at San Diego and on the Gila, partisan politics caught up with the commission. First came rumors that the new Whig administration of President Zachary Taylor had replaced Weller with John C. Frémont. Local banks reacted by refusing to honor Weller's government drafts, and Emory, whose testimony at Frémont's celebrated court-martial had helped convict the pathfinder, threatened to resign. The situation stabilized when Frémont declined the post to become senator from California, and Weller stayed on until he ran out of funds in February, 1850.
The commission resumed its work in November with John Russell Bartlett, Rhode Island antiquarian and loyal Whig, holding forth as chairman. Bartlett's chief assistants were surveyor Gray and topog Lieutenant Colonel John McClellan, a hard-drinking veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars.  Bartlett arrived on the frontier in style. He crossed the plains from Indianola, Texas, in a deluxe carriage with an escort of twenty-four armed horsemen. A nattily uniformed host of 170 soldiers, sailors, and civilians, among whom were scientists, cronies, and boondogglers, completed the huge contingent.  The commission, Emory later wrote,
The first problem to test Bartlett's mettle was the location of the boundary at El Paso del Norte. The difficulty was exacerbated when Colonel McClellan's fondness for John Barleycorn led to his replacement by contentious Lieutenant Colonel James D. Graham. He was present when Bartlett and the Mexican commissioner discovered that Paso was considerably south of its presumed location. The two commissioners agreed to run the boundary north of the town's location on Disturnell's inaccurate map. Surveyor Gray, whose signature was required on any agreement, joined Graham and Whipple in a vigorous dissent. Their claim that south of the border would be too far north did not move Bartlett, who ordered the line run according to Disturnell's map. 
Shortly after this quarrel, the work got underway again. Bartlett sent Whipple to perform the pointless survey of the shifting Gila, Graham and topog Lieutenant William F. Smith began work on the Rio Grande portion of the boundary. Graham's party had trouble even getting started. In three raids, the Apaches and Navahoes ran off much of his livestock. Finally, Graham had to lead a raiding party of his own and managed to retake many of his horses and beef cattle. 
The Indian fights were only the first of Graham's difficulties. He complained loudly about the large number of placemen and boondogglers in Bartlett's retinue, the lack of sufficient instruments, and the difficulty of locating Bartlett, who had an uncommon talent for putting great distances between himself and the border he was supposed to survey. All of these problems annoyed Graham, but two in particular infuriated him. The first stemmed from the rescue of a Mexican girl, Inez Garcia, from Indians who had captured her in a raid. Instead of sending her home with a small escort, Bartlett took the entire party on the gallant but frivolous errand. His chivalry cost the commission forty-eight days. Already incensed, Graham grew still angrier when Bartlett insisted that Graham's position was confined to command the military contingent. 
The dispute was finally settled by the removal of both men. In September the disputatious Graham was relieved by Emory. Bartlett came under fire in the Senate for agreeing with Conde's demand for running the border far to the north of El Paso del Norte. Sparking the attack was former Commissioner Weller, the recently seated senator from California. In a fiery speech on 6 July 1852, Weller called for an investigation of his successor's conduct. Other lawmakers joined him in denouncing the Bartlett-Conde bargain. Emotions ran high. Lamenting the loss of the southern railroad route, a Texas senator declaimed: "There can be no sort of excuse for . . . giving away five or six thousand square miles . . . which properly belongs to us, which is ours by right, and which we should not surrender."  A provision impounding the commission's funds sailed through both houses. Recurrent cries of "Whig giveaway" helped produce a Democratic landslide in November 1852, as well as the dismissal of Bartlett and Gray. 
Meanwhile, Emory reached El Paso del Norte in November 1851, and found the survey foundering. Faced with a lack of funds and Bartlett's burdensome party, he considered the situation "anything but agreeable."  To Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian he confided his astonishment at the commissioner's large retinue and scanty financial resources: "Can he afford to keep all the people who are about him and pay the workies too!"  Emory soon knew the answer. Unable to meet the payroll, he faced a mutiny in his camp at Paso. Luckily, authorization to draw money reached Emory just after his party refused to proceed any farther. Then a merchant en route to San Antonio accepted Emory's draft for $5,000. Thus financed, Emory could pay his men, discharge the most troublesome among them, and continue the fieldwork. 
Under Emory's firm management the survey of the Rio Grande began to progress rapidly and efficiently. Although the river made a clear boundary, a detailed examination was nonetheless needed for both defense and customs purposes. This was a difficult undertaking,  for, according to Emory, the Rio Grande was largely impassable,
During the summer of 1852 Emory's field parties struggled to complete the survey of the river. Lieutenant Nathaniel Michler, whose operations involved extremely difficult stretches of river, built an observatory at Eagle Pass and worked down to Presidio del Norte. A second party under draftsman Mauritz von Hipple examined the river around the Big Bend toward the mouth of the Pecos River. Beset by the dirt-poor residents of Presidio, whom he considered ". . . the most expert horse thieves in Mexico," von Hipple had to protect his herds while carrying out his assignment.  North of Paso, Charles Radziminski a Polish-born former dragoon officer, led yet another small party between the densely covered banks of the twisting, turning river. On mornings "hot as that place intended for the evil spirits," he and his men slashed their way upstream through the brush from El Paso to Fort Fillmore.  Somehow, despite the heat, horse thieves, and the terrain, the work on the long stretch of river was completed. In September, 1852, just before receiving word of the impoundment of the commission's funds, Emory informed Colonel Abert that his men had surveyed the entire Rio Grande from Paso to Laredo. 
Resumed under General Robert B. Campbell in the summer of 1853, work proceeded speedily and smoothly. A South Carolinian who won his title as commander of the state militia during the nullification crisis of 1833, Campbell gave Emory a free hand in running the operation. Though one man drowned in the Rio Grande during July, and several came down with yellow fever, the survey continued. Finally, on 10 January 1854, Emory reported that all the fieldwork except the disputed portion from Paso to the mouth of the Gila was finished and that his personnel had arrived in Washington. 
While Campbell and Emory completed the survey of the Texan portion of the boundary, the State Department negotiated a second treaty with Mexico. This important compact gave the United States 30,000 square miles of Mexican territory for $10 million. Two southerners, both ex-soldiers, were largely responsible for the acquisition. One was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a West Pointer and Mexican War hero, who was the strong man in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce. The other, Davis's choice to be minister to Mexico, was James Gadsden, formerly an officer in the Corps of Engineers. As president of the South Carolina Railroad Company, Gadsden had championed construction of a transcontinental line with Charleston as the eastern terminusa plan Davis heartily endorsed. The Gadsden Purchase Treaty, ratified in 1854, placed the coveted right-of-way north of the border and settled the long-standing question of the boundary westward across New Mexico. 
The Gadsden settlement achieved several of Emory's long-standing goals. He knew the Gila would not form a satisfactory boundary and desired the inclusion of the area south of the river as the best route for either a wagon road or a railway to San Diego. Moreover, he believed that a border that ran north along the Rio Grande from El Paso del Norte, instead of crossing the river at the town, would be difficult to defend since American troops would not have access to the mountain passes west of the river. 
Serving as United States Commissioner, Emory finished the survey of the Gadsden Purchase line in 1854-1855. He and Mexican Commissioner Ylarrigui José Salazar worked smoothly together, while Emory's experienced subordinates swiftly and efficiently completed the fieldwork. Lieutenant Michler worked eastward from the mouth of the Gila, while Emory and topog Lieutenant Charles N. Turnbull went westward from Paso. In just over a year the survey was finished, and Emory and Salazar signed an agreement expressing their satisfaction with the line.  After six years the boundary was finally complete.
Through the many personal squabbles and political disputes which attended the lengthy project, the topogs provided the talent and continuity that kept the survey going. With the notable exception of Colonel Graham, officers of the Topographical Engineers avoided the bickering that marred the enterprise.  Whipple, Michler, and Emory worked diligently and doggedly, even when all seemed to collapse around them. Emory also performed an exceptional political feat, opposing the initial boundary while managing to avoid involvement in the battles that broke out over it. And, all the while, he kept the work going. The final result was in large measure a monument to this strong-willed and able officer.
In addition to determining the boundary with Mexico, the survey achieved significant and enduring scientific results. The scientists and collectors who accompanied the numerous field parties accumulated a remarkable amount of data and great quantities of natural history specimens. These collectors and their colleagues in the East, who analyzed the data for publication, made substantial contributions to scientific knowledge of the borderlands. Some of the greatest men in American science participated in the collection, organization, and publication of the Commission's field acquisitions. Louis Agassiz, John Torrey, James Hall, and the Smithsonian's Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird all lent their talents to the project.
Throughout the entire period of the survey, Emory corresponded regularly with Baird on the organization of the scientific endeavor. Always interested in government explorations, Baird assisted Emory in selecting personnel and in arranging for the safe delivery of specimens from the border. He also encouraged the effort with appeals to Emory's greatest weakness, his vanity. Repeatedly Baird warned that other collectors in the Southwest might publish the results of their findings first and diminish the significance of Emory's work if specimens were not quickly packed and sent east. But as shrewd and experienced as he was, even Baird could not suppress his astonishment at the number of new species. He was particularly surprised and delighted at the vast collections assembled in a short time by his former student at Dickinson College, John F. Clark. In only three months, Clark sent Baird 125 different species of fish and reptiles, most of them new to science. More surprising still, Clark was a botanist and accumulated these zoological specimens in his spare time!  "The entire annals of zoological history," Baird wrote Emory, "scarcely presents a parallel to this case." 
Emory understood the opportunity that government explorations presented to the nation's scientists. He told the 1851 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that "the importance of scientific works, undertaken by the government, as exponents of the state of science in the country at any particular period, cannot be overrated, and men of science are therefore interested, and should be consulted in regard to the organization of such works."  The Boundary Commission gave interested scholars a rare opportunity to study the fauna, flora, and minerals of the Southwest, and those who were asked to participate responded with interest and energy. The distinguished Columbia University scientist John Torrey assessed most of the botanical specimens, while George Engelmann, a St. Louis physician and an expert botanist, examined the cacti. Professor James Hall evaluated geological specimens delivered to him at his Albany home. Baird himself worked on the fishes and reptiles. This cooperative effort made Emory's report of the survey into an encyclopedia of borderlands natural history.
Scientists also disseminated the new discoveries through the European scholarly community Engelmann sent a complete set of duplicate cacti specimens to the Cambridge Botanical Garden in England and samples to European collectors. Torrey also gave some of his botanical specimens to his friend Eugene Delaire, head gardener at the Orleans, France, botanical garden.  Thus, American scholars shared the excitement of the new discoveries with scientists across the Atlantic. Engelmann spoke for all the rest when he thanked Emory for "the interest you continue to take in natural science." 
Employment on the boundary survey and other government expeditions of the same period was of great importance to many young scientists. Geologist Charles Parry, for example, was Torrey's student when his mentor found him a position with Emory. Later Colorado's foremost pioneer botanist, Parry gained valuable experience in collecting with the Commission. Engineer explorations amounted to a graduate school for young naturalists.  The old mountainmen had shown the Engineers the geographic secrets of the West. Now, as the process of exploration continued, Corps expeditions gave a generation of budding scientists the opportunity to discover other mysteries and to mature professionally.
Emory's report of the boundary survey, published in 1857, was his last contribution to geographic knowledge, and his greatest. Undistinguished as literature, it was a scientific triumph. Thorough, precise, and admirably illustrated, it gave a faithful picture of the borderlands. Its three thick quarto volumes contained accounts of the survey, detailed descriptions of the country, and field reports on geology, botany, and zoology, together with the findings of the leading scientists who classified the specimens. Accompanying the report was a master map, drawn to a scale of 1:6,000,000, of the entire trans-Mississippi West. Welcomed by scholars here and abroad, these results of the boundary survey, were, as historian William H. Goetzmann observed, "the brightest lights in that sombre adventure along the Rio Grande." 
Although publication of the report marked the end of the Mexican boundary survey, the Topographical Engineers began work on a similar assignment far to the north. In 1857 they started work on the first phase of the Canadian boundary survey west of Lake of the Woods. The project was carried out in two parts. During 1857-1861, surveyors marked the line between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the summit of the Rocky Mountains. Eleven years later a second joint commission started to run the boundary from Lake of the Woods to the Rockies. The 1,300-mile border along the forty-ninth parallel, finished in 1875, was the longest international boundary formed by a continuous curve.
The demarcation of the border from the crest of the Rockies to the Pacific coast was required by the Buchanan-Pakenham Treaty of 1846, which ended the joint occupation of the Oregon country. Peacefully negotiated and still untroubled by Indian raids, the northwestern boundary was a less urgent project than the just-completed Mexican survey. There were resemblances: both combined geodesy with cartography and natural history, and both were conducted by international commissions, but the Canadian survey progressed in a more tranquil atmosphere, without the political conflicts and personal animosities that plagued the earlier effort. One diplomatic dispute arose over the line across the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but it was settled by international arbitration. 
The American commission under Archibald Campbell, the chief clerk of the War Department, arrived at Puget Sound in 1857. The entire British contingent did not appear until the following year, so the Americans began the work alone. Meeting in 1858, the representatives of both nations decided against marking the entire boundary by a continuous path through the dense forest.
They agreed instead to fix the 410-mile segment of the boundary astronomically and to mark the line at intervals with mile-long swaths through the forest. These clearings would be twenty feet wide and extend a half mile on each side of significant points, such as observation stations and permanent trails. At the center of each a boundary monument of stone, earth, or iron would be erected over a stake marking the exact location of the line. 
The harsh northern climate and heavily wooded terrain severely limited the amount that could be done in a season. Lieutenant John G. Parke of the Topographical Engineers, the American commission's chief astronomer and surveyor, slogged through foot-deep snow in the summer of 1859 as he moved east from the Skagit River to the Columbia. In the Similkameen and Okinakane valleys, Parke had to wait for axmen to clear a path through the fir and pine forest before he could proceed. This was was not an uncommon problem. Commissioner Campbell estimated that trails had to be opened for three-fourths of the distance traveled. In addition, the Frazer River gold rush caused confusion, postponement, and expense as the prices of supplies and labor skyrocketed. In spite of these difficulties, field operations progressed smoothly until their completion early in 1861. 
The commission's work in natural history was carried out on a smaller scale than during the Mexican survey. Naturalist C. B. R. Kennerly and geologist George Gibbs were the only scientists to accompany the field parties. They forwarded their collections to Washington for examination by specialists, among whom were John Newberry, Elliot Coues, and John Torrey. The effort went for naught, however, since the Civil War interrupted the office work of the commission and no report was ever published. 
On the second phase of the survey, from the Rockies east to Lake of the Woods, four Engineer officers assisted United States Commissioner Campbell. Major Francis U. Farquhar began as chief astronomer in 1872, but was reassigned in the following year. His replacement, Captain William J. Twining, completed the work with the assistance of Lieutenant James F. Gregory. The fourth Engineer, Lieutenant Francis V. Greene, supervised the tracing of the boundary line and the topographical work. One of Twining's British counterparts was Lieutenant Albany Featherstonhaugh of the Royal Engineers, whose geologist father had once worked for the Topographical Bureau. 
The British surveyors' reluctance to commit themselves regarding the starting point of the survey at Lake of the Woods caused some delay and annoyance. Foreign Office efforts were then underway to convince the United States to give up the northwest angle of the lake. This small peninsula which jutted eastward into the water and was not contiguous to the United States had been surrendered by Britain as part of the Webster Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Tension over this matter caused some ill-feeling between the two parties. But after diplomatic efforts to obtain the peninsula failed, the British commission assumed a more cooperative attitude. 
Throughout the period of the survey, field parties fortunately avoided major Indian fights. The northern plains tribes were increasingly hostile in the early part of the decade. Piegan warriors raided British parties twice, but the Americans experienced no troubles. Lieutenant Greene, who later rose to prominence as a soldier, historian, and police commissioner of New York City, surmised in 1874 that Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's Black Hills Expedition inadvertantly protected the boundary commission. With the potentially belligerent Sioux lured away from the scene of operations by Custer's activities, the only Indians Greene saw were curious, not hostile. 
The fieldwork on the 900-mile portion of the line was finished in 1875. A meeting of the two nations' representatives in London during the following spring concluded operations along the Canadian border.  The London meeting also marked the end of a long and complicated chapter in the history of the Corps of Engineers. From 1849, when Major Emory began work on the Mexican boundary, until Lieutenant Greene's departure from the field in 1875. Engineer officers provided the leadership and technical skill necessary to bring both surveys to successful conclusions. They faced and overcame numerous obstacles, from difficult terrain and hostile Indians to partisan political feuds, to complete the basic boundaries that still separate the forty-eight contiguous states from Canada and Mexico.
Last Updated: 17-Mar-2005