In the shadow of Major Long


Longs Peak – Rocky Mountain NP (Click for larger)

The early part of our travels led us to the northwestern-most point of the first federally funded expedition to the west which included professionally trained scientists and artists. Unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, the infamous Zebulon Pike trip to Colorado and the myriad Army Topographic Corps expeditions of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the western journeys of Major Stephen Harriman Long doesn’t seem to have stuck in the American imagination.

If he’s remembered at all, he’s usually referenced as “that guy who called the Great Plains the ‘Great American Desert’ on his map” or “that guy who climbed Longs Peak.” It’s unfortunate because he blazed a trail for later expeditions that, like his, mixed scientific inquiry and artistic depiction in equal measure. Of course, they also brought their early 19th century prejudices about agriculture, science and scenery with him, thus leading Long not to recognize one of the most biologically diverse and rich ecosystems in the world while he trod over the short-grass prairies.

If you’re interested in learning more about Major Long’s 1819-1820 expedition, you might consider reading “Sandy Wastes:” Exploring and Experiencing the Great Desert, a paper I wrote for an environmental history class about six years ago and then submitted with my graduate school applications. Here’s a short excerpt from the concluding remarks:

[Major Long] inadvertently interfered in the emerging manifest destiny of Americans to overrun the continent. The effective western border he seemed to propose reached barely half-way across the possible extent of the nation. While it is possible that he did slow expansion to the Plains, within three decades a torrent of migrants would make their way through the region and draw their own conclusions. Indeed . . . the idea of the West as a garden held more currency among Long’s contemporaries than the idea of a desert West.

The early appraisals of the West given by Long and other naturalists are complex and require careful consideration, especially when viewed in conjunction with their own scientific evidence which seemed to contradict their conclusions. The volumes of textual, visual, and physical data generated by the explorers ultimately yielded a fairly balanced view of the Plains: a region that is at once hot and dry and yet well-adapted to life, just not necessarily human life. In this respect Long’s conclusions about the habitability of the region prefigured John Wesley Powell’s conclusions about the need for irrigation to aid development in his 1876 Arid Lands report. Moreover, Long blazed the trail for a new type of federally-sponsored western expedition that included scientists, artists, and (later) photographers as an integral part of balanced exploration. Though these explorers were often serving the utilitarian and imperial interests of the state, like Long they strove to help an expanding nation understand and create itself by looking at the land. The conclusions of Long’s party indicate the role of ideological orientation and expectation in the creation of place at the same time that they caution against trusting our initial reactions to alien environments.

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