The trapper, fur trader, and river man are generally given credit with exploring the West and opening it to settlement. The Army Crops of Engineers should also be credited. One of the members of this group was Stephen H. Long. Like most engineers, Long was college-trained, was interested in searching for order in the natural world, and had a willingness to work with the modern technology of the time. Engineers had basically two unique points of view that set them apart from the other pioneers — geographic and technological.
Major Stephen H. Long of the U.S. Army Engineers was the leader of the first scientific exploration up the Platte River. His party included several scientists who studied the geography and natural resources of the area. Eventually, Long became one of the most prolific explorers covering 26,000 miles in five expeditions.
Major Stephen H. Long
Source - U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers
His first expedition was his most famous. In July 1819, he joined Gen. Henry Atkinson's "Yellowstone Expedition" bound from St. Louis to the Rockies on the steamboat "Western Engineer." This was the first steamboat to travel up the Missouri into the Louisiana Purchase territory. By September 17, the steamboat arrived at Fort Lisa, a trading fort belonging to William Clark's Missouri Fur Company. It was about five miles south of Council Bluffs. Long's group built their winter quarters nearby and called it "Engineer Cantonment."
Within a month, Long returned to the east coast, and by the following May, his orders had changed. Instead of exploring the Missouri, President James Madison decided to have Long lead an expedition up the Platte to the mountains and back along the border with the Spanish colonies. Exploring that border was vital, since John Quincy Adams had just concluded the treaty with Spain, which drew a new U. S. border to the Pacific.
On June 6, 1820, Long and 19 men traveled up the north bank of the Platte and met Pawnee and Oto Indians. On October 14, 400 Omahas assembled at a meeting with Long and their chief Big Elk made the following speech,
"Here I am, my Father; all these young people you see around here are yours; although they are poor and little, yet they are your children. All my nation loves the whites and always have loved them. Some think, my Father, that you have brought all these soldiers here to take our land from us but I do not believe it. For although I am a poor simple Indian, I know that this land will not suit your farmers. If I even thought your hearts bad enough to take this land, I would not fear it, as I know there is not wood enough on it for the use of the white."
After finding and naming Long's Peak and the Rockies, they journeyed down the South Platte to the Arkansas watershed. The expedition was the split, and Long led his group towards the Red River. They missed it, ran into hostile Indians and had to eventually eat their own horses to survive before they finally met the other part of the expedition at Belle Poin in Oklahoma. Long and his party of scientists would learn much to tell the nation and have the opportunity to show the U.S. flag.
In his report of the 1820 expedition, Long wrote that the Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma were "unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture." On the map he made of his explorations, he called the area a "Great Desert." Click here to explore Long's map, and click on the map to look closely at the detail.
Long felt the area labeled the "Great Desert" would be better suited as a buffer against the Spanish, British, and Russians, who shared the continent with the Americans. He also commented that the eastern wooded portion of the country should be filled up before the republic attempted any further extension westward. He commented that sending settlers to that area was out of the question. Given the technology of the 1820s, Long was right. There was little timber for houses or fuel, minimal surface water, sandy soil, hard winters, vast herds of bison (buffalo), hostile Indians, and no easy means of communication. However, it's ironic that the native tribes had been living here for centuries and that,by the end of the 19th century, the "Great Desert" had become the nation's breadbasket.
There were two key results of Long's expedition — a very accurate description of Indian customs and Indian life as they existed among the Omaha, Otoes, and Pawnees and his description of the land west of the Missouri River.