Stephen Harriman Long — Explorer of the Midwest and Great Plains

December 30, 1784–September 4, 1864

Stephen Harriman Long (1784–1864) was a soldier, explorer, and surveyor who is most well known for leading five expeditions into the Louisiana Purchase Territory and for referring to the Great Plains as the “Great American Desert.”

Stephen H. Long, Portrait, Peale

Stephen H. Long by Titan R. Peale, circa 1820. Image Source: Mutual Art.

Who was Stephen H. Long?

Stephen Harriman Long (1784–1864) was a soldier, explorer, and surveyor whose career spanned the Era of Good Feelings, the Jacksonian Era, and the Civil War Era. Long led several military expeditions into the Midwest and Great Plains that mapped and surveyed the regions, which helped open them up to Westward Expansion. However, by calling the Great Plains the “Great American Desert,” Americans were slow to settle in there. Overall, Long’s expeditions covered an estimated 25,000 miles. He led the first government expedition that used professional scientists and engineers and designed the first steamboat that traveled on waterways to present-day Nebraska. Long’s Peak in the southern range of the Rocky Mountains is named after him. Long spent 49 years working in various roles for the government and passed away in 1864.

Stephen H. Long Facts

  • Date of Birth: Stephen H. Long was born on December 30, 1784.
  • Place of Birth: Long was born in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.
  • Parents: His parents were Moses Harriman and Lucy Long.
  • Date of Death: Long died on September 4, 1864, at the age of 79.
  • Buried: He is buried in Alton Cemetary in Alton, Missouri.
  • Spouse: Long married Martha Hodgkiss in March 1819.
  • Fun Fact: In 1860, Long was elected President of the American Philosophical Society.

Stephen H. Long’s Early Life and Career

Stephen H. Long was born on December 30, 1784, in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. His parents were Moses Harriman and Lucy Long, and he descended from Puritans who moved to New England during the Great Puritan Migration. His father fought in the American Revolutionary War and was with the Continental Army during the Winter at Valley Forge (1777–1778).

Long attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1809 and a master’s degree in 1812. Following graduation, he worked as a teacher. In December 1814, he joined the United States Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. For the next two years, he taught mathematics at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In 1816, he requested to be transferred to the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which was approved. He was given a brevet promotion — temporary promotion — to the rank of Major and sent to St. Louis where he was under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson.

Long’s Illinois River Expedition

During the summer of 1816, Long led an expedition to explore, survey, and map the Illinois River and its tributaries for the government. Long and his men surveyed the U.S. forts in the area, mapped streams, and took soil samples. They traveled as far north as the site of Fort Dearborn on Lake Michigan — present-day Chicago, Illinois. Following the expedition, Long’s report suggested transportation improvements, such as:

  1. Building canals between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
  2. Expanding the national road system westward into the Illinois Territory.

Long’s Falls of St. Anthony Expedition and Winnebago Dictionary

In 1817, Long led an expedition up the Mississippi River to the Falls of St. Anthony — the present-day location of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Long and his men explored the upper portion of the Mississippi River and surveyed portions of the Fox River and Wisconsin River. During the expedition, Long created a dictionary of the Ho-chunk — or Winnebago — language, in an effort to improve communication with the Ho-Chunk tribes living in the area. He published his journal for the expedition in 1860, under the title Voyage in a Six-oared Skiff to the Falls of St. Anthony.

Long’s Fort Smith Expedition

In the fall of 1817, General Jackson took Long’s advice regarding constructing forts along the western frontier. He sent Long to the Arkansas Territory, where he oversaw the construction of Fort Smith. The fort’s presence was intended to strengthen U.S. control over the area and help end hostilities between the Osage and Cherokee. The presence of American troops at the fort was successful on both counts. After the fort was established, a settlement grew around it, which became the present-day city of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The Atkinson-Long Yellowstone Expedition

In 1819, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun devised and approved a westward expedition for the purpose of “the protection of our northwestern frontier and the greater extension of our fur trade.” The expedition was to begin in St. Louis and move along the Missouri River to the Yellowstone River, in present-day North Dakota. Along the way, the expedition would construct forts which would be used as trading posts for the fur trade. Calhoun wanted to make the American presence stronger along the Western Frontier, where British fur traders were also operating.

John C Calhoun, Portrait
John C. Calhoun. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Overall, the expedition was under the command of General Henry W. Atkinson. However, Long was assigned to the expedition with the purpose of exploring, surveying and mapping the unmapped territory west of the Missouri River. He was in charge of a contingent of scientists and engineers. The Yellowstone Expedition was the first government-funded expedition that included professional scientists and engineers.

Long designed a special boat for the expedition — the steamboat Western Engineer. The boat was used to navigate the Ohio River, Mississippi River, and Missouri River. The Western Engineer was the first steamboat that successfully made the journey up the Missouri River into the Louisiana Purchase Territory into present-day Nebraska.

The Western Engineer arrived at Fort Lisa, a trading post owned by the Missouri Fur Company, on September 17, 1819. Atkinson and his men arrived a few days later. Long and Atkinson decided it was a good place to establish winter quarters. Atkinson and his men built “Cantonment Missouri” while Long and his built “Engineer Cantonment.” The engineer’s camp was about 25 miles north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska. Long did not stay there for the winter. Soon after the camps were built, he returned to the East Coast for further orders. 

Over the winter, the camps were troubled by sickness and flooding. Cantonment Missouri was abandoned and Atkinson’s men built Fort Atkinson, near present-day Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. Due to those issues, along with the cost of the expedition, Congress decided to cancel the rest of the expedition.

However, Spain and the United States agreed to the Adams-Onis Treaty in February, before the Yellowstone Expedition started. The treaty extended the U.S. border all the way to the Pacific Ocean. President James Madison believed it was important to map the routes westward — through American territory — to the coast. As a result, Congress agreed to provide funding for a smaller expedition.

Stephen H. Long, Meeting with Pawnees in 1819, McBarron
This painting by H. Charles McBarron, Jr. depicts Long (left, with hand raised) meeting a Pawnee chief in Nebraska in 1819. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Platte River Expedition of 1820 and the Great American Desert

Long returned to Engineer Cantonment in 1820 with new orders from Secretary Calhoun to explore the Platte River and its sources. It was the first non-military, scientific expedition sponsored by the government. In order to complete the mission, Long and his men had to cross the Great Plains and make their way to the Rocky Mountains. 

The expedition consisted of Long, a group of about 19 men — scientists, engineers, and a small contingent of soldiers for protection. Titian Peale, an artist, naturalist, explorer, and the son of Charles Willson Peale was a member of the expedition. Another member was Edwin James, a botanist, and linguist who documented a flower he called “the mountain Columbine.” Today, the flower is called the Colorado Blue Columbine and it is the state flower of Colorado.

The expedition set out in June and made its way through Nebraska along the Missouri River. It crossed the Great Plains and made its way to the Front Range of the southern portion of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. From there, the expedition turned southeast and moved along the Arkansas River and Candian River, into Indian Territory — present-day Oklahoma.

The Passage Through Nebraska

The expedition made its way through Nebraska, where it encountered a group of French traders and passed by Pawnee villages. The plains were wide open, with no trees, and were plagued by thunderstorms. In mid-June, they camped at a Pawnee village, and the people in the village supplied them with food. Later, near present-day North Platte, Nebraska, they saw a massive herd of bison, which they estimated to be at least 10,000 head. As they moved southwest, passing abandoned villages, the terrain became sandier and desert-like.

Colorado and Long’s Peak

On June 20, the Rocky Mountains came into view for the first time as a thin blue line running across the horizon. Peale and another artist, Samuel Seymour, sketched the view when they were closer, near present-day Fort Morgan, Colorado. From there, they could see a peak, which came to be known as “Long’s Peak.”

James Climbs Pike’s Peak

They traveled south to the Front Range, where James first discovered the mountain Columbine. On July 1, they made their way to the foothills of Pike’s Peak, where Zebulon Pike and his expedition had visited the Rocky Mountains. On July 13 and 14, James and some of the men successfully scaled Pike’s Peak, making them the first Americans to climb the mountain.

Long Divides the Expedition

When James returned to camp, Long continued the expedition and moved south to the upper Arkansas River. On July 24, he divided the expedition. One group, under Captain John R. Bell, followed the Arkansas River. Long went to explore the Red River. James and Peale went with Long.

Exploration of the Canadian River

On August 4, Long and his men reached a river, which they thought was the Red River. However, it was actually the Canadian River. The expedition traveled through New Mexico and into the Texas Panhandle, which took them about 15 days to cross over.

A week later, on August 11, they came across a band of Kiowa Apaches and made camp with the for the night. The Kiowas added to the confusion by insisting Long was following the Red River, or the Guadal-P’a, as they called it.

The Expedition Ends at Fort Smith

Long and his men continued along the river and made their way into Oklahoma on August 18. When they finally made their way into Arkansas, they realized they had not been following the Red River. On September 13, Long’s party and Bell’s party met at Fort Smith.

Long’s Report and the Great American Desert

Long and his staff left Fort Smith and traveled to Philadelphia. They published their findings in a report under the name Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains … Under the Command of Maj. S.H. Long.

Long called the Great Plains the “Great American Desert” and said the land could not be farmed. The report was critical of the region and said the soil was sterile and did not receive enough rainfall. His assessment stalled westward migration in the area for decades.

However, the maps that were made, the data that was collected, and the illustrations that were drawn were important to the understanding of the region. The maps were used for decades, even though the Civil War, and played a role in naming the areas of present-day Wisconsin.

Long’s 1823 Expedition

In 1823, Long led another expedition into Northern Minnesota to find the location of the 49th Parallel, west of the Lake of the Woods. During the expedition, Long and his men traveled the Mississippi River and the northern portion of the Red River. They successfully surveyed the 49th Parallel and Long marked it with a wooden post signifying that all territory south of it was the United States. When Long returned from the expedition, he published Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods. The expedition played an important role in American fur traders moving westward into Northern Minnesota and Dakota, and the establishment of trails through the region, known as the Red River Trails.

Topographical Bureau of the War Department

Long continued his career, working with the government to help improve the nation’s transportation system, which was spurred on by Henry Clay’s American System and Westward Expansion. He served in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and eventually became the head of the Topographical Bureau of the War Department. He also served on government committees, including the Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements and the Board of Engineers for the Improvement of the Mississippi River.

Railroad Consultant

From 1827 to 1830, he worked with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as an engineer. In that role, he designed and patented several bridges that were used in the construction of railroads and other roads. He was also hired by the state of Georgia to help survey routes for the Western Railroad and Atlantic Railroads. Long’s bridge designs and the use of advanced mathematics were embraced by others working on railroads. He also designed and patented locomotives.

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Ellicott City, Station
The B & O Railroad Station in Ellicott City, Maryland. Image Source: Randal Rust, American History Central.

Later Accomplishments

From 1840 through 1846 Long was involved in operations to dredge and clear major rivers, including the Mississippi River, Missouri River, Ohio River, and Arkansas River.

When the Mexican-American War started, he designed and manufactured steamboats. He sold six of them to the Quartermasters Corps in 1847. Following the war, Long participated in the Court Martial of Major John C. Frémont. Although Frémont was cleared of charges, he resigned from the Army. Within a decade, he became the first Presidential Candidate of the Republican Party.

In 1849, he was commissioned to oversee the construction of a Marine Hospital in Napoleon, Arkansas. Long surveyed the site and objected to the location due to its frequent flooding. However, Senator Solon Borland of Arkansas insisted on having the hospital built at Napoleon. Construction of the hospital moved forward but was hampered by flooding. The flooding delayed construction and the hospital was not completed until 1854. During the Civil War, General William T. Sherman burned most of the town, but the hospital remained. However, flooding continued and on March 11, 1868, a corner of the hospital split off and fell into the Mississippi River.

Long also supervised the construction of more Marine Hospitals, including ones built at Louisville, Kentucky, Paducah, Kentucky, and Natchez, Louisiana.

Later Years

Long remained in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. He retired in 1863, ending an exceptional career that spanned 49 years. He moved to Alton, Illinois where he died on September 4, 1864, at the age of 79. 

Stephen H. Long Significance

Stephen H. Long is important to United States history for the role he played in exploring, surveying, and mapping large portions of the Great Plains. Long enjoyed a long, distinguished career as an engineer and made contributions that helped expand the nation’s infrastructure, which encouraged Westward Expansion.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Stephen Harriman Long — Explorer of the Midwest and Great Plains
  • Date December 30, 1784–September 4, 1864
  • Author
  • Keywords Stephen Harriman Long, Yellowstone Expedition, Long's Expedition of 1820, Great American Desert, Western Engineer Steamboat, Fort Smith
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 11, 2023