The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities



This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Read the previous installment here

Compared to the earlier two-man expedition of Duke Paul and Möllhausen, the 1853 Railroad Survey under the command of U.S. Army Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple was a large, impressive undertaking. He had assembled a wagon train and about seventy men. A few of them of them could do more than one thing: Lt. Whipple, for instance, leader of the expedition, was a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, a capable astronomer, and someone who nurtured an interest in ethnology. Dr. John M. Bigelow was the expedition’s surgeon and a passionate botanist. Balduin Möllhausen could draw, write, and collect and preserve botanical and zoological specimens. The purpose of the trip was to explore the territory for the first transcontinental railroad route to the Pacific Ocean.

They started out from Fort Smith, Arkansas and headed westward through the arid, gradually climbing southwestern tablelands and the Llano Estacado to an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The expedition reached the metropolis of Albuquerque on October 5. It was early fall, the most gorgeous time of the year. Möllhausen had anticipated this moment. He was polite, but apparently felt disappointed about the town. To him, it was but a larger jumble of basic adobe houses, most of them with dirt floors.

Up to this point, the expedition had traveled through territory that was rough, but not completely unknown. What waited ahead however, west of the Rio Grande and all the way to California, was probably far more challenging terrain. Reinforcements under the command of Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives joined the survey team at this point and Lieutenant Ives and Möllhausen became good friends.

A detachment under Lieutenant Ives that included Möllhausen left Albuquerque on November 8 to investigate the area around Isleta Pueblo, south of town. Relying only on a map  that inaccurately portrayed the largely unexplored geography and a guide, Antoine Leroux, they soon found themselves lost.

To search for a way out, the expedition split. Each party tried to find a passable route. First there was bitter cold, snow, and ice, then followed waterless desert, cracks, canyons, lava fields. The caravan broke down. There was no forage for the animals. Cattle were shot, mules died, and supplies had to be abandoned. Food was growing scarce, and by February 10 everyone had to make do with half rations. Only two wagons and one cart were left.

Ten days later, the expedition finally reached the settlements of the Mohaves and the Colorado River. “It has taken 52 days to travel 260 miles,” noted John P. Sherburne, another diarist of the team (Miller, 1970, p. 117).

On March 21, the Whipple Expedition reached Los Angeles and greeted it with a spirited “hurrah.” The men could stay in a hotel, clean up, sleep in a real bed, and enjoy all those comforts after many months traveling through the big emptiness. It was the end of the survey project. Only three days later, on March 24, Möllhausen boarded the steamer Fremont for San Francisco.

The curious Prussian had the chance to visit and sketch the gigantic Sequoia trees, and next sailed on April 2 on the Oregon down the Pacific coast. There was a short stop in Acapulco, then the passengers disembarked in Panama on April 15. And even though Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt had discussed the scientist’s idea of building a canal across the Isthmus, that undertaking had to wait many more years before it became a reality.

Möllhausen still had to cross on land from the Pacific side to the Atlantic shore. He did so by rail and with mules, boarding yet another ship—the steamer Illinois—and arriving on April 28 in New York City. He went two days later to Washington, DC, where he needed to complete some of his sketches and drawings before he could travel home to Berlin.

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