Among the reconnaissance expeditions that revealed the physical and cultural contours of the trans-Mississippi West, the 1845 venture of Lt. James W. Abert from New Mexico across Oklahoma to St. Louis, Missouri, completed an important survey of the region's resources. Abert's expedition took place within the context of a movement for United States annexation of Texas, accomplished in December 1845 (a situation that erupted into war in 1846). Up until that time, the best description of the United States-Mexico-Republic of Texas border region was that of Josiah Gregg in 1839-40, published in his work Commerce of the Prairies. Abert's trip and subsequent report are judged by William Goetzmann in Army Exploration in the American West (1959) to have significantly advanced knowledge of the region for military and settlement purposes.
An 1842 West Point graduate and classmate of Ulysses S. Grant, James William Abert was the son of Maj. John J. Abert, chief of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers. The elder Abert planned three expeditions to reconnoiter the trans-Mississippi West in 1845. The primary one was to be led by Capt. John C. Frémont. Frémont's expedition included young Abert, who, at Bent's Fort in August 1845, received a separate command to explore eastward along the Canadian River in the country of the Kiowa and Comanche. (Frémont, meanwhile, went westward to California.)
Abert's troupe left the fort on August 12 and spent the next two months marching eastward. The renowned Indian trader Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick guided Abert and his able assistant, Lt. William G. Peck. Moving through New Mexico and the present Texas Panhandle and skirting the northern edge of the Llano Estacado, the party entered present Oklahoma on September 22 or 23 south of the Antelope Hills and near the Washita River, and on the twenty-fourth they went up to the main or "South" Canadian. Thereafter, they generally followed it, camping near present Taloga, Niles, Mustang, Norman, and Noble. They stopped near "old Fort Holmes" on October 10. On the fifteenth they reached Edwards's Post on Little River. They camped east of present Eufaula on the eighteenth, reached Webber's Falls on the nineteenth, and arrived at Fort Gibson on October 21. They reached St. Louis on November 12.
Abert's report is replete with descriptions of Oklahoma's historical environment, geography, and inhabitants. Abert's men encountered the Comanche and the Kiowa in the Texas Panhandle. While his narrative only briefly discussed the Comanche, and somewhat derisively, he made an extensive, admiring record of the Kiowa, including his dealings with their leader Dohasan. Abert also recorded his observations of the Creek Indians, their clothing and villages, and blacks living with them.
Abert was avidly interested in flora and fauna. He recorded minute details of his encounters with bison (buffalo) all the way across Oklahoma to the Cross Timbers and also in present Oklahoma County. Feral hogs bothered his men while they passed through the Creek Nation. He saw large flocks of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet (Psittacus Carolinensis) near Webber's Falls. He also made weather and environmental observations, describing the evidence of a tornado that had occurred years earlier near present Holdenville. As he noted, because of "the amazing force of the whirling winds, . . . the noblest trees of the forest had fallen from their high estates, and now lay mouldering upon the ground . . . in contorted piles." In about that same location, the expedition also traveled through a prairie fire that was burning wild. Abert's strength was, rather than verbal description, his ability to draw. He made extensive paintings and sketches of people, places, and animals that he saw. Two volumes of these illustrations have been published.
An important contribution of Abert's expedition to knowledge of the region lay in its survey of the locations of wood, water, and grass, all necessary elements to any future military operations in the region. In leading emigrants across the Indian Territory to the California gold fields in 1849, Capt. Randolph B. Marcy basically paralleled Gregg's and Abert's paths. Marcy studied Abert's report and noted various landmarks he described, such as the Antelope Hills. Abert's and Marcy's reports, together with Whipple's 1853 railroad survey report, indicated to federal officials that a route across Indian Territory was not viable for a transcontinental railroad. On the other hand, the surveys revealed the Indian nations' economic resources and exploded the myth of the Great American Desert.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Bailey Carroll, ed., "The Journal of Lt. J. W. Abert from Bent's Fort to St. Louis in 1845," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 14 (1941). John Galvin, Through the Country of the Comanche Indians in the Fall of the Year 1845: The Journal of a U.S. Army Expedition Led by Lieutenant James W. Abert (N.p.: John Howell Books, 1970). William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959). John Miller Morris, ed., Expedition to the Southwest: An 1845 Reconnaissance of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999). Vernon L. Volpe, "The Origins of the Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert and the Scientific Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West," Historian 63 (Winter 2000).
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