by Jennifer Silvers, Manuscript Archivist
The Amiel Weeks Whipple Collection #82.91, is a dynamic compilation of journals, letters, drawings, and maps dated 1849-1863 which document the natural history and topographical features of the newly acquired lands of the American west.
A.W. Whipple was a West Point graduate and served the United States in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In 1849, after completing work with the Northeastern Boundary Survey, Lt. Whipple was assigned to the Mexican Boundary Survey team. The peace treaty with Mexico was recently signed, and the group was exploring great lengths of land unknown to Americans and Europeans. Whipple’s leather-bound volumes provide observations of temperature and barometric pressure, descriptions of peaceful encounters with various tribes of American Indians, and detailed drawings of botanical specimens and topographic sites.
With the northern and southern borders established and the discovery of gold in California, the United States Congress saw the need for exploration of the interior lands. There was much discussion of a super highway for travelers to safely navigate from the Mississippi
River to the pacific coastline. By an act of Congress, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was charged to conduct surveys for the first transcontinental railroad route to the Pacific Ocean, near the 35th parallel. Five teams were sent, the Northern, Central, and coastal Pacific surveys were commissioned along with two Southern Pacific survey teams, one of which was led by Lt. Whipple. The journals of this expedition are very thorough and contain details regarding supplies, the hiring of cooks and assistants, as well as environmental, topographical, and cultural observations. Whipple kept records with meticulous detail, often writing while on horseback or aboard a train, evident through his varied penmanship.
The survey party reached Oklahoma Territory on Friday July 15, 1853. After a lengthy crossing of the Poteau River, the wooden cart which carried men, supplies and surveying equipment, ran into a tree stump and was broken. A summer storm crept up on the team and Lt. Whipple soon found himself walking through knee deep puddles on the prairie. Sunday provided a day of rest for the men and the animals, and by Tuesday July 19, the team had arrived at the Choctaw Agency. Surveying the land and observing the inhabitants gave Lt. Whipple many things to write about, and his journal entries for the month of August are extensive and illustrate his view of the prairie:
“Every where in the wildest forest we rode singly & unarmed as fearless of violence from natives as we would be in New England. We would ask for milk at the farm houses and give to the unscared child the levy in payment. At Frazers Creek we found an honest looking Choctaw Blacksmith who spoke English fluently & employed him as guide. We found him exceedingly intelligent & useful.”
[taken from extended notes, dated August 6, 1853]
The notion that one was not safe traveling through the prairie, due to thieves and attacks, was not the experience of the Whipple expedition. Welcomed by chiefs and citizens alike, the survey team rambled through present day Oklahoma, picking up local guides when they could find them and breaking wagon yokes along the way. Lt. Whipple encountered Jesse Chisholm, who refused to join the party as a guide through western Oklahoma in fear of attack by American Indians during his return home. Chisholm told Whipple his views of the customs of the native peoples, the differences and similarities he had encountered during his travels in the plains. Also counseled by an ailing Black Beaver, Whipple learned about the language of the people of the Upper Canadian River.
The A.W. Whipple journals document early exploration of the American west, as well as a unique perspective of Indian and Oklahoma Territories as they existed in the mid 19th century. These interesting documents and many more can be found in the Archives Collection of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Research Center.
More about Amiel Weeks Whipple:
The Journal of Lieutenant A.W. Whipple
Reports of the Railroad Survey, 1853 LOC American Memory Project: