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The next important federally sponsored western exploration after that of Lewis and Clark, in 1820 the Long-Bell Expedition crossed the central Great Plains. Between June and September they traveled from the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska west to the Front Range in Colorado, and then south and east along the Arkansas and Canadian rivers the whole length of Oklahoma. They added to the scientific knowledge of the plains region but also helped spread the idea that it was the Great American Desert.

Led by Maj. Stephen Harriman Long of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers, the expedition was to conduct a military and scientific reconnaissance of the central plains for the first time. To do that, the mission included men with skills or training in geology, botany, zoology, and ethnology as well as a naturalist, an artist, and a topographer. Eight guides and hunters and a seven-man military escort completed the twenty-two man detachment. A year earlier many of the same men had explored the lower reaches of the Missouri River by steamboat. In 1820, however, the Panic of 1819 and the financial crash that followed it ended nearly all federal support for the expedition. On their journey west they lacked adequate food, equipment, animals, and men and suffered accordingly. On June 5, 1820, they set out from their camp on the Missouri River a few miles north of present Omaha, Nebraska.

Traveling along the Platte River about twenty miles a day, on July 6 they reached the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. There they paused to climb Pike's Peak and examine the South Platte and later the Arkansas where these streams flowed out of the mountains. Desperately short of food, Major Long divided his party when they reached the Arkansas River. He led botanist Edwin James and eight other men south and east beyond that stream while Capt. John R. Bell took zoologist Thomas Say and the rest of the explorers east along the Arkansas. Long and his nine companions rode across the far western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle into Texas, where they mistook the Canadian River for the Red. They followed that stream back into Oklahoma near the Antelope Hills and east across the full length of the state. Lacking adequate food and water, the men ate horse, skunk, owl, and badger in addition to occasional deer or buffalo meat. Often without water for twenty-four hours at a time, they had few good things to report about the climate and resources on the southern plains that summer.

They rejoined Captain Bell and the rest of the expedition on September 13 at Fort Smith, Arkansas, happy to have survived their ordeal. Their journey through Oklahoma at the height of the 1820 summer exposed them to high temperatures, biting insects, and drought. Mile after mile of stream bed lacked water or carried a liquid so loaded with sand or animal manure that it was completely undrinkable. Their experience in a virtually waterless and treeless environment persuaded the scientists that the Oklahoma plains had little agricultural potential, and when Major Long drew his map of the region he labeled the plains as "Great Desert."

The expedition report and map reinforced the growing idea that nineteenth-century farmers could not live on the plains, and until the advent of deep-well drilling equipment and barbed wire, this often proved true. The explorers did gather new data that worked its way gradually into scientific and governmental knowledge about the West in the next few decades. For Oklahoma, the negative description had little immediate impact, and by the time white settlement occurred, the technology needed for success already existed.

Roger L. Nichols


John R. Bell, The Journal of Captain John R. Bell, Official Journalist for the Stephen H. Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1820, Vol. 6, The Far West and the Rockies Historical Series, ed. Harlan M. Fuller and LeRoy R. Hafen (Glendale, Calif.: A. H. Clark Co., 1957).

Edwin James, comp., Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and '20 by Order of The Hon. J. C. Calhoun, Sec'y. of War, Under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long, Vols. 14–17, Early Western Travels, ed. Reuben G. Thwaites (Cleveland, Ohio: A. H. Clark Co., 1905).

Roger L. Nichols and Patrick L. Halley, Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1980).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Roger L. Nichols, “Long-Bell Expedition,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=LO010.

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