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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

Spencer F. Baird
Spencer F. Baird circa 1875
© Smithsonian Institution

During the 1850s, the U.S. government sponsored an extensive series of expeditions designed to gather information on the vast new territories that had been acquired in western North America. In addition, a major oceanic expedition was sent to the North Pacific, a region of increasing importance to national maritime interests. Together, these expeditions returned vast quantities of natural-history material to the Smithsonian Institution, where they formed the foundation for the collections.

Spencer Baird saw in these expeditions an unparalleled opportunity to obtain collections from largely unexplored regions. He succeeded in soliciting the support of the officials in charge of these various surveys and provided equipment and supplies, as well as instructions on how to collect and preserve natural history specimens. For example, "Memoranda in reference to Natural History Operations" and "Instructions to Collectors" issued by the Smithsonian Institution were written by Baird. He also recruited naturalists to accompany the surveying parties, and many young men received their training and established their reputations by publishing reports on the results of the collecting expeditions.

Here we summarize a few of these surveys that were especially important in terms of ichthyological collections.

Whipple's Explorations, Pacific Railroad Survey
A scene from Whipple's Explorations, Pacific Railroad Survey
Plate from v.3 of Reports of Explorations and Surveys [Pacific Railroad Survey Reports]

United States and Mexican Boundary Survey (1848-1855). Following the annexation of Texas in 1846 and the U.S.-Mexican War of 1847, the United States acquired vast new territories in the west. The United States and Mexican Boundary Survey was established to fix the southern boundary of the United States from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the coast of California and to explore the territory it enclosed. From Brownsville to El Paso, there was no problem: the boundary simply followed the river. From that point west to the Pacific, at a point just south of San Diego, where the western terminus had been fixed, the job was much harder. There were no landmarks, and the intervening country was largely unknown. A completely artificial boundary had to be fixed and marked. The Survey was plagued throughout by mismanagement, disorganization and personnel changes, and had to be renewed after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 added a new slice of land below New Mexico and Arizona. After the reorganization, Caleb Kennerly joined the expedition as physician and naturalist. Spencer Baird made sure that the exploring parties were provided with personnel and equipment needed to collect and preserve natural history material. This material was ultimately sent to the Smithsonian for deposit and study. The final report on the work of the Survey was published in 1857-1859, in three volumes. The report on fishes, Ichthyology of the Boundary (1859), was written by Charles Girard.

Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853-1855). By the middle of the 19th century, the United States spanned the entire width of the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific, but the only ways to get from one coast to the other were by ship or by arduous horse or wagon travel through deserts and mountains. The discovery of gold in California further stimulated westward traffic and only heightened the need for a faster and more convenient way to bring the far-flung parts of the country together. In 1853 Congress commissioned the Army's Topographic Bureau to conduct a series of surveys to find a suitable route for a transcontinental railroad. There were six major expeditions; five of them covered the area between the Great Plains and California, Oregon, and Washington, and the sixth explored the coastal states of California and Oregon. All of these expeditions were accompanied by naturalists and were provided, through the Smithsonian, with equipment and instructions for collecting. The northern survey, commanded by Isaac I. Stevens, governor of Washington Territory, explored roughly along the 47th parallel between St. Paul, MN and Puget Sound on the Pacific coast. J.G. Cooper, G. Gibbs, and George Suckley served as naturalists. Another expedition, under the command of Capt. J. W. Gunnison, surveyed a central route along the 38th, 39th, and 41st parallels, through what is now Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. On 26 October 1853, Gunnison and a party of his men, including the botanist F. Kreutzfeldt, were killed in a skirmish with Indians. Lt. E. G. Beckwith took over command and completed the expedition. The third expedition, under the command of Lt. A. W. Whipple, followed the 35th parallel from Fort Smith, AR to the Mojave Desert in southern California. Naturalists included J.M. Bigelow, J. Marcou, and Caleb Kennerly. The southern route followed the 32nd parallel and was covered by two expeditions: one under J. Pope went from the Red River to the Rio Grande, and the other, under Lt. J. G. Parke, worked between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River. Although the Pope expedition had no one formally assigned as a naturalist, collections were made by expedition personnel. Parke's expedition was accompanied by the naturalist A.L. Heerman, who later assisted R.S. Williamson, whose party explored a connecting route between 35th and 32nd parallels. Another expedition under the command of R.S. Williamson and H.L. Abbott surveyed the area between the Sacramento Valley in California and the Columbia River, Oregon. Natural history collections were made by John S. Newberry and William P. Trowbridge. The route that was finally selected for the railroad largely followed the 38th parallel, but the decision was mainly political.

From a scientific viewpoint, the Railroad expeditions were a monumental accomplishment. Not only had the new western territories been explored and mapped, but the geology and biology were sampled more extensively than by previous expeditions. The success was due largely to the Smithsonian and Spencer Baird, which had supplied the equipment and instructions used by the collectors, and which had received the material when the expeditions returned from the field. These specimens formed a major part of the Smithsonian's growing collections and formed the basis for the description of many new species. In terms of ichthyological collections, Stevens's Expedition, with Drs. J.G.Cooper and George Suckley as surgeons and naturalists; Whipple's expedition, with Caleb Kennerly as physician and naturalist; and Williamson's Expedition, with Dr. A.L. Heerman as physician and naturalist, were particularly noteworthy. Reports on fishes collected during the Pacific Railroad Surveys, written mainly by Charles Girard, are found mostly in volume 10 of Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, issued in 12 volumes by the War Department (1855-1860).

North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856). The North Pacific Exploring Expedition, under the leadership of first Capt. Cadwallader Ringgold and later Capt. John Rodgers, was commissioned by Congress to explore and survey the Bering Straits, the North Pacific Ocean and the China Seas, areas frequented by American commercial and naval vessels on route between the United States and China. The Expedition's five ships departed in June 1853 and traveled east, around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean to Hong Kong. The ships split up along the way, two of them passing by Australia and the islands of the western Pacific, and the other three through the Sunda Straits and the Sulu Sea. From Hong Kong, the expedition circled the North Pacific, exploring Japan, Kamchatka, the Bering Straits, and south to the coast of California. Instead of rounding South America, the expedition returned the way it came, stopping at Tahiti and then crossing the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The collections brought back by the expedition were among the largest and most important that had been made up to that time. "The great value of its zoological results were due to the untiring zeal of its chief zoologist, William Stimpson, whose previous studies and explorations particularly fitted him for the position." (Rathbun, 1884: Bull. U.S. Nat. Mus. 27: 532). Although several papers were written on the material collected by the expedition, an official report was never published. Most of the expedition's invertebrates were destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Northwest Boundary Survey (1857-1861). "Fifty-four forty or fight," was the slogan, but when the northwestern boundary between American and British territory was settled in 1846, the line was drawn at 49 degrees north latitude. The survey was begun in 1857, and was conducted jointly by British and American personnel. The American commissioner was Archibald Campbell, and Caleb Kennerly served as surgeon and naturalist. The American team sailed from New York on April 20, reaching San Francisco on May 20 (via the Isthmus of Panama). It took four years, 1857-1861, to survey the entire 409-mile boundary, which crossed rugged and heavily forested terrain between the crest of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coast at Point Roberts. The first group of participants returned to Washington in January 1861, and the last group left the northwest territory later that year. Tragically, Kennerly died at sea on the return trip, off the coast of Baja California, in February 1861. The remaining participants returned to Washington to find the Civil War underway. With the returning parties came instruments, records, baggage, and "24 boxes [of] natural-history specimens." (Baker, 1900: U.S. Geol. Sur. Bull. 174: 17). One of the casualties of the war was the final report of the expedition; although manuscripts were completed and several short papers were published, the main report was never printed due to lack of money. The Northwest Boundary Commission allocated $3,500 for the preparation of the scientific section of the final report. George Suckley (1858, 1861) published descriptions of several new species of salmon and trout collected by his friend, Caleb Kennerly. Theodore Gill wrote a report on the remaining fishes, but this work remained unpublished as well.

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