Historical Vignette 104 - Native American Culture

U.S. Army Topographical Engineers Provided Early Documentation of Native American Culture

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the newly acquired territory of Louisiana in 1804, he gave them detailed instructions on what they were to report on. In addition to data on plants, animals, meteorology, geology, and much more, Jefferson instructed the explorers to gather information on the Native Americans of the region. With their customary astuteness and zeal, Lewis and Clark amassed an impressive body of facts on the many tribes they came upon.

The Corps of Topographical Engineers, the mapping and surveying branch of the Army that existed independently of the Corps of Engineers from 1838 to 1863, continued the Army’s exploration of the west. Sometimes instructions from their superiors required the Topographical Engineers to gather information on the Native American groups they encountered; mostly, however, their own intellectual curiosity guided them. Topographical Engineers such as Major Stephen H. Long, Lieutenant John C. Frémont, and Captain Howard Stansbury described the cultural attributes of the tribes: religion, family life, food and clothing, dwellings, agricultural practices, burial customs, and weaponry. Social and political life also were areas of interest discussed in the reports: tribal government, relations with other tribes and with whites, and population figures. Many reports also provided Indian vocabularies and Indian names for geographical features.

Pimos and Maricopa Indians from "Notes of a Military Reconnoissance [sic],
from Fort Leavenworth ...to San Diego, in California," by William H. Emory.

Two topographical officers made notable contributions to archaeology. Lieutenant William H. Emory’s 1846 reconnaissance of the Southwest included his discovery and examination of ruins of ancient towns, such as Casa Grande, in Arizona. In 1849, Lieutenant James H. Simpson made similar investigations in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Many of their reports included illustrations depicting Native Americans, usually drawn by the artists accompanying the expeditions; however, Lieutenant James W. Abert, who taught drawing at West Point, furnished his own illustrations.


Ah-mah-nah-co, a Cheyenne chief's son. 
Watercolor by James W. Abert.

Juan Antonio, Pima head chief.  From "Notes of a Military Reconnoissance [sic], from Fort Leavenworth . . . To San Diego, in California," by William H. Emory."


Like most of their fellow Anglo-Americans, the explorers were generally biased against Native American cultures. However, their observations often were objective or even sympathetic to native peoples. James H. Simpson’s report on his survey for an emigrant road across the Great Basin to California included an essay by an Indian agent in Utah who expressed the belief that his charges were incapable of becoming civilized. Simpson wrote a stout refutation of the agent’s assertions.

In an age before the emergence of professional anthropologists, the versatile officers of the Corps of Topographical Engineers contributed significantly to a fuller understanding of the Native Americans and their diverse cultures. Their published descriptions proved to be of lasting scientific value and still form the foundation of research by historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists.

Maj. W. H. Emory's 1847 report contained this engraving of petroglyphs found during the expedition.

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November 2006