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Marcy's Expedition to document the the Red River

Randolph B. Marcy, a West Point graduate from Pennsylvania, mapped the American southwest and guided emigrants on their journey through the Great Plains. He documented native languages and customs, flora and fauna, geology and archaeology of the Red River Valley, including a massive petrified forest near the Brazos River.

Randolph B. Marcy, who knew Texas and Indian Territory well, was tasked to lead an expedition to document the Red River in 1852. He returned from the adventure with maps and impressions that spawned a best-selling book and a parade in Washington, D.C. To read his book, go to this link.

A Congressman said in 1800 about the Red River Valley: “The masses of virgin silver and gold that glitter in the veins and rocks which underlie the Arkansas River mingle with the minerals near certain other streams and offer themselves to the hand of him who will gather, refine and covert them to use are common and wonderful.” This congressman may have not known what he was talking about, but neither did anyone else who wondered what treasures the western Red River hid. For most of the 19th century, the Red River above Natchitoches, Louisiana, was still a complete mystery to the white man.

The Indian, French and Spanish Red River

The Caddos, Wichitas, and Comanches traded and raided around the Red River for centuries before Spanish and French explorers made their way to the region. The impressions of the middle Red River the Europeans took back with them were quite frightful: Athanse de Mezeires, the lieutenant governor of the Natchitoches district, reported of the fierce "Nortenos" whose women tattooed their lips and breasts. Other explorers, such as Pierre (Pedro) Vial, a Frenchman working under Spanish employ, and Philip Nolan (possibly an American spy), wrote about and mapped the Red River region. However, because the lands were so far away from Mexico City, the Spanish governors had an impossible time enticing settlers that far north, and left the Red River pretty much alone.

Purchasing a River

The remoteness of the Red River still weighed heavily when Thomas Jefferson finagled the deal to buy Louisiana Territory from the French. Jefferson not only wanted to have the Missouri River explored —which was the eastern boundary of the Purchase —he also wanted to know about the Red River. The river formed the southern border, the line between New Spain and America. Was it a water way to Santa Fe? Maybe even to the Pacific?

Four expeditions were sent up the Red River within a span of 20 years, but all journeys ended in failure. In 1804, William Dunbar and George Hunter - Lewis and Clark's counterparts - set out to follow the Red River, but went up the Washita River instead. Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis then attempted the same journey in 1806 but were stopped by the Spanish at Spanish Bluff (which is in Bowie County, Texas). Freeman and Custis did bring back a detailed map of their journey, which would serve future explorers well. John Lewis and William Alexander led another expedition in 1806 but didn't go farther than the Plains. And Stephen H. Long's expedition of 1818 ended in confusion: he and his men accidentally followed the Canadian River, a river they had explored previously.


The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 settled the boundary of New Spain and the United States once and for all, with the northern banks of the Red River considered a part of Spain. Until Texas statehood in 1845, neither Americans nor Mexicans undertook expeditions to the western Red River, where the Comanches and Kiowas ruled unimpeded. The Mexican government, however, did keep a weary eye on the eastern Red River region in Texas: Americans had begun settling the area while still New Spain, and Mexican independence didn't change this influx any. Without having legal claim, Americans were developing plantations, towns, and most importantly, roads. Their presence may have been a great advantage for the eventual Texan rebellion of 1836.

After the Texas Revolution, emphasis was placed on developing the areas that were already populated, as the fledgling Republic (1836-1845) sought to create an agriculture-based economy. Expeditions to the west of the land grant areas tended to be relegated for finding trade routes to Santa Fe. Wary of the Comanches, the Texan government gave away grants of land via corporations like the Peters Colony Land Grant Company, under the ancient idea that people would act as buffers so the state did not have to. Ergo, up until 1848 (after the Mexican American War and Texas's 1845 admission to the United States), explorations of the Red River were not a priority.

And when Texas became the 45th state in the Union, all eyes were upon her - the U.S. saw the new state as a boon to its industrial and agricultural empire. For the Americans, Texas was a crown jewel of untapped resources to exploit (which really did not become a reality until oil discoveries in the 20th century, but still).

Enter Randolph B. Marcy

By the 1850s, the United States west of the Mississippi River was still being mapped. Some of it already had. Lewis and Clark had determined that the Pacific Ocean could not be reached by river. John Melish, a Scottish geographer, had mapped the location of the 100th meridian, which determined the established "frontier" of the west. Everyone was flocking to California in search of riches, and overland trails were blazed by the Union army to aid the emigrants in their treks.

One of these trail blazers was Randolph B. Marcy, a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers. From his station at Fort Smith (Arkansas) and later Fort Arbuckle (Indian Territory), Marcy established the California Emigrant Trail in 1849. This path led through Texas to Santa Fe, and its Red River route would later be approximated by the Butterfield Overland Stage and Mail Route. He also helped General William G. Belknap select sites for Texas frontier forts in the early 1850s, and was instrumental in mapping headwaters throughout northern Texas to entice German immigrant settlements. It was Marcy who recommended the site for Fort Sill in the 1860s.

Due to his intimate knowledge of Texas and Indian Territory geography, Marcy was selected to find the source of the Red River in 1852. The U.S. actually had several reasons to go up the Red River besides the official, "let's just see what's there," justification. Marcy was to report back on the minerals he found, just in case there were any precious metals laying around. He was also to report on the condition of the region. Was the unexplored west really the "Great American Desert," suitable to only wild savages, as Stephen H. Long insisted it was, or could the Southern Plains tribes be forced into farming, thus opening the west for Anglo settlement?

The Red River Expedition of 1852

Along with several troops, a Delaware guide named Jim Ned, and Captain George B. McClellan (who would go on to marry Marcy's daughter), Marcy set out to discover the Red River headwaters. Unlike his predecessors, Marcy didn't use a boat, but explored mainly on horse back. He kept a meticulous diary, reporting on the different animals, plants, and nature he encountered. He made friends with the Indians, and even wrote a dictionary of sorts of the Wichita language. He reported on Wichita, Comanche, and Kiowa customs. He found a huge prairie dog town (estimating it to contain around 20 million of the critters), and wrote passionately of his impressions of the wild and unexplored regions of the Red River, especially of the Cross Timbers: "The trees, consisting principally of post oak and black jack, stand[ing] at such intervals that wagons can without difficulty pass between them in any direction. The soil is thin, sandy, and poorly watered. This forms a boundary line, dividing the country suited to agriculture from the great prairies, which, for the most part, are arid and destitute of timber. It seems to have been designed as a natural barrier between civilized man and the savage.”

Palo Duro!

Although the second in command, George B. McClellan (who would later be fired by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War) broke the compass and the expeditions' men ran out of water, the journey was ultimately successful. Marcy and the corps found the source of the Red River within the sheer cliffs of Palo Duro Canyon. Upon seeing the canyon, Marcy's writing sounded almost poetic: "The magnificence of the views that presented themselves to our eyes as we approached the head of the river, exceeded anything I had ever beheld. It is impossible for me to describe the sensations that came over me, and the exquisite pleasure I experienced, as I gazed upon these grand and novel pictures.” For Marcy, Palo Duro looked like castles and fortresses with an “azure and transparent sky above.”

A Hero

Back at Fort Arbuckle, people thought Marcy was dead from an Indian attack, and they gave him a nice funeral, which Marcy found amusing. Upon Marcy's (very lively) return with his hundreds of sketches, dozens of maps, and pages upon pages of diary entries, he was given a hero's welcome. His extensive report was published and a shortened version of it became a best seller. Here was the man who had explored the last "wild place" in the United States! Marcy testified of his adventures in front of an eager Congress.

Randolph B. Marcy continued his work with the army by leading gold rushers through the Comancheria; drawing maps for German immigration companies, and surveying proposed routes for a southern transcontinental railroad for the Secretary of State, Jefferson Davis. During the Civil War, Marcy returned to Pennsylvania to continue his service to the Union.

Red River Legacy

Well regarded historians have contemplated the impact of the Red River Expedition ever since Marcy undertook it in 1852. Walter Prescott Webb took to heart Marcy's description of the Cross Timbers as a dividing line between the fertile east and the arid west. Angie Debo retraced Marcy's steps in Oklahoma, where she found some discrepancies in his calculations. Oddly, Marcy himself isn't well remembered in mainstream history. Maybe because he became America's last explorer, or because other captains superseded him when the Civil War came around.

The legacy is clear, however. Finding the Red River headwaters became a watershed moment in the history of the American west. The southern plains proved inhabitable and maybe even conducive to farming. The Native Americans could be better understood and strategies could be developed to "civilize" them. New roads were opened for American settlers, though they didn't appear en masse until the 1890s. For good or bad, a new country had opened, and the last river to be documented in the contiguous United States was finally known.

Zebulon Pike's map of his expedition into today's Colorado documented the "source of the Red River of the Mississippi" (LOC).

A French map from the 1820s also documented the source for the Red River, thereby proving that the Red River wasn't as "undocumented" as previous histories pretend (Ruderman).

Satellite image
McClellan marked an elm tree with the coordinates depicted here as they exploration party made their way up the Red River near the 100th Meridian.

Randolph B. Marcy's journey to the Red River is documented in this map. He didn't do it alone, however; he had several men with him. He also encountered no trouble with the Comanches and even documented some Comanche and Kiowa vocabulary. Note he used the Comanche names for the rivers west of the 100th Meridian (LOC).

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