Stephen Harriman Long (1784–1864) was an American military explorer best known for leading an expedition into present-day Colorado in 1820. On his expedition map, he famously labeled the arid Great Plains as a “Great American Desert” where agriculture could not thrive. His description was accepted among easterners for about two decades, until western boosters such as Horace Greeley and William Gilpin reimagined the region as a place of great agricultural potential. Longs Peak, the prominent Front Range Fourteener near today's Estes Park, is named after the explorer.
Stephen H. Long was born on December 30, 1784, in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, to parents Moses and Lucy Long. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a bachelor’s degree in 1809 and completed his master’s degree in 1812. He began his career in the Army Corps of Engineers, teaching math at West Point and acquiring a reputation as an inventor. During the War of 1812, Long was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He married Martha Hodkiss in Philadelphia in March 1819.
Long’s first turn as an explorer came in 1815, when he was asked to survey forts, streams, and soil in the Illinois Territory and upper Missouri River Basin. In 1816 Long was promoted to major in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. By 1817 Long had also traveled extensively along the lower Arkansas and Red Rivers. His work was vital in the establishment of Fort Smith near the present Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
In 1818 Long received orders to form an exploration party to survey unmapped territory west of the Missouri River. Known as the Yellowstone Expedition, the group eventually included Captain John R. Bell, John Biddle, James D. Graham, William H. Swift, Edwin James, Thomas Say, Titian R. Peale, Augustus Edward Jessup, William Baldwin, and Samuel Seymour. Long’s mission was primarily scientific but had secondary goals of surveying locations for possible military posts and assessing the Indian presence in the area.
Long used his engineering skills to build a riverboat for his expedition, naming it the Western Engineer. The unforgiving, unknown territory made his journey difficult. The craft was plagued by a series of mechanical problems and also ran aground before the party had reached the Ohio River. Despite these obstacles, the boat traveled as far as Omaha, Nebraska, before Long received orders to return east in the fall of 1819.
Spring of 1820 found Long with new orders to survey and find the source of the Platte River, and then return east via the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Congress had been displeased with the results of the Yellowstone Expedition but decided to allow Long to continue gathering scientific data about the area.
Long’s Platte River Expedition first viewed the Rocky Mountains from just west of the current city of Fort Morgan, Colorado. The explorers believed the highest peak visible from their camp was the famous Pikes Peak, named for Zebulon Pike, the leader of an earlier expedition. This was later determined to be incorrect, and the peak itself was eventually charted and named after Long.
The party’s search for the source of the Platte River took them first to the southern Rockies, near present-day Colorado Springs. Three of Long’s men scaled Pikes Peak, including Edwin James, who became the first botanist to collect samples from above the timberline. The group later turned east from Fountain Creek along the Arkansas River.
Here the group split into two groups that would eventually reunite at Fort Smith. Twelve men, led by Captain R. Bell, traveled along the Arkansas River. The remaining men accompanied Major Long in his search for the Red River. This group was unsuccessful in its search, as it mistook the Canadian River for the Red.
Judging the success of the Platte River Expedition is difficult. The group did not accurately identify the sources of the Platte, Arkansas, or Red Rivers. However, they did collect a great deal of scientific information about the region, including numerous plant samples. The group also described their encounters with large bison herds, white-tailed deer, pronghorn sheep, golden eagles, and many other animals. In addition, the group traded with and reported on many of the Indigenous nations in the area, including the Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Pawnee.
After the expeditions that put his name on the map, Long continued his career with the US Army, where he worked as a surveyor and early railroad builder. In 1829 he published Railroad Manual, the first textbook on railroading in the United States. He also invented a new type of wooden railroad truss that was widely used in the 1830s. The truss is known for its wooden “x” pattern that spanned the bridge. In 1834 Long served as chief engineer for the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad.
In 1842 Long became head of the Corps Office of Western River Improvements. By 1856 he was in charge of improving navigation on the Mississippi River. Five years later, he was named commander and chief of engineers of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and was promoted to colonel. Long held this position until his retirement in 1863.
Death and Legacy
Long died on September 4, 1864, in Alton, Illinois, where he had moved after his retirement. The peak named for Long is the tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park and in all of northern Colorado. As an author and explorer, Long is best remembered for his survey reports and map that bemoaned the lack of agricultural potential in the American West. The map in particular, published in 1823, sowed widespread doubt about the productivity of the land stretching from present-day Texas panhandle and Kansas to eastern Colorado.