Stephen Harriman Long (1784 – 1864)

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 Portrait of Long, Artist Unknown
Portrait of Long, Artist Unknown

Stephen Harriman Long was a U.S. engineer, explorer, and military officer. As an inventor, he is noted for his developments in the design of steam locomotives. As an Army officer, he led a pioneering scientific expedition throughout a large area of the Great Plains, which he famously described as the "Great American Desert". Longs Peak in Colorado is named for him.

Long was born in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, the son of Moses and Lucy (Harriman) Long. He received an A.B. from Dartmouth College in 1809 and an A.M. from Dartmouth in 1812. In 1814, he was commissioned a lieutenant of engineers in the United States Army. In March 1819 he married Martha Hodgkins of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The following month, as a brevet major in the U.S. Army, he was appointed to lead an expedition through the American West, in areas acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. The specific purpose of the voyage was to the find the sources of the Platte, Arkansas, and Red rivers. For a time in the summer of 1823, his expedition was joined by Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami. After the expedition, he spent several years helping to survey and build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In 1826 he received his first patent for his work on railroad steam locomotives. Long received many more patents for locomotive design and worked with other Army engineers in planning and building the railroad.

In 1832, along with William Norris and several other business partners, he formed the American Steam Carriage Company. The business was dissolved in 1834 due to the difficulties in placing Long's locomotive designs into production.

Colonel Long received a leave of absence to work on the newly incorporated Western & Atlantic Railroad in Georgia. His yearly salary was established at $5,000, the contract was signed May 12, 1837 and he served as the chief engineer for the W&A until November 3, 1840. He arrived in north Georgia in late May and his surveying began in July and by November he had submitted an initial report which the construction followed almost exactly.

In 1838 he was appointed to a position in the newly formed U.S. topographical engineers corps. He died in Alton, Illinois in 1864.

Major Long was the leader of the first scientific exploration up the Platte River. His party included several scientists who studied the geography and natural resources of the area. Eventually, Long became one of the most prolific explorers of the period, covering 26,000 miles in five expeditions. Like most engineers, Long was college-trained, interested in searching for order in the natural world, and willing to work with the modern technology of the time. Engineers had basically two unique points of view that set them apart from the other pioneers — geographic and technological.

His first expedition was his most famous. In July 1819, he joined Gen. Henry Atkinson's Yellowstone Expedition bound from St. Louis to the Rockies on the steamboat Western Engineer. This was the first steamboat to travel up the Missouri River into the Louisiana Purchase territory. By September 17, the steamboat arrived at Fort Lisa, a trading fort belonging to William Clark's Missouri Fur Company. It was about five miles south of Council Bluffs. Long's group built their winter quarters nearby and called it "Engineer Cantonment."

Within a month, Long returned to the east coast, and by the following May, his orders had changed. Instead of exploring the Missouri River, President James Monroe decided to have Long lead an expedition up the Platte to the mountains and back along the border with the Spanish colonies. Exploring that border was vital, since John Quincy Adams had just concluded the treaty with Spain, which drew a new U. S. border to the Pacific. On June 6, 1820, Long and 19 men traveled up the north bank of the Platte and met Pawnee and Otoe Indians.

After finding and naming Longs Peak and the Rocky Mountains, they journeyed down the South Platte River to the Arkansas River watershed. The expedition was then split, and Long led his group towards the Red River. They missed it, ran into hostile Indians and had to eventually eat their own horses to survive before they finally met the other part of the expedition at Fort Smith in Arkansas. Long and his party of scientists would learn much to tell the nation and have the opportunity to show the U.S. flag.

In his report of the 1820 expedition, Long wrote that the Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma were "unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture." On the map he made of his explorations, he called the area a "Great Desert." Long felt the area labeled the "Great Desert" would be better suited as a buffer against the Spanish, British, and Russians, who shared the continent with the Americans. He also commented that the eastern wooded portion of the country should be filled up before the republic attempted any further extension westward. He commented that sending settlers to that area was out of the question. Given the technology of the 1820s, Long was right. There was little timber for houses or fuel, minimal surface water, sandy soil, hard winters, vast herds of bison (buffalo), hostile Indians, and no easy means of communication. However, it's ironic that the native tribes had been living there for centuries and that, by the end of the 19th century, the "Great Desert" had become the nation's breadbasket.

There were two key results of Long's expedition -- a very accurate description of Indian customs and Indian life as they existed among the Omaha, Otoes, and Pawnees and his description of the land west of the Missouri River.

There is only one known portrait of Long in existence, but as an officer and an explorer, it doesn't seem likely that this is the only one out there. Surely his likeness was captured in some artists' sketchbook or painted in a watercolor during his travels, but you never know when one will surface.

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