Thompson, David. Columbia Journals. Barbara Belyea, ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998. 336 pp. Paperback. $24.95. ISBN 0773517529.

Abert, James William. Expedition to the Southwest. An 1845 Reconnaissance of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Introduction by H. Bailey Carroll, with new introduction by John Miller Morris. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. 133 pp. Paperback. $10.00. ISBN 0803259352. 

Two significant journals of early nineteenth-century explorers of the American West are now available in paperback at reasonable prices. One records legendary British fur trader and surveyor David Thompson’s exploration and mapping of the Columbia River basin and the Pacific Northwest. The other documents U.S. Army Lieutenants James W. Abert and William Peck’s reconnaissance of the Canadian River Valley and the American-Texas-Spanish borderland region of present New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma in 1845. In style and form they reflect their respective genre—the fur trade and military reconnaissance.

Inspired by Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition to the Pacific Coast in 1793 (and later Lewis and Clark), Thompson set out to find a more practical route across the continental divide and to the sea for the North West Company. Thompson’s Columbia Journals cover both of his efforts: an initial probe of the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains near the head of the Saskatchewan River, 1800-1801, and a survey of the Columbia River, 1807-1811. The Journals provide a detailed day-by-day personal diary of the explorer’s geographical and commercial activities, which he later used to prepare several detailed pioneering maps of the Pacific Northwest and his better known Narrative, edited by J.B. Tyrrell (Champlain Society, 1916). The editor is to be commended for her creative use of notes as contemporary commentaries on important questions pertaining to such relevant topics as the western fur trade, overland surveying, and natural history. She concludes the journal with a brief but illuminating comparative analysis of the cartographic contributions of Thompson and Aaron Arrowsmith, illustrated with reproductions of five contemporary maps. For a more extensive review, see Eric W. Wolf’s critique of Belyea’s hardcopy edition of Thompson’s Columbia Journals in Terrae Incognitae Volume 28, (1996).

Abert and Peck’s exploratory expedition was narrower in scope and smaller in scale, but no less significant for its contributions to the geography and cartography of a region almost as unknown to the general public as the Pacific Northwest forty years earlier. Members of the U.S. Army’s elite Corps of Topographical Engineers, Abert and Peck were dispatched in the summer of 1845 to survey the Canadian River Valley in anticipation of military conflict with Mexico over the impending annexation of Texas. Guided by veteran mountain men Thomas Fitzpatrick, John Hatcher and Caleb Greenwood, the thirty-five-man party explored the entire course of the Canadian River from its headwaters in northeastern New Mexico to its confluence with the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma. Congress published Abert’s official report in 1846 under the title “Journal of Lieutenant J.W. Abert from Bent’s Fort to St. Louis.” Considered one of the best travel diaries by a soldier-engineer, Abert’s report provides insightful observations about the region’s natural history and the feared but little-known Kiowas and Comanches. An accomplished artist and self-taught naturalist, Abert illustrated the report with drawings of Indians and landscape views. Also issued with the report was a large foldout map, “so accurate that it could be used successfully today as a guide over the same route.” (p. 6) The map was compiled by John C. Frémont’s famous cartographer Charles Preuss with the title Map showing the Route pursued by the Exploring Expedition to New Mexico and the Southern Rocky Mountains…conducted by Lieut. J.W. Abert, assisted by Lieut. W.G. Peck.

Abert’s War Department report was first brought to the attention of historians in 1941 when noted regional historian Horace Bailey Carroll published an edited version of the journal with a biographical essay on Abert and extensive notes in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review. With the discovery of Abert’s original drawings of the expedition, John Galvin edited a folio-sized edition of the explorer’s original manuscript report for the art and high-end book trade in 1970 under the title Through the Country of the Comanche Indians in the Fall of the Year 1845: The Journals of a U.S. Army Expedition led by Lieutenant James W. Abert of the Topographical Engineers. Artist extraordinary whose paintings of Indians and Their Wild West illustrate this book.” (San Francisco: John Howell Books, 1970). Twenty-two watercolor drawings of Indians not found in the official printed report enhance this work. Both editions are out of print and difficult to locate. The University of Nebraska reprint of Carroll’s 1941 edition once again makes Abert’s journal readily available to a new generation of historians. An excellent introduction by geographer John Miller Morris and a small-scale modern map of Abert’s route place the expedition in its historical and geographical context. Apparently due to publication costs, however, neither Abert’s drawings nor Preuss’s map were reprinted. For these items, the reader will still have to consult Gavin or the original government publication.

Ralph E. Ehrenberg
The Library of Congress (Retired)


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