The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1973, Volume 19, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor

By Thomas L. Scharf

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On February 2, 1848, the Mexican-American War ended with the signing of the peace treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Since the agreement required the cession of almost the entirety of Mexico’s northern provinces to the United States, one of its most heavily negotiated items concerned the location of a new boundary which would separate the two nations. In the end, Article V of the Treaty declared that the boundary line should “commence in the Gulf of Mexico, three leagues from land, opposite the mouth of the Río Grande, otherwise called the Río Bravo del Norte.”1 From there it would proceed up the Río Grande until intersecting the southern boundary of New Mexico, then travel down the Gila River to its confluence with the Colorado River and across California to the Pacific Ocean. The boundary was to terminate in the Pacific at a point one maritime league due south of the southernmost extent of the port of San Diego.2

Article V further specified that:


In order to designate the boundary line with due precision, upon authoritative maps, and to establish upon the ground landmarks which shall show the limits of both republics, as described in the present article, the two governments shall each appoint a commissioner and a surveyor, who, before expiration of one year from the date of the exchange of ratifications of this treaty, shall meet at the port of San Diego, and proceed to run and mark the said boundary in its whole course to the mouth of the Río Bravo del Norte.3

The power these men commanded would be extensive, inasmuch as the Treaty pointed out that any agreement reached between them “…shall be deemed a part of this treaty, and shall have the same force as if it were inserted therein.”4 Thus, they had to be individuals possessing not only a thorough knowledge of topographic and survey skills, but diplomatic abilities as well.

The job of boundary commissioner for the United States was assigned to John B. Welter.5 By profession a lawyer and politician, Weller had previously been a three-term Democratic congressman from Ohio and an unsuccessful candidate for governor of that state. Filling the post of surveyor would be Andrew B. Gray,6 a former Texas representative on the United States-Texas Sabine River Survey in 1840. Appointed as chief astronomer for the survey party was Major William H. Emory.7 His qualifications for inclusion on the delegation were exceptional. He had just accompanied General Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West through much of the territory scheduled for survey by the boundary commission. Chosen as assistants to Emory were Lieutenant Edmund L. F. Hardcastle,8 who had conducted a reconnaissance of the valley of Mexico, and a young lieutenant from Massachusetts, Amiel Weeks Whipple.

A former student of Amherst College and a graduate of the nation’s Military Academy at West Point, Whipple would prove a capable and proficient member of the boundary commission. For the previous five years he had been well versed in the techniques of geographic survey while working on the Northeastern Boundary Survey dividing Canada and the United States. Whipple also belonged to that resourceful group of explorers, cartographers, and promoters of frontier development, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.9 At the time he joined Weller’s delegation Whipple was thirty-two and well prepared for what would be his first assignment in the American West.10

In all, the total complement of the commission consisted of thirty-nine men directly involved with survey operations, an army escort of 150 soldiers, and such diversified civilian employees as a physican, laundress, carpenter, interpreter, quartermaster, and draftsman. Not all left for San Diego under similar circumstances. Soon after the group’s organization, news reached the East of the gold discovery in California and caused such congestion of available modes of transportation that it looked as if the boundary survey would have to be delayed. Most of the crew eventually obtained passage on several ships departing for the Isthmus of Panama, where they planned to make connections with steamers leaving for the West Coast. Weller and Major Emory left New York on February 28, 1849. Whipple, meanwhile stayed behind for a number of weeks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, examining and collecting needed pieces of survey equipment from West Point, the Smithsonian Institution and the Northeastern Boundary Survey.11

By the middle of March, most of the commission’s major members had arrived in Chagres, Panama. Here their progress was impeded by some 4,000 gold seekers anxiously awaiting steamers to complete the balance of their journey to California. The few vessels available quickly began charging such an enormous price for tickets and were so crowded that the survey party soon found itself virtually stranded. At last, after a wait of two months, a ship was finally secured to transport some of the commission to San Diego. On May 13, the mail steamer Panama was on its way to California with Weller, Gray, Emory and a few technicians on board. Due to the Panama‘s already swelling number of passengers, Whipple and the rest of the group were obliged to remain behind for another ship.12

Certain they were late, Weller and his companions reached San Diego on June 1, only to make the surprising discovery that the Mexican commission had not as yet arrived. Experiencing delays comparable to their American counterparts, the Mexicans started their journey on April 18, but it was not until July 3 that the frigate Caroline, carrying Commissioner General Pedro García Conde, dropped anchor in San Diego harbor. Along with García Conde were the commission’s surveyor José Salazar Ylarregui, two first class engineers, two second class engineers, and Felipe de Iturbide, a son of the Mexican Emperor, who served as official translator. Some 150 soldiers also accompanied the Mexicans.13

The joint Boundary Commission held its first meeting on July 6 near Punta de los Muertos, the site of what later became New Town.14 The essential task facing the delegation involved the plotting of the boundary’s western terminus in the Pacific, and the exact location of the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers. According to the terms of the Treaty, a straight line would be drawn between these two points separating Upper California from Lower California. Major Emory took charge of determining the initial point in the Pacific, while Gray surveyed the port of San Diego. Whipple, just recently arrived from Panama, was given the task of charting the junction of the Gila and Colorado. The job of gaining a basic knowledge of some of the topography between these two points, so they could be connected in longitude by gunpowder flashes, was assigned to Lieutenant Hardcastle.15 The role the Mexicans played in these operations was of necessity minimal. The inferiority of their survey equipment allowed them to do little else than assist the Americans and help confirm results.16

As each survey team got underway, Whipple began coordinating his own expedition—considered more difficult and extensive than the other two. His men would travel the farthest distance from the base camp in San Diego, crossing the Colorado Desert through an area for the most part unmapped and inhabited only by wandering bands of unpredictable Indian tribes. Such extraordinary factors required that the group be escorted by a force of army troops. Serving this role would be Company “A” First Dragoons, part of a detachment of soldiers stationed in California and detailed to duty on the Boundary Commission. Commanding the unit was a twenty-eight-year-old native of Tennessee, Lieutenant Cave Johnson Couts.17 Friendly and outgoing, Couts had recently formed a romantic attachment for Isadora Bandini, one of San Diego’s local señoritas. The Whipple party also included Tomaso, a Diegueño Indian guide and interpreter, Doctor Charles Christopher Parry,18 the noted botanist, plus twelve infantrymen with eleven wagons and an ambulance.19

Most of these individuals had camped on the grounds of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and early on the morning of September 11, 1849, made ready to depart. In a journal Whipple kept to record the expedition’s events, he noted: “The mission of San Diego, about five miles from the town and ten from the plaza of San Diego is a large pile of adobe buildings, now deserted and partly in ruin.”20 Although no longer a residence for Franciscan padres, the mission still contained a Latin library, several works of art, a productive vineyard and a number of thatched huts belonging to its impoverished Indian inhabitants. Somewhat repulsed by his first encounter with these natives, Whipple referred to them as “…indolent and filthy, with more of the vices acquired from the whites than of the virtues supposed to belong to their race.”21 Yet, their pitiful condition aroused his curiosity and he questioned Tomaso at some length to learn the origins and habits of their culture. As the team of soldiers and surveyors began to leave, a few Indians assembled as if to wish the men farewell. A morning game of cards, however, provided the real explanation for their gathering.

From San Diego the group proceeded east through the El Cajon Valley to the rancho of Don Miguel de Pedrorena,22 then occupied by his father-in-law, Don José Antonio Estudillo,23 the Prefect of San Diego. Pleased at the arrival of so many prominent guests, Estudillo was generous with his food and hospitality. The ranch produced corn, wheat, vegetables, melons, grapes and other fruits in abundance. Despite the estate’s seeming prosperity, Whipple expressed amazement at the main house—a simple adobe and mud building with a straw roof. The inside of the dwelling contained only bare earth for a floor, and “few of the conveniences and comforts of life.”24 The ranch employed from fifty to one hundred Indians who attended to the flocks and herds, cared for the gardens, and performed servile household tasks.

Another day’s travel took the surveyors across a range of barren hills to the picturesque valley of Santa María and the rancho of Don José María Martín Ortega.25 Here in a landscape dotted with spreading oak trees the party spent several days enjoying the good-natured company of the sixty-eight-year-old ranchero. Lieutenant Couts especially delighted in Ortega’s acquaintance and remarked in his journal: “The old man has made me a present of nearly everything he can find.”26

On Sunday, September 16, the team reached the ruined sub-mission of Santa Isabel. Established in 1818 to care for the needs of about 250 Indians, Santa Isabel had quickly deteriorated after secularization of the California missions. Whipple, nevertheless, described it as “…a charming spot, surrounded by gentile hills, and watered by a rapid and never-failing mountain stream.”27

In contrast to the natives at San Diego, the Santa Isabel Indians appeared quite prosperous, having an abundance of fresh fruits and poultry. Now that they were no longer under the control of the Franciscans or Mexicans, Whipple felt it the duty of the United States government to provide them with schools so they could reach a level of achievement equal to other men.

During the stay at Santa Isabel, Couts and Whipple were preoccupied much of the time by the friendly attentions of old Martín Ortega who had followed the expedition. Lavishing on the men his constant presence and a continuous stream of tall tales, Ortega soon became somewhat of a bore. Couts could tolerate the old ranchero’s behavior, but Whipple and Doctor Parry found Ortega’s conduct something less than appealing—the coarse rancher’s bawdy conversations regarding women and whisky offending their more refined sensibilities.28 The sojourn at Santa Isabel did have some compensations. Couts learned from three Americans just back from the Colorado River that the trail ahead had plenty of water, but was crowded with no less than 200 wagons belonging to gold-seekers entering California via southern routes.29

Whipple and the others met some of these Forty-Niners when they entered the Indian village at San Felipe a couple of days later. Evidently the long trek across the Colorado Desert had taken its toll. Most of the emigrants were destitute from the lack of provisions, and a few seemed on the verge of starvation. After providing them with food and water, they recounted to Whipple a number of clashes between themselves and Yuma Indians at the Colorado River. The hostilities had arisen from the natives’ insistence upon charging a fee for the white men to ford the river. One traveler even produced an arrow that had wounded one of his companions in a minor battle with the Yumas. Any apprehension Whipple might have had concerning the aggressive nature of the Yumas became strengthened when he discovered that estimates placed their numbers at the Colorado crossing to be near 5,000.30

When Whipple and his expedition left San Felipe they turned south, making their way through a few remaining patches of green terrain before approaching the edge of southern California’s high desert country. Not far from San Felipe they entered Box Canyon, one of the striking features of this area. A narrow arroyo deepened by centuries of flooding. the canyon stretched for two-and-a-half miles. “The width,” Whipple wrote, “in some place, was barely sufficient to admit the passage of our wagons while the perpendicular height of the rock, on either side, was at least fifteen feet.”31 Luckily his men were spared the tactics employed by the Mormon Battalion, who in 1847, while blazing a wagon road to California during the Mexican War, had to chop away part of the canyon’s cliffs to permit the wagons to pass. Upon emerging from the arroyo, Whipple decided to make camp for the night at a spot called El Puerto. A number of gold-seekers also staying there gave him a bleak picture of the low amounts of water and grazing available in the desert still ahead.32

The following morning, Whipple broke camp early in order to reach the company’s next destination, Vallecito, before the afternoon heat made travel impossible. Literally meaning “Little Valley,” Vallecito was a green oasis of grass and water that generally marked the end of the desert for westward emigrants coming into southern California. To the men of the Boundary Commission, however, it would mean the beginning of their desert excursion. At Vallecito Whipple found the ruins of an adobe Indian village that gave shelter to a small body of natives subsisting on the roots of the wild maguey. Another plant growing here was the mezquite bean, whose seed pods were a valuable source of grazing for animals. The fact that they ripened at this time of the year gave Whipple extra food for his horses and mules.33

While encamped at Vallecito the hot, dry desert winds continued to blow in from the east until the thermometer stood at 104o. By necessity, therefore, the men decided to lay over an extra day and pursue the march at night—giving the pack animals a chance to recover from the effects of the heat. During the delay, tempers as well as temperatures rose. According to Lieutenant Couts, Whipple curtly informed him that only the official Commission would receive public acknowledgment for operations conducted at the Colorado and Río Gila. Couts and his escort cavalry were to be considered solely as minor participants in the much more important work of the surveyors. Should the Indians or emigrants ask to whom credit for the job belonged, Couts received orders to designate Whipple and the Commission, because what the public heard “.. . was published to the world, and from the world to the newspapers.”34 Since Whipple never wrote of this incident all that can be discerned must come from Couts’ written testimony, which unfortunately makes Whipple out as a glory grabber. Apparently Whipple also had some sort of dislike for his fellow officer since Couts’ name appears just twice in Whipple’s entire journal. Speculation might be made that the two men never did find each other’s company mutually agreeable for the reason that one was a personally reserved New Englander and the other an amiable Southerner. At any rate, from this point Couts did little else than grudgingly tolerate Whipple’s authority, always referring to him in derogatory terms. Concluding the description of his dispute with Whipple, Couts sullenly remarked: “Washington City dandies with white kid gloves, etc., don’t like roughing it any more than having to get up early in the morning, saying nothing of losing a night’s sleep.”35

Already in less than a jovial mood, Couts’ sagging spirits were further aggravated by the many exasperating demands placed upon him by the gold-seekers camped at Vallecito.36 In the beginning both Couts and Whipple had welcomed these fellow travelers because of the information they could provide on the trail ahead, but as their numbers increased they quickly became a nuisance. Constantly asking for free handouts of food and directions to Los Angeles or San Diego, the annoyance they caused soon outweighed their usefulness. The actions of a certain gentleman particularly irritated Couts:


… One emigrant came up to-day, representing himself and brother as in a terrible state, nearly starved to death, and without a morsel to eat. I directed my cook to give him four pounds of my flour, which he examined very closely, and not thinking it good, declined accepting it!37

After making out another map of directions, Couts lamented: “If I have made one I have made a hundred way-bills for them in the last three days.”38 Upon leaving Vallecito, he drew one final map and posted it for general reference. Setting out late in the afternoon, Couts and the others hoped to reach the nearby water hole of Carrizo Creek before dawn.

As dusk overtook the men, the desert landscape seemed to alter its appearance and become something alien. Later that night, Whipple poetically wrote:


… The scenery here, by moonlight, was beautiful. The hills in the back ground, with angles sharp and sides perpendicular were singular in the extreme. By the dim light it was hard to believe that they were not the ruins of ancient works of art—one had been a temple to the gods, another a regularly bastioned fort.39

The charm of the evening ended abruptly when, upon locating Carrizo Creek about midnight, Whipple sadly discovered that the stream’s water was quite brackish, so much so that the thirsty mules and horses would not touch it. A large number of dead animals laying in and around the water probably caused their refusal to drink. Knowing that thirty miles of dry trail lay ahead, the usually undaunted Couts became quite concerned. He attempted to coax his mules into taking at least a little water, but to no avail. The best he could do was to have a few wet their lips. Lack of good water would have been bad enough if the men did not also find that the animals of passing emigrant wagon trains had consumed every bit of available grass.40

After what amounted to three hours’ rest, the expedition was on the march again by 6:00 a.m. By noon that day, Whipple recorded: “We are now fairly upon the desert; sandy hills behind—a dreary, desolate plain before us, far as the eye can reach.”41 Stopping at 3:00 to dig in vain for water, a storm suddenly approached from the east. At first a surging mass of dark clouds, Couts called it “the most beautiful sight I ever saw.”42 In a couple of hours the full fury of the gale struck in the form of a violent whirlwind of sand that enveloped the men and tore the wagons’ canvas tops to pieces. A heavy downpour of rain followed, succeeded by a shower of hail. The previously dry landscape now blossomed into swelling pools of water; at last giving relief to the thirsty mules and horses.

Typifying this type of desert phenomena, the rainstorm soon turned into a flash flood. By that evening, Doctor Parry, Whipple and a wagon team somehow became separated from the others and lost in the shallow sheet of water now covering the desert. After wading in this quagmire of mud for about a mile, Whipple spotted a hill and headed towards it. Upon getting closer he saw a campfire belonging to Couts which guided Parry and himself to dry land. Exhausted and having had no sleep since leaving Vallecito, Couts was just dozing off when he heard the approach of Whipple’s wagon.43

The next morning Whipple awoke to find his encampment situated on the shore of a marshy lagoon, called New Lake44 by passing emigrants. Its source was an overflow of the Colorado, aptly dubbed New River. Overlooking the lake, and reaching a height of two thousand feet, stood the hill Whipple had seen the night before. He decided to call it Signal Mountain45 since it would be a good place for Lieutenant Hardcastle and his assistants to flash gunpowder signals to help connect the survey point at the mouth of the Río Gila to the initial point in the Pacific. Whipple also changed the name of the lagoon at the base of Signal Mountain to Signal Lake.46

Continuing on to a location roughly eighteen miles from Signal Lake and on the banks of New River, the party made camp close to a tent village of west-bound travelers. Favorably impressed by the area’s good grazing and water, Couts called the spot Camp Salvation, feeling it could “…only be the work of an Invisible Hand to aid the thousands of distressed emigrants.47 During the two-day stay at Camp Salvation, both Whipple and botanist Parry conducted a reconnaissance of the surrounding terrain, making notes on the region’s geology, flora and fauna. The thick, short grass growing by the river, usually known as Buffalo or Gamma grass, Doctor Parry thought to be a new species which he proposed to call “chrondrosium desertorum.”48

Departing Camp Salvation on the evening of September 27, the members of the Whipple expedition arrived on the banks of the Colorado River the following day—almost three weeks from the commencement of their trip in San Diego. As if to discourage the surveyors, a sharp earthquake rocked the area. The swaying motion continued for two minutes at a time when many of the men had just bedded down for the night. Whipple later stated that: “It shook the tents, spilled the water from a nearly full bucket, awoke those who were asleep, and frightened many of those who were awake.49

From their present location at the water hole of Cooke’s Wells or Three Wells, the party moved eight miles north along the Colorado’s banks to a spot near an Indian village. Here Whipple put ten men to work clearing a wagon road through the dense brush to a popular emigrant crossing point six miles up river. The chief of the Yuma village, Santiago, personally came out to greet Whipple and his crew. Wearing a blue coat and a fancy cotton handkerchief around his head, the chief was accompanied by Whipple’s guide Tomaso, who had been sent ahead to prepare the natives for the approach of the survey Commission. Returning with Santiago to visit his camp, Whipple noted: “We were at once surrounded by great numbers of Indian men and women, evincing friendliness, curiosity, and intelligence.”50 Santiago and his people expressed a profound friendship for the Americans, but cautioned them against neighboring tribes at the mouth of the Río Gila, whom they termed “a desperate set of rascals.”51

Constructing the wagon road took longer than Whipple had anticipated. Couts reported that the men had to work hard for about twenty hours just to make a path three miles long. When the trail was finally opened on October 1, Whipple proceeded to the emigrant crossing and made a temporary camp at the base of a fifteen-hundred-foot hill he called Pilot Knob. Towards dusk he climbed the peak and set off several rockets hoping to receive a return signal from members of the Commission working on the opposite side of the desert. That same evening Whipple also made a crossing of the Colorado, but in the process drowned a mule. Such ineptness succeeded in renewing Couts’ resentment for Whipple’s authority:


…Take him away from his books, and he is not worth a tinker’s damn for anything under God’s heaven. I now doubt his capacity for determining the position of the mouth of the Gila. With the aid of Dr. Parry he may succeed.52

By dawn the next morning both Whipple and Couts were out searching for a permanent base camp close to the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers. In the course of their explorations, Whipple left the detachment of escort soldiers and continued on a path that inadvertently took him to a Yuma Indian village. Attempting to converse with the natives in his own rather feeble Spanish, Whipple finally made himself understood to a Yuma called Mal Anton, who offered to act as his guide to the mouth of the Gila. Mal Anton led the intent surveyor to a hill opposite the junction of the Gila and Colorado, which Whipple found “excellent for an astronomical observatory.” Couts, too thought the area a good spot for the group’s headquarters, and set his men to work clearing a place for the tents and other pieces of equipment. Couts’ Southern loyalties were evident when he named it Camp Calhoun in tribute to South Carolina Senator John Calhoun.53

One of the first visitors to the Commission’s new location was Pablo Coclum, the supposed grand-chief of the Quechans54 or Yumas. The Indian ruler presented a spectacular picture attired in an old red military coat buttoned to his chin, three kinds of pants in several different lengths, a hat of outlandish shape, hard and brittle black leather gloves, and a pair of shiny green goggles to shade his eyes. After being ushered into Whipple’s tent, Pablo tried to maintain an air of haughty decorum by pretending he could not speak Spanish and therefore required the services of a special Yuma interpreter. But Whipple noticed that after being served a glass of whisky, “…his tongue was loosed, his dignity overcome, and he no longer needed an interpreter; Pablo spoke Spanish better, by far, than I could.”55 The chief’s term of office expired almost as fast, for a few days later his people dethroned him.

Pablo’s ouster probably resulted from a lecture Couts had given the Indians on the principles of democratic elections. When they denounced their chief as a robber and murderer, Couts recommended they hold a council meeting and vote for a new leader.56 Inasmuch as Whipple had previously explained to the Yumas that their territory no longer belonged to Mexico but to the United States, the Indians thought it would be an act of good faith towards the Americans to depose Pablo because he had been made ruler under the Mexican regime. As a replacement they chose Santiago, the village chief from down river. After the election Whipple presented the new ruler with a few small presents, while Santiago made assurances of good will to all Americans.57

Couts had little faith in the Indians’ promises of good behavior—perhaps rightly so. Ever since their initial contacts with white men, the Yumas had held a wavering set of loyalties that could find them at one point peaceably disposed to outsiders and at the next violent and warlike. When the American Commission started operations at the Colorado, a large number of curious Yumas began gathering around to watch the work of the surveyors. In spite of any innate danger to himself or members of the Commission, Whipple seemed to enjoy this Indian company because it gave him a better opportunity to study Yuma customs and behavior. On various occasions the Quechans even initiated a crude trade with the Americans—exchanging beans, melons, and squash for tobacco or money. Notwithstanding these neighborly acts, Couts merely viewed their growing presence as a threat, both to the surveyors and to passing emigrants. Any outbreak of hostilities between the two groups would surely end in catastrophe for the outnumbered whites. In the event of such a disturbance, Couts proclaimed: “God only knows what Whipple would do!”58

Fear of Indian attack did little to slow the increasing flood of California-bound wagon trains. Conservative estimates have placed the number of Americans crossing the Colorado during 1849-1850 at 10,000.59 One of the largest of these parties reached Camp Calhoun on October 15 under the protection of Captain Herman Thorn and thirty dragoons.60 The group’s members included Colonel James Collier,61 first collector for the port of San Francisco, and John Woodhouse Audubon,62 youngest son of the famed naturalist. A personable individual, Audubon received a supper invitation from Couts, which he “…greatly enjoyed, for seldom have I eaten with such an appetite, and I found the beefsteak excellent, after being without meat for so long a time.”63 Whipple noticed that many others arriving with Audubon were also “suffering for want of provisions.64

Another fellow traveling with the Thorn party was Lewis Birdsall Harris,65 a native of New England, and more popularly known as “Boat-Wagon” Harris. Unlike other Forty-Niners, Harris had constructed his wagon to serve a dual purpose. Besides being able to roll overland, it floated like a river flatboat. Harris had already navigated his vessel down part of the Gila River and his entry into Camp Calhoun caused quite a stir. Wishing to start an emigrant ferry service, Couts tried to buy the craft for seventy-five dollars, but Harris refused the offer. Nevertheless, Boat-Wagon did assist some people in transporting themselves and their possessions across the river—notably Audubon and several Mexicans.66

Not all methods employed to ford the swiftly moving Colorado proved successful. On October 16, Captain Thorn attempted a crossing with three men on a heavily laden canoe. The boat overturned, and before help could reach them, all four men drowned. Although he was a strong swimmer, Thorn died as a result of a stranglehold one of the floundering men kept on him after the canoe capsized. A couple of weeks later when Thom’s body was found down river, Couts saw quite plainly the bruise marks on the Captain’s left thigh “where he was clinched by the hand of death.” Thorn received a temporary burial on the banks of the Colorado until a wooden coffin could be constructed to transport his remains to San Diego .67

As a consequence of the tragedy, Couts took personal charge of the Colorado crossing and instituted an army ferry service with a raft he purchased from an emigrant named Moore. While this action sharply curtailed any further accidents, the fee charged for using the ferry was based upon a double standard—Mexicans paying more than Americans. Making the Mexicans pay extra had not been Couts’ idea but probably came from Colonel Collier who had also ordered the Lieutenant to “make all the Sonoranians passing out of California with gold, pay a duty on the same.”68

While Couts busied himself at the emigrant crossing, Whipple worked to complete his survey reports and Indian observations. He continued to have little fear of the Yumas—much to the chagrin of Couts—and made frequent visits to their camps. By now most of the natives had become accustomed to Whipple’s presence and accorded him a receptive welcome. Their unusual costumes and ornamentation specifically attracted him. The women customarily adorned their dresses of tree bark with strings of shells and glass beads. The men habitually wore only a breech cloth or a shirt thrown away by the emigrants. Whipple concurred with this mode of attire, stating: “I could but applaud the scorn with which he [the Indian] looked upon European dress, and the resolute firmness with which he refused the proffered gift of pants.”69

In leisure moments, Whipple furthered his study of the Yumas and made a multitude of notes concerning their customs and patterns of social organization. As for religious beliefs, Whipple found that the only reply he could get to his inquiries was: “Ellos saben nada nada—they know nothing at all…. The Yumas had no God; they worshipped nothing and went nowhere after death.”70 By far Whipple’s most detailed piece of research centered on a dictionary of Yuma words translated into their English equivalents. This work was much larger than one he had made of Diegueño words at San Felipe, and eventually contained some 250 entries.71

Whipple also divided the Yumas into five tribes or bands: the Cuchan, Mah-hah-os, Hah wál coes, Yam-pái, and Chim way. In addition he acknowledged the presence of three lesser tribes: the Co-co-pah, living about eighty miles below the Junction of the Gila, and the Cah-wee-os and Co mo hay or Co-mo-yei, who occupied the desert west of the Colorado River.72

For a time many of the Yumas left the vicinity of Camp Calhoun to conduct a raid on a nearby tribe of Maricopas.73 They returned victorious with a number of women and children as captives, but had the remainder of the Maricopa nation following in revengeful pursuit. Afraid of a full scale attack, the Yumas begged the help of Whipple and his soldiers. As commander of the dragoons, Couts loudly refused their pleas, wishing to avoid involvement in an Indian war. Just the sight of the United States troops, however, caused the Maricopas to maintain a safe distance between themselves and Camp Calhoun. They obviously decided to play a waiting game, hoping for the right moment to make a surprise assault. At length, about four o’clock on the morning of October 30, Whipple and his camp were awakened by the Indians’ shouting and firing. At day-break Whipple watched as Yuma men, women, and children swam across the Colorado in crowds: “. . . all crying out lustily, Maricopa! Maricopa!”74 Evidently the Maricopas had attacked, but the ensuing scuffle fell short of an “all-out” battle. The Yumas had perhaps been more scared than anything else as casualties were slight, only a single member of their band being killed.

Fatigued from the long hours he had been putting into his work, Whipple was granted little time for much needed sleep during the all-night disturbance. In fact, he frequently lost sleep because he stayed awake past midnight charting the position of stars and planets which enabled him to compute accurate astronomical locations of points in and around the mouth of the Río Gila. Most of his daylight hours were spent comparing and checking previous geographical observations or compiling information on the Indians. Towards the end of November the rigorous schedule began to have ill effects on his health and disposition.75

Nevertheless, the survey work continued to proceed smoothly. Anxious to see what had been accomplished, as early as the middle of October, Major Emory sent Whipple a request for a full report on the data collected at the Colorado and Gila rivers.76 Emory followed up the summons by dispatching Surveyor Gray from San Diego to personally observe and aid Whipple’s operations. Gray, however, became sidetracked enroute when he met Colonel Collier and his men—now hopelessly lost in the desert and near starvation. Feeling it his duty to guide them back to San Diego, Gray instead sent his assistant J. H. Forster on to the Colorado.77

Both Forster and Whipple found that establishing the precise point where the Gila and Colorado joined would not be as easy as previously envisioned by Commissioner Weller. The main difficulty involved locating the true end of the southern bank of the Gila. While it appeared that the two rivers merged at A (see map) this point could change, perhaps to E, if D was considered as the terminus of the southern bank rather than B. This problem came about when it was observed that in contrast to the stable river bank at C the land at B seemed to be washing away. If A was considered as the end of the boundary separating Upper from Lower California, the United States would come into possession of several additional miles of the Colorado—which had not been the intent of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.78

The arrival of Mexican Commissioner García Conde and Surveyor José Salazar on November 30 offered an opportunity for a negotiated settlement to the problem. As Whipple had already determined that point A should be considered as the place where the two rivers merged, he succeeded in persuading García Conde and Salazar to agree with him. Consequently, the United States acquired roughly an extra ten mile strip of land plus the whole of the Colorado river flowing through it. The exact point at A where the two rivers joined was calculated at north latitude 32o 43′ 31.6″ and 7 hours and 38 minutes west of the Greenwich meridian.79 This concession on the part of the Mexicans ended a long-standing effort by García Conde to obtain a greater share of the Pacific coastline in exchange for a small amount of land below the junction of the Colorado. Such an arrangement had been hinted at, but when Weller heard of Salazar and García Conde’s agreement with Whipple, he rejected it as no longer applicable—the United States now owning a portion of the land below the Colorado.80

Having completed his assignment at the Colorado, Whipple left Camp Calhoun for San Diego on December 1. Couts and his troops had already gone ahead the day before.81 The trip back involved few problems, but unfortunately developments awaiting the men in San Diego would not be as tranquil.

Whipple’s work at the mouth of the Río Gila seemed to be one of few accomplishments for the American Boundary Commission. Otherwise it was virtually teetering on total collapse. At Weller’s initial arrival in San Diego, he found a letter awaiting him informing the Commission of Congress’s failure to grant any further funds to carry on the work of the surveyors. As a result, neither Whipple nor the others received a salary. In the meantime, inflation produced by the gold rush caused prices in California and San Diego to soar. In such an economic climate the $50,000 originally appropriated by Congress to cover the costs of the survey quickly disappeared. Major Emory, through connections in the army, managed to keep the men supplied with adequate provisions, but many of the Commission’s civilian employees left their jobs seeking better opportunities in the gold fields to the north.82

Weller had also departed from San Diego, sailing to Monterey in hopes of obtaining money to carry on the boundary work from the offices of General Bennett Riley, the United States military commander of California. On board the northern bound ship was Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale,83 who unbeknownst to Weller carried important orders to the famous pathfinder, Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, from the new Whig administration of President Zachary Taylor. The dispatch was to inform Fremont of his nomination to the post of Boundary Commissioner and of Weller’s recall. Charges against Weller had ranged from misuse of funds to poor organization. Although these accusations had some truth to them, the real reason President Taylor’s administration desired Weller’s ouster was partisan—the Whigs being politically against the appointment from the beginning. Fremont’s eventual decline of the Whig’s offer failed to deter Taylor and Weller was removed from office on December 18,1849.84

With Weller’s expulsion, the American Commission was in effect disbanded. During the nine months of its existence, all the surveyors had to show for their efforts were Whipple’s work at the Gila and Colorado, and Emory’s location of the initial point in the Pacific—established on October 10, 1849. Given the many other problems with which the Commission had to concern itself, these seemingly minor accomplishments could actually be considered remarkable. At a meeting held by the joint Boundary Commission on February 3, 1850 it was decided to suspend survey operations and meet again at El Paso, Texas, on the first Monday of the coming November. By that time there was to be a new American Commissioner as well as a new chief astronomer. Emory, in temporary charge of the American delegation, Whipple, Hardcastle, and Mexican engineer Francisco Jiminez would remain in southern California for a time to begin the lengthy task of posting stone monuments between the two points already surveyed and thereby complete the boundary of Upper and Lower California.85

Upon Whipple’s departure from San Diego, he left behind an enviable record of achievement. He had demonstrated a high level of ability both as a surveyor and as an amateur diplomat. His reports on the Yuma Indian tribes and their language would be of value to enthnographers and scientists in later years. Geographic and botanical data, gathered by Whipple and Doctor Parry would be of additional significance in this regard. As a coincidence, Whipple’s expedition also occurred at the same time as the California gold rush, thus giving him a chance to record his impressions of southern California’s land and people during one of its most colorful periods. In succeeding years Whipple would return to southern California and the Southwest—once in 1852 as a member of the reorganized Boundary Commission and again in 1854 as commander of a survey for a proposed transcontinental railroad. His work in 1849, combined with the achievements of these expeditions, made him one of the region’s greatest explorers.



1. “The Treaty between the United States and Mexico,” House of Representatives Ex. Doc. No. 52, 30th Congress, 1st Session, Washington D.C., 1848, Article V.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. John Weller graduated from Miami University at Oxford in 1829, and in 1832 began practicing law in Ohio. He was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1838 and continued in that capacity until 1845. Following his work with the Boundary Commission, Weller served as a member of California’s state legislature before becoming governor of the state in 1858. Brett H. Melendy and Benjamin F. Gilbert The Governors of California (Georgetown California: The Talisman Press, 1965), pp. 81-90.

6. Andrew Belcher Gray was born on July 6, 1820 in Norfolk, Virginia. He was the son of British Consul William Gray and his wife Sarah Scott. As a child Gray showed an interest in engineering and studied under the capable guidance of Andrew Talcott. Andrew Gray, The A. B. Gray Report, ed. by L. R. Bailey (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1963), pp. xi-xiii.

7. William H. Emory graduated from West Point in 1831. Among his closest companions at the Academy were Henry Clay Jr. and Jefferson Davis. Emory later married the granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, Matilda Wilkins Bache. William H. Goetzmann, Army Explorations in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 128-130.

8. Lieutenant Edmund Hardcastle graduated from West Point on July 1, 1846, and received appointment to the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers the following month. During the Mexican-American War he participated in the battles of Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and the capture of Mexico City. George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy (New York: Van Nostrand, 1868), II, 144.

9. “From the year 1838 down to the Civil War, there existed a small but highly significant branch of the Army called the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Its total complement at any one time was thirty-six officers. Though it followed in the shadow of those larger-than-life heroes, the mountain men, no other group of comparable size contributed so much to the exploration and development of the American West.” Before the Civil War the Corps officers made explorations which resulted in the first scientific mapping of the West. See Goetzmann, Army Explorations, p. 4.

10. Amiel Weeks Whipple led a distinguished and active career as an army officer. He was born on October 21, 1817 in Greenwich, Massachusetts. In 1837 he entered West Point and graduated in 1841. In later years as a general in the Union Army, Whipple would be mortally wounded on May 4, 1863 in the fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville. President Abraham Lincoln, who became a close friend, attended his funeral. Francis R. Stoddard, “Amiel Weeks Whipple,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, XXVIII (Autumn, 1950), pp. 226-230.

11. Goetzmann, Army Explorations, pp. 158-159.

12. The Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 2d Session, Friday December 20, 1850.

13. Goetzmann, Army Explorations, p. 160.

14. Lewis B. Lesley, “The International Boundary Survey from San Diego to the Gila River, 1849-1850,” California Historical Society Quarterly, IX (March, 1930), p. 6.

15. “Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey by William H. Emory,” House of Representatives Ex. Doc. No. 108, 34th Congress, 1st Session, Washington D.C., 1857, Vol. I, p. 4.

16. Goetzmann, Army Explorations, p. 160.

17. Lieutenant Cave Couts is a well known figure in southern California history. He was born in Springfield, Tennessee, on November 11, 1821. After graduating from West Point in 1843, Couts served at various military posts until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. He first came to California as part of a company of soldiers under the command of Major Lawrence P. Graham. Cullum, Biographical Register, II, 98.

18. Charles Parry established a medical practice in Davenport, Iowa, but an interest in botany led him into other areas of study. In 1848, he became part of David Dale Owen’s staff in a geological survey of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Parry’s experience in the assignment secured his position as a botanist on the Boundary Survey in 1849. Harry B. Humphrey, Makers of North American Botany (New York: The Ronald Press, Company, 1961), pp. 196-198.

19. Cave Johnson Couts, From San Diego to the Colorado in 1849: The Journal and Maps of Cave J. Couts, ed. by William McPherson (Los Angeles: Zamorano Club, 1932), p. 1.

20. “Report of Lieutenant Whipple’s Expedition from San Diego to the Colorado, September 11, 1849 to December 11, 1849,” House of Representatives Ex. Doc. No. 19, 31st Congress, 2nd Session, Washington D. C., 1851, p. 2.

21. Ibid.

22. Don Miguel de Pedrorena was a native of Madrid, Spain, but had lived for a time in Peru. He first came to California in 1837 as a merchant on board a trading vessel. McPherson, Couts Journal, pp. 64-65.

23. Don José Antonio Estudillo, although born at Monterey in 1805, spent most of his life in San Diego. His land holdings included the Otay, Temecula, and San Jacinto ranchos. During the 1840’s he served as administrator for the mission at San Luis Rey, and for a time as Prefect of San Diego. Ibid., p. 65.

24. Whipple, “Report,” p. 3.

25. José María Martín Ortega spent his early life in Santa Barbara, and was the grandson of Captain José Francisco Ortega, a well known army officer during the Spanish occupation of Upper California. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 65.

26. Ibid., p. 2.

27. Whipple, “Report,” p. 4.

28. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 5.

29. Letter from Cave Couts to William H. Emory, September 17, 1849, contemporary copy, San Diego History Center, Couts Letter File.

30. Whipple, “Report,” p. 5.

31. Ibid., p. 6.

32. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

33. Ibid., p. 7.

34. McPherson, Couts Journal, pp. 11-12.

35. Ibid., p. 12.

36. Some of these emigrants may have been members of a large wagon party known as The Clarksville and California Mining Association, which Whipple and Couts met about seventy-five miles from San Diego. Originally organized at Clarksville, Arkansas, the group is remembered chiefly for an incident of vigilante justice that occurred along the Gila River. Apparently two of the company’s men got into a fight, and after one mortally stabbed the other he was tried by his peers and executed. Upon his encounter with the Clarksville band, Whipple was reported to have advised them to keep their wagon teams as they could be sold in San Francisco for one to two thousand dollars. Grant Foreman, ed., Marcy and the Gold Seekers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), pp. 41-42 and pp. 298-300.

37. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 13.

38. Ibid.

39. Whipple, “Report,” p. 7.

40. Ibid., p. 8, and McPherson, Couts Journal, pp. 13-14.

41. Whipple, “Report,” p. 8.

42. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 16.

43. Ibid., pp. 17-18, and Whipple, “Report,” pp. 8-9.

44. Whipple mistakenly assumed that others, such as, General Stephen Watts Kearny and Philip St. George Cooke, must have seen this lake but failed to record it. Actually, New Lake was an overflow of the Colorado, which probably occurred the year of Whipple’s trip. Edwards, Whipple Report, p. 43.

45. A town later established near this mountain was also called Mt. Signal.

46. Whipple, “Report,” p. 9.

47. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 20.

48. Whipple, “Report,” p. 10. Doctor Parry’s complete botanical and geological report of the Whipple expedition starts on page 125 of Emory, “Report on the Boundary Survey,” Vol. I.

49 Whipple, “Report,” p. 11.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid., p. 12.

52. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 29.

53. Camp Calhoun was established on the California side of the Colorado River, and in 1850 became the site of Fort Yuma. Will C. Barnes, Arizona Place Names (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1960), p. 389.

54. Quechan is the official name used to describe the diverse tribes of Indians, collectively known as Yumas. See Jack Forbes, Warriors of the Colorado (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965).

55. Whipple, “Report,” p. 13.

56. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 34.

57. Whipple, “Report,” p. 13.

58. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 39.

59. Ferol Egan, The El Dorado Trail (New York: The McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), p. 165. Two other good works on southern trails to California during this period are: George W. B. Evans, Mexican Gold Trail: The Journal of a Forty-Niner, ed. by Glenn S. Dumke (Los Angeles: The Huntington Library, 1945), and Ralph Bieber, ed., Southern Trails to California in 1849 (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1937).

60. Captain Herman Thorn enlisted in the army during the Mexican-American War. He distinguished himself at the battles of Churubusco and Molino del Rey, which resulted in his promotion to captain. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 76, and John Woodhouse Audubon, Audubon’s Western Journal, 1849-1850 (Glorieta, New Mexico: Río Grande Press, Inc., 1969), p. 161.

61. Colonel James Collier received his appointment as collector for the port of San Francisco from President Taylor. His office soon controlled customs duties for the whole territory of California. Gross incompetency in Collier’s work later resulted in his replacement by Thomas Butler King in 1851. See Grant Foreman, The Adventures of James Collier: First Collector of the Port of San Francisco (Chicago: The Black Cat Press, 1937).

62. John Woodhouse Audubon began his trip to California on February 8, 1849, with some $27,000 in cash and about eighty other men. Their route took them through Texas and along the Río Grande and Gila rivers, where they eventually became part of Colonel Thorn’s caravan. See Audubon, Western Journal.

63. Ibid., pp. 164-165. Couts befriended another notable emigrant, see H. M. T. Powell, The Santa Fe Trail to California, ed. by Douglas S. Watson (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1931), pp. 174-175.

64. Whipple, “Report,” p. 15.

65. Lewis Birdsall Harris left for California in the spring of 1849. He started his journey at San Antonio, Texas with Colonel Thorn and numerous other friends and relatives. For the entire narrative of Harris’ historic trek see Aurora Hunt, “Overland by Boat to California,” Historical Society of Southern California, XXXI (1949), pp. 212-218.

66. Audubon, Western Journal, p. 163.

67. Letter from Cave Couts to William H. Emory, November 11, 1849, contemporary copy, San Diego History Center, Couts Letter File.

68. McPherson, Couts Journal, p. 47. For additional facts on the evolution of the Colorado ferry service see Arthur Woodward, Feud on the Colorado (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1955).

69. Whipple, “Report,” p. 14.

70. Ibid., p. 18.

71. Ibid., pp. 23-28.

72. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

73. The Maricopas occupied territory along the northern banks of the Gila River. Whipple found the Yumas and Maricopas to be perpetual enemies. Ibid., p. 17.

74. Ibid., p. 16.

75. Ibid., p. 18.

76. Letter from Amiel Whipple to Cave Couts, October 21, 1849, The Huntington Library, Letters of Amiel Weeks Whipple.

77. Lesley, California Historical Society Quarterly, p. 10.

78. Ibid., p. 11.

79. Ibid., and Whipple, “Report,” p. 18.

80. Goetzmann, Army Explorations, p. 163.

81. Letter from Cave Couts to William Emory, November 30,1849, contemporary copy, San Diego History Center, Couts Letter File. Following completion of his survey with Whipple, Couts remained in the service of the Boundary Commission until 1851 when he married Isadora Bandini. The newly married couple settled on the famous Guajome Rancho in San Diego County, which had been a gift from the bride’s brother-in-law, the noted California merchant Abel Stearns. Cloyd Sorensen Jr., “Cave Johnson Couts and La Adobe Casa del Guajome,” Guamome,” in Brand Book No. II, The San Diego Corral of the Westerners (San Diego: San Diego Corral of the Westerners, 1971), pp. 97-108.

82. Emory, “Report on the Boundary Survey,” I, 5-6.

83. Lieutenant Edward Beale would later gain notoriety as commander of the southwest’s first and only camel corps. See Stephen Bonsai, Edward Fitzgerald Beale (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912).

84. Goetzmann, Army Explorations, p. 165.

85. Lesley, California Historical Society Quarterly, pp. 14-15.


Thomas L. Scharf received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from the University of San Diego. During the past year he served as president of the University’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta. Mr. Scharf currently is working on a biography of Amiel Whipple. His article published here was adapted from his Masters Thesis and was an award-winning paper presented at the San Diego History Center’s 1972 Institute of History.