- Soldier-Artist of the Great Reconnaissance: John C. Tidball and the 35th Parallel Pacific Railroad Survey
Pacific Railroad Reports represents one of the most important collective accounts ever assembled about the vast regions beyond the Mississippi River. These massive seventeen volumes, published between 1855 and 1861, exemplified the high quality of exploration and record keeping by an elite corps of army officers and their civilian colleagues. More important, the individual volumes offered vital scientific information on geology, ethnology, zoology, and botany, which was studied by American and European scholars for decades. The officers, many of whom received their scientific training at West Point, were ideally suited not only to protect the survey teams, but also to sketch scenes, compile data, and assemble specimens for study at the Smithsonian Institution.
Among the best documented of the surveys was the 1853 exploration of the 35th parallel across Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona to Los Angeles. This venture eventually led to publications by commander Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, artist Heinrich Balduin Müllhausen, John Sherburn, Lt. David S. Stanley, and Lt. John C. Tidball. Although Tidball's "Report" has long been utilized by historians, a more polished account of his participation has recently been uncovered in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. This "Itinerary" manuscript serves as [End Page 236] the basis for this new book, and because it was written many years after the exploration, it contains more interpretive data than the original "Report." Through its pages we learn much more about the men of the expedition, their personal idiosyncrasies, their relations with various Indian tribes, and about Tidball's deeper thoughts.
The author has allowed Lt. Tidball to speak for himself at many junctures in this book, while simultaneously connecting the other men's published accounts into a broader and more coherent story. This technique is especially important for describing the initial two-thirds of the exploration because Lt. Tidball did not join the party until they had already reached the Zuni villages along the New Mexico-Arizona border. Tidball was stationed at nearby Ft. Defiance and had been instructed to take a twenty-five-man escort to join Whipple in the field.
Soldier-Artist of the Great Reconnaissance is organized around the day-to-day experiences of the Whipple Expedition. The author has meticulously examined the daily references of each of the record keepers and has compared their reactions to the phenomena encountered along the trail. He has also corrected their occasional mistakes and has clarified conflicting information. More important, the author has wisely placed the Whipple Expedition within the broader context of American expansion and the evolution of nineteenth century scientific thought. Like Pulitzer Prize winner William Goetzmann before him, he has interpreted government exploration of the first half of the nineteenth century within the proper framework of the United States Army's elite Corps of Topographical Engineers.
Persons looking for a lively account about exploration in the Southwest will be pleased with this well-researched and well-written book. Persons looking for a deeper understanding of the army's diverse scientific roles on the frontier will be even more pleased with this effort. It reminds current generations that the frontier army may not have always lived in glory, but it certainly contributed to a better understanding about the mysterious West.