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Pacific Railroad Survey of 1853

On a hot July morning in 1853, a group of hungry men were navigating the plains of North Dakota. As members of the Pacific Railway Survey, they were tasked with finding the best northern route for a transcontinental railroad. Led by Isaac Stevens, a distinguished engineer, the group consisted of soldiers, scientists, engineers, artists, and local guide Pierre Bottineau. Stevens was scheduled to become the first governor of the territory of Washington. He chose to undertake the survey along the way. After 7 weeks of travel, food provisions were growing low. It would be another 7 weeks until they reached Fort Union where they could restock. However, at the rate of their current consumption, their provisions would last only halfway.

Every day at 2 a.m. the team’s day began when the cooks lit the fires for breakfast. At 4, the soldiers were called to eat. During the meal, the animals were harnessed, and by 5 a.m., the camp was in motion.

Even with the diminishing food supply, Stevens was hopeful. He knew after crossing the Bois de Sioux River on June 29, they had reached “the commencement of buffalo country.” On today’s maps, the Bois de Sioux is the border between North Dakota and Minnesota south of Wahpeton. It’s also where the rolling river valley opened up to the vast, treeless grasslands that fed the large herds of American Bison.

On July 10, the group reached the shores of Lake Jessie near the Sheyenne River Valley. Here they first encountered the fabled buffalo. Stevens recounts the event, stating:

…ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo upon it. Their number was variously estimated by the members of the party -- some as high as a half million. I do not think it is an exaggeration to set it down at 200,000. I had heard of myriads of these animals inhabiting these plains, but I did not realize the truth of these accounts to this day when they surpassed anything I could have imagined…”

The group’s guide, Pierre Bottineau, set forth with a group of hunters. In less than an hour a wagon was called to collect the choice cuts of meat from nine buffalo cows.

No longer concerned with the prospect of empty bellies, the team set forth again. By November, they would arrive at Fort Vancouver, near present-day Portland, Oregon, completing the survey for a railroad that would bring much change to the northern prairie.

Written by Maria Witham





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