Primary Sources


"Pacific Railroad Survey Report, Northern Route"

"Pacific Railroad Survey Report, Northern Route" (1853)

From the Boston Post, November 22.
FORT BENTON, Upper Missouri,
September 16, 1853.
Since I wrote you from Fort Union, my advance parties from the Mississippi and the Pacific have met on the ridge of the Rocky Mountain. A good pass has been found, and there seems scarcely a doubt of the entire practicability of the great northern railroad. Our subsequent efforts the present season will be directed to thorough examination of this pass in the mountains, and all the others in the intermediate range of the Pacific, viz: the Bitter Root and Cascade rangers [sic]. I have long been satisfied that between the head waters of the Missouri and Columbia rivers there must be good passes, lower and more practicable than the South Pass. Our attention had specially been given to the passes from the forks of the Missouri—those from the forks of the Marias and the intermediate one in which my advance parties met. Before leaving Washington it was determined to direct the explorations upon this past first, and Lieut. Saxton, a son of Massachusetts, in command of the advance party from the Pacific, had orders to establish a depot at St. Mary's village, just west of the mountains and to cross the mountains and meet me at Fort Benton. I arrived here on the first day of this month and not hearing from him I sent forward a small party, under Lieut. Grover, to reconnoiter the pass and ascertain whether he had reached the St. Mary's village. They met just this side of the ridge. The pass in excellence exceeds every expectation. The ascent in both directions is gentle and it would seem that the whole range has been sunk at this point for the express purpose for allowing the passage of a railroad. According to the barometer it is more than two thousand five hundred feet below the south pass; but I would not venture to pronounce it more than one thousand feet lower until the result is tested by subsequent examinations. To-day [sic], the main party, under Lieut. Donelson—a son of Major Donelson, the former editor of the Washington Union—moved forward to carefully examine this pass from the forks of the Missouri.

But the pass north, leading from the forks of the Marias river to the Columbia, will, it seems to me, be found to be the best of the three. I had assigned to Mr. Lander, one of the civil engineers, the duty of examining this pass; but learning from Lieut. Saxton that Cadot's pass was excellent, and that much work remained to be done west of the mountains. I determined to push my whole force through it, in order to insure reaching the Pacific before the close of the season. Lieut. Mullen had been dispatched before Lieut. Saxton.s arrival, and the express giving of information of his coming overtook me sixty-five miles on my way from Fort Benton to the Blackfoot camp, where I was going with Mr. Londer to procure guides, and get detailed information as to the best route through the Marirs [sic] Pass. The great difficulties in exploring the passes of the Rocky Mountains and the country west is the immense quantity of timber, obstructing a view of the country and the trails pursued by the Indians. This is particularly the case with the Marias Pass, and more time would have been required in the examination than I had at my disposal. It should be carefully examined another year. The mountains west of the Rocky Mountains, viz: the Bitter Root and Cascade rangers, are also densely wooded, and snows on the dividing range occurr [sic] the last day of October. The Indians cross these mountains with their Families till early in November, but a proper survey is very difficult at a later period. Hence the necessity of despatch [sic] in crossing the mountains and surveying the regions west.

Lieut. Saxton depicts in glowing colors, the magnificent scenery, fertile valleys, beautiful rivers, and the extraordinary forest growth of the Washington Territory.—Out of every luxuriance of nature arises the principal obstruction to the exploration of the country. Vast forests cover the hill tops and fill the valleys, making it difficult to make one.s way. The beautiful St. Mary's valley, at the western base of the Rocky Mountains, is beyond description, has a mild climate, and cattle keep fat in winter as well as summer, on its nutriiious [sic] grasses. This valley connects all the passes, and is only five or six days journey from the mouth of the Missouri River. I am satisfied that the Missouri is Navigable for steamers to the to the falls; but I am now having it surveyed to determine this question. Lieut. Donalson has already made the survey from its mouth to above Fort Union, and Lient. [sic] Grover will by the close of October, have completed it to the falls. The data will then be collected for an official report. Much has been said about the obstructions to railroads from snow, and this will be the great objection to this route. We shall, the ensuing winter, collect many facts bearing upon this question by a meterological [sic] post which I have Established at Fort Benton, under Mr. Doty, and one which I propose to establish at St. Mary's under Mr. Mullan. But more is to be done. Lieut. Grover, a man of iron nerve and great resources, will start in this point in January with a dog train, and will end in the dead of winter pass over the whole route to the Pacific, crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the Bitter Root and Cascade rangers. It seems an impracticable undertaking; but I know Lt. Grover, and no doubt its successful accomplishment.

In consequence of Lieut. Saxton bringing more men to the work, I have decided to send back all but three of the dragoons attached to the expedition, I advised several of the hired men, in my judgment, not good mountain men enough for the duty before us, to return also. They entreated me to go on. Not one wishes to turn back. Every man wishes to identify himself with the work before us, and the utmost confidence prevails.

In the Cascade Range, that gallant and able officer, Capt. McClellan one of my noble brothers in Mexico, is now ascertaining the most practicable pass, and in one month I hope to exchange congratulations with him at the entire success of the undertaking.

Lieut. Saxton will go down the Missouri in charge of the returned men, and to carry information to the department in Washington of the condition of the exploration before the session of congress. As an evidence of my sense of his services, I published an order, of which I send you a copy.

Lieut. Donelson, in charge of the main party, brings his duty great force of character, high intelligence, and an unsurpassed diligence and fidelity.

But our experience among the Indians is as extraordinary as expected. We have traversed the region of the terrible Blackfeet—have met them in war parties and in their camps, and have received nothing but kindness and hospitality.

They have brought us fresh meat, guided us on our way, brought into camp strayed animals, and have guarded us while we slept. Not one of our men has been touched, not the smallest thing has been taken. We were wending our way to the northern Blackfeet camps, when I was called back by the express informing me of Lieut. Saxon.s arrival—a little party surrounded by our Blackfeet friends, and not even keeping any guard at night. I treated them as true friends, took them at their word, and directed all my men to go down to sleep. Lieut. Saxton had precisely the same experience with the Indians west of the mountains. At this moment, Mr. Stanley, the artist of the expedition, with four men, is in their midst, under the 50th parallel, and I am now awaiting his return, to push forward and rejoin Lieut. Donelson. The government has yet done no thing for these Indians, and I have invited them to Fort Benton to give them a message from the Great Father, and to ascertain whether they will agree for all time to come to treat all whites as they have treated me and mine.

These Indians range from the Sasteatchawah to the California trail, and in the Winter here [line destroyed by fold] Milk river, the principal northern tributary of the Missouri, instead of running north into British territory as laid down on all the maps, runs nearly due west to within one hundred miles of the mountains, and then deflecting rapidly to the north has its sources in the Cypress mountain and the adjacent spurs of the Rocky Mountains. At the base of the mountains, between Milk River and the forks of the Missouri the country is a plateau rising gently to the several passes , in every direction practicable for a railroad. There are several tributaries flowing thro' it to the Missouri, and several very lofty buttes, three over three thousand feet above the plateau.

The Milk river line affords extraordinary facilities for building a railroad, and has a natural connection with every pass.

The country south of the Missouri to the Black Hills, and that between the Milk and Missouri rivers has been explored by Dr. Evans, the geologist of the expedition, who has not only made great additions to the topography of the country, but has made a very large geological collection. He is now in the passes of the mountains on his way to Oregon.

Before closing my letter, I must notice my obligations to the gentlemen of both the fur companies in St. Louis, for their uniform kindness and aid to the expedition. To Mr. Campbell, particularly, I am indebted for his disinterested and untiring services on our behalf. To Mr. Sibley and Mr. Culbertson, partners in the American Fur Company, in charge of the posts on tde [sic] Mississippi and Missouri, am I especially indebted, the former, both in Washington City and his residence on the St. Peters, devoted much time and attention to the survey, and rendered us very valuable assistance.

I met Mr. Culbertson in St. Louis in May, and found his great experience derived from twenty years residence among the Indian tribes of the upper Missouri, and his perfect knowledge of men and things in the country through which we had to pass, fitted him for a most valuable adviser. I appointed him special agent among the Blackfeet Indians, subject to the approval of the Indian Commissioner. He has been untiring and indefatigable in his discharge of duty, and has rendered invaluable aid to the expedition. At a great loss of time and absence from his business he has continued up to this time with the expedition, and to his great influence, with the Indians, and prudent advice, I feel much is due for the success which has attended all our intercourse with the Indians.

His good lady, a member of the blood tribe of the Blackfeet nation, asked to accompany him on the expedition, fearing difficulties might occur between members of the survey and some of her people, which her presence might obviate.

On the night before leaving Fort Union, she said to Mr. Culbertson: "I will go with you; I will do what I can to settle differances [sic] and where you die I will die." Her devoted kindness to us has obtained my friendly regard, and much of the unpleasantness of the camp life has been removed by her presence.

Truly your friend
ISAAC I. Stevens.

ORDER No. 18


The chief of the expedition congratulates Lieut. Saxton and his party on their safe arrival at Fort Benton from the mouth of the Columbia. For indomitable energy, sound judgment, and the most crowning accomplishment, Lieut. Saxton has the thanks of all his associates, and deserves honorable mention at the hands of all men who seek to advance the honor and renown of their country.

Lieut. Grover, in command of the advance party to open a communication with the partied west of the mountains, and who met Lieut. Saxton near the dividing ridge, also receives the thanks and congratulations of his associates in the great work now so ripe for success.

Daylight now breaks through the struggles of three months.

On the 8th of June the camp train left Camp Pierce, on Lake Amelia; and on the 8th of September, the parties from Mississippi shook hands from across the continent. The pass of the Rocky Mountains is found to be more than one thousand feet below the South Pass, and is not only practicable, but expressly made to our hands for the great northern railroad.

Governor Washington Territory, &c., in charge of exploration.


From the collections of the American Antiquarian Society



Need help? See our page describing how to use this website
Contact us for more information

Last updated June 7, 2005