The Red River Expedition of 1852


Historical Marker

Pampa High, Class of '48, has always considered itself special. When it raised some $600 for a historical marker at its 35th reunion in 1983, it wanted to be seen as especially grateful. Time has confirmed what youth had glimpsed: we owe much to town, to school and to teachers. We also have a debt to explorers and settlers of a more distant past. The historical marker some five miles south of Pampa calls attention to explorers who in 1852 made Americans aware of the Texas Panhandle.

He squinted as he held the milky yellow bottle between his eyes and the sun. It was empty of the all-purpose elixir he had brought from the commissary at Ft. Smith. It would do. He reread the message he had written and carefully poked it through the small neck. "There!" And just as carefully, he pushed the blackened cork into the neck. He was pleased.

He then put the bottle upright in the hole he had dug four feet from a tall cottonwood and nudged it against a root. Exactly four feet. He was an exact man. He packed the sandy clay over the bottle, leaving a mound like a tiny grave. He picked up his handaxe and with a half-dozen crisp strokes against the cottonwood, marked his campsite with its buried bottle. His deputy, George B. McClellan, looked on with approval.

He picked up a leather-bound diary, a good-bye gift from his wife. It read, "R. B. Marcy, Capt. USA." He turned to the first blank page and wrote "June 16, 1852." He dipped his pen in the ink again and wrote - his penmanship and his ideas both exact - that his exploring expedition of soldiers and wagons "encamped here" and had this day "traced the north branch of the Red River to its sources."

Most people's diaries are private. Marcy's was destined for publication and for exposition before Congress. It would solve many mysteries. Let's look at three it solved:

1. Captain Randolph Barnes Marcy (1812-1887) proved that some of the wet/dry creek beds in the Pampa area are the headwaters of the Red River, one of the nation's longest. On June 16, 1852, he walked upstream and buried the bottle at the source of the North Fork. The Historical Marker is near there. (Unfortunately, Marcy's intention that posterity know the exact spot was frustrated as time eroded both bottle and notched cottonwood.) On July 1, he located the source of the Main or Prairie Dog Fork. Maps reflecting the new discoveries now showed that from slow and meandering rivulets in the Texas Panhandle, the Red River was born and runs east and south for 1,222 miles before it empties into the even mightier Mississippi.

2. In the second place, Captain Randolph Marcy's discoveries enabled Congress, and later the Supreme Court, to settle a long dispute over the legal boundary between Texas and Oklahoma. Back in 1819 a boundary had been set by the United States and Spain (to whom Texas then belonged) in relation to the Red River. But which of its several branches? In his exposition of his diaries before the Congress, Marcy argued that the sources of the Red River were not a single line on the map but a ganglia of gnarled rope. He explained which spot on the Red River the 1819 negotiations had intended.

Congress and later the Supreme Court accepted his findings and on them defined the Texas-Oklahoma border, enabling Congress in 189O to establish the Territory of Oklahoma.

3. And last, these discoveries alone would have made Randolph Marcy one of the West's great explorers and cartographers. However, in my opinion, his greatest contribution was in showing on what terms American farmers and ranchers could settle the Panhandle. There had been others in the area -- Spanish friars and captains, nomadic Indians, American prospectors en route from Ft. Smith to Santa Fe and westward to the gold fields of California. But these were transients! Could Anglo-Americans live here on land some called simply "The Dessert?

In "The Prairie Traveler" and "Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border", we get the combined insights of surveyors and engineers, cartographers and biologists on the Marcy team. What about water and housing-sized timber? What about hunting and fishing? Buffalo and grass? Rainfall and soil? Blizzards and summer heat? Friendly Indians and hostile ones? It fell to Marcy to put these findings into captivating prose.

It would he an injustice to leave you thinking that Randolph Marcy was no warmer than a computer printout. He enjoyed talking of a pretty "Prairie Belle" who was as tough as a rustler but as jealous of her virtue as a nun. At other times, he was moved to reverential awe by a thunderstorm and to prayerful tears at his deliverance from near starvation.

Furthermore, Marcy anticipated Texas` greatest historian, Walter Prescott Webb, in understanding that civilization rests on three legs -- land water and timber. The Panhandle had land a-plenty, but water and limber were sufficient - said both Marcy and Webb - only for those willing to adopt a lifestyle different from the wet, wooded, lush East.

West Point prepared its officers for secondary peacetime tasks such as engineering and exploration. Tension between North and South in the late 1850's called Marcy and McClellan back to their primary vocation: war making. Nine years after they left the Pampa area, both were generals in Lincoln's Army. Since George McClellan, Marcy's second in command, was a central actor in the Civil War drama, his story needs to be briefly told.

George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885) left his name on the Panhandle map because Captain Marcy thought him the first white man to see McClellan Creek after which Lake McClellan is named. He had bigger things to do. When President Lincoln designated him his general-in-chief in 1861, he was known as a superior organizer who also inspired great loyalty in his men. But "Little Mac" lacked the killer instinct and prompted his vexed Commander-in-Chief to despair that he would not move aggressively against the Confederates. The rustic Lincoln, whom McClellan, a Philadelphia blueblood, thought his inferior, humiliated him twice, first by removing him from supreme command and then by drubbing him soundly in the 1864 Presidential election. He went off to Europe to lick his wounds, and he and his wife Mary Ellen, the daughter of Randolph Marcy, faded into the shadows of history with "Little Mac's" contributions to the northern cause still a matter of controversy.

If McClellan's Civil War record is ambiguous. his performance and that of Marcy and their 55 fellow explorers in Texas is not. Marcy and McClellan were not the first white men here, but Marcy's books were the first to offer manuals for coping with the Panhandle. They took the area`s fearsome reputation and separated real from mythical dangers. The men and woman who soon came to settle were willing to tackle hardships if they did not have to wrestle ghosts. In Randolph Marcy's sparse prose in the bottle and in the diaries is an implicit message: Yes, the Desert is fit for humans. Indeed, it can be made to blossom like a rose. But - only the hardy need apply!

The founding fathers of the Panhandle towns heard the message and came. We cannot repay our debt to them or to the explorers who beckoned them, but we can acknowledge that debt, and joined with them by what Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory," we can affirm that no generation stands alone.

Richard B. Hughes

With research assistance from Tom Chisholm
Both P.H.S. Class of '48
April 21, l986

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Last Update: 06/04/97
Web Author: David White