The Topographic Engineers of the U.S.A.

As appearing in The Gold Nugget, June 2007
by George Lanum
Transcribed by Paul Nagy

Back to 1860! Dressed in the summer uniform of a U.S. Army officer, the evening's speaker, George Lanum, gives us the history of the Topographic Engineering Corps. Originally a part of the army, the topographic engineers were split off by congress in 1838. But nearly all corps members remained West Pointers and nearly all from the top of their class. They included such reknowned figures as explorer John C. Fremont and General George Meade of Gettysburg fame.

The purpose of the topographic engineers was to advance Manifest Destiny, the belief that the U.S. should extend from coast to coast. This of course was not merely a military pursuit, and so the corps did extensive civilian work, including mapping and road building. They were commissioned by congress to map every river. The demarcation line of "civilization" at the time was the Mississippi River. Elevations were measured with a barometer, an archaic method to us, but done with startling accuracy. Duties of the topographic engineers also included conducting mineral surveys and plant and animal surveys. They supplied the specimens for such famed scientists as Ebert and Asa Grey. Corps members were also available for military duties if needed.

Topographic engineers plotted latitudes and longitudes throughout the west. All had to be done by range of vision triangulation, tedious and painstaking, but which allowed more orderly settlement to follow. Corps members knew from the early trappers that there was gold in the west, but at the time the profitability of beaver pelts was greater than gold mining would have produced. Beavers were simply a cheaper and easier income source. Regarding the slaughter of the buffalo, Mr. Lanum pointed out that the chief value of the buffalo hides was for use as drive belts for the fast growing mechanization of American industry.

Mr. Lanum also brought replicas of early maps, instruments of the day including compass and microscope, and a scale model of a 19th century stamp mill. He mentioned that Black Hawk, Colorado, once had one hundred and fifty stamp mills pounding day and night. He is correct that we owe our standard of living and world economic prominence to the labors and sacrifices of those who came before us!

Back Top Home

© 2007 Gold Prospectors of the Rockies