By Harley G. Shaw

Fort Whipple.  Whipple Street.  The Whipple Stage.  Whipple is a common name around Prescott.  Go west to the Colorado River and you find the Whipple Mountains.  Obviously, someone named Whipple left his name scattered around Arizona, yet we seldom hear of Whipple the man.  Who was he?  What did he do to merit renown?

What was his connection with Prescott?  With Arizona?  No biography has been written as yet for Whipple.  The best summary of his life has been provided by Mary McDougall Gordon in her book, Through Indian Country to California.

In 1853 and 1854, Amiel Weeks Whipple commanded the Pacific Railroad Survey through northern Arizona along the 35th parallel.  This survey, one of several trying to determine the best route for the nation's first continental railroad, started at Fort Smith, Arkansas and ended at San Pedro Island, California.  The survey party traveled by wagon and mule for 1845 miles, as measured by the "viameter" attached to one of the wagons and calibrated to the circumference of its wheel.  Upon entering Arizona, it traveled down the Zuni and Little Colorado Rivers, spending Christmas, 1853, at a water hole called Turkey Tanks, just southeast of Flagstaff.  It progressed from there to Leroux Springs at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, then traveled parallel and just north of what is now Interstate 40 past the present sites of Williams and Ash Fork. 

Just west of Ash Fork, the party turned southwest to Picacho Mountain, across Big Chino, and up Walnut Creek through Aztec Pass.  It then traveled westerly to the Big Sandy and followed it to the Bill Williams River and the Colorado.  From there it proceeded west to Los Angeles.  Whipple's survey was the first extensive scientific survey of northern Arizona.  In addition to surveyors evaluating the route for a railroad, the party included a meteorologist, a geologist, an ethnologist (Whipple himself), a botanist, and a zoologist, as well as a cartographer and two artists.  The collections and reports from the survey provided the most complete description of the landscape, plants, and wildlife that had yet been gathered in northern Arizona.

Whipple himself was an accomplished scientist and logistician.  He was well acquainted with scientists at the Smithsonian Institute and coordinated his work with them.  His expedition was recognized to be the most efficient and harmonious of all the Pacific Railroad surveys.  His relations with his scientific corps were particularly amiable, and his enthusiasm and interest were appreciated by the senior members.  Botanist Dr. Bigelow, geologist Jules Marcou, and chief aid Lieutenant J. C. Ives all recorded their admiration and respect for Whipple.  Balduin Möllhausen, a German naturalist and artist who accompanied Whipple's expedition wrote that Whipple had "special professional qualifications," and "particularly pleasing manners and inspired confidence in all who approached him."  Dr. Bigelow named dozens of exotic plants collected on the Whipple expedition in his honor.

Whipple was not new to the west nor to the responsibility of leading large-scaled surveys.  Born in Massachusetts in 1817, he entered West Point after one year at Amherst College and in 1841 graduated fifth in a class of 41 cadets.  Following assignment to the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Whipple acted as a surveyor for public works projects in Maryland and New Hampshire and for a military reconnaissance in Louisiana.  From 1844 to 1849 he served with the United States survey of the northeastern boundary with Canada, then moved immediately to the United States and Mexico boundary Commission as its assistant astronomer.  He later became the Commission's chief astronomer and took over the duties of the chief surveyor as well.  One historian has written that Whipple was "the reliable wheelhorse" of a commission in which wastefulness, political intrigue, and petty jealousies assumed almost comic proportions.  Recognized as an able and conscientious officer, Whipple in 1851, received a promotion to first lieutenant. In both boundary surveys he had worked under Major Emory, and that association undoubtedly influenced the decision to appoint him as a commander of one of the major railroad surveys.

After completing his reports in Washington in 1855, Whipple was promoted to captain and served in Detroit until 1861 with the Topographical Engineers.  He returned to Washington at the outbreak of the Civil War, serving in the force defending the capital and as an important mapmaker for the Army of the Potomac.  While in Washington, Whipple met Abraham Lincoln, who was openly interested in his career and warm in his friendship.  When Whipple, by then a brigadier general, died of wounds on May 7, 1863, after the battle of Chancellorsville, the Secretary of War at President Lincoln's request promoted him to major general, the commission dating from May 4, when Whipple received his terrible wound in the abdomen.  Lincoln attended Whipple's funeral.

Whipple was only 46 years old when he fell in battle.  Through his career, he served well as a soldier, a surveyor, and a scientist.  He was certainly one of the brightest and the best of his time.  We can only speculate where his career would have led had he survived to apply his knowledge of the southwest once the agonies of the Civil War abated.  He was of the ilk who could change the course of history. 

Harley G. Shaw is Adjunct Curator of Wildlife Biology at the Sharlot Hall Museum and is currently working a more extensive article about Whipple and his surveys for the Museum's Cactus and Pine.


Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (photo supplied by author). Reuse only by permission.
Today in Prescott the name Whipple is liable to bring to mind bathroom tissue or the street in front of the Y, but the real man lead a survey across northern Arizona in the winter of 1853-54 to determine a practical route for a railroad.