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Wheeler Survey records

Identifier: COU:1705

Scope and Contents

The Wheeler Survey includes topographical, astronomical, and meteorological field books of the survey parties in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah from 1869 to 1878.


  • Creation: 1871 - 1878

Biographical / Historical

The Wheeler Survey, as The United States Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian was called, was conducted officially from 1872 to 1879, though Wheeler actually began surveying in 1867. Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler was appointed to head the Wheeler Survey, which was the army’s response to the Hayden, King, and Powell surveys. The Army considered the non-military surveys to be “imposters preempting duties that traditionally belonged to the army engineers”. The Hayden and Powell surveys were conducted on the authority of the Interior Department, and King only held civilian status with the Corps of Engineers. The Wheeler Survey was conducted in: California, Nevada, and present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler was born in Grafton, Massachusetts on October 9, 1842. By 1862, Wheeler was living in the Colorado Territory, although his family still resided in Massachusetts. He received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point on July 1, 1862. Wheeler graduated sixth in his class at West Point on June 6, 1866, and was commissioned Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers. He was assigned as Assistant Engineer on the Survey of Point Lobos and Vicinity, and aided in the construction of the Defense of Fort Point, both of which were located in the San Francisco Bay area. He worked on those projects from 1866 until 1868. On March 7, 1867 Wheeler was promoted to First Lieutenant.

From 1869 until 1871 he was assigned as engineer on the staff of the Commanding General of the Department of California. In 1869, Wheeler was authorized to go on a military reconnaissance for topographical purposes in southwest Nevada and Western Utah. From March 18, 1871, to June 17, 1880 Wheeler worked on what became known as The Wheeler Survey. Then Wheeler worked on completing the sketches, reports, data, and documents involved with the survey from June 1, 1883, until March 6, 1884, even though Wheeler was on a leave of absence or sick leave from 1880 until 1884. During this period Wheeler was commissioned delegate by the War Department to the Third International Geographical Congress and Exhibition in Venice, Italy. In 1885 and 1886 Wheeler worked to complete the final reports on the survey. He retired early on June 15, 1888, due to a disability he had contracted in the line of duty. George Wheeler died in New York, in 1905.

The main objective of the Wheeler Survey was to obtain “correct topographical knowledge of the traversed [land]… and to prepare accurate maps of that section” (Bartlett, 388) and information of mineral resources. The Wheeler Survey took 15 years, but the cost of the survey never exceeded $2,500,000. The Wheeler Survey collection at the Archives, University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries, focus primarily on Colorado, although there are a few date books on the Utah, New Mexico and Nevada portions of the Survey.

Lt. William L. Marshall was the lead surveyor in Colorado. He conducted operations south of Denver in 1873, 1874, and 1875. He is credited with discovering “Marshall Pass.” In 1873, because of a toothache, Lt. Marshall, and a packer named Dave Mears, decided to try a passage though a depression in the mountains, which Marshall had observed, in order to make it to Denver, and a dentist, faster. This resulted in Marshall finding a route that cut 125 miles off the trip between Denver and the San Juan area. It was not until 1875, however, that Marshall officially mentioned the discovery of this low route from the Arkansas River to the Gunnison drainage, later called the Marshall Pass, which was later traversed by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

Another discovery made by the Marshall party was in Mesa Verde. Lt. Whipple and others from the Marshall group separated from the main group and became some of the first white men to discover the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. These were the “ruins in the valley of the Meincos that Jackson had seen weeks before”. (Bartlett, 412) Jackson later advertised the ruins to the world along with Hayden. The competing Hayden and Marshall Survey groups had various confrontations in Colorado, such as territorial ones in South Park. Also, they disagreed over survey methodology. Marshall felt that meandering and odometer work was essential, while Hayden strongly disagreed. Hayden’s method proved the more accurate of the two.

Marshall’s most thorough report, General Description of the Area Surveyed, was completed after the 1875 survey period. In this report, Marshall mentioned agricultural, grazing, mining developments, timber resources, and described the routes of communication. Marshall’s description of the San Juan area, including its rugged peaks, deep canyons, and torturous trails, is considered to be the most complete of any of the descriptions of that area among the surveys. Marshall later pointed out how the Valley could become productive farm land if irrigated. Marshall also identified six distinct mining districts in southern Colorado: the Animas District, Eureka District, the Uncompahgre District, Blain’s Peak or Mount Sneffel’s District, Park district, and Lake District. He suggested pushing a railroad through “Marshall Pass,” which the Denver Rio Grande did.

The Wheeler Survey included Lt. Charles C. Morrison, Lt. Carpenter, Lt. Bergland, Lt. Bernie Rogers, Jr., Lt. Eugene Griffin and later Lt. Eric Bergland. Lt. Bergland took over after Lt. Marshall was relieved from duty on August 8, 1876. The survey groups that started in 1876 were “occupied primarily on perfecting work previously done.” (Bartlett, 428) In 1876 only 750 square miles were covered; by 1877 3,825 square miles were covered. In 1877, it is felt that Lt. Bergland put out the clearest brief reports submitted in any year by any of the Colorado parties, and Bergland considered it “a remarkably successful one (survey)”. The area was thoroughly explored.” (Bartlett, 432)

Appropriations ended on June 30th 1879. Two parties were organized in April to work until June 30th. According to Wheeler, chief topographer Nell and his party were “successful in [their] operations, locating along [their] route a number of new mining camps…” (Bartlett, 434). They identified Leadville as a promising mining town. In 1879 the Interior Department terminated these four early surveys and the Geological Survey was established to carry on their work.

Between 1869 and 1879 the Wheeler’s Survey groups mapped 33,041 square miles in Colorado, or 32 per cent of its entire area. Richard A. Bartlett, scholar of the great surveys stated:

The Wheeler maps were well done, but the investigations of the Wheeler Survey in botany, archeology, geology, zoology, and other related natural sciences, were haphazard in aim, inclined to be good work one season, poor another. Overall planning, except in the topographical field, was lacking. (Bartlett, 437)

From 1879, when field work ended, until 1883, when the Wheeler office operations ceased; the Wheeler Survey had apparently retained its corporate identity as a subordinate unit in the Office of the Chief of Engineers. Until his retirement in 1888, Lt. (later Captain) Wheeler supervised publication of the official report of his survey, the final volume of which was not published until 1889. With the possible exception of data used in compiling the report, the Wheeler Survey records apparently became “non-current” in 1883. The records remained relatively undisturbed until 1929, with the exception of maps and photographs, which were taken out and assimilated into files of the Office of the Chief of Engineers.

From 1883 to 1929 the Wheeler Survey records were kept by the Office of the Chief of Engineers, only a few papers taken out and became intermixed with extraneous records. Some may have been given away. On December 16, 1929, the Acting Director of the Geological Survey requested that the original records of the Wheeler Survey be transferred from the Office of the Chief of Engineers to the Geological Survey. Later, the Geological Survey decided that the bulk of the records should be transferred. They considered offers from both the University of Utah and the War Department to take the papers, and instead decided to send them to Stanford University, California, December 15, 1930. Francis P. Farquhar, from Stanford, noticed the Wheeler papers lying in a corner in the Engineer Corps Building, ready to be discarded, and asked if he could take them. The Corps of Engineers agreed, as long as the request came from a California Congressman or Senator. Senator Samuel M. Shortridge made the request and the records were transferred to the Stanford University Libraries. Stanford then began dispersing parts of the records to other institutions.3

On October 25, 1948, Selma Sullivan, head of the Document Division at Stanford, wrote that “they had the Wheeler Survey manuscripts and original note-book material which was sent to us from Washington many years ago”. Her plan was to keep only the materials relating to California and “to send to several of the Western University Libraries the material dealing specifically with their States, if it is desired. There will probably be somewhere from ten to forty small books for each state”. She also said these Universities could “feel free to discard” any of the material. In, 1960, Stanford offered their Wheeler Survey materials to the National Archives, and the records now form a subgroup of Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers (540 volumes). The Wheeler Survey can also be found at Yale University (31 volumes), University of New Mexico (53 volumes), and the University of Utah. The other great surveys, those of Hayden, King, and Powell can be found at the National Archives.


6 linear feet (4 boxes)

Language of Materials



Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler, United States Army Corps of Engineers, led expeditions for surveys west of the 100th Meridian between 1869 and 1871. The Wheeler Survey expedition made topographical surveys and conducted incidental scientific field work in the west until 1879. Three other organizations with similar missions, the Hayden, King, and Powell Surveys operated concurrently. In 1879 these four organizations were terminated, and the Geological Survey was established by the Interior Department to carry on their work. The Wheeler Survey Collection contains topographical, astrological, and meteorological field books of the Wheeler Survey parties in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah from 1869 to 1878.


Series 1: Topographical Records is separated into three sub series: White Labels (1874-1877), Green Labels (1874-1879) and Computation Books (1872-1878). Series 2: Astrological Records consists of observations for time, astronomical observations, and a daily journal (1871-1878). Series 3: Meteorological Records consists of observational books from Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah (1871-1878).

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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States