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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Simpson Expedition to Uinta Valley

James H. Simpson, 1857
(Wikimedia Commons)

Just two months after James Gammell returned home from an expedition to the site of the Mountain Meadows massacre, he joined James Simpson’s expedition to explore the Uinta Valley.  James H. Simpson, an officer in the U.S. Army, and a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, was ordered to Camp Floyd in 1858.  Under Captain Simpson’s direction the army made its most significant contribution of the Utah War by improving western immigrant roads, and mapping new routes to shorten the travel time between the states and California.  Simpson’s team of scientists and artists accompanied the troops, collecting specimens of flora and fauna, and sketching the scenery.  The published report inspired many emigrants to move to the western frontier.

In August 1859, Simpson returned to Camp Floyd after surveying a new route to Carson Valley, Nevada.  Four days later, on August 9, he and his team left Camp Floyd again for Fort Bridger, following a new route that they had opened the previous fall.  This time he took James Gammell along as his guide.  Under orders from General Albert Sidney Johnston, they were looking for the most practical wagon road between Camp Floyd and the Uinta Valley and then to the Green River.  From Camp Floyd, Simpson’s party traveled in a northeasterly direction, passing through the Utah settlements of Lehi, American Fork, and Mountainville (Alpine) to the Timpanogos River(1) road (now the Provo Canyon Road).  Simpson established his main camp on Torbert’s Creek, Round Prairie (now called Heber Valley):(2)

August 12 [1859], Camp on Torbert’s Creek(3), Round Prairie.  Elevation above the sea, 5,786 feet. Thermometer at 5.30 a. m., 43ยบ.  Having established my main camp at this point, I leave this morning to examine pass over Uinta range into Green River Valley, agreeably to orders of General Johnston of August 5th.  Take with me one of my assistants, Mr. Henry Engelmann, (geologist and meteorologist,) ten dragoons, Mr. James Gammell, as guide, Ute Pete, Clark, and Dougherty, in all sixteen persons, with three pack-mules.(4)

The next day the party made its way up Coal Creek Canyon to the summit of the Uinta Mountain divide (9,680 feet) and then down the other side to the Duchesne and the Uinta River junction (near Roosevelt, Utah), a distance of seventy-five miles.(5)  Simpson described the route as “a most excellent one…however, [it] is at present far from being practicable for wagons, and not even is it practicable for pack-mules without the very greatest tax upon man and animals…rendered so by willow, aspen, and fir thickets, and by steep and rocky precipices and ridges.”  Nine of the ten dragoons’ horses became crippled and had to be left behind due to the “extraordinarily rough, steep, and stony character of the route.”  Gammell reported that on a previous trip via this same route he left behind a crippled horse and came close to losing another.(6)

In his written report Simpson recommended that a military work crew remove the fallen and standing timber along a thirty-six mile stretch of this route in order to accommodate the passage of wagons.  Lacking personal knowledge of the Uinta Valley, Simpson relied on Gammell’s experience to describe the area:

The valley of the Uinta, Mr. Gammell represents as also being very fine, all the way to Green River, being covered with groves of large cottonwood, beautiful grass, and so lying as to be easily irrigated.  It is, besides, accounted as one of the warmest valleys in the Territory.  He says it is from one to ten miles wide.  Both the Du Chesne Fork and the Uinta River, where they meet, are about 50 feet wide, and from one to three feet deep.  The former is said to contain trout and white-fish, the white-fish weighing from 10 to 25 pounds.  The valleys of these rivers are deeply seated between inclosing heights, varying from 200 to 500 feet.  The formation of the rocks is like that of White Clay Creek, whitish sandstones alternating with sandstone shales.(7)

Captain Simpson and his party returned to the main camp in Heber Valley, then broke camp and headed to Fort Bridger.  The main party, including Gammell, traveled the route that was opened the previous fall and arrived at Fort Bridger on August 25.  Simpson with a small group of seven, explored a new route via Kamas Prairie (now Utah route 150), and arrived a day later.  This completed Simpson’s assignment in the Great Basin.  From Fort Bridger he returned to his wife in Minnesota.  A few years later, as chief engineer of the Interior Department, he oversaw the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad.

It seems appropriate to acknowledge the toughness, determination, and courage of not only Simpson, but also of men like James Gammell, who made such an important contribution to exploration and road building in the Great Basin.
  1. The Timpanogos River is now called the Provo River.
  2. Round Prairie was the earliest name of a valley later called Provo Valley. It became known as Heber Valley after Heber City was named in honor of Heber C. Kimball. A small settlement of ten families called Heber City had sprung up since Simpson’s first exploration of this valley the previous fall.
  3. The Torbert Creek campsite was east of Soldier Hollow, on the bend of the Provo River, and would now be under Jordanelle Reservoir.
  4. Simpson, J. H., Report of Explorations Across the Great Basin of the Territory of Utah for a Direct Wagon Route from Camp Floyd, to Genoa, in Carson Valley, in 1859, Washington, 1876, p. 139.
  5. This route may correspond to present-day Utah state road 35 and US 40. Click on this link for a map of the area:
  6. Simpson Report, p. 140.
  7. Simpson Report, p. 141.

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