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James Hervey Simpson was an officer in the U.S. Army and a member of the United States Topographical Engineers.

Early Years

He was born in New Brunswickmarker, New Jerseymarker on March 9, 1813, the son of John Simpson and Mary Brunson. He graduated from the United States Military Academymarker in 1832 and was initially assigned to the Third Artillery. He served in the Second Seminole Warmarker and was promoted to first lieutenant in 1837.

Topographical Engineers

In 1838, a separate department known as the U.S. Army's Topographical Engineers was created (not to be confused with the Corps of Engineers with whom they were merged back into during the Civil War). Lieutenant Simpson was one of the officers transferred to the newly created bureau and assigned as an assistant to Captain W. G. Williams who was in charge of harbor construction on Lake Erie. The following year, he worked on road construction in Florida and then lake surveys in Wisconsin and Ohio. From 1845 to 1847, he was in charge of the harbor of Erie.

New Mexico Expedition, 1849

In 1849, Lieutenant Simpson surveyed areas in the American Southwest, between Santa Femarker and the Navajo tribal lands. He survey a road from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Sante Fe, New Mexico and then served for a year as the Chief Topographical Engineer for the Department of New Mexico.

Other Duties

After six months sick leave, Simpson returned to duty and was transferred to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1851 where he spent the next five years overseeing the roads of the territory. During this period, he was promoted to Captain. From June 1856 to February 1858, Simpson was engaged in coastal survey of Florida.

Utah Expedition, 1858-59

Captain Simpson’s expedition arriving at Genoa, a Mormon settlement on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe, in 1859.
Courtesy the National Archives.

In early 1858, Captain Simpson was ordered to join the Army's reinforcements for the Utah War. He and his team resurveyed the trails from Fort Leavenworth to Utah and his photographer, Samuel C. Mills, produced the earliest surviving photographs of features along the trail. Upon his arrival at Camp Floyd, he was directed to open a new road between that post and Fort Bridgermarker. Simpson and his team also surveyed the military reservation at Fort Bridger, at Camp Floyd and in the Rush Valley.

In May 1859, he headed an expedition to survey a new route from Camp Floyd (south of Salt Lake Citymarker) across the Great Salt Lake Desertmarker of Utahmarker and through the Basin and Range Province, to Genoamarker (in far western Nevadamarker). Although Simpson's detailed survey results were not published until 1876, the Army immediately realized the value of this more direct route to Californiamarker, and contracted Frederick Lander to improve it for use by wagons.

Simpson's Central Route played a vital role in the transportation of mail, freight, and passengers between the established eastern states and California, especially when hostilities of the Civil War closed the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route that ran along the southern border states. George Chorpenning immediately switched to Simpson's route to run his existing mail and stage line, and the Pony Express used it as well. In 1861 the Transcontinental Telegraph was laid along the route, making the Pony Express obsolete. Afterwards, Wells Fargo & Co. hauled mail, freight, and passengers along Simpson's route until 1869, when transportation and telegraphy were switched to the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad.

Civil War

He served (and was captured and released) in the Civil War, and was eventually promoted to a brigadier general.

Later Career

Simpson was named chief engineer of the Interior Department. He oversaw the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the completion of which made his Central Nevada Route obsolete. In 1880 he retired to St. Paulmarker, Minnesotamarker, and died there on March 2, 1883.

The Simpson Park Mountains in central Nevada, a small range in west-central Utah, and the Simpson Springs Pony Express Station are all named after him.


"Dictionary of American Biography", vol. IX, p. 179.

Further reading

"Navajo Expedition: Journal of a Military Reconnaissance from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Navajo Country, Made in 1849"by James H. Simpson, Durwood Ball, and Frank McNitt.ISBN 0-8061-3570-0

"Report of Explorations across the Great Basin in 1859"by James H. Simpson.ISBN 0-87417-078-8

"Essay on Coronado's March in Search of the Seven Cities of Cibola", by J. H. Simpson (1869).

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