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[Detail] Discovery of the Mississippi: By Ferdinand De Soto

Descriptive Writing

After Mexico gained independence from Spain, confrontations between Mexico and the United States continued on the frontier. The United States declared war on Mexico in May 1846; within a month, instructions were sent for a military reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego. A reconnaissance is an exploration of an area with the express purpose of gathering information.

W. H. Emory, the head of the Corps of Topographical Engineers reconnaissance team, made detailed written observations of the area they traversed, particularly the last third of the journey, which covered land not well known by the U.S. military. The following is an excerpt from Emory’s description of the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers:

…The day was stormy, the wind blowing fiercely from the north. We mounted a butte of feldspathic granite, and, looking 25° east of north, the course of the Colorado was tracked by clouds of flying sand. The Gila comes into it nearly at right angles, and the point of junction, strangely chosen, is the hard butte through which, with their united forces they cut a canon, and then flow off due magnetic west, in a direction the resultant due to the relative strength of the rivers.

The walks of the canon are vertical and about 50 feet high, and 1,000 feet long. Almost before entering the canon, in descending the Gila, its sea-green waters are lost in the chrome colored hue of the Colorado. For a distance of three or four miles below the junction, the river is perfectly straight, and about 600 feet wide; and up at least to this point, there is little doubt that the Colorado is always navigable for steamboats. Above, the Colorado is full of shifting sandbars, but is, no doubt, to a great extent susceptible of navigation.

From “Notes of a military reconnoissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California,” page 95

Read the remainder of Emory’s description of the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. Then answer the questions that follow:

  • Which words do you find most descriptive; that is, which make it easiest for you to imagine the place or object being described?
  • Which words suggest the writer’s engineering or military background?
  • What, if any, information in the excerpt might be especially helpful to the military?
  • Find the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers on a map of the United States. Find other descriptions of this area (you may want to search the Internet using the name of the nearest city). Do the authors of these descriptions use any of the same descriptive terms as Emory? What has remained the same about the area? What has changed over time?

Select a month between August and December 1846. Use Emory’s journal entries for that month to trace the path of the reconnaissance mission. Along their route, enter some of the most descriptive words, phrases, or longer passages you find in Emory’s report. Sketch a route that you travel frequently and add descriptive words, phrases, or sentences to your sketch map to convey what you see, hear, smell, and feel as you travel the route.