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Precis of Joseph S. Harris
In 1857, twenty-year old Joseph Harris joins the U.S. Northwest Boundary Commission whose assignment was to define the boundary between the United States and British Canada. As an astronomer and surveyor, he has been trained by the U.S. Coast Survey to use the new Zenith telescope and the new Talcott method of astronomical surveying. In over 200 letters to his family and in his Autobiography, he describes the task of surveying 410 miles along the 49th parallel from the Gulf of Georgia to the crest of the Rocky Mountains.
In accomplishing this, Harris describes the political difficulties of working with a parallel British Commission, of the outbreak of the Pig War, and of working with local Native Americans. The Survey team astronomically surveys an unchartered wilderness crossing both the Cascade and Rocky Mountains With their recalcitrant mules, they not only negotiate steep mountains and cross dangerous rivers but they also cut a 20 foot swath through much of this wilderness, connecting 14 astronomical stations.
After three years, the field work has to be rushed to a finish because Congress would approve no more appropriations now the Civil War had started. Since the Official Report was lost, this account stands as the only record of this important Survey.