The Prairie Traveler by Randolph Barnes Marcy, Captain, U.S.A.


On April 9, 1812, Randolph Barnes Marcy was born in Greenwich, Massachussetts. Twenty years later, he graduated from the Military Academy and began a long and distinguished career in the U. S. Army.

Much of this career was spent on the frontier. In 1846, he was promoted to Captain of Infantry and fought in the Mexican War at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. He was then assigned to duty in the West escorting emigrants, locating military posts, exploring the wilderness and accompanying Albert S. Johnston on the expedition against Mormons in Utah. It was during this period that Capt. Marcy led his men safely from Utah to New Mexico on a forced march through the Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter, an extraordinary accomplishment made even more amazing by their shortage of provisions in the harsh weather.

Shortly after his promotion to acting Inspector General of the Department of Utah, Capt. Marcy was recalled to Washington to prepare a guidebook on Western travel for the many emigrants heading west -- people poorly informed and ill-prepared for such a journey. His well-written military reports had attracted attention in Washington, and, at the direction of the Department of State, Capt. Marcy produced "The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions" in 1859.

A bestseller in its day, the book was essential to the westward traveler, and no doubt saved many lives with its practical and experienced advice. "The Prairie Traveler" also provides a unique insight into the character and personality of the author. Capt. Marcy was extremely well-read and observant, and he was more than willing to adopt any idea that would work: "The Prairie Traveler" describes portable Indian lodges, advice from French and British medical journals, Norwegian saddling techniques, Mexican pack practices, African methods for carrying rifles while riding, and so on. He also wrote concisely and plainly, but in painstaking detail on matters most important to survival out West. His dry sense of humor, his commitment to the military and the men who served under him, and his independence and clarity in assessing people and situations all indicate the kind of military officer, and gentleman, he was. Capt. Marcy also wrote two other books describing his Western experiences, on his own initiative, but both are unfortunately long out of print.

Until 1861, Capt. Marcy served as paymaster with the rank of major in the Pacific Northwest, but with the start of the Civil War, he returned East to serve as chief of staff to General George B. McClellan, who was married to Major Marcy's daughter, Mary Ellen. Before the War ended, he was appointed as one of the four Inspectors-General of the U. S. Army, and as brigadier general of volunteers. After the War, he continued to serve as inspector general, but the Senate had failed to confirm his wartime rank of general before it expired. Not until 1878, when he was appointed to brigadier general as the Inspector General of the U. S. Army, was he finally given the rank consistent with the duties he had continued to perform all that time.

General Marcy returned to the West after the War (for example, he joined General Sherman on an inspection tour of Texas in the 1870s). He retired in 1881, and died six years later in West Orange, New Jersey.

General Marcy left behind a legacy of extraordinary service, including the invaluable guide, "The Prairie Traveler," which provided the emigrant with essential information about westward journeys -- advice that is still sound today. His book also reminds us of the rigors and dangers faced by those early pioneers, and acquaints us with a truly remarkable man who served his country exceptionally well.


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