Boundary Commission

The Henry Custer Expedition 1857-1859 


The following information has been copied verbatim from The National Parks Service's NORTH CASCADES web page
located at


First, because it is a concise, to the point explanation of what the Boundary Commission was all about.

Second, because the NPS is a Governmental entity, the URL will change, without warning, at some point in the future and though we do our best to stay on top of these things, this is a large web site.

Boundary Commission: Henry Custer's Explorations (1857)

Actual survey work began in 1857. A Northwest Boundary Commission was created that year, operating under the authority of the State Department and headed by Archibald Campbell. Campbell hired surveyors astronomers, geologists, naturalists, and artists for the survey team; his principal assistant was Lieutenant John G. Parke, a U.S. Topographical Engineer who served as chief astronomer and surveyor. Other members of the team included George Clinton Gardner, assistant astronomer and surveyor; Joseph S. Harris and Dr. C.B.R. Kennerly, surgeons and naturalists; James W. Alden, artist; Francis Herbst and Henry Custer, topographers; J. Nevine King, quartermaster and commissary; George Gibbs, geologist and interpreter; and R.V. Peabody, guide. Laborers, cooks, packers, axemen, messengers, and Indian guides were also employed in great numbers. Nearly 200 men were recruited at a time when both men and supplies were becoming increasingly scarce and expensive because of the discovery of gold along the Fraser River in 1856. [39]

In the late summer of 1857, the party began survey operations at Point Roberts. The Americans worked alone until the spring of 1858, at which time a second survey team arrived from England, supervised by British commissioner Captain J.S. Hawkins. At a joint meeting of the commissions, field operations for surveying and marking the line as far east as the Cascade Mountains were discussed:

. . . it was concluded to be inexpedient at the present time, in consequence of the great expense, consumption of time, and the impracticable nature of the country, to mark the whole boundary by cutting a track through dense forest. It was therefore agreed to ascertain and mark points on the line by the determination of astronomical points at convenient intervals on or near the boundary by cutting a track of not less than 20 feet in width on each side for the distance of half a mile or more. . . [40]

As a means of accomplishing this task it was determined necessary to send a party ahead to blaze a rudimentary trail through the dense vegetation, forests, streams, and mountains. Astronomers and surveyors would then follow. The astronomer would set up stations from which to make astronomical observations while the surveyors were to trace the boundary line with a chain and compass survey. [41] Various materials, including rough iron posts, stone cairns, and wood posts set in earthen mounds, were used as markers to indicate the exact boundary line. [42] The forty-foot-wide swath of cleared vegetation across the land would be a clear demarcation.

By the end of the 1858 season a preliminary survey of the boundary line had been completed from the Skagit River valley approximately 90 miles to the east. By this same date, astronomical observations for three points on the 49th parallel had been completed in the Chilliwack River valley. In the following year the work of surveying and marking the boundary reached eastward from the Skagit to the Columbia River, a distance of about 150 miles. By 1861 the Americans had completed their field work, having placed a total of 161 markers along the international boundary. [43]

The individuals involved in marking the international boundary recorded first glimpses of the region which later became a national park. One of the first general descriptions of the North Cascades was written by Lieutenant Parke:

The forty-ninth parallel .. . traverses a mountainous country, and, excepting a few localities, the entire region is eminently unfit for occupation or settlement. The mountains are rugged and precipitous, and attain great elevations; the ridges and peaks of the Cascade Mountains being covered with perpetual snow. Glaciers were discovered; and during the months of June and July snow to the depth of two feet was encountered on our very route of travel. [44]

James Alden's watercolor sketches are the earliest images of the park's mountains and glaciers. Henry Custer's readiness to climb some twenty mountain peaks and ridges resulted in the earliest and most detailed descriptions of this unfamiliar northern territory. [45] Custer was a Swiss-born topographer who undertook a series of explorations that led him into the Nooksack and Chilliwack River drainages, the rugged Picket Range, and down the Skagit River to Ruby Creek. He was the first Euro-American to spend considerable time in the high elevations of the North Cascades. His May 1866 report to Commissioner Campbell was an invaluable contribution to the general knowledge of the region. The excerpts which follow are drawn from his unpublished forty-seven-page document. [46] Remarkably, much of what Custer documented over a century ago can be observed and sensed today because so little of the land has been disturbed. [47]

On July 12, 1859, Custer received orders to explore the "Ensan Kwatch" (Ensawkwatch) Creek drainage near the 49th parallel. Within days Custer set out ". . . along the regular trail to the Chiloweyuk-lake [Chilliwack Lake], formerly a Hudson Bay brigade trail but now improved by our party and the English, the main route, to reach portions of the Parallel." [48] He followed Ensawkwatch Creek the duration of the day, stopping at dusk to set up camp. The following day he climbed Middle Peak to scout the surrounding country. Describing the geography but including other information, Custer wrote:

The view from here was fine and extensive in all directions of the compass. I leave it to a better pen to describe the sublimity of true Mountain scenery in the Cascade Mountains as seen from a point of such altitude; it must be seen it can not be described. No where do the Mountain masses and Peaks present such strange, fantastic, dauntless, and startling outlines as here. Whoever wishes to see Nature in all its primitive glory and grandeur, in its almost ferocious wildness, must go and visit these Mountain regions. . . . Toward the east the Mountains reach a considerable altitude; and for the first time glaciers. . .were seen to coyer the mountainsides to a considerable extent, dazzling in the reflected light of the sinking sun. To the southwest, Mt. Thuskan [Shuksan] and Mt. Baker elevate their hoary and icy sumits [sic] beautiful and majestic from whatever point you may contemplate them. [49]

From Ensawkwatch Creek Custer crossed the headwaters of the Little Chilliwack River. [50] Making his way to the Chilliwack River, "a stream of considerable size flowing in a comparatively wide valley, densely-timbered," Custer followed the river until crossing the "vista of the Parallel, with its piramidial monuments hidden away in the solitude of [the] primitive forest." [51] Working his way past the abandoned encampment of a boundary survey astronomical station, Custer eventually reached Chilliwack Lake where a supply depot had been established.

On the 25th of July Custer was assigned to explore the 49th parallel as far east as the Skagit River. Information regarding this area was "very vague and meagre," and Custer was forced to determine his own route. [52] The following day Custer set out for "Koechehlum" Creek (in British Columbia), ascending that drainage following the faint lines of an Indian trail. Moving in a southeasterly direction along the "Kleguanum" River, Custer climbed a peak later that morning to survey the environs and observed for the first time what he believed was the Skagit River valley.

The next day the party continued up the Kleguanum valley (Silverhope Creek) unknowingly traversing the Fraser and Skagit River divide. By late afternoon they had reached "a broad and well travelled trail" which Custer concluded to be the "Whatcomb" (Whatcom) trail. [53] The party followed the path to the southwest, meeting the Klesilkwa River, then turned to the Northeast, reaching the Skagit River after a short distance. At this location, north of the international boundary, Custer noted:

. . .the Skagit. . . is here already a stream of considerable size, with beautiful clear water and gentle fall, aparently [sic] fit for large canoe navigation. It flows in a valley about 2 miles wide, which however becomes narrower to the North or farther up River. [54]

Having reached his assigned location, Custer set up camp and used the remaining daylight to examine the area. He observed that the Skagit River flows almost due south and "To the west are high mountains which may be properly considered the main back bone of the Cascade Mountains." [55] His mission accomplished, Custer climbed one last unnamed peak before returning to Chilliwack Lake. Overlooking the northeast area of today's park, Custer wrote:

The Mts. to the East of the Skagit rise to considerable height. In the first Ridge we observe 2 Peaks especially prominent, the Shawatum and the Hozomeen. The latter is a huge mass of grayish blak [sic] rock ending in 2 sharp points of considerable altitude. . . . The Mts. toward the South and SE keep the general Character of the Cascade Mts.; while to the East and North East... the sharp, frightful, fantastic outlines of the Cascade Mountains have changed into the tame and gentle outlines apertaining to Mts. with broad and flat sumits [sic], of a table land Character. [56]

On August 8, Custer set out again with a party to explore Chilliwack and Skagit River drainages. This particular expedition would bring Custer well inside the boundary of today's national park. Although Custer's route is somewhat ambiguous, from his journal it is generally interpreted he followed the Chilliwack River, bypassed Brush Creek, and headed to Easy Creek where

a short ascend over a gentle incline brought us finally to the sumit [sic] of the Mountain. The sumit is broad and roomy, covered with fine pasturage, a regular alp such as one sees in the Mts. of Switzerland or Tirol. [57]

After descending the ridge the party reached the headwaters of Brush Creek. Continuing up this drainage, Custer apparently crossed Whatcom Pass. This is believed to be the first known crossing of this isolated mountain pass. [58] Continuing east Custer followed Brush Creek until he reached

. . .the brink of a deep precipice some 2000-3000 feet deep. Below it we discerned the waters of a creek wending its way in a due NE course through a wide gorge in the Mts. This is then undoubtedly the sought for tributary of the Skagit. [59]

Custer was gazing down on Little Beaver Creek. [60]

After a treacherous descent into the canyon of upper Little Beaver Creek, the party continued downstream to the Skagit River. Crossing the river, they located a trail which they followed four or five miles until they emerged into the clearing of the Boundary Commission's Skagit astronomical station. There Custer received orders to "explore & meander the Skagit river for 10 miles to the North of this station & for the same distance to the south of it," and to explore the divide between the Skagit and Similkameen Rivers. [61] Within a few days the group was prepared to depart.

Traveling by canoe Custer and his party explored the Skagit River north of the 49th parallel. Perhaps as a diversion from his assignment Custer waxed lyrical on the region's "Hookle berries":

. . .the Mts. sides were covered with extensive patches. . .the largest & finest of peculiar brownish blue color that could be seen. They are of excellent flavor. To withstand the temptation of a large tract literally covered with these delicious berries goes beyond the moral strength of a white man, much less that of an Indian. To halt & eat & to eat & halt is all you can do under these circumstances. . . [62]

On Saturday, August 27, Custer began his descent of the Skagit River. Less than ten miles from the boundary camp the party encountered difficulties in navigating the river. Downed timber obstructed easy travel and numerous portages were necessary for quite a distance. Farther down, the Skagit was nearly free of obstacles and Custer's progress grew rapid. He wrote:

Nothing can be more pleasant than to glide down a stream like this; the motion is so gentle; the air on the water cool and pleasant; & the scenery, which is continually shifting, occupies eye & mind pleasantly. [63]

Beyond the mouth of a large tributary on the east, perhaps Lightning Creek or Devil's Creek, the river current increased and the party occasionally encountered rapids. That evening, from the camp, Custer was able to observe a large valley in the distance extending to the east about eight or nine miles. He concluded it was the east fork of the Skagit River. Today, scholars believe Custer was viewing Ruby Creek.

Motivated to explore the river farther Custer continued with his three best canoemen, all Indian. Traveling at a speed of about five or six knots, the Indians steered through swift rapids, shouting and singing as they went along. "Our canoe sped on with the rapidity of an arrow," Custer wrote. The river was free of obstacles, but before long, the valley began to narrow and the mountains closed in. After several hours of navigation Custer noted:

. . .we rapidly enter the begining [sic] of a canon. The river flows here between rocky banks, with a swiftness and impetuosity which even makes my expert Indian canoe men feel more or less uncomfortable. From the anxious looks they cast around, I conclude that it is about time to look out for a secure harbor for our canoe. [64]

The party landed the canoe and quickly learned, after climbing to the top of the river bank, it was not a moment too soon: within 100 yards the river formed "a small perpendicular fall of some 12-15 feet." [65]

From this viewpoint Custer again observed the east fork (Ruby Creek) and described it as being a considerable stream which flowed essentially north-northwest through a wide valley bordered by high mountains. He also noted that, at this point, the Skagit turned considerably to the west. By now Custer was approximately twenty miles south of the 49th parallel, twice the distance called for in his assignment. He wisely decided to turn back. The return trip was arduous. Navigating the Skagit River upstream required great strength and eventually the canoe was abandoned. The party continued on foot through dense forest. Custer hoped to explore the divide between the Similkameen and Skagit Rivers so he set off in a north-northeasterly direction. This route. led the adventurers into what is today the Pasayten Wilderness, adjacent to the park's east boundary. Over the course of several days Custer ascended mountain ridges for vistas and information before returning to the Skagit River valley and the boundary camp by early September. [66]

With the completion of these reconnaissances, Custer's detailed account comes to a close. He had traveled more than three hundred miles and ''reconnoitered and made suitable to be mapped'' more than one thousand square miles using three compasses, a barometer, and a sextant. He conceded that some of the descriptions and observations included in the report were not of a topographical nature. However, Custer defended his actions by claiming to be the sole visitor to these parts, and had he acted differently, "a great deal of instruction and valuable information would have been lost." [67] After Custer's historic expeditions, the record reveals that no Euro-Americans penetrated the North Cascades for another dozen years.

Despite Custer's remarkable efforts at exploring and surveying the area of the 49th parallel, disputes arose concerning the locations of boundary markers. In an effort to resolve these ambiguous boundary points, Britain and the United States resurveyed the line in 1901. In 1908 a treaty was signed calling for the complete resurvey and remarking of the boundary. In addition to the replacement of monuments, seventeen of which are still intact along the national park's northern boundary, the 1908 agreement called for vistas to be cut through the entire forested country along the area near the markers as had been practiced previously. This path of clear-cut vegetation through the North Cascades remains today and is maintained periodically. It is a strong cultural statement on a landscape that otherwise remains a wilderness. [68]

Explorations Within North Cascades National Park

(The above link will take you to the National Parks Service website.  To return here, click on the BACK button on your browser.)


39. Baker, Marcus. Survey of the Northwestern Boundary of the United States, 1857-1861. Washington: United States Geological Survey, Department of Interior, 1900: p. 14. Hereinafter cited as Baker 1900.

Thompson 1970, 46-50.

40. Baker 1900, 15-16.

41. Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West: 1803-1863. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1959: p. 428. Hereinafter cited as Goetzmann 1959.

42. Majors, Harry M., editor. "Discovery of Mount Shuksan and the Upper Nooksack River, June 1859." Northwest Discovery, February 1984: p. 14. Hereinafter cited as Majors 1984.

43. Baker 1900, 16-17.

44. Ibid., 70.

45. Majors 1984, 4.

Goetzmann 1959, 428.

Of these twenty-some peaks, several were first ascents.

46. Custer, Henry. "Report of Henry Custer, Assistant of Reconnaissances made in 1859 over the routes in the Cascade Mountains in the vicinity of the 49th parallel." May 1866. Typescript (57 pp.); photocopy. Hereinafter cited as Custer 1866.

47. Although Custer undertook six major trips into this mountainous region during the summer of 1859, only those routes which brought him within the area of today's park are discussed.

48. Custer 1866, 5.

This typescript of the original cites June 12th as the date Custer received orders to explore the 49th parallel; most other sources cite this as an error and use July 12th as the correct date.

49. Ibid., 10-11.

50. Thompson 1970, 54.

51. Custer 1866, 13.

52. Ibid., 14.

53. Ibid., 19.

54. Ibid., 20.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., 24-25.

57. Ibid., 30.

58. Thompson 1970, 59.

59. Custer 1866, 33.

60. Thompson 1979, 60.

61. Since this excursion entailed water travel, a canoe was required and Custer instructed a member of his party, a Nooksack Indian, to build "a light serviceable canoe" for eight passengers. [Custer 1866, 38-39]

62. Ibid., 42-43.

63. Ibid., 46-47.

64. Ibid., 48-49.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid., 55.

Custer's exact route in this area is not clear to author at this time.

67. Ibid., 56.

68. As a result of this later survey work, new cast metal monuments replaced nearly all of the old stone markers except one at Point Roberts, and some in less accessible places. The marker at Point Roberts is a granite obelisk 12 feet high with a rubble stone foundation. It is the only extant marker from the original survey that can be easily viewed, and, appropriately, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places [Thompson 1970, 67-701.