Graham, James Duncan (1799-1865)
Autograph Letter Signed as Major, US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, Washington D.C., July 6, 1842, to Capt. W. G. William, Topographical Engineers, Buffalo, New York, franked by Col. J. J. Abert, Corps Commander

quarto, 2 pages, plus docketed and postmarked address leaf, franked by Abert, in very good, clean and legible condition.

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Graham writes to Capt. William, Topographical Engineer, about British scientific instruments used in map making:

      “Dear Sir,

            … about a year ago, Col. Abert requested me to make enquiries of Messrs Troughton & Simms of London in reference to cost of a Zenith Instrument with double micrometer arrangement for minute differential measurements. This I suppose is the inst. You allude to … at the suggestion of Col. Abert, I do not propose to give any further orders on the subject. You will I presume hear from the Colonel … so that your own arrangement may be carried out in Regard to a Repeating Circle … or such instrument as you would prefer…”

      James Duncan Graham, was born in Prince William County, Virginia. Graham graduated West Point in 1817. Following graduation he was promoted to third lieutenant in the First Artillery. Between 1819 and 1821 he served as topographical assistant to Major Stephen H. Long on his Yellowstone expedition to the Rocky Mountains, the first fully outfitted scientific expedition to explore the Great Plains. Initially dedicated to exploring the Missouri River and establishing an astronomically derived survey point through which to draw the US-Canadian boundary the expedition was rerouted to the Rocky Mountains.

         Upon leaving Long’s service, Graham worked on various civil and military surveys in Vermont, Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Maine. He served as an inspector of harbor improvements on the Great Lakes. On July 7, 1838, Graham became one of the four majors in the newly formed Corps of Topographical Engineers. In 1839 he served as astronomer on the team that surveyed the border between the United States and the Republic of Texas. Returning from Texas, Graham was detailed as commissioner to survey the border between Maine and Canada (1840-1843). Between 1843 and 1847 he served as chief astronomer for the survey of the U.S. – Canadian border and was breveted lieutenant-colonel in recognition of his service. Graham’s position as astronomer was most important. Astronomy had gone from being a battleground for cosmological debate to becoming requisite to state diplomacy. Diplomats found it much easier to negotiate frontier boundaries by longitude and latitude rather than the older and less certain approach of river and watershed. The survey produced highly detailed maps of the border and topography on both sides. Military planners valued Graham’s maps, believing their precision and detail would be useful in the event of a confrontation with Canada. When Graham’s maps were lost in a fire that destroyed the Topographical Bureau office, Graham was tasked with remaking them, which he did between 1848 and 1850 and between 1852 and 1853. Graham also resurveyed the Mason-Dixon Line in 1849-50.

          In 1850-51, following the settlement of the Mexican War, Graham headed the U.S. detachment responsible for surveying the eastern portion of the U.S. – Mexican border. In the course of this duty Mount Graham in Arizona was named for him. Graham placed the Corps of Topographical Engineers into the political arena of expansionist politics. Dispute over the point at which the eastern New Mexico border would touch the Rio Grande had led to a series of concessions by the civilian U.S. commissioners in charge of the survey. Graham believed the concessions inconsistent with the intent of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the interests of the United States, because they jeopardized the only practicable southern route for a transcontinental railroad. Graham refused to allow his detachment of topographical engineers to survey the border until his interpretation of the border’s beginning point was negotiated, he was recognized as second in command, and was included in all commission negotiations. For this Graham was replaced as chief astronomer and head of the scientific corps. Graham’s position was ultimately vindicated by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. He returned to Washington to continue redrawing his U.S.-Canadian boundary maps.

           By 1854 Graham had moved from leading topographical corpsmen on boundary surveys to serving as a supervising engineer for harbor works and lighthouse districts throughout the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast. While serving as superintending engineer of the harbor improvements on the north and northwestern lakes (1856-1864), he discovered a lunar tide on the Great Lakes (1858-1859). In 1863 when the Topographical Engineers and the Corps of Engineers merged he was promoted to colonel. He moved from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Coast where he took charge of maintaining harbor works along the entire East Coast of the United States.

       An account of Graham’s participation in the U.S. – Mexican Boundary Survey, is found in William Goetzmann’s, Army Exploration in the American West 1803-1863.