United States-Mexican International Boundary Survey, 1891-1894

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In the 1870s and 1880s, land ownership and border disputes broke out when valuable natural resources were discovered near the United States-Mexican border. The International Boundary Commission, which set out in 1891, consisted of two main parties, one from the U.S. and one from Mexico. John Whitney Barlow and Jacobo Blanco, respectively U.S. and Mexican commissioners, met at El Paso in February 1892 to begin the work. Their instructions were to resurvey the border line, locate and rebuild the old monuments, and install additional markers as necessary. Although the replacement of the monuments marking the border between the two countries was the main goal of the expedition, Edgar A. Mearns, the assistant surgeon on the U.S. field party and an experienced amateur naturalist, recognized the potential for a valuable natural history survey. Mearns wrote to Lieutenant Barlow that, “such an opportunity of studying and gathering specimens from this extensive, unexplored, and inhospitable region will not soon occur again.” Mearns wrote the United States National Museum in December of 1891 requesting money to subsidize his collecting activities, promising to donate his specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. Assisted by Frank X. Holzner, a Smithsonian employee, the two collected and returned to the Museum approximately 12,000 birds and mammals, 500 geological specimens, 100 fossils, and 10,000 plants. They also collected a smaller number of fish, mollusks and items of ethnological importance. These collections were classified and described by Smithsonian and government-affiliated scientists. Budgetary shortfalls led Congress to deny funding to complete the biological report of the survey, so it was never published. This was the first biological survey made “with the definite object of defining the geographic range of the individual species of animals and plants, thus defining the limits of the natural life areas.”


  • Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum, Correspondence and Memoranda, 1860-1908. Reference Unit 189, Box 81. Smithsonian Institution Archives.
  • USDA PLANTS database. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. National Plant Data Center. http://plants.usda.gov/ (for information on plant species Quercus rugosa, Zephyranthes longifolia, Prosopsis juliflora, Bouteloua eriopoda, Chamaesyce prostrata, and Ferocactus wislizeni, and the genus Sarcobatus; accessed July 19, 2010).
  • Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, circa 1871-1916, 1934, and undated. Reference Unit 7083, Box 4. Smithsonian Institution Archives.
  • Richmond, Charles W. “In Memoriam: Edgar Alexander Mearns.” The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology, 35, no. 1 (1918): 1-18. http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Auk/v035n01/p0001-p0018.pdf (July 19, 2010).
  • Frederick Vernon Coville Papers, 1888-1936 and undated. Reference Unit 7272, Box 3. Smithsonian Institution Archives.
  • Report of the Boundary Commission upon the Survey and Re-marking of the Boundary Between the United States and Mexico West of the Rio Grande. 1891-1896. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898.

Date Range

1891 - 1896


  • Animals
  • Geology
  • Ichthyology
  • Mollusks
  • Plants
  • Invertebrates
  • Paleontology
  • Botany


  • San Diego
  • El Paso
  • United States
  • Mexico


Expedition name