The American landscape has become synonymous with national identity. The collective memory of Americans recalls that a vast land was conquered by an intrepid, progressive people. Landscape views have reached a nearly subliminal level to the men and women of the United States in this regard. However, one might ask how this association came about. In 1871, Ferninand Hayden, and most importantly for this exposition- the landscape photographer William Henry Jackson, surveyed the untamed west for the U.S. government. The most important result of this U.S. Geological Survey was the founding of Yellowstone National Park. And while this survey was not the sole reason for the union of landscapes and nationalism, it is a prime example of how this aspect of American memory was constructed by individuals with their own goals and interests.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Camp study. William Henry Jackson, photographer.U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (Hayden Survey).
William Henry Jackson, by the age of ten, had already claimed the second floor of his family’s backyard tool shed as his studio. Jackson recalled that he “drew or painted every day…For a while I did nothing but landscapes.” This budding photographer showed an early
affinity for the powerful romanticism invoked by natural structures. The Jackson family was
barely breaking even to provide necessities for their children, thus Will Jackson sought out work at twelve to purchase art supplies –Douglas Waitley, William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publication, 1998), 10.
The isolation imposed by westward traveled necessitated the use of an improvised “dark tent”- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed narrative-econstruction, 1867-1869. “Omaha and the Union Pacific”” New York Public Library Digital Collections (Accessed: November 21, 2015), 2. Additionally, Jackson and his assistant, who he noted simply as, Hull, were constantly running out of supplies. Working on prints at an early hour, Jackson “found out at the last
moment that [they] could not complete [their] work because there was no chlorite of gold (or rather the acids to make it) for [their] toning baths.” Upon requesting supplies via telegraph,
Jackson was again disappointed: “…when the train came in at 3.30 there was nothing for us.”- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed narrative-econstruction, 1867-1869. “Omaha and the Union Pacific””, 9.
Even when supplies were sent- often times, the team didn’t have the money to pay frontier postal stations to receive them. Seemingly caught in a circular financial loop, Jackson noted that they “[couldn’t] finish pictures that had been ordered until [they got] the supplies in the box and [couldn’t] get the box until [they got] the money.”- Ibid., 15.
Descriptive Catalog of the Photographs of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, W. H. Jackson, Photographer, Second Edition, Illustrated, 1872 Series, page 46, No. 499: A Montana ranch, comfortable if not elegant, and the home of many well-to-do persons engaged in mining or stock-raising.
This might have inspired defeatism in others, but Jackson was no newcomer to struggles in photographic expeditions.
In his former work photographing the American west from Nebraska City to Fort Laramine, Jackson suffered frostbite to his feet. The leader of his wagon expedition docked his pay for the time it took him to recover. Remembering this, Jackson declared, “I can recall no single mean act quite the equal of that one.”- Douglas Waitley, William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier , 54. Further, while employed by a man named McGannigan, he was paid an insulting sum of twenty dollars for three-months of work. Instead of reacting violently, Jackson bought a new suit and a shave which he remarked made him “feel [like] a man once more.” However, these purchases drained his twenty dollar payment completely.”- Ibid., 77.
These early hardship were indeed defining moments for Jackson. However, little that came before could compare to the struggles he experienced on his 1869 work of the Union
Pacific Railway. Cockroaches and ants crawled into the hair and ears of the team as they slept.- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed narrative-econstruction, 1867-1869. “Omaha and the Union Pacific””, 7-8.
Dehydration plagued the expedition by day, as the “oppressive heat begat a continual thirst. Bear River water was worse than nothing, having a Brackish flavor that was not pleasant, but made fairly palatable with “portable lemonade.”- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed narrative-econstruction, 1867-1869. “Omaha and the Union Pacific””, 7.
Mounts Doane and Stevenson. William Henry Jackson, photographer. (Yellowstone National Park.) U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Yellowstone Series, 1871, Vol. III. (Hayden Survey)
As the budget for his project grew more and more thin, transportation became an issue. With their cumbersome outfit, at times, Hull stayed with their equipment while Jackson jumped a train in attempts to “enduce the conductor to stop and take Hull and the outfit aboard.”- Ibid., 14. In order to sustain themselves on their expedition Jackson and Hull adhered to a “spare allowance of bread and coffee.”- Ibid., 15. However, even this was not guaranteed, as Jackson’s diary noted that one night for supper, the two “had coffee straight by reboiling the old grounds.”- Ibid., 16.
A common solution employed by Jackson was to sell some of their photos to make ends meet. To gain passage on a train, Jackson made note that he gave photos to railway operators “so nothing was said of fares.”- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed transcript of diary, 1869 June 29 [sic] -September 27” New York Public Library Digital Collections (Accessed November 21, 2015), 16. The men stretched their earnings by eating as little as possible: “Sold a picture for seventy-five cents and bought a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs which carried us through until Monday noon.”- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed narrative-econstruction, 1867-1869. “Omaha and the Union Pacific””, 16. Their patronage came from “train boys”, who created great local demand for pictures of the “scenic features along the line.”- Ibid., 5. They found that “…the section men were all very friendly, and at once ordered pictures to be taken of the station.” Jackson made no attempt at mediocre group photographs for these men, having “walked up the Castle Rocks, about a mile away, and climbed…” to combine the landscape with the bustle of the station.- Ibid., 16.
The hardships Jackson and Hull experienced were many. By the end of the expedition,
Jackson remarked on some dangerous men: “the company we got into here was decidely mixed, to say the least, but to judge from external appearances there was nothing about us to command very much respect, for to tell the truth, by this time, we were rather tough looking individuals.”- Ibid., 19. Jackson’s work on this project produced managed to catch the interest of Dr. Ferdinand Hayden. Hayden offered Jackson the position of official photographer of the 1871 U.S. Geological Survey, as he was quite impressed with his work. Jackson was offered resources to produce as many views he wished, however he could only have his living expenses covered. Jackson was willing to make an investment in his view business, and sadly, this was his best funded expedition to date.- William Henry Jackson, The Pioneer Photographer (Sante Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2005), 97.
Devils Gate in Weber Canyon. Weber County, Utah. 1869.
Hayden, Allen, and Peale: Deconstructing Other Influences
In the early 1860’s, the gold craze pulled prospectors into territory that would become modern day Montana and Wyoming. Yellowstone had become a location of interest in
magazines and lectures well before the Hayden survey ever took place.-Ibid., 98. Many brought back rumors of vast landscapes with humbling land formations that spurred the federal government to investigate these territories. Hayden, a geologist himself, led the expedition that was funded in 1871. He brought along various botanists, topographers, artists, and other geologists to take samples, photographs, and images back to civilization with them.
Among them was Albert Peale, a geologist and paleobotanist whose journals documented the events of the survey from his perspective. Peale was chiefly concerned with collecting water, fossils, and rock specimens. In his journal, he never failed to mention quantities of “Hydrogen Sulphide, sulphate of magnesium and small amounts of carbonate of soda.”- Marlene Merrill Yellowstone and the Great West: Journals, Letters, and Images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 131.
Between Hayden and Peale, the materials they gathered from their investigation included forty-five boxes containing more than one-thousand mineral specimens, over six-hundred specimens of rocks, multiple mammal and bird skins, eggs and various other items.”- Ibid., 203. After the expedition, Peale went on to first publish his work “On Minerals, Rocks, Thermal Springs, etc…” This was the first study of Yellowstone geysers. Though, his later publication of a treatise on mammoths (a nearly four-hundred page work) became one of the crowning achievements of his career.- Ibid., 207.
Another geologist of the expedition, George Nelson Allen, was already a known quantity in the arts and academia. Allen is credited as a composer and a professor at Oberlin College.
Though it isn’t clear what Allen’s material motivations might have been, it might be fair
to speculate that, in his old age, he was yearning for the excitement of his youth. Allen’s joy is apparent in many of his journal entries: “A splendid morning. I am sitting on top of a basaltic column and looking eastward where too are my thoughts and my heart!”- Ibid., 89. The pleasure that Allen experienced would seem foreign to anyone but a lifelong geologist: “I could scarcely restrain myself from clapping my hands in extacy (sic)! On descending into the plain westward we passed successively over the same ridges from older to newer that we had passed in ascent; only that the dip of the strata had been reversed…”- Ibid., 47. However, beyond Allen’s mere longing for adventure, we can see a man who was seeking answers for himself. He believed that rock and sediment strata, and fossils offered explanations to much more lofty understandings: “…a history written upon rocks…tables engraved by the finger of the Creator…It is the province of the geologist and paleontologist to decipher these long buried records – hieroglyphic and unintelligible to the masses, but full of unerring truth and meaning to the initiated.”- Ibid., 69. Well beyond the need to further his station, it is likely that adventure and truth-seeking appealed to Allen’s motivations.
Beaver Head rocks. William Henry Jackson, photographer. (Yellowstone National Park.) U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Yellowstone Series, 1871, Vol. III. (Hayden Survey)
It should come as no surprise that Peale was looking for untouched evidence to publish new research. Scholarly works are seldom, if ever, best sellers. Thus, scholars publish to earn more prestigious positions. Additionally, Allen got his fill of excitement and a chance to behold the secrets of nature. However, where does that leave Hayden? Or Yellowstone National
Park for that matter? Jackson got his views, but it is more difficult to say what Hayden’s
expectations were. When they ventured into these uncharted waters, the expedition could have
found just about anything. However, it was Hayden who issued the report on the expedition. It was he who had to show a worthy product for the use of public funds.– Ibid., 203.
As scientific as this expedition was intended to be, parts of Hayden’s report proved to be inaccurate. In particular, a topographic map that Hayden intended to be of paramount importance to his report suffered from inaccurate elevation levels. The Barlow-Heap Survey ended up providing a more accurate map. However, in an odd twist of fate, the Barlow-Heap party returned to Chicago just before the great fire destroyed their headquarters. Most of their specimens, photographic prints, and negatives, were lost. These two groups (between Hayden, Barlow, and Heap) pooled their resources to cover their losses, though they never willingly acknowledged this.– Ibid., 205.
Yellowstone Lake. “Birds Eye View From South East Arm.” William Henry Jackson, photographer. (Yellowstone National Park.) U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Yellowstone Series, 1871, Vol. III. (Hayden Survey)
With no abundance of valuable natural resources, the most successful aspect of the expedition was, quite arguably, the art and photography. Thomas Moran’s, The Grand Cañon of the Yellostone was received with great enthusiasm and solidified the legitimacy of the west’s majestic beauty. It is this aspect of the survey that likely led to Hayden receiving a letter from Jay Cooke’s office. Cooke expressed interest in preserving the Great Geyser basin as a public park. Hayden agreed and aggressively pushed the proposal. Using the relatively poor land he surveyed to his benefit, Hayden declared to Congress that Yellowstone served “no mining, ranching, or farming purpose.” Indeed, that reserving the land would result in “no pecuniary loss to the government.” In large part due to Hayden’s efforts, President Grant made the proposal law on March 1st, 1872.- Marlene Merrill Yellowstone and the Great West: Journals, Letters, and Images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 205-8.
The Panic of 1873 was the first delay that the Northern Pacific experienced in attempting to connect the east to Yellowstone. Further economic troubles stymied Hayden’s desires for dual railway access to the Park. The railway was planned to pass through the park itself. However, it was not until 1883 that the railway was completed in Montana. Not until 1903 would the railway connect to Gardiner (the park’s main entrance). The explosion of the automobile in America inevitably sparked an amount of tourism for Yellowstone that Hayden himself would likely have not thought possible.– Ibid., 210.
Conclusion: Opportunistic Capitalist or Passionate Conservationist?
When deciphering the motivations behind the 1871 survey, many influences emerge that played a role in the founding of Yellowstone National Park. This theme of complexity is pervasive in many aspects of the formation of American collective memory. Peale’s scientific aspirations, Hayden’s successful performance as a government employee, and Jackson’s views all contain aspects of self-interest. However, it is important to note that constructed doesn’t necessarily mean false. Landscape views became unifying in a time of national division. Even modern audiences feel imbued with this sense of collective identity when they look at Jackson’s images. It is at this point that the final question must be unpacked: was Jackson just in it for the money?
When looking at Jackson’s contemporaries, he was merely part of an already growing
trend of panoramic photography. A by-product of the daguerreotype method, this approach was made popular by the advent of the positive/negative process. This style produced Jackson’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from the east bank; a work indicative of his broad, sweeping approach to landscapes.- Frank Chambers, and William Henry Jackson, Hayden and His Men: Being a Selection of 108 Photographs by William Henry Jackson of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories for the Years 1870-1878, Ferdinand V. Hayden, Geologist in Charge (Hoosick Fall: F. Paul, 1988).
The odometer. William Henry Jackson, photographer. (Yellowstone National Park.) U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Yellowstone Series, 1871, Vol. III. (Hayden Survey)
Jackson was largely inspired by the work of Charles Roscoe Savage. By the 1870’s, Savage was a major figure in the photography of western landscapes. Jackson studied Savages work to develop strategies for capturing natural structures before the 1871 survey.– Martha A. Sandweiss, and Alan Trachtenberg, Photography in Nineteenth-century America (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1991).
If Jackson’s methods and genre were not quite revolutionary, then what made his work so popular? For one, he was a perfectionist. Even in Jackson’s 1869 work on the Pacific Union Railway (in his “dark tent”), he refused to settle for second-rate. Frustrated after a botched set of views, Jackson remarked, that he “made one exposure and developed it right away- getting a fair negative, although somewhat under-exposed.”– Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed narrative-econstruction, 1867-1869. “Omaha and the Union Pacific””, 7.
Camp on Yellowstone Lake. William Henry Jackson, photographer. (Yellowstone National Park.) U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Yellowstone Series, 1871, Vol. III. (Hayden Survey)
Jackson put great effort into positioning himself at the highest point for his views. He carried his heavy equipment on long walks, hikes, and climbs. One such recollection comes from his diaries:
…I took the notion that I must climb the cliff back of our tents and see what lay beyond. After some stiff climbing up the steep rock slides I reached the top of the bluff…only to find that there were others still higher. The highest did not seem so far away so…I kept on determined to make it. I found it a harder job than I thought; the apparently smooth slopes in the distance, when approached, were found to be covered with Oak brush as high as my head…Got to the summit at last, about 3000 feet up, and pretty well tuckered out.- Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Typed transcript of diary, 1869 June 29 [sic] -September 27” New York Public Library Digital Collections (Accessed November 21, 2015), 8-9.
Jackson’s tenacity and perfectionist tendencies led to his extraordinary views. However, in respect to his economic interest, the conditions of Jackson’s pre-1871 work alone could be
used to argue in favor of his self-serving motivations. Though the desire to earn a living is a humble ambition, his opportunistic nature was a matter of happenstance as much a premeditation.
As the Jackson brother first settled in Omaha, the town experienced an immense
population boom. The town which claimed only two-thousand inhabitants in 1861 quickly came
to boast as many as twelve-thousand.- Douglas Waitley, William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier , 78.
Jackson, being in the right place, at the right time, saw the influx of upper and middle class tourists who took an interest in the western landscapes. Jackson took personal risk to go on expeditions, because he wanted to photograph what he valued. Few Americans could claim to have traveled the distances across the United States that this photographer had traversed by foot. He found beautiful views, but also pollution, countless skinned buffalo, and displaced Native Americans.- Ibid, 79.
Jackson hoped to capture something that he feared was disappearing. Thus, when forced to choose between an opportunistic capitalist or a passionate conservationist in regard to Jackson’s motivations- this dichotomy must be rejected. After his work on the 1871 survey, Jackson’s acclaim earned him work for the rest of his life.- Douglas Waitley,“Never Stop Moving”, in William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier, 194-99. However, his desire to escape poverty should not be seen as overriding his desire to preserve the landscapes that had inspired him since childhood.
Yellowstone Lake. “Mary’s Bay.” William Henry Jackson, photographer. (Yellowstone National Park.) U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Yellowstone Series, 1871, Vol. III. (Hayden Survey)
Upon his death on April 30, 1942, the Herald Tribune offered this obituary: “Jackson, who for 79 of his 99 years viewed the world through three eyes, the other the searching, ever-improving eye of the camera, is dead.”- Ibid., 199.
*all photographs are available at http://library.usgs.gov/photo/#/
*all 1871 USGS Survey photos by William Henry Jackson are in the public domain.