William Henry Jackson: Unlikely Overland Trail Spokesman

Much of my research over the past few days has concentrated on William H. Jackson. It is mind boggling to me what a prolific photographer and artist Jackson was and how much he accomplished in his long, ninety-nine year life. However, what struck me in particular is how tenuous his ties really are to the Oregon Trail and Scotts Bluff in particular. Although Jackson traveled the route in 1866 as a bullwhacker and again on a return trip in 1867, he only passed through Scotts Bluff on the 1866 trip. As a photographer with F. V. Hayden’s geological surveys from 1870-1878, Jackson spent many summers in Wyoming, including two that involved traveling along sections of the overland trail in that state. However, none of the surveys of which he was a part involved Nebraska, and Jackson never photographed Scotts Bluff during his years as a landscape photographer. Jackson himself viewed his years with the survey as among his best, and Yellowstone, Mount of the Holy Cross, and Mesa Verde held the closest places in his heart.

I have found myself speculating whether Jackson would have ever returned to subjects of the overland trail had he not met Howard Driggs in New York in the late 1920s, a friendship that resulted in Driggs publishing Jackson’s autobiography and appointing Jackson as research secretary of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA) in 1928. In his later years, Jackson did mostly commissioned watercolors and oil paintings, many of them for people like Driggs, who used Jackson’s paintings and sketches to illustrate books about a romanticized West. Jackson seems to have enjoyed this work and the opportunity to revisit his early sketches and journals from the 1860s to help him get the setting and details right for these paintings. People knew him primarily for his survey photographs, however, and only as time wore on would his work for Driggs and OTMA attain prominence, now standing as equal to or even rivaling his survey work in fame.

Even Jackson’s association with Scotts Bluff National Monument would likely not have been formed was it not for Driggs and the many events that Jackson attended as a member of OTMA. Jackson was an old timer who survived longer than many other overland travelers, so having him present as a speaker or guest of honor at events and dedications at Oregon Trail sites like Scotts Bluff was a feather in the cap of these locations. The otherwise inconsequential fact that Jackson had camped near Mitchell Pass in 1866 and could personally point the location out seventy years later likely added to a sense that he was tied to Scotts Bluff in an inextricable way. I am still researching all the details of how such a large portion of Jackson’s sketches, paintings, and photographs as well as personal effects wound up at the museum at Scotts Bluff National Monument. It seems unusual, considering his closer attachment to other western sites and his residence in places like Omaha, Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Certainly Jackson played a role in the history of Scotts Bluff and in ensuring its place among the still-revered landmarks of the overland trail. However, the more I read the more I see Jackson as being less of a leader in overland trail memorialization and more a convenient tool to accomplish the aims of others. Unlike Ezra Meeker, Howard Driggs, Merrill Mattes, or Paul Henderson, Jackson was not necessarily an advocate for the overland trail history and sites. He certainly appreciated the history he had lived through, and made money memorializing it in visual form. But had he made friends with someone other than Driggs, perhaps someone who wanted to preserve the cliff dwellings of the Four Corners area, for example, Jackson likely would have just as easily spent his last two decades painting other western scenes with which he was at least, if not more, familiar. In this way, Jackson is almost an accidental hero of the memorialization movement. An important hero, certainly, but also one who was propelled to that position by men wishing to take advantage of his talents and his cachet as an old timer who had lived during the trail days. Jackson himself, even humble and self-effacing as he was, recognized this and expressed some frustration and helplessness that his life and story had been co-opted by others so that they could tell history their way.

I’m realizing now that telling the Jackson story in light of memorialization of the overland trails and Scotts Bluff in particular is going to involve more nuance and fresh interpretation than expected. Jackson’s story, along with all of the other unusual stories and characters I have discovered, is going to make for fascinating chapter material.

Further Reading:

Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Waitley, Douglas. William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier. Missoula, MT: Mountain
Press Publishing Company, 1999.

Gundy, Lloyd W., ed. William Henry Jackson: An Intimate Portrait: The Elwood P. Bonney Journal. Edited and annotated by Lloyd W. Gundy. Denver, CO: Colorado Historical Society, 2000.

Driggs, Howard R. Westward America. With reproductions of forty water color paintings by William H. Jackson. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1942.

Jackson, Clarence S. Picture Maker of the Old West: William H. Jackson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947.

Jackson, William Henry. The Pioneer Photographer; Rocky Mountain Adventures with a Camera. By William H. Jackson in collaboration with Howard R. Driggs; illustrated from sketches and photographs made by the author. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company, 1929.

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