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.

Public Presentations May 27-29

The PLHC team will be making a trip to Scotts Bluff in May!

Trip dates: Wednesday, May 27 – Friday, May 29, 2015

If you are able, please attend one of our public presentations we will be holding during our visit:

Wednesday, May 27, 7-8pm: Scotts Bluff National Monument visitors center, William Henry Jackson Room, 190276 Old Oregon Trail Road, Gering, Nebraska 69341.

Thursday, May 28, 12-1pm: Legacy of the Plains Museum, 2930 Old Oregon Trail Road, Gering, Nebraska 69341.

Thursday, May 28, 5:30-7pm: Lied Scottsbluff Public Library, 1809 3rd Avenue, Scottsbluff, Nebraska 69361.

The first half of each meeting will be a presentation of the project as a whole and the team’s research. The second half will be an opportunity for attendees to participate in discussion and share about the history and importance of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Information on how to get involved with the project will be shared. These meetings are open to anyone who would like to attend.


Want the PLHC team to share with your group or organization about the project and how you can get involved? Contact us to set up a presentation.

Writing Geology: 19th Century Travelers Describe Scotts Bluff

Writing the geology essay is coming along well. I am pleased with the richness of the sources, and if anything I have too much I could write about rather than too little. I have completed a draft of the first section, which provides an overview of the study of geology and the way in which the landscape at Scotts Bluff formed. I am now close to finishing a draft of the second section, which looks at how white travelers from the 1830s through the 1860s have described the geology, landscape, and wildlife at the bluffs.

What has been most remarkable as I go back over my primary sources and mesh them with the narrative is how many of these 19th century travelers provided surprisingly accurate descriptions of the geologic compositions of features such as Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. Many of these writers were spot-on in their speculations about the formation of these landscapes and the role of erosion in shaping rock features. While a few of these writers may have dabbled in studying geology or nature, most were novices who simply made empirical assessments of rock formations based on what they saw.

As a historian, I find this reassuring. Historians do not need to be afraid of science: it is merely the empirical study of what we see before us, and digging into the layers to explore deeper if explanations for what we see are not readily apparent. Reading the geologic landscape is very similar to reading historic documents. In fact, Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, observed in 1830 how very similar the disciplines of history and geology are, noting that both require studying the past to understand the present. Lyell built the foundations for the modern study of geology by arguing that scientists should use the earth’s present natural laws to determine how the earth has gradually changed over time. The travelers of the 19th century, whether or not they even knew about Lyell’s work, were in fact doing just as he recommended. They were looking for clues in the landscape to tell them about forces that had shaped the landscape over time.

The wealthy British tourist Richard Burton, traveling by stagecoach through Mitchell Pass at Scotts Bluff in 1862, remarked how erosion had created the badlands that made passage through the bluffs so treacherous:

“The route lay between the right-hand fortress and the outwork, through a degraded bed of softer marl, once doubtless part of the range. The sharp, sudden torrents which pour from the heights on both sides, and the draughty winds—Scott’s Bluffs are the permanent head-quarters of hurricanes—have cut up the ground into a labyrinth of jagged gulches steeply walled in. We dashed down the drains and pitchholes with a violence which shook the nave-bands from our sturdy wheels. … The descent was abrupt, with sudden turns and one place showed the remains of a wagon and team which had lately come to grief.” ∞

Edwin Bryant, who traveled overland through Nebraska on his way to California in 1846, wrote about the geology of Chimney Rock:

“It is composed of soft rock, and is what remains of one of the bluffs of the Platte, the fierce storms of wind and rain which rage in this region, having worn it into this shape. The column which represents the chimney, will soon crumble away and disappear entirely.” §

Of course, their understanding of deep geological time was still a bit weak—most travelers were more willing to ascribe a faster rate to natural processes than is actually true. Like Bryant, many emigrants speculated that Chimney Rock and other landmarks were eroding so quickly that they would disappear within a few decades at most! Thankfully, we know erosion does not work quite so quickly, and we are still able to enjoy and study the North Platte Valley’s rock formations today.


∞ Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861; rReprint with introduction and notes by Fawn M. Brodie, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), 87-88.

§ Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California. 1848. pp.101-102. Accessed in online database, “Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869,” BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/TrailGuides/id/2984/rec/8.