William Henry Jackson – Photographing America


William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) – A painter, photographer, and explorer, Jackson is known as the first person to photograph the wonders of Yellowstone and other places in the American West, as well as documenting the Civil War in a number of sketches.

Born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843, Jackson was the first of seven children born to George Hallock Jackson and Harriet Maria Allen. Harriet, a talented water-colorist, was a graduate of the Troy Female Academy, later the Emma Willard School. From an early age, young William picked up his mother’s passion and was drawing and painting. At just ten years old, he received his first formal artistic training, learning to use perspective and form, color and composition. His drawings now began to take on a more realistic and mature appearance.

His first job as an artist was not a glamorous one. In 1858, at just 13 years-old, he was hired as a retoucher for a photographic studio in Troy, New York, where he worked for two years.

His job was to “warm up” black and white portraits by tinting them with watercolors and to enhance details in the photographs with India ink. During this time, he learned how to use cameras and the darkroom techniques of the time.

Picket Duty, sketch by William Henry Jackson

Picket Duty, sketch by William Henry Jackson

Things changed for the young man after the Civil War broke out, and in October, 1862, at the age of 19, he joined as a private in Company K of 12th Vermont Infantry of the Union Army. However, with the exception of occasional guard duty, there was little for him to do and he spent his free time sketching drawings of his friends and various scenes of Army camp life that he sent home to his family as his way of letting them know he was safe. Luckily, his mother saved the pencil sketches created during his wartime service, and they survive today as a record of an infantryman’s life in the Union army.

In June of 1863, Jackson’s regiment participated in the climactic Gettysburg campaign, but, he never saw action in the battle. Instead, he was assigned to guarding a supply train during the engagement. His regiment mustered out on July 14, 1863 and he returned to Rutland, Vermont. There, he found employment with a photographic studio, with a good salary. A year later he was engaged to a young woman from a prominent family. However, the couple broke up in 1866 and the heart-broken Jackson decided to leave Vermont and seek his fortune in the silver mines of Montana.

He soon set out with two friends making their way to Nebraska City, Nebraska Territory – a jumping off point for freighting caravans headed west. The three young men soon signed on as bullwhackers for a freight outfit bound for Montana. Despite knowing nothing about oxen or hauling freight, Jackson soon grew proficient in handling the powerful draft animals.

Before long, Jackson was back to his old habits of sketching the things he saw and the people he met. Forsaking his dream of striking it rich, Jackson left the freight train near South Pass in Wyoming and headed south for Salt Lake City, Utah and eventually California. His experiences in the West struck a chord in Jackson, and he began to realize that documenting the settling of the frontier might become his life’s work.

In 1867, along with his brother Edward Jackson he settled down in Omaha, Nebraska and with the assistance of his father, soon established his own photographic studio.

He began photographing American Indians from the nearby Omaha reservation and the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.

On May 10, 1869, Jackson married Mollie Greer in Omaha. After a six-day honeymoon on a Missouri River steamboat, Jackson sent his new wife to live with her family in Ohio and left for Cheyenne, Wyoming on what Jackson considered his first “photographic campaign.” As his reputation was growing rapidly, he was commissioned in late 1869 by E. & H. T. Anthony and Company to furnish them with 10,000 stereo views of the American West and he soon set up a satellite business in Wyoming.

In this capacity, he soon drew the attention of Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who  who was organizing an expedition that would explore the geologic wonders along the Yellowstone River in Wyoming.

Hayden realized that a photographer would be useful in recording what they found. When offered the position, Jackson jumped at the opportunity.

William Henry Jackson in 1872

William Henry Jackson in 1872

His new wife, Mollie Greer Jackson, could run the business expertly while he was gone — in fact she was much better at it than his brothers. Jackson caught up with the expedition in August, 1870 at Camp Carlin, an Army supply depot outside Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Anyone else might have been daunted by the thought of transporting delicate camera equipment and glass plate negatives across the West, but Jackson’s experience as a bullwhacker would serve him well. The images he brought back caused a sensation. For many years, stories about geysers and waterfalls were thought to be tall tales, but Jackson provided proof of their existence. Public interest resulted in the U.S. Congress officially designating Yellowstone National Park in 1872, and Jackson’s name became a household word.

Survey responsibilities kept Jackson in the field each summer, and demanded his presence in Washington during much of every off season. This left so little time for Jackson to spend in Omaha, developing his business there, that when Mollie Jackson became pregnant in the fall of 1871, they sold the Omaha studio. and Mollie to Washington, DC where she was closer to the survey’s headquarters. She died in childbirth a few months later.

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