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By Marian Albright Schenk

By Dean Knudsen

Primary Themes of Jackson's Art

Paintings of the Oregon Trail

Historic Scenes From the West


William Henry Jackson's frailty is showing in this undated photograph. Jackson's normally robust health never fully recovered from a 1937 fall in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in which he chipped a vertebrae in his back. However, even a serious injury such as that did not prevent Jackson from attending a Battle of Gettysburg reunion in 1938. (SCBL 975)

An Eye for History

Section 1: Primary Themes of Jackson's Art


On January 28, 1848, a man employed at Sutter's Fort in California Territory made an entry in his diary; This day, some kind of metal that looks like gold was found. . . .1 No other single event influenced America's westward expansion more than the discovery of gold in California. In a very short time, thousands of people flocked to the new gold strike in hopes that they too could make a fortune. Most of the prospectors were disappointed in their search for gold, but their mere presence in the West changed the frontier forever.

Prior to the discovery of gold in California, the Far West was a quiet, primarily Spanish-speaking territory still struggling to get used to the idea that they had suddenly become Americans. For example, when it was surrendered to the United States by Mexico in 1849, California had a population of only 20,000. California was admitted as a state in the Union in 1850 and by 1852 the population to grown to 225,000.2

This pattern was repeated several times in the settlement of the West. In the late 1850s there was the Pikes Peak Gold Rush to Colorado. In the 1860s it was gold in Montana and silver in Nevada that drew thousands of would-be miners to the frontier. Of course, with all these men scrambling to make their fortunes, there was a ready market for anyone who could supply the miners with tools, food, and other diversions.

Mission Los Angeles
A hand-written note by the artist along the front of this pencil sketch reads, "The Mission Los Angeles April 9, 1867." This drawing dates from Jackson's first visit to California. (SCBL 135)

Thus was born the second wave of overland travel, the freighting companies whose wagons rolled alongside those of the emigrants making their way west. As a young man, William Henry Jackson took advantage of this commercial effort to supply the mining towns to make his way to the Far West. Although frustrated in his efforts to reach the gold and silver mines in Montana, Jackson eventually made his way to California in 1867.

Throughout the history of the pursuit of mineral wealth on the frontier, little if any thought was given to the effect the mining had on the ecology of the West. Entire valleys were stripped, gouged, dynamited, flooded, polluted and abandoned in a relentless effort to extract ore.

Just reaching California was not an easy task for the would-be miner. There were two basic ways for a prospector to make his way to California; he could book passage on a ship, or he could make his way overland. Both methods were expensive and had their inherent dangers. Travel by ship was generally faster and more expensive and but offered the advantage of being able to bring more in the way of supplies. In addition, travel by ship allowed a person to leave at any time of year.

It has been estimated that between 1849-1860, 200,335 gold-seekers made the overland journey to California.3 Almost anyone could afford to set out for the goldfields on foot, but they were limited in what they could carry and the vast distances and changing seasons determined when it was feasible to make the journey. No reliable figures are available as to how many died enroute to California, but it has been estimated that as many as 2,000 died of disease during each year of the Gold Rush.4

1. George R. Stewart, The California Trail (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 193.

2. Joseph Henry Jackson, The Gold Rush Album, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949), vi.

3. John Unruh, The Plains Across (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 120.

4. William E. Hill, The California Trail Yesterday and Today, (Boise: Tamarack Books, Inc., 1993), xxv.

Hydraulic Gold Mining
Hydraulic Gold Mining. Initialed and dated, 1936. 25.4 x 35.0 cm. (SCBL 160)

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-2006