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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
This may be the earliest photograph of William Henry Jackson. A notation on the back reads, "William Henry Jackson 1860—Troy, NY." The nattily dressed young man, complete with a fashionable straw hat, was seventeen years old at the time, and already working as an artist in a photographic studio. (SCBL 2005)

An Eye for History

Section 2: Paintings of the Oregon Trail


The Missouri River served as the most direct initial means of transport for people making their way west. Steam-powered riverboats could transport cargo from St. Louis and New Orleans, and many emigrants had their wagons and belongings brought down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. They would then steam up the Missouri River to be disembarked at one of the many river towns along the Missouri River.

For several years Independence, Missouri, was the eastern terminus for the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails, and nearby Westport Landing was one of the busiest places on the river. Here riverboats were used to ferry emigrants and their wagons across the Missouri. After off-loading the passengers and their wagons, the trains of emigrants would organize themselves and begin their epic overland journey west. In time, other towns along the Missouri River sprang up to serve the river traffic. These included St. Joseph and Weston, Missouri; Brownville, Nebraska City, Plattesmouth, and Omaha, Nebraska Territory.

Before the railroads finally made their way out onto the Plains in the late 1860s, riverboats were the fastest means of moving people and cargo. Some daring captains took their shallow-draft boats as far north as Fort Benton in Montana, but for emigrants wishing to make a new life in the west, the Missouri River towns were the jumping-off points. These towns handled so much boat traffic that they were often referred to as the "Nebraska seacoast."

Westport. A note by the artist on the back of this painting, dated 1931 reads, "An imaginary conception of what it may have looked like at Westport Landing, MO, about 1850." (SCBL 19)

From each of these river towns, individual trails wound their way westward, forming an informal network of roadways that eventually merged near Fort Kearny in central Nebraska. Jackson's first encounter with a riverboat came on June 19, 1866, when he boarded the steamer, SAVANNA at Rock Island, Illinois.1 A four hour ride down the Mississippi River brought him to Quincy, Illinois, where he and two friends bought railway tickets to St. Joseph, Missouri.

On their arrival the three young adventurers learned of a freighting outfit that was hiring teamsters for a trip to Montana. The catch lay in the fact that applicants had to apply in person at Nebraska City. Their passage to Nebraska City would be paid by the freighters. However, neither Jackson nor his traveling companions had the $1.50 commission needed to pay the agency that would hire them. Jackson spent a day unsuccessfully trying to sell his box of watercolors to raise the needed money. Luckily, a new acquaintance generously offered the destitute adventurers five dollars to help the young men on their way.2

Thus it was that William Henry Jackson found himself aboard the riverboat DENVER, plying its way northward on the Missouri River. Arriving at Nebraska City at 2:30 A.M., Jackson and his friends were ready to pursue their fortunes in the West. Jackson's two nearly-identical paintings of Westport Landing seek to capture the energy and capabilities of these boats, as well as the importance of the river towns they served.

1. Leroy R. Hafen, The Diaries of William Henry Jackson (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company; 1959) 29.

2. William Henry Jackson, Time Exposure, (Tucson: The Patrice Press; 1994) 106.

Westport Landing
Westport Landing. Signed and dated, 1937. 40.7 x 50.9 cm. (SCBL 280)

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-2006