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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
In this 1935 photograph, William Henry Jackson poses in the Lincoln Room during a visit to Gettysburg. The Lincoln Room is in the home of David Wills, where Lincoln stayed the night prior to delivering the Gettysburg Address. (SCBL 2662)

An Eye for History

Section 3: Historic Scenes from the West


The early fur trade resulted in many of the first contacts between Euro-Americans and the Plains tribes. Enterprising fur trappers and traders quickly learned to bring gifts and trade goods for Indian tribes living in the prime hunting grounds. At first, the gifts were intended to gain permission to trap beaver on tribal lands. However, eventually the fur dealers traded directly with the Indians, who would exchange furs for manufactured items that made their lives easier; guns, knives, iron cooking pots, blankets and bolts of cloth.

When the demand for furs declined in the 1830s, many of these early mountain men used their language skills and knowledge of the land to serve as intermediaries between the native tribes and those Americans who were just beginning to venture into the Far West. Some mountaineers, such as Kit Carson served as scouts for the U.S. Army, while others, like Jim Bridget, guided wagon trains to California and Oregon.

The diversity and complexities of Native American cultures have fascinated Americans for centuries, and William Henry Jackson was no exception to the rule. Jackson's 1866 transcontinental journey resulted in very few encounters with American Indians. However, his interest was piqued and when he opened his photographic studio in Omaha, Nebraska, Jackson left the lucrative portrait work to his brother and visited the Omaha and Otoe Reservations just north of town.

Shoshone village
During his travels with the U.S. Geological Survey, William Henry Jackson did not only photograph landscapes. The various native American tribes he encountered also interested him. This photograph is captioned, "Shoshone village—War Chief's tent." (SCBL 2761)

On these reservations, Jackson produced a number of photographic images that first brought him public attention. Sales of these prints were brisk, and their publication was noticed by Ferdinand Hayden, who was organizing an expedition for the U.S. Geological Survey to explore the Yellowstone Country, and it occurred to him that it might prove useful to have a photographer along. He visited Jackson in Omaha and offered him the position—without pay! The newly-married Jackson leaped at the opportunity and within a year his images of Yellowstone's wonders made him a household name.

Jackson's travels throughout the West gave him the opportunity to meet and photograph many different American Indians. Among those recorded on film were the Ute, Bannock, and Shoshone of the western mountains, as well as the Navajo of the Southwest.

William Henry Jackson's painting, "Council" depicts a parley between Plains Indians and a party of early fur trappers. The mountain peaks in the background are the Grand Tetons of western Wyoming, which Jackson first visited in 1872. At that time he described them as follows:

The Teton region at this time was a game paradise. Our various parties were kept supplied with fresh meat without having to hunt for it, deer, moose, or mountain sheep being nearly always in sight when needed. It was equally easy to get a mess of trout from the streams nearby. Bears were abundant also. The first day in the main camp, two of the younger boys went fishing and unexpectedly happened on bruin. This was larger game than they expected to meet, but they succeeded in killing the bear with pistols only.1

1. Jackson & Driggs, The Pioneer Photographer, 132.

Council. Initialed and dated 1936. 25.4 x 35.0 cm. (SCBL 159)

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-2006