While on a photographic assignment in 1869, Jackson had a chance meeting with geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the leader of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories (“USGS”). This encounter changed the course of Jackson's life.
Impressed with his landscape photography, Hayden invited Jackson to join the USGS as a photographer for its 1870 expedition. Following the success of his first season of fieldwork, Jackson participated in another eight seasons with the USGS, earning him widespread renown, and contributing to the establishment of the National Park Service.
The Hayden expeditions combined the work of botanists, biologists, and mineralogists with that of photographers and artists. Cooks, guides, and hunters kept the team fed, and members camped in rugged conditions for months at a time. Pack mules and horses carried the scientific and photographic equipment. The voluminous collections of plant, paleontology, geology, and biology specimens were processed at USGS headquarters at the end of each field season. Many of these collections, generated prior to the establishment of the National Park Service, are housed at the Smithsonian Institution.
The expeditions in which Jackson participated included:
1870: Wyoming, primarily along the Oregon Trail. Jackson was one of 20 survey members.
1871: Yellowstone, with the survey now including over 35 members, including artist Thomas Moran. The area surveyed would become Yellowstone National Park the following year.
1872: As the survey had expanded to 60, two teams were formed to maximize the areas covered. Jackson’s team surveyed the Grand Tetons for ten days before rejoining the main group led by Hayden in Yellowstone to photograph areas not previously covered, such as the Firehole Basin.
1873: The survey broke into three scientific teams to cover the Colorado Rockies. Jackson led a fourth photographic team that documented the scientific teams’ activities. Jackson accomplished one of the crowning points of his career: his photography of the Mount of the Holy Cross.
1874: The survey moved from central Colorado south to what is now the Four Corners region. Jackson documented Ancestral Puebloan sites, and produced the first known photographs of Mesa Verde.
1875: As the survey moved throughout the Southwest, Jackson’s versatility qualified him to lead the team that covered northeast Arizona and southeast Utah. In addition to Ancestral Puebloan sites, Jackson also photographed and sketched daily life at the Hopi Pueblos.
1876: While Hayden continued fieldwork, Jackson was among those selected to prepare an exhibition of the expedition’s work for the Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition.
1877: While Hayden’s team surveyed Colorado, Jackson documented northern New Mexico. While all his photographs from that year were lost, his sketches and drawings remain.
1878: Jackson rejoined Hayden’s survey party in Wyoming. Unfortunately, the team was beset by inclement weather and equipment failure. This was the last year of Hayden-led expeditions.
Thomas Moran (1837 – 1926), a prominent Hudson River School painter, was a member of the Hayden expedition during the 1871 survey of Yellowstone. Moran's compositional knowledge improved the framing of Jackson's photographs, and Jackson’s photographs served as reference for Moran’s paintings.
Unlike Jackson, a seasoned outdoorsman, Moran had only camped once before joining the Hayden expedition. Despite their differences, the two became fast friends. After Moran's death, Jackson stayed in contact with the Moran family.