Union soldier in the Civil War, bullwhacker on the Oregon Trail, explorer, photographer and artist for the famous Hayden Surveys of the Territories in the 1870s, author, publisher, world traveler, and businessmanWilliam Henry Jackson was still utilizing and honing his skills until the day of his death. He was then nearly one hundred years old. Retiring from his normal routine of business after 1920, Mr. Jackson entered a new active, exciting, and productive life. From that time until the 1940s, he returned to the scenes of his young manhood in the West, especially those of Yellowstone, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains. He occupied these days with sketching, photographing, writing, identifying historic sites, and dedicating monuments and markers. He was the author and illustrator of books, an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, and secretary for the American Pioneer Trails Association.
After his ninetieth birthday he wrote his autobiography, Time Exposure. He painted murals of the four famous Geological Surveys of the West for the new Department of the Interior Building in Washington, D.C. He created more than one hundred watercolor paintings of early western events, many of which were used to illustrate books, such as Dr. Howard Driggs', Westward America, published in 1942. Many of these paintings were based on his nineteenth century pencil sketches and early photographs of western historic places, many of which had long since disappeared. Added to these were his careful notes, made day by day during his early travels, and of course, his incisive memory.
When I was growing up, my favorite person was William Henry Jackson. When I knew him, he was in his nineties, lived alone in his New York apartment in the Latham Hotel, and was carefully watched over by Arthur Proctor, Joe Robinson, and my dad, Horace Albright. My dad would often bring Mr. Jackson home to spend a weekend with the family. I had heard a great deal about him before he visited us the first time and was totally surprised when he walked in the door. My imagination had made him a tall, rugged, outdoorsman with a booming voice and vigorous physique.
Instead, he still matched the description my dad had made of him at their first meeting in 1925: "When Bob Ellison entered, he had with him a trim little fellow with a neat goatee and a nice head of hair and wearing plus fours." Well of course, Mr. Jackson wasn't wearing plus fours in his nineties, but he wasn't much bigger than I and had a surprisingly high-pitched voice. Not a feeble, elderly voice, just one that was somewhere above a tenor. Anyone meeting him was instantly riveted by his brilliant, sparkling eyes peering out over his spectacles, which were always half-way down his nose. Then the attention would focus on his personality and stream of memories.
When I knew Mr. Jackson was coming for a visit, I would give up girlfriends, boyfriends, movies, and any other pastime to stay around him and hang on every word he uttered. He had done everything, photographed everything, sketched everything, recorded everything, and forgot nothing. He was endlessly fascinating, a natural raconteur. He took you along with him through the Civil War, life on the trails to California, adventures with the Geological Surveys, and visits to unusual places around the world, which revealed his intriguing character, his remarkable memory, and his delightful sense of humor. He was a real one-of-a-kind. My dad used to say that God threw away the mold after he made William Henry Jackson.
Even though Mr. Jackson's photographs, paintings, and writings are in a class by themselves, they fail to reflect the real man. He was such an electric personality and presence that only those privileged to experience him in person can even begin to describe and appreciate him. They can only remember him and miss him, smile quietly and be grateful that this man touched their lives. Never would I, or anyone else that knew him, forget his rapid, high-pitched voice telling an exciting story, his grabbing a pencil and paper to illustrate part of an adventure seventy years before, his burst of laughter recalling an episode from the past, his appreciation of people and his inability to condemn or criticize anyone, and above all his love for his country and its history.
I wrote in my diary about one of his visits. "Mr. Jackson here on the weekend. He told about the Oregon Trail, the one Great grandmother Albright came across in 1854. He made it all so real, and he seemed to be so proud of our country. He said, 'The Old West was my land.'"
Marian Albright Schenk