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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 formal portrait taken in 1935, William Henry Jackson was 92 years old, and was just beginning to produce the paintings that comprise the most important part of the Oregon Trail Museum Collection at Scotts Bluff National Monument. (SCBL 928)

An Eye for History

Section 1: Primary Themes of Jackson's Art


The trials and tribulations posed by life on the overland trails were a subject close to Jackson's heart. He himself had endured these same hardships by crossing the Plains in 1866, and his paintings often focus on the many dangerous incidents that could arise during the 2,000-mile journey.

The first monumental challenge emigrants encountered involved crossing the Missouri River. The river's width, depth and swift current made it unwise to try and float wagons across on individual rafts, and unless crossed in the dead of winter when the river was frozen solid, it was safer to transport the wagons and teams across the river on the small steam ferries operated by opportunistic businessmen.

Long delays while waiting a turn on the ferry were common, and it is this bottleneck that Jackson depicts in his work, Emigrants at Kanesville. A handwritten note by Jackson in the upper left corner of the painting describes this as an 1856 river crossing, which would have been near the peak of Mormon emigration.

Kanesville was one of several temporary Mormon settlements that sprang up near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Mormons—or more properly, the Latter-Day Saints of the Church of Jesus Christ—first arrived at the east bank of the Missouri River in the winter of 1846, after having been forced from their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois. This first winter at Kanesville and Omaha was a difficult time for the Mormons, and several hundred people died of disease and exposure.1

When Jackson first journeyed west in 1866 he did not need to cross the Missouri River at Kanesville, Iowa. Along with many other emigrants he booked passage on the riverboat Denver at Kansas City and disembarked on the river's western bank at Nebraska City, Nebraska. (SCBL 91)

In the spring of 1847, the first group of Mormons ventured out onto the Plains and arrived in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in July of that same year. In the years that followed, the increased numbers of emigrants and gold-seekers resulted in Omaha, Council Bluffs, Brownville, and Nebraska City developing as major river crossing sites and towns.

The overland trails and the relatively slow pace of the wagon trains were deceptively peaceful. Although normally a placid river, when swollen by melting snow or heavy rains, the Platte River developed dangerous currents. Unstable riverbanks, quicksand and hidden tree stumps or logs took a heavy toll in drowned teamsters and damaged wagons when unwary emigrants tried to ford the Platte or even the smallest streams. As such, crossings were only attempted when it was absolutely necessary.

Life on the trails was primarily an endurance test. Long hot days of monotonous travel, interspersed with violent storms, lack of fuel and forage, fear of Indian attacks, dust and disease—all took a tremendous physical and psychological toll on the emigrants. No records were kept on how many people gave up and turned back, although in some years the numbers must have been rather high. The wonder is that the majority of the emigrants continued their westward journey.

Jackson's admiration for the courage of those brave souls who continued their trek in spite of the many hardships on the trail is seen is many of his paintings. Rather than depicting patriotic vignettes, Jackson concentrated on the quiet stoicism of people in pursuit of a better life.

1. Stanley B. Kimball, Historic Resource Study; The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1991), 66.

Emigrants at Kanesville
Emigrants at Kanesville. Signed and undated. 25.4 x 38.1 cm. (SCBL 275)

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-2006