NPS logo


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
On April 4, 1942, William Henry Jackson celebrated his 99th birthday. Sadly it was to be his last, as he passed away 3 months later. A revealing note on the back of this photograph simply reads, "100 springs." (SCBL 2721)

An Eye for History

Section 3: Historic Scenes from the West


After spending a long cold night on an exposed mountain, dawn was welcomed by Jackson and his comrades. With the light, the photographers again began to make their way back up to the peak and were rewarded by an unobstructed view of the Mount of the Holy Cross. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. But there was one problem. There wasn't any water to be used to prepare the emulsion for the glass plate negatives!

After enduring the previous evening's hardships, Jackson was in no mood to allow a simple matter like that to keep him from the opportunity of a lifetime. After a short rime, the warmth of the sun began to melt the snow, and soon there was enough water to prepare eight of the delicate glass plates. Working quickly and confidently, Jackson set up his cameras and went to work.

It was a perfect day for the making of the first photographs of the Mountain of the Holy Cross. The early morning is just the time, too, for this particular subject. I do not think it can be successfully photographed later in the day, Having but one point of view from which to make the negatives, I was through by noon. Quick time was made in assembling and repacking the apparatus, and we got down the mountain in very much less time than it took to go up.1

Mount of the Holy Cross
One of the 8 photographs that William Henry Jackson took of the elusive mountain in 1873, this image was recreated in his painting, "Photographing the Mount of the Holy Cross." (SCBL 805)

Jackson was so confident of his work, and anxious to join the rest of the survey team that he uncharacteristically waited to complete the development process until after leaving the field. Jackson's efforts were rewarded with eight striking photographic images of the cross. He later wrote,

Since 1873 I have been back four or five times. I have used the best cameras and the most sensitive emulsions on the market. I have snapped my shutter morning, noon, and afternoon. And I have never come close to matching those first plates.2

Photographing of the Mount of the Holy Cross was a pivotal moment in Jackson's life. Just as he had done with Yellowstone, William Henry Jackson used his skills as an intrepid photographer to prove the existence of a phenomenon that had generally been dismissed as mythical. The photographs and the exploit made him famous and it helped make him financially secure.

In August of 1893, twenty years after taking the first photographs of the Mount of the Holy Cross, Jackson returned to the site, accompanied by his son Clarence, to commemorate the occasion. Much later in life, Jackson used his artistic skills to tell the story of his excursions in the Colorado Rockies by combining images based on his original photographs with those from 1893 to compose these two paintings.3 The images on these final two pages are the only oil paintings in the William Henry Jackson collection at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

1. Jackson & Driggs, Pioneer Photographer, 186-187.

2. Jackson, Time Exposure, 218.

3. Clarence S. Jackson and Lawrence W. Marshall, Quest of the Holy Cross (Denver: University of Denver Press, 1952), 32f.

Photographing the Mount of the Holy Cross
Photographing the Mount of the Holy Cross. Signed and dated 1936. 62.0 x 75.0 cm. (SCBL 2129)

Previous scbl/knudsen/sec3l.htm
Last Updated: 14-Apr-2006