He was once a bull-whacker they called “Mustang Jack,” who lived to be 99 and made photography history in his long and adventurous life. William Henry Jackson was working on his second career — swapping his big boxy camera for a paintbrush — before he died in 1943. He’d already been named “America’s greatest landscape photographer.”
Through the lens of his eye he saw the horrors of death on the fields of Gettysburg; exciting new railroads snaking across the land; the serene beauty of Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains; Indians; the mysterious crucifix image on the Mount of the Holy Cross and the pristine white sands of the California shores. He captured it all on glass photographic plates, film and canvas — a legacy for all times.
“Portrait photography never had any charms for me,” he said, “so I sought my subjects from the house-tops, and finally from the hill-tops and about the surrounding country; the taste strengthening as my successes became greater in proportion to the failures.”
On his forays into the rugged Western landscape, he had to lug his bulky cameras, equipment and chemicals needed to process the glass negatives in a wagon darkroom drawn by horse or mule. At the end of his long life he was using a Leica with 35mm color film.
Jackson was born in Keeseville, N.Y., in 1843, and following in his mother’s footsteps showed natural talent as an artist at an early age. At 10, he received his first art lessons. Then at 13, he worked for photographer Frank Mowry retouching pictures. For two years, he honed his artistic skills and learned photography.
Retouching was tinting black and white images with watercolor and sharpening the details with India ink. But it was learning about cameras and using the darkroom that would lead to his place in history.
At age 19, Jackson joined the Union Army as a private in K Company, 12th Vermont Infantry that served at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). The unit was not in the heat of battle however, but was assigned to guard Union ammunition trains behind the lines. After the fight, the 12th guarded a train carrying 2,500 Confederate prisoners.
In between tours standing guard, he spent his time making pencil sketches of friends and Army scenes — including bodies on the field of battle — that he mailed home to his family.
Later that month, the unit was disbanded and he returned to civilian life, working at Style’s Photographic Gallery in Burlington, Vt., earning $25 a week — a big wage in those days. He loved the work and was getting good at it, and looking forward to marrying Caroline (Caddie) Eastman, the belle of the town. The romance didn’t last however — wrecked by a lover’s quarrel.
“She had spirit,” he recalled years later. “I was bull-headed and the quarrel grew.” Failing to patch things up, he said, “I was so to speak discharged. And since I found it impossible to face the world, I renounced it … There was only one course visible to me; I must leave Vermont forever.”
Leave it he did, and along with Civil War comrade Ruel (Rock) Rounds and his friend Billy Crowl headed to Montana to do some mining and get rich. Barely scraping up enough money to make the trip and living day-to-day often on nothing more than cheese and crackers, they made it to the start of the frontier — St. Joseph, Mo.
A wagon train was going west and they were hired as bull-whackers (wagon drivers), and had to learn in a hurry how to select the oxen, yolk and drive them — a far cry from art and photography. Jackson quickly took a liking to his new skills.
They headed west along the Oregon Trail, and with an artist’s eye he soaked up the beauty of the West, sketching the landscape and the daily activities of hardy settlers heading for a new life.
He noted in his diary, “The scene we (were) presented was worthy (of) the pencil of Rembrandt. It was shortly after sunset and the heavy, massive thunder clouds were lit up with a dull lurid light … it was just dark enough to make a fire show brilliantly.”
The journey ended at Salt Lake City and he never did do any mining. The three pals went their separate ways and Jackson roamed the West as far as Los Angeles and San Diego. By the fall of 1867, he was in Omaha working at Edric Eaton Hamilton’s photo studio, the city’s largest.
A year later, financed by his father, Jackson bought Hamilton out and opened Jackson Brothers Photographers, with his brothers Edward and Fred. The business thrived and that year, he was also commissioned to photograph the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
“The building of the transcontinental railway was something truly earth-shaking and, whether or not there had been a dime in it for me, sooner or later I would have been out on the grade with my cameras,” Jackson wrote.
On May 10, 1869, the day the railroads linked East and West at Promontory Point, Utah, driving in a Golden Spike, he wasn’t there — he was in Omaha marrying Mollie Greer.
Then in 1870, he caught the eye of Francis V. Hayden who headed the Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories expedition, sponsored by the U.S. Government to document uncharted parts of the country. Hayden’s team included mineralogist Albert Peale, topographer Henry Elliot, artist Thomas Moran, botanists, U.S. soldiers and others.
Jackson left running his photography business to Mollie, after the departure of his brothers, and for the next eight years he was expedition photographer capturing images of Yellowstone, the Rockies and other parts of the West — his images helping convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park.
He also photographed Shoshone Falls in Idaho.
Jackson later worked on several other geologic survey teams and headed expeditions of his own. He was the first U.S. photographer to document prehistoric Indian dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colo.
Those were great years for the pioneer photographer, who later wrote, “If any work that I have done should have value beyond my own lifetime, I believe it will be the happy labors of the decade 1869-1878.”
But it was not all happy. His wife Mollie and baby died in childbirth in 1872. However, the following year he married Emilie Painter and they had three children, Clarence, Louise and Hallie.
In 1888, Kodak invented roll film, opening photography to amateurs, and Jackson had to make money in other ways.
In 1894, he embarked on a two-year world tour of 25 countries with the World’s Transportation Commission, organized by railroad publicist Joseph Gladding Pangborn to gather information about foreign transportation systems, especially railroads. Pangborn’s group also included a railroad engineer and graphic artist.
Many of Jackson’s photographs appeared in an “Around the World” travel series in Harper’s Weekly. Then in 1898, he moved to Detroit and joined the Detroit Photographic Company, where he worked until he retired in 1924.
After moving to Washington, D.C., that same year, he began receiving honors and accolades as a sort of “Grand Old Man of the American West.” He continued working, writing his memoirs and painting murals of the Old West for the Department of the Interior; and was an advisor for the movie “Gone With the Wind.” In 1938, he attended the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Always have something to do tomorrow!” he advised, and “Never carry hatred in your heart.”
In 1935, 72 years after he fought at Gettysburg, the old photographer and painter sat quietly having his picture taken in Lincoln’s Room in the home of David Wills where Lincoln rested the night before his Gettysburg Address. He must have been reflecting on how long and far the journey of his life had taken him since those days on that historic battlefield — but his journey wasn’t over yet.
William Henry Jackson lived seven more years and was still taking pictures and painting to the very end.
He died in New York City on June 30, 1942, from complications after a fall, and was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was a great life.
Syd Albright is writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
From William Henry Jackson’s journal:
“After setting up and focusing my camera at the bottom of the gorge, I would prepare a plate, back the holder with wet blotting paper, then slip and slide and tumble down to my camera and make the exposure. After making my picture, I had to climb to the top carrying the exposed plate wrapped in a moist towel.
“With Dixon to help, cleaning and washing the plates, I succeeded in repeating the procedure four or five times. The end of the day found us exhausted but very proud; and we had reason to be pleased with ourselves, for not a single one of our plates had dried out before being developed.”
(Jackson’s biographer Peter Hale wrote, “Plates were developed, fixed, washed, dried over an alcohol lamp, and then varnished to protect the image — all within minutes of the exposure.”)
Tough job of bull-whacking
“I have never used profane language, but since I’ve been driving bulls, I have gone astray somewhat … it is no easy task to go into a corral crowded with 300 oxen ramming and crowding about, pick out your … twelve oxen … most of them wild and unbroken…”
The birth of photography
Invented by Frenchman Louis Daguerre, photography was born in 1839, with “daguerreotype” images made on a sheet of silver-plated copper polished to a mirror finish and treated with fumes to make it light-sensitive.
By the time William Henry Jackson started taking pictures, the camera was a clumsy big wooden box on a tripod, and the “film” sheets of glass from 5-by-8 to 20-by-22 inches in size. The exposed sheet had to be developed quickly, which required a wagon converted into a dark room. Soon, a pack-mule could carry the equipment into the field.
At the end of his life, he was using a Leica camera with 35mm color film.
A favorite photo
“Since 1873, I have been back four or five times (to Mount of the Holy Cross, Colo.). I have used the best cameras and the most sensitive emulsions on the market. I have snapped my shutter, morning, noon and afternoon. I have never come close to matching those first plates.”
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
William Henry Jackson aboard Detroit Photographic Company special railroad car, 1902
U.S. GEOLOGIC SURVEY
William Henry Jackson photo of Flaming Gorge, WY-UT, on the Green River, near the mouth of Henry's Fork, 1870.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES PHOTO
W.H. Jackson photo of Gilbert Doane leading the Hayden Expedition on the trail between Yellowstone River and East Fork, 1871.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES PHOTO
W.H. Jackson photo of “Annie” the first sailboat on Yellowstone Lake, 1871.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES PHOTO
Hayden Expedition camp photo by W.H. Jackson, 1872.
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE PHOTO
W.H. Jackson photo of Shoshone Indians, 1871.
Restored photo-chrome of Hotel del Coronado, Coronado, Calif., by W. H. Jackson, c.1900.
William Henry Jackson in later life.
“Muddy Waters” Rutland, VT painting by W.H. Jackson when he was 18 years old.