By Bill Deverell
Today I saw a landscape that blew my mind. This is not unusual out here; the rolling ranch lands of Sublette County, with the Teton and Wind River ranges perched on separate horizons, provide vistas of awe in every direction one looks. Up close, grasses and wildflowers, pronghorn antelope, deer, rabbits, smaller critters. We have a lone wolf and a mountain lion on prowl near the ranch, which has sent the dogs into fierce barking in the wee hours of each night. I haven’t seen them, and I don’t expect to. John and I have seen one wolf on our annual trip, a few years ago, atop a mountain pass: a big, black male with a limp running across the open terrain in the rain.
This landscape I saw today wasn’t on a hike, or from the ranch house, or from the car. It was in a museum, the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale. This charming history museum is a winner: great artifacts of the fur trade, good displays of the lure of the beaver and its sumptuous pelt, indigenous artifacts and stories woven into the mountain man lore with appropriate complexity. Downstairs, tucked away in a case at the far end of an anteroom, were two blown up black and white photographs. One showed a line of wagon trains working across the face of a hill, the other showed encamped emigrants on a wide expanse of grassland, their cattle in the foreground, snowy mountains in the back.
Emigrant or overland wagon train imagery, at least before the Civil War, is rare – really rare. I don’t know if I’ve seen any at all. I looked at these blown up images and thought, at first, that these were either post-Civil War or, more likely, film stills from some early 20th century western.
Nope. These were 1859 glass plate stereographic images of overlanders cutting right through this part of Wyoming, no more than about twenty or thirty miles away. John and I had come through this landscape the other day, and I had noted a few historical markers touching upon the wagon trains, their campsites, even the continued presence of wagon ruts etched into the soil. But photographs? I’d never seen any this early before.
The story gets better. The photographer was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), the great landscape painter whose huge Romantic paintings of western scenes, skies, and indigenous inhabitants of the land excited American and European imaginations of sublime possibilities of experience and awe in the era of Manifest Destiny. We know Bierstadt as a painter, and as a painter of huge canvases fixed in gigantic frames. But a photographer? Maybe I knew that once, a long time ago, and I think I knew that he had a brother who was a photographer. Given the scarcity of any of Albert’s images, I guess I forgot or never knew in the first place that he took pictures, too.
The story gets even better. These images came to light by way of … eBay. Yep. And thanks to the sharp eye and historical sleuthing of Clint Gilchrist, now the museum’s executive director, they have come to reside here. Clint thinks that they are the earliest wagon train photographic images known, and I don’t doubt that he’s right.
Could the story get any better? Yes! Clint very kindly showed me the two glass plates, with their nearly identical positive images paired up side-by- side, two to a plate. Stereographic photography uses two images in which the photographic vantage is different only by a few degrees; these plates would have been used to print cardboard mounted images which, when put into a binocular viewer, would have created the illusion of three-dimensional depth. The viewer’s eyes and brain would overlap the images so that the picture would hover just in front of them, as if they were looking out a window at the scene itself. They were all the rage in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Clint even found the spot near the Big Sandy River where Bierstadt made the image of the cattle and encamped emigrants. He showed me on his computer how he merged the modern and 1859 pictures. The snow-capped mountains align perfectly, and Clint even filled the grassland with modern cows and their overland ancestors scattered here and there. It was awesome.
I want to thank Clint for a memorable visit to this museum and to the past. You really do learn something new every day, and thank goodness for it.
These two rare images of an emigrant wagon train, as seen at Wyoming’s Museum of the Mountain Man, can be found on the University of Wyoming’s web site.