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Research Guides

John Mix Stanley


Pacific Railroad Survey (1853-1854)

"The chief of the exploration would do injustice to his own feelings if he omitted to express his admiration for the various labors of Mr. Stanley, the artist of the exploration. Besides occupying his professional field with an ability above any commendation we can bestow, Mr. Stanley has surveyed two routes...to the furtherance of our geographical information, and the ascertaining of important points in the question of a railroad; and he has also rendered effectual services to both cases and throughout his services with the exploration, in intercourse with the Indians." [41]

Introduction

In 1853 Congress passed a bill ordering the Secretary of War to prepare a report detailing all possible railroad routes to the Pacific Ocean. The Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, assigned the task of exploring those routes to several expedition parties. The exploration of the Northern Route, from St. Paul to Puget Sound, was commanded by Isaac I. Stevens, the new governor of Washington Territory.

Of the eleven artists that accompanied the various surveys, John Mix Stanley covered the Pacific Northwest (another survey artist, Gustav Sohon, also depicted the Northwest) and his work is represented more than any other artist.

Original Publication

Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean was printed in twelve volumes by A.O.P. Nicholson between 1855 and 1861.

On February 24, 1855, the United States Senate decreed that "That there be printed, for the use of the Senate, ten thousand copies of the several reports of surveys for a railroad to the Pacific, made under the direction of the Secretary of War...together with the maps and plates accompanying said reports, necessary to illustrate the same; and that five hundred copies be printed for the use of the Secretary of War, and fifty copies for each of the commanding officers engaged in said service."

"These volumes, published by the Federal Government between 1855 and 1861, constitute probably the most important single contemporary source of knowledge on Western geography and history and their valued is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of many beautiful plates in color of scenery, native inhabitants, fauna and flora of the Western country." [42]

References to the dates and locations of Stanley's sketches are made in the text, sometimes accompanied with Stanley's descriptions. In some cases, the art included in the railroad survey was not made during the actual expedition (1853-1855), but from Stanley's earlier travels to the region in 1847. For example, with the illustration of Palouse Falls (which Stevens did not visit himself), he relays Stanley's observations from 1847: "The Peluse river flows over three steppes, each of which is estimated to have an ascent of a thousand feet. The falls descend from the middle of the lower of these steppes...The fall of the water, which is about 30 feet wide, cannot be seen from any distant point; for flowing through a fissure in the basaltic rock, portions of which tower above in jagged pinnacles, it suddenly descends some 125 feet into a narrow basin, and thence flows rapidly away through a deep cañon from a point from which the annexed view was sketched." [43]

Stanley also superintended the illustrations for the Reports, working on them from September of 1854 through 1855. The lithography was done by Sarony, Major & Knapp, at 449 Broadway in New York. The lithographs (tinted green, blue, orange and brown) are bound into the text.

Illustrations relating to the Northwest can be found in volume 12, parts 1 and 2. Part 1, where Stanley's work can be found, highlights the Pacific Northwest in plates 30 to 70. These plates contain views ranging from the Coeur d’Aléne Mission on the St. Ignatius River to Palouse Falls, from along the Columbia River to the Rocky Mountains, and from Puget Sound to Mountains Rainier and Baker. Part 2 contains botanical and zoological illustrations.

Biography of Artist

John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), was born and raised in New York. He first came West as a draughtsman in General Stephen Watts Kearney's expedition to San Diego, under the W. H. Emory. After being discharged from the Army, he traveled independenly to Oregon in July 1847, intent upon depicting accurate portraits of Native Americans. He hoped the his paintings would "excite some desire that the memory, at least, of these tribes may not become extinct." [44] In a letter from Peter Skene Ogden to Paul Kane, Ogden reports that Stanley was in search of Native American chiefs, who were "in great demand with him." [45]

Stanley nearly happened upon the Whitman massacre in November 1847. He was traveling to the Whitman mission to paint Dr. Whitman's portrait when he heard the news and had to divert his route to Walla Walla, from whence he quickly returned to the safety of Fort Vancouver.

Returning to the eastern seaboard, he deposited 151 paintings from his travels in the Smithsonian Institution (all but 5 of which were destroyed in the 1865 fire), and a catalog was produced in 1852 entitled, Portraits of North American Indians, with Sketches of Scenery.

In 1853 Stanley was assigned to be the an artists on the railroad survey. Stanley's work is presented in volume 12, part 1 of Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. As well as providing visual documentation during the journey, Stanley assembled Native American councils and recorded Native American vocabulary.

Upon his return to Washington D.C. in 1854, Stanley prepared a giant 42-episode panoramic work accompanied by a handbook entitled, Scenes and Incidents of Stanley's Western Wilds. At some point in time, the panorama mysteriously disappeared and has never been recovered.

Holdings

Special Collections holds the original publication of the Pacific Railroad Survey, a bibliography for which can be found in Robert Taft's book, Artists and illustrators of the Old West, 1850-1900 , under "Sources and Notes," for chapter 1, note 13.

Other notable books about Stanley include: John Mix Stanley and his Indian paintings, by W. Vernon Kinietz,  and Notes of a military reconnoissance, from 1846-1847, written by William H. Emory, which includes art by Stanley from his military assignment with Kearnes to San Diego.

Stanley also contributed illustrations to the Bureau of Indian Affairs publication, edited by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, entitled, Historical and statistical information respecting the history, condition, and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States, which also includes artists such as Seth Eastman and Frank B. Mayer.


[41]United States. War Dept., Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Made under the Direction of the Secretary of War, in 1853-[6], Ex. doc. (United States. Congress. House) ; 36th Congress, 1st session, no. 56 Ex. doc. (United States. Congress. House) ; 33rd Congress, 2nd session, no. 91 (Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson, Printer [etc.], 1855). Volume 1, page 67. Volume prepared by Isaac I. Stevens.
[42] Robert Taft, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West, 1850-1900 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 5.
[43] United States. War Dept., Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Made under the Direction of the Secretary of War, in 1853-[6], 151.
[44] From the Preface of Stanley’s Smithsonian 1852 publication, Portraits of North American Indians, with Sketches of Scenery.
[45] Kane, Paul Kane's Frontier; Including Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America, by Paul Kane. Edited with a Biographical Introd. And a Catalogue Raisonne by J. Russell Harper, 24. Letter September 2, 1847.