The Life and Legacy of Traveling Photographer William Henry Jackson

1200William Henry Jackson, as a member of the U. S. Geological Survey exploring the Teton country in 1872.jpg

By Victoria Chick


In 1894 George Eastman invented film that could be placed on a roll and a few years later the Kodak camera, using roll film, was beginning to be manufactured. Prior to this, photographers had a much harder time doing photography if they wanted to travel and record the western American landscape as it was being explored. Glass or metal printing plates, a stock of chemicals, and a portable, horse-drawn darkroom were necessary items. The successful 19th-century traveling photographer had to be very hardy as well as lucky to move from place to place without damaging or losing his entire operation as he traveled over rough dirt roads or forded rivers and streams. One such photographer was William Henry Jackson 1843 – 1942.


Jackson was a talented boy who spent many hours honing his drawing skills. An early job as a re-toucher gave him experience within a professional photography studio. When Jackson was mustered out of his Civil War regiment, he opened his own photography studio in Vermont. Shortly thereafter, he had his first taste of the West traveling to Montana hauling supplies for a freight company by oxen-drawn wagons. By 1868 he had married, and he and his wife opened another photography studio in Omaha, Nebraska. Leaving his wife to operate their business,


Jackson accepted an invitation to join the Hayden geologic and survey expedition. Thus, Jackson became the first photographer to capture the amazing features of what is now Yellowstone National Park. In fact, Jackson’s photographs helped convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872.

In 1879, a new home and studio were established in Denver, Colorado. In addition to the usual portraiture done in studios, Jackson manufactured stereoscopic cards of the outstanding natural wonders he had photographed. It was also during his years in Colorado he dispelled a myth by taking a noteworthy photograph. The Mountain of the Cross had been seen occasionally and spoken of for years, but Jackson was the first person whose photograph proved its existence. In addition, he became the first white man to see and photograph the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. By the 1890s he had a reputation as the greatest landscape photographer in America.

The Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893, for which he did the photographs, provided an opportunity to meet one of the Exposition’s organizers who offered to pay all Jackson’s expenses to travel around the world for 5 years taking photographs of the wonders he saw. Jackson accepted this amazing gift but completed the tour in much less time. On his return, he took his negatives to the Detroit Publishing Company where he became a director at about the same time color postcards were first marketed.

Financially, Jackson did very well for over 30 years when Detroit Publishing went out of business due to trouble with trademarking its color process as new companies with improved color processes were established. So, at the age of 71, William Henry Jackson set about reinventing himself as a commercial artist, lecturer, and writer; and he continued doing these things until his death at age 99. His paintings, both oil and watercolor, were based on his photographs combined with his knowledge of the history of places he had photographed. The subjects are often important historical events or scenes that would have been typical for an earlier era in a particular geographic location. Some are personal, such as the painting he did of himself photographing Mt. Holy Cross.

One wing of the Scotts Bluff National Monument is dedicated to William Henry Jackson and sixty of his paintings are in that park’s collection. Most of Jackson’s negatives are in the Library of Congress.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at

Cow Trail Art Studio - Silver City, NM

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