‘…there is good reading’ in the landscape…

michigan shoreline2016

Sketchbook 2000 – 2017 Illinois State Beach Park/Zion Power station. #12 Graphite on paper, 2016

Begin at the shoreline, Mishigamaa (Ojibwe), be a great lake, be an immense lake…


“There is good reading on the land, first-hand reading, involving no symbols.  –  The records are written in the forests, in the fence-rows, in bogs, in play-grounds, in pastures, in gardens, in canyons, in tree rings.” – May Theilgaard Watts, Reading the Landscape. 1957.

“the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription, that can be read to better understand who we are, and what we are doing.” – The Center for Land Use Interpretation. 1994

“…the enactment into practice of a belief canonized by Heraclitus: that the only possible viewpoint into the nature of things is found in the law of movement and becoming.” – The Metabolic Studio – Optics Division. 2005


(Badger) Animals Will Find You


cenex panorama#49-18-17
Cenex panorama #4. September 18 2017

About a month before setting out for California in the fall of 2017 I had reached out to Roger Echo Hawk on social-media. In a longish message I briefly explained the aims of my project and asked his advice on interpretations of the Pawnee earth huts depicted in Wilkins’s drawing. We struck up an initial correspondence and then agreed to talk on the phone. Then in August we chatted for more than an hour.  Roger very generously took me on a lengthy narrative journey through many important details that relate to traditions in Pawnee life and included many pragmatic underpinnings that might otherwise have remained obscure to me. The conversation confirmed the importance of narrative detail in giving direct connections to the landscapes through which I was about to pass. Roger talked into the political struggles of the people who had lived on the plains before the arrival of Europeans and Americans illustrating with both anecdotal and statistical detail the levels to which their lives were being interrupted by the streams of people who were crossing the plains from the east. Coming away from the conversation I reread the details in diaries where contact with plains inhabitants was described hearing the detail afresh. Accounts by diarists of the 1840’s and 1850’s of meetings with ‘indians’ often illustrates an arrogance and often misplaced certainty about their success and purpose. Narratives of the demeanor and character of the plains dwellers was very well established by the 1850’s and usually quite negative in nature. Assumptions and stereotypes which continued to solidify into the subsequent mythologies and racial characterizations that had become so deeply rooted in the fantasy narratives of the West which I grew up with as a child in England.

Above all in paying attention to James Wilkins depictions of landscapes on the Overland Trail, and of the Pawnee earth lodges in particular, it became possible for me to obtain glimpses of the landscapes along the trail as they might have been before the European and American incursion. Significant to my aims also was the desire to read through the contemporary landscape iterations into previous traditional spaces.

Without realizing it was happening a portal begun to open up, one which would give entry into a more arcane realm that has been almost totally obscured by the contemporary landscape. Now to have listened to Roger talking about the earth lodges as something other than a ‘village’ had made an important re-orientation based simply on scale. Wilkins drawing, number 11 in the sequence is entitled ‘A Deserted Pawnee Village’. At the time he depicted it, it was seasonally vacated as part of annual hunting traditions that followed the buffalo migration. I learned from Roger Echo Hawk that this drawing depicts a place called Marsh Town which was home to his great, great grandmother.

11_The Deserted Pawnee Village, Nebraska, 1849
James Wilkins, The Deserted Pawnee Village. 11th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. in, John Francis McDermott, (ed.) An Artist on the Overland Trail, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA. 1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID. 1842. Viewed online at Wisconsin Historical Society.

My research of places along the Platte river had been propelled through maps and first-hand travelers accounts in diaries in the collections at the Newberry Library in Chicago. With this new information I experienced a visceral shift that then connected me to a pre-existent landscape iteration.  I had made other physical connections with the aid of google maps and satellite, and was able to turn up a number of references pointing to a number of places along the river where Pawnee earth lodges had been located. The river forms itself into as a series of long sand-bank islands ridges, a series of streams that create long shifting ribbon like shorelines, channels and confluences. The locations of these habitations are laid along the flow of the Platte over about a two hundred mile stretch of the river, from the mouth of Wolf Creek, close to present day Grand Island NE, to the place further east, where the rivers flow turns south, near present day Freemont NE. The individual clusters of buildings can be seen to form a network of locations which had a seasonal utility. On contemporary digital maps two places are marked and named specifically as the location of a ‘Pawnee Village’. And one in particular bears a landmark heritage plaque which relates Pawnee history and alludes to the mythological and mystical significance too.

Pawnee Indian Village
Pawnee Indian village, 1854, from a drawing by Geo. Simons. Source: NEGenWeb Project, Resource Center Church

…entering and leaving the nation…

In 1849 leaving Illinois for the west at first meant crossing the Mississippi and then the Missouri river at which point travelers were leaving the nation. Leaving the United States and traveling from the prairie to the plains. What struck me most while travelling in 2017, more than any other detail was that the landscape which Wilkins had painted was now completely eradicated. Aside from the general shape and character of the horizon, or other broad indicators of space that might have come from the seasonal angle of sunlight or the weather, the detail which might have bought a character of place or location to life was very much absent. Even the Missouri river itself was flowing in a different configuration of deep bends and curves, carving a new course after floods and manipulated by contemporary drainage and land use. The homogeneity that now permeates the road ways bought on a sense of melancholy and loss and as I traveled towards the west, the feeling intensified into a deep sense of misery which seemed to infused every turn and sweep of the river. The water itself runs deep and sometimes sluggish, in churning tones of deep brown and grey, running over itself with an almost oily quality. The river appeared turgid, dense and even sometimes malevolent, It is a powerful heaving thing that wrestles with itself.

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The Missouri River at the mouth of the Nodaway near Amazonia MO, September 16 2017.

Another comment that Roger had made came to mind. He was talking about how people were moved to the reservations further south and briefly described how the contemporary definitions of nationhood were articulated, and then, almost in passing he described himself as having himself ‘left the nation’ some years ago. This idea became intriguing to me and echoed and followed my journey as I crossed the thresholds in the land. To some degree Rogers comment gave voice to a feeling I am still not able to fully articulate. My having felt at odds with a contemporary sense of nation and nations as they are ascribed. I let the idea alone to percolate. So having conveyed myself across Illinois to the Mississippi and along the Missouri River to the mouth of Platte and then following the Sweetwater river, first north and then further west, without any anticipation of what was about to happen,  a portal opened up which drew me into the landscape itself.

As I followed the Platte river, having crossed the Missouri I moved forward with an understanding of how leaving my present situation would alter my perception of the same places upon my return. My perception of location in Illinois on the shoreline of Lake Michigan in the present day nation of the United States has been built upon visualizing the landscapes to the west from the vantage point of the great lake. My physical sense of space and place was bounded very much by the Mississippi river, and played into the space I had internally manifested for myself. Even after having previously traveled west overland via South Dakota and other routes I had relied upon a mental image of the rocky mountains as the next significant threshold, and really not understood the magnitude of the Midwest beyond its patchwork of farmland.

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Nebraska City NE. September 18 2017.

In the late summer of 2017, and by the time I reached Nebraska City NE, the season had begun to really change. With the initial glimmer of the Fall there was also the glimmer of the implications of what it means to ‘leave’. Departing in the fullness of late summer, with heavy storms rolling through daily, surely indicated that by the time I would return in late November, the season would certainly have already arrived at the threshold of a new Winter. And I would certainly not be returning to the place I had left.  In the opening of his 2018 book, The Magic Children, (Left Coast Press, Walnut creek CA, 2010) Roger Echo-Hawk raises the idea that, ‘In essence, race is dead. What does this mean?” He goes on to narrate a series of personal experiences that illustrate why a rejection of racial identity is an essential choice to be made if culture is to endure beyond scientifically based racial frameworks. He then asks the reader once they have contended with what race means in their life, to let him know, “what happens next”. In some respects what follows is the beginning of my articulation of a response.

There are narrative writings to follow which have grown from the experience of traveling. Moving each day while trying to maintain a consistent degree of observation, measure and care, paying attention to what was encountered on the journey. A journey that was shaped by leaving for the interior, a colonial re-enactment. A journey that was formed through departure, each and every day, and which acknowledged the landscape as a series fresh encounters, a meditation on being present. When travelling I was acutely aware of these two seemingly contradictory frames of reference, constantly moving and being present, every day was a new experience of leaving the nation.

On a Fall day while being observant I saw the landscape in a way that changed everything. At the foot of Independence Rock, trucks thundering along Wyoming State highway 220, a place that was known by Americans as a landmark since the late 1840’s. There I experienced contact with the landscape possibly for the first time. A badger and a man looked at each other and they saw each other, for the first time. A few months later another chance meeting with a musician produced a visionary interpretation of the experience through a guided journey to the place where the animals are. From here to there is a very long way and through this guided journey I was able to listen again to what the badger said. The initial advice from badger was to press onwards with the journey, and at all costs to be confident in the aims I had begun with. To continue, this was important. And then without hearing it expressed in quite such an explicit manner the second time, I have followed badgers advice.

The narration is called ‘Badger – Animals Will Find You’ It is an attempt to understand the meaning of an encounter with a badger in Wyoming. Devised as a live accompaniment to a video presentation at OHKLAHOMO, an experimental performance space in Chicago. It is presented in parallel with a story called “The Chiefs Son Who Received The Animal Power,” as it was told to George Dorsey by White-Sun, Kitkehahki in 1868. Number 86 of 148 stories that were collected by Dorsey and first published in 1906 as ‘The Pawnee Mythology’, available now in Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press (1997).

A dedication –

The land on which we gather is occupied. This place, this ground is un-ceded and formerly seized territory. A seasonally shared home.

(Looking first to the east) for Haudenosaunee– including Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Seneca;

(then look to the north) Potawatomi

(then looking now to the west) of Peoria

(and look to the south) of Miami

On this ground, I pay respect to the elders, past and present, and here I ask respectfully, to enter in…

(Badger) Animals Will Find You

There are deep cuts across the Prairie, ruts that extend across the plains, slicing through the mountains – scaring the arid places. lines that are inscribed in the land  –

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleams
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!

God Shed his Grace on thee, And crown their good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea –

September 2017 – journey part one.

Along the roads, lining every way-side track and riverbank the previous generations are watching us. Watching us as we pass by. They stand mute as caryatids, observant, and careful, holding up and watching, just watching. To take the old routes west is to follow the rivers, going against the flow to the continental divide.

From Cahokia, September 13, 2017.

My journey begins at Cahokia, and from there traveling onwards, across the Mississippi and then meandering along the Missouri river. Slowing myself down, paying attention to the light, I began to take notice and then I begin to see, muted and watching the river flow. At first their appearance is like a kind of shifting texture amongst the trees.

Slowing down to look even more carefully… I’d see, what?

“no? … It’s just the trees… it’s the trees and the way the sunlight falls through the canopy.”

Every now and then, there on the edge of my vision… what’s that?

“… no, its nothing more than a spear of sunlight between the branches.”

But then, at Weston Bend looking across the river towards Leavenworth, there where the trail turns northwards, the leafy apparitions began to settle into form.

“…a couple of musk-rats squirling along under a fallen tree. A white tailed doe and her young family stepped carefully to the waters edge, to drink…”

“…a neatly dressed man, thin and bearded, laboring to pull his small boat from the shallows.”

Then another, and another, and another. Just watching the water, a younger man, dressed lightly, black trousers, blue cotton shirt, clean shaven. Then on this side of the river, opposite him, a woman, maybe about my age?

“…she was sitting on a rock, off to my right and didn’t seem to notice me as I passed close by her,

She just watched and the river was just flowing.

Further along where the Nodaway river cuts a deep ravine into the rich Missouri earth these human figures are more numerous. Standing in lines now, still facing the water in groups, two and three here and there, way more conspicuous.

They are to be seen standing back from the water, in the woody deeps too. Wanting to see them, but not wanting to be seen looking, I’d pretended each time that I hadn’t seen them, and as I did that, I noticed that they had begun to see me, to look directly at me.

On my fourth day of traveling I left the river temporarily to go into the heart of the great Tarkio swamp. I sat down in the tall grass to listen to the tree swallows swooping and diving for flies.

Tarkio, September 17 2017.

And then at the edge of my vision to the left a shape began to take on form. At first like a texture of leaves, like shimmering cottonwood, but which slowly gives way to an object, a thick hawthorn maybe, then a tree-stump, inevitably this anima became that of a man and he began to live there. I turned my head to see, looking more intensely, and he looked directly back at me then. We saw each other. Made contact. Held onto the gaze between us too, and a smile crept into the corners of each of our eyes.

He stepped forward towards me and I reached out and up. He took my hand and balanced the force of my weight and I stood up. Facing each other now he began step backwards and then  with each step to apply pressure to my hand so that I stepped forward too. I understood that his intention was to guide me, to follow after him.

Walking behind I followed his lead and much further on our path took us back along by the river again. The light began to fade now, and we stopped walking close to a thick oak tree, and we lay together in a hollow space beneath the heavy roots. We held each other close and under my embrace I felt his shape begin to change. Fur took form on his skin, downy at first and then thick. He emerged as a dog and with his dog-like features he began following the scent across my skin, went tasting it with his nose. Then lapping and licking with his tongue. Following his tongue he began changing again, taking on then as a calf, suckling, suckling, and became greedy, pushy with his mouth, suckling greedily on.

A storm drew over us and the heat of the evening gave way to a close thick wet night-time. Then I slept and dreamt of him taking form again as a feathered beast, eagle-like with the legs of a man. The claws holding onto my ankles were sharp and tight, somewhat at odds with the lightness of his wings that wrapped my arms and chest. His pointed beak held my neck as if to break it. Heavy rain was coursing down and I sank into the dark again. I awoke that morning to a damp gloom cool and alone. The wet air ran over me thickly and thunder rolled on behind the dark clouds.

I could smell the water and as I looked, the watchers now presented themselves and were directing me north, their pressing expressions at first took me by surprise. Even though all my instincts were to go towards a place where the sun might be shining, perhaps west, one after the other their eyes communicated a sense of urgency. Sometimes pointing, often gesturing, and mostly cajoling me to follow the river. I took their instruction respectfully now.

Arriving at the confluence where the sandy waters from the Platte enter the deep muddy Missouri the wind whispered to me in long breaths…

“…go north, and let, the animals, find you, …”

And the rain swept over the water in gusts.

By the middle of the day as the clouds were thinning out I arrived at a place above the river on a high bluff. The rain had stopped now and the breeze shook through the trees. A group of cottonwood trees spoke…

“…here is Pahaku…” they said.

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Near Fremont NE, September 18 2017.

February 4th 2018 – journey part two.

… a steady drum beat and then a flute which rose and subsided like breathing … a darkness descended and I could feel a soft warm wind on my skin.

My eyes were closed, I concentrated on the patches of light in front of me, trying so hard to see what they were. A sweet and bitter sage was breathed into my nose, it stung my sinus.

He circled off in the distance, catching my scent, he watched, slowly he changed from a dark patchy thing into a sleek warm body, a badger?

Speculatively circling, his keen nose searching my smell, until I caught his scent too. Closer and closer to me until his fur brushing my legs. He raised up behind me, to lick my neck, and as I put my head back to see, I felt his sharp mouth with my lips, and then his smooth tongue, it tasted like green things. His breath was sweet. He enclosing me with his arms, and now I know how thick furry badger arms feel, they feel strong.

From behind me his breathing glanced my cheek and I tasted the green again. With his front digging paws wrapped around me he placed his hind legs one at a time in front of my legs, then gently, very gently he took my weight and pulled me close.

One paw on my chest and the other pressing into my lower abdomen. His thick furry upper torso felt hot, pushing against my shoulders. His soft pink paunch flattened out into my lower back and it was cool and moist. Ten badger paw digit-tips, sharp and made for digging, pressed into me, and in front of each ten tiny blood spots pricked out of my flesh, deep rosy-red and fine.

Horse appeared in front of me, close and strong, her face thin and long, she began to speak inaudibly at first, and then, in a calm thin-faced distinct and clear manner, I heard her say –

“… taste the earth…”

The green of badgers mouth turned to heavy dark loam, the sweet musk of his fur took on a bitterness, and then high, high up, high above my head, Eagle soared out of sight.

Badger was gone, Horse too, and Skunk smiled into my eyes.

June 18th 2018 – [deleted chat] – journey part three

2:32pm – Bear: Hey,

2:32pm – Otter: Hey,

Bear: Sup,

Otter: Sup,

Bear: Looking?

Otter: Yeh sure…  Into?

Bear: Top here, you

2:38pm – Otter: Yeh, Sounds good, yeh, and versatile here,

Bear: Pics?

Otter: Sure…

2:45pm – Bear: Damn – yr hot bud

2:48pm – Otter: Ty, you too man.

Bear: Interested??

Otter: Hell yes, wanna play?

Bear: Sure, Yeh bud  – be fun. Are you hosting?

Otter: You bet?

Bear: Where are you?

Otter: I’m in Pahaku

2:50pm – Bear: Really? Where’s that? I’ve heard of it, But that’s a ways away and hard to find isn’t it?

2:51pm – How do you get there?

2:54pm – Hey bud…? you still there…?

2:57pm – ???

Epilogue – September 16th 2017 – journey part four (from a forested bluff over the river).

Following the platte river road, at Grand Island take Interstate highway 80 West. Then north at Brule past Ash Hollow State Historical Park down into the north-platte valley and north again along the Laramie range to Casper Wyoming. And then north-west from there following the Sweetwater River …

… animals will find you.



From The Pawnee Mythology – stories collected by George A Dorsey, 1868. Told by White-Sun, Kitkehahki. The story teaches that it is impossible to deceive the animals. Especially does it illustrate the dire consequences befalling one who betrays a friend.

A long time ago the people had their village upon the Republican River. In the village was a fine-looking young man  who was a son of the chief. The young man was very kind and was good to everybody. There was a man  who became very fond of the chief ‘s son and one day he came to him and said, “ I would like to talk with you and take you to a far-away country.” The boy, suspecting nothing, promised to go with the man, and so they prepared for their journey and started. They traveled for many days until at last they came to a place known as Pahuk.

They went to a steep bank and sat down. The man began to tell the boy that there had been stories told about this wonderful place, and that he had brought him there because he wanted to tie a rope around his waist and let him down over the steep bank to pick up some eagle and woodpecker’s feathers which were upon the bank. The man put a lariat around the boy ‘s waist and let him down the steep bank. When the boy reached the bank he began to pick up the feathers.  He then looked up to tell the man to pull him up, but the man was not there and there were no signs of him. The boy cried for help, for he was in trouble.  On the journey he had become pregnant, and gradually grew larger all the time until, when he was upon the bank, he knew that he was about to give birth. Then he cried and yelled and called to the man to pull him up, but the man had run away and left the boy hanging on the side of the steep bank so that he would die. The boy cried until he was exhausted and then he went to sleep.

The animals came out from under the bank and found the boy. When they saw him they said: “Let us take pity on him”, and they carried him into their lodge.

When the boy awoke he saw all kinds of animals and birds, and he was surprised. The Buffalo was the first to speak. He said:

“Let us help this poor boy. We know what the trouble is.  He has been bewitched.”

All the animals agreed, and the Elk was the first to stand up and run towards the boy. The Elk jumped over the boy, and when he jumped over the boy the other animals saw blood in the Elk’s mouth. Then the Buffalo ran and jumped over the boy and there was blood in his mouth. Each animal took his turn, and then they all ran busily about in the lodge. The dust rose towards the sky, so that the boy could not be seen. The Bear came to where the boy was and stopped.

The Bear screamed, then took one of his claws and cut the boy open. He took out the bones of the child, threw them away, and healed the wound. The boy was then told to sit up. Then the Snake came and said:

“My son, I am bad. I kill people. I can kill you by spitting upon you. I give you this bone. Strike the enemy with this bone that I have given you and it will kill them.” The Buffalo came and said: “I will teach you something. Take this whistle.”  Upon the center of the whistle was painted a buffalo skull. “When you get into trouble, whistle and I will be with you. I will make you brave so that you shall get out of trouble.”

Then the Bear came and said: “My son, I can kill people. Look at me.” The Bear at this time was on his four feet and when he arose there was a great dust. When the dust passed by, the Bear blew his breath and the dust came from his mouth. He told the boy to take a little dust and put it into the sack. It was to be used as a paint to put upon the sick people and upon the wounded. Then a Buffalo cow came and said, “I can kill people. “She made a great dust about the boy. Each animal taught the boy some mystery; then they told him that he must return to his people. Before they let him go they told him that they must teach him some sleight-of-hand performances.

The Eagles taught the boy how to fly. The Ducks taught him how to swim and dive. The animals then said that the boy was hungry and that they wanted to feed him. They sent the Crow into the west, and the Beaver into the north, and the Otter into the east, and the Hawk into the south, to bring food for the boy. While these animals were away to get something for the boy to eat one of the animals spoke to the boy and said: “We know what the man did to you.  He tried to poison you.

He tried to make you like a woman. We have taught you great mysteries. If you desire you can bewitch him.” After the animals came back with something to eat, and the boy had eaten, the leading animal of the lodge, who was a Beaver, said: “My boy, it is time to go home. The animals will show you the way. The Owl, Buffalo, and two Crows will be the ones to lead you to your home. They will stop outside the village. Enter the village, but do not let the people know that you are there. The next day after you arrive, take the man  who tried to poison you to the river and swim with him. Our animals will go up the stream and they will bewitch him.”

When the Beaver finished speaking, the Crow came near to the boy and touched him and the boy found himself outside of the lodge of the animals. Then he was told to try to fly, and he arose in the air and flew like a crow.

They left the boy just outside of his village. In the night the boy went into the village to the lodge of his father and spoke to him. The father did not believe that his son, whom he had mourned for as dead, could have returned.  He made his wife make a fire and then he saw that

it was his son and he was glad. The next day the people heard that the boy had returned. They came from all directions to see the boy and to give him presents. Then the boy sent for the man who had injured him, and when the man came the boy picked up a bucket and said, “Come

with me down to the creek.” When the boy was dipping water the other man touched the water. As soon as he touched the water he was dragged under. The man disappeared and was never seen again. When the boy came up he told the people that the man was a witch, but for them not to be afraid, as he had disposed of him and that he would never return to trouble them.

Observe the Earth and observe the Sky.

Observe the Stars and observe the Sun.

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Independence Rock WY September 23 2017

With Thanks to Roger and Jay.


Material responses 2: At the confluence of objects and landscapes.

The confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers, Nebraska, September 18, 2017, 11:10am.

To articulate a transition from the journey as a series of experiences into a series of material response a couple of frames through which to view things presented themselves:

  • Realism is narrative made present
  • Depiction is an infusion of reflection into imagination
Objects bought from thrift stores in Chicago. In order to complicate my object choices I asked my studio assists to go thrift store shopping on my behalf. The objects are seen here on the second day of residency with the Kohler Arts/Industry Program – January 9 2018.

Working as a resident with the Kohler Arts/Industry program presented a set of physical challenges not least in understanding the material and the functional detail of the factory. The Kohler slip holds some interesting secrets that need to be discovered through a careful and methodical process of experimentation, while the hot and loud working conditions of the factory itself present their own challenges. I understood immediately that my initial tasks were going to be shaped around developing a material fluency alongside working towards developing a visual language through which to represent experiences of the Overland Trail.

Kohler Factory
The north side of the Pottery at Kohler Wisconsin.

My expectation of the journey as I had traveled it in the fall were based upon reading the diaries of a number of travelers from 1849. Accounts are often narrated through descriptions of the landscape and the material conditions of traveling. In many ways traveling the same route today is no different, but my search for detailed material evidence of these mid 19thCentury travelers beyond their hand written accounts was typically confounded. The route of the trails is mostly evident today in a series of wayside markers and there are historic sites and trail ruts which can be visited too. Many contemporary highways follow the same routes that were forged by these early trails, and posted references to the trails in the landscape are mostly clustered around the national monuments and historic markers which endure not surprisingly adjacent to the modern roads.

In these trail interpretation locations there are many museums and here I had hoped to encounter details of the artifacts of travel themselves. The personal effects or possessions of particular people maybe, objects that would prove with certainty to have been carried by an 1849 traveler. Fort Bridger a State Park in Wyoming gives access to a complex of buildings one of which is a reconstructed ‘Post Traders’ general store and houses a rich collection of objects from the late eighteen hundreds. When I enquired about things connected directly to specific people I was directed to look at a small collection of hairpins that are said to have belonged to the daughter of Jim Bridger the forts founder. The main museum displays at Fort Bridger are constructed around a significant collection of objects, many were retrieved through on-site digs, and there is much that was clearly discarded as trash. And all, with the exception of the hair-pins, are presented as generic things rather than specific possessions.

Fort Bridger General Store
The ‘Post Traders Store’ at Fort Bridger Historic Site, Wyoming.
Fort Bridger Personal Items
Some items on display are ascribed to prior ownership of the Bridger Family. Fort Bridger Historic Site, Wyoming.
Fort Bridger Trash1
An empty Metropolitan Canning Company can of ‘Fresh Pine Apple’. Late 1800’s, retrieved as trash from Fort Bridger Historic Site, Wyoming.

The museum at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming has an equally significant collection of objects many of which show the marks of daily use and all of which offer an opportunity to speculate about the cultural context and the experience of living on the trail. On the whole though when taking many museum collections into account there are very few objects on display that can be authenticated to 1849. Items on display are offered up most frequently as stand-ins and as placeholders for things ‘like’ those carried by emigrants. It was surprising also to learn that the archeology of the California and Overland trails had turned up very few lost and discarded items, even though many diary accounts recount at length and go into great detail over the material goods that one might encounter by the wayside. See my previous post on these discarded objects from October 3 2017; The journey 4: lists of object, museums and legacies.

Fort Laramie Domninos
Dominos from the late 1800’s in the museum, at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Wyoming.
Fort Laramie Pottery
Housewares from the mid to late 1800’s on display at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Wyoming.

When traveling anywhere in the present time it becomes almost impossible to escape seeing contemporary discarded items along the roadside and perhaps this is most indicative of how much there is possibly in common again with travel in the eighteen hundreds. Perhaps attitudes to trash were the same then as they are today. Certainly the descriptions in Both James Wilkins’ and J.M. Hutchings’ diaries seem to parallel the things that might be encountered today. Contemporary cast offs today include mostly food and drink containers and the detritus of motor driven transportation, literally pieces of cars. Sometimes items of clothing or other nameless pieces of fabric present themselves, half buried and weathered remnants peering through gravel and scant vegetation along the wayside. There are animal remains too, sun dried and taut bodies. These ‘lost’ items frequently have a quality about them that evokes a sense of terror and even violent force. Inexplicable, weathered, decayed, dirt-encrusted, lost or left behind, there is a distinct repellant quality here which is again consistent with the disdainful and fearful tone of accounts from the middle eighteen hundreds.

Discarded object. Near the Continental Divide, US Highway 28, Wyoming. September 26th 2017, 12:04pm.
Plastic object. Near the Continental Divide, US Highway 28, Wyoming. September 26th 2017, 12:04pm.
Black object. Near the Continental Divide, US Highway 28, Wyoming. September 26th 2017, 12:04pm.
Woven object. Near the Continental Divide, US Highway 28, Wyoming. September 26th 2017, 12:06pm.
metal object. Near the Continental Divide, US Highway 28, Wyoming. September 26th 2017, 12:07pm.
Organic object. Near the Continental Divide, US Highway 28, Wyoming. September 26th 2017, 12:07pm.
Animal remains. Near Bayard, US Highway 26, Nebraska. September 20th 2017, 5:22pm.

Before arriving at the Art/Industry residency I had developed a series of sketches and large scale plan drawings which bought together the idea of lost or left objects with particular places and landscape features along the Overland Trail. Thinking very much about the idea of museum displays which set out to represent social and cultural conditions where a narrative is developed to support the context of an object. I have been interested for some time in museum dioramas and the ways in which landscapes are evoked to conjure a sense of the real, to illustrate a place and space in time as a setting for an artifact. The considerations of display furniture also informed my thinking in the form of a series of regularly shaped platforms upon which my landscapes and objects would reside.

Drawings and maps in the Roger Brown Studio, New Buffalo, Michigan. School of The Art Institute Faculty and Staff Residency, December 5th – 17th, 2017. http://www.saic.edu/faculty/residencies/rogerbrownresidency/
Concept drawings for ceramic objects completed in the Roger Brown Studio, New Buffalo, Michigan. School of The Art Institute Faculty and Staff Residency, December 5th – 17th, 2017. http://www.saic.edu/faculty/residencies/rogerbrownresidency/
Concept drawings for ceramic objects completed in the Roger Brown Studio, New Buffalo, Michigan. School of The Art Institute Faculty and Staff Residency, December 5th – 17th, 2017. http://www.saic.edu/faculty/residencies/rogerbrownresidency/

Having identified twelve places which seemed significant I moved towards the idea of discovering a set of twelve objects to be paired with them. Based upon the diary accounts from the nineteenth century combined with my encounters with contemporary discarded objects I went out to look for particular types of object, buttons for example, or cutlery, objects which I felt carried the sense of a strong personal connection with a prior owner. In particular I was drawn to things which I felt might have been handled daily. I began by making casts of a number of these objects and began pouring slip more or less immediately too. The choice of things and their placement was mostly intuitive and the constructed objects developed based upon the successes of particular casts.  Subsequent steps included combining the cast found/lost objects in different configurations with versions of the miniature landscapes which I had in turn cast from clay models. Another series of tests was conducted to position the landscapes upon the regularly shaped base forms. From much trial and error the cast forms were assembled often from multiple molds, and the sequence of twelve objects were produced by degrees in an edition of eight.

Objects bought from thrift stores in Chicago. Kohler Arts/Industry Program – January 9 2018.
Assembled two part slip cast object, second in the sequence of twelve landscape representations. #2 Courthouse and Jail Rock, Nebraska.  Kohler Arts/Industry Program

While working to discover these forms I also undertook a series of surface treatment and glaze experiments. Kohler ceramic wares are largely produced via a one-fire process and one of the challenge of this residency is in learning how to get work in line with the factory production lines. Clay needs to be bone dry before firing, and loading wares first into the dryers and then into the kiln a major undertaking sometimes. Firing wares is dependent upon open spaces on the kiln cars, a constantly moving automated sequence of over sixty cars that takes around twenty-seven hours to complete one cycle. At Kohler glazes are applied directly to the raw dry clay body and an even high quality gloss finish is achieved by a hand spraying the glaze. I wanted the object surfaces I was working on to resemble something more like watercolor paintings in the monochrome Payne’s gray, a blue/gray tone invented in the nineteenth century that is used instead of black. Following consultation with glaze specialists in the factory I set out to develop a frit and color-stain mix based upon a discontinued navy blue Kohler glaze recipe. I brushed on the color in thin layers, building it up to the required intensity, much like watercolor. I also found a textural finish that resemble cracked and stratified rock formations, by applying the frit over incised linear textures and shapes that I had carved into the raw cast clay objects.

Glazed slip cast wares before firing, second object in the sequence of twelve landscape representations. #2 Courthouse and Jail Rock, Nebraska.  Kohler Arts/Industry Program
Second object in the sequence of twelve landscape representations. #2 Courthouse and Jail Rock, Nebraska.  Kohler Arts/Industry Program

The language of these objects began to emerge as a combination of concerns. Working in multiple, and in the factory, produces a propensity towards content that is consistent with mass production. In the disjunctures of scale between the real-sized objects and miniature landscapes a sense of wayside Americana developed. The locations depicted by each cast landscape while certainly calling upon trail history also function in a more generic mode too. The cast objects once assembled became evocative of constructed versions the ‘west’, like film sets or wayside fiberglass replica objects. I decided to emphasize the hollow quality of the casts themselves and a series of cave like openings became prominent, revealing the making processes to some degree, while also illustrating a sense of the landscape as fragile. The surface treatments I felt began to reference mass produced painted ceramics tin and lead glaze decorative traditions. Falling somewhere in line with production-line painted figurative objects like Delft wares or Staffordshire figures and types of majolica.


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A sense of context and time is discernable throughout the sequence.  The objects can certainly be read as a flirtation with authoritative museum displays and in a rather more generalized sense as a play on mass produced popular objects and souvenirs. The location that each item depicts is referenced both in an historic narrativized sense of the place and also as a recent observation of the present contemporary version of the place. Each object it as an image of itself as it is an image of the place. The sequence of representations can be understood through a developed contextual narrative of social and historical detail or as a simple reductive representation of a series of places, a collection physical geography types and their characteristics. The found/lost objects that are rendered in real-scale in each object offer a conspicuously contradictory alignment of readings too. As a copy of an original thing, each of the rendered objects are representatives of objects, real objects, that exist in their own right with a deep contextual history. Each has a history that is specific because it is based upon a representation of a particular original thing. In an almost opposite reflection though each object is also a depictions of a generic type of thing too. The objects are a stand-in or surrogate for like things and call to mind a range of generic types. A bottle cap is representative of all bottle caps with a broad social and cultural material history but it is also indicative of a particular bottle cap washed up on a river bank in Nebraska with an equally complicated social context.

Assembled six part slip cast object, first in the sequence of twelve landscape representations. #1 The Confluence of the Platte River and the Missouri River, Nebraska and Missouri.  Kohler Arts/Industry Program
First object in the sequence of twelve landscape representations. #1 The Confluence of the Platte River and the Missouri River, Nebraska and Missouri.  Kohler Arts/Industry Program

Representing the landscapes along a journey is a necessarily episodic undertaking. Journeys always move through a series of steps and stages, passing via particular way-markers, moving from place to place following marked and also described places. This is arguably no different now than it was in 1849, when guidebooks narrated the journey as a series of creek and river crossings, with additional qualifying landscape and object descriptions to pin point specific places and directional changes. The landmarks included in my sequence of twelve are variously described in traveler narratives and in the guidebooks which travelers in the 1840’s and 50’s used. (See in particular Joseph E Ware – The Emigrants Guide To California, 1849.) The differences between landscape types is noted. Between one place and another there are comments upon the differences in the color and formation of rocks, the types, frequencies and densities of vegetation and so on. Passing along this river, to that point and seeing such and such landmark before heading through this basin to that pass and across such and such a range. In this respect at least my experience of the land journey feels like it might not have been so different to that of a couple of hundred years ago. My choice of locations to be rendered into ceramic is by no means representative of the entire journey but rather of a sequential experience of space.

The sequence of twelve landscape representations. Kohler Arts/Industry Program

With thanks to all at Kohler for their support including Tomas Vu for keeping me thoroughly entertained and caffeinated. For their help and support in my research and preparatory work thanks go to Sarah Banks, Angie Almukhametova and finally for imparting comfort and joy while I was preparing this post I am grateful to Mr. Gary Clark.

Material responses 1: …something about objects and landscapes…

route90_SD-Support4blog size
Nicholas Lowe, ‘Support Structure IV, Interstate 90, South Dakota (Midwest landscape observations 2015), Digital Print 80″x20″, 2015.

Somewhere between landscapes and objects there is narrative. The initial steps in this project were inspired by encounters with the writing of May Theilgaard Watts. In particular her book ‘Reading The Landscape’ which offers a reading of the landscapes that make up the Midwest through careful observations of the forces that have shaped and made them. By articulating a history of settlement which relies upon the placement of plants and planting Watts articulates a language of landscape management sensibilities in North America. The changing phases in industrial farming practices that mostly formed out of northern European habits have changed over the decades since they arrived here. They have supplanted, often ignored and discredited pre-existing indigenous knowledge about living on the land. Although Watts doesn’t articulate the detail in quite this way, she describes how two utterly different approaches came together to make our farm-land, forests, river courses and hillsides look the way they do. These approaches could be typified in one of two ways, either through the idea that the landscape and everything on it is an endless expendable resource, or in seeing it as a cradle for a series of seasonal patterns, gathering and benefitting from what is produces. Watts describes for example how indigenous plains dwellers learned about the benefits of landscape burns by observing the naturally occurring fires, and how the seasonal burning of grasslands were incorporated into their lives as part of an existing semi-nomadic agricultural practice. European settlers likewise then incorporated burning into their annual cycles replenishing the energy of their pastures alongside the already known about benefits of  stubble burning after the harvest, a common late season practice that they had bought with them from Europe.

May Watts-2
An extract (Page 28) from, May Theilgaard Watts, Reading the Landscape – An adventure in ecology. The Macmillan Company, New York 1957.

Through a series of excursions across the Midwest and beyond, Watts carefully reads and then describes how agriculture in the landscape has shaped it. Often against all odds and through the persistence of their will, these European settlers worked on finding a balance that would sustain them. Caught between a need to survive and the careful observation of natural forces. The scale of farming increased to meet the demands of a growing American population. The picture Watts presents shows how settlers frequently acted out of a sense of clarity and pragmatism. For Watts reading the landscape is an exercise in thinking about contemporary landscape use and the problems of farming today. Most significant to my present work is the way in which May Watts reads the landscape through its evident material content. She examines landscape as if it were an object, and reads it as the product of the industrial cultures that bought it into its present state. Understanding this while reading again the work of Jules Prown reinforces the idea of landscape as an artifact of culture. It is arguable then that Watts is reading contemporary landscapes as a product of material culture

Object: In thinking about objects Jules Prown helpfully explains how cultural information can be gleaned from the material things around us. “…artifacts are the primary data for the study of material culture, and, therefore, they can be used actively as evidence rather than passively as illustration.” (Mind In Matter, An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method, Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 1-19) And from his standpoint as an art historian he explains that, “…an artifact – a made object, whether you call it art or not – is an historical event, something that happened in the past.” (In Pursuit of Culture: The Formal Language of Objects. American Art, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 2-3). From this framework it is arguable that objects experience and take on what is around them. From marks and traces left by the processes that produced them to the more tangible evidence left behind by human contact, fingerprints and handmade marks of all kinds, there are traces of human activity on every hand-made and manufactured object, but arguably this idea can be extended to include every physical thing. Human activity has altered the physical environment, and potentially all naturally occurring objects too.

Landscape: May Theilgaard Watts presents how the idea that the physical environment, the land on which we live, legibly and evidently bears the traces of the cultures and histories which have shaped it. Watts’ ideas are built upon an acceptance that landscape is as much a physical entity as it is a conceptual framework. For Watts landscape is a human construction that can be read like a text, she writes; “There is good reading on the land, first hand reading, involving no symbols. The records are written in the forests, in the fence-rows, in bogs, in playgrounds, in pastures, in gardens, in canyons in tree rings.” (Reading the Landscape. 1957.) Based upon information gathered from plants and imposed structures Watts demonstrates how the conditions and history of a location can be taken as evidence of what might be going on above and below the ground. Watts’ main concern is the location of plants and of deducing why certain things grow better in one place over another. And from all these indicators it is possible to glean detail from which to describe the effects of migration and agriculture.

May Watts-1
An extract (Page 107) from, May Theilgaard Watts, Reading the Landscape – An adventure in ecology. The Macmillan Company, New York 1957. This illustration demonstrates the natural movement of vegetation along the Rock River and shows the Black Hawk Statue as a static object. The Black Hawk Statue at Lowden State Park, Oregon, IL was built by Lorado Taft between 1908 and 1911. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hawk_Statue

When traveling this past Fall I wanted to gather material from which to say something about the present. My proposed month-long journey to California via the Overland Trail, following the route of James Wilkins, was not about making a re-creation of his experience but rather I saw this as an opportunity to read the present detail with fresh eyes, to see the land west of the Missouri river for what it is now, to read from it evidence of the years since Wilkins traveled through it. By bringing together May Theilgaard Watts and Jules Prown I was looking for languages through which to conduct my research, and to increase the capacity for weighing cultural content in a consideration of landscape. What I found is a clarity of language via methodologies that are based in visual observation. By being based in a regard for material as content there is an observance of meaning in pragmatic detail. The confluence of these two approaches facilitated both the conceptual underpinnings of the physical journey and of the material experimentation which followed it. With my plans to travel through the contemporary landscape via the 1849 diary of James Wilkins there was a need to read the landscape and the objects in the landscape. While in the material explorations when working in the Art/Industry Residency at Kohler in Wisconsin, there was a need to develop material responses to landscapes and the objects I encountered.

In taking on this project I wanted to uncover and read the layers of meaning that might have been deposited in the landscape since James Wilkins left his home at Shobonier Illinois in the spring of 1849. My encounters with those same places might yield fresh detail about Wilkins work but also about his motives for traveling too. By traveling the route for myself I wanted to develop a physical sense of his experiences and to gain a personal feeling for the physical connections between each place. Traveling too might facilitate an articulation of what the landscape is now, and I wanted to observe the detail for myself, to spend time observing the light and environmental movement of air, and in so doing to witness the nuances of the places, the spaces and the locations depicted and described by James Wilkins and other diarist from the same period.

In reading Wilkins words and images there is a sense of newness in almost everything he represents. For me, in moving through the same landscapes aside from the obvious physical rock and landscape formations, I encountered almost nothing of what Wilkins saw. And by the same measure the sense of the landscape was utterly changed too. There is physical evidence of human activity everywhere. Both in the detail and the large scale views the spaces are marked with objects and the traces of human intervention. To varying degrees even in Wilkins paintings the human presence is legible, but the overriding narrative comes through as different to that in the present time. Between the Overland Trail and its westward direction of travel and the pre-existing habitation of the plains there are palpable moments of tension. The incoming traffic from the east was depleting resources as it grew, and Wilkins depicts this to some extent in his sketches but they mainly emphasize the unusual landscape features and focus on a depiction of grandeur and space. The intervening years between 1849 and 2017 had deposited many more layers of detail and many more physical objects. Seeing and recording these layers and objects became the focus of both my journey and my material responses.

The Journey 6: Destinations and arrivals.

On the morning of October 11th in 2017 in Nevada a low blanket of mist with a pale brownish hue stretched along the western horizon as far as the eye could see in either direction, north or south. Travelling west along Highway 80, towards this line of low cloud as the sun rose, and unsure of what the line on the horizon really was, low cloud, or morning mist, a physical sensation took hold in front of me of the vast space beyond and in front of me. The intense morning sunlight emphasized the density of the cloud and it appeared to deepen the monumental appearance of the rocky ridges on either side of the road. Hanging there along the crest of what appeared to be a deep inclined plane this peculiar cloud felt rather implausibly as if it was an ocean mist which had reached central Nevada all the way from the Pacific. Traveling westwards towards the cloud and away from the rising sun, another sensation began to creep into my thoughts. There was a distinct and increasing smell of burning. I realized that I had been conscious of the peculiarity of the odor for some time, but had been managing to separate it from the visual sensation establishing itself before my eyes on the horizon. I sped on westward past Battle Mountain, and with every passing yard the visual and olfactory elements increased in their intensity. I wound down the window on my side of the car and then began to understand what this was. I could smell burning wood, suffused with an acrid bitter taste like burning trash, plastic and paper maybe? Then I remembered and connected what I had heard in the news with what I could taste, and then what I could see. Here just west of Battle mountain, at a distance of around four hundred miles from my present position Sonoma County in California was in flames. By that evening an area of about 56,556 acres in Northern California was either in flames or had already been consumed by the fires.

Sonoma County Smoke-Oct_11#2
Interstate 80 looking east in Nevada, October 11, 2017.

Crossing Nevada on that morning presented very few physical challenges, but here was a stark image of environmental fragility coupled with human vulnerability. Travelers of the 1850s would have experienced certain sensation of peril on an almost daily basis. And while I was anticipating the lush promise of California across the expanse of western Nevada, much as the emigrants of almost two centuries ago had done, my sense of vulnerability was significantly ameliorated and certainly very much mediated through electronic media to produce a misplaced sense of security.

I was about to pass through a landscape known historically as the forty-mile desert. A place which still holds an echo of the bleak prospects which the emigrants faced. The night before I had been reading first-hand accounts of the terrible experiences in this hot and acrid place, and alongside the trail of the piles of wreckage and debris left by beleaguered travelers.

Nevada State Historical Marker for the Forty Mile Desert.

The signage along the highway offered some helpful but emphatic advice, ‘next rest area 38 miles’. Heading towards Reno the air began to feel even more dry. Here the alkali dust is caustic, delivering an additional dryness and an additional taste sensation. At the back of my mouth along the inside my cheeks a metallic quality began to accumulate. I began to feel an irritation in my nose and a kind-of itchy dryness settled across my eyes making them smart slightly. At about two in the afternoon, with the smoke of Northern California drenching the air, I pulled off Interstate-80 just north of Fallon Nevada. Diverting my mediated sat-nav route south along US-highway 95 so that I could pass near to the Humbolt Sink. It is here that the Humbolt river empties into an enormous basin and the threshold of the notorious Forty Mile Desert is apparent all around. In 1849 from this place westward to the Carson river proved to be arguably the deadliest stretch of the whole land passage. Traveling forty miles in one day with livestock for haulage was almost impossible. The statistics which illustrate the tragedies are significant and unimaginable and in terms of the present day expectations of rest-stops and facilities unthinkable. I pulled off the road, to feel the air and then walked west away from my car for ten minutes. Getting into this desiccated landscape even at such shallow level as this is enough to understand some of its effects. The air is relentlessly dry and on that day might have been considered a cool for a mid-afternoon at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit. Along the Humbolt River there are occasional plumes of steam to be seen rising from thermal vents. The water issues from these cisterns with a scalding heat and the water itself has a high alkaline consistency which would be poisonous if consumed. Wilkins account, and the accounts of many others who crossed this region are a catalog of grueling details. The average journey was two or three long night-time hikes, but for some unfortunate travelers the crossing could end up taking as many as seven or sometimes more days. Wilkins commented on his encounters with a number of resting and apparently stranded travelers. His remarks illustrate how everyone is in the same position out there. For those whose transport had failed and were running short on supplies their survival was totally reliant on the charity of passers by. Wilkins notes, that without any other options for drinking water, “three dollars a pint was offered for vinegar.”

Looking west from Humbolt Sink across the alkali flats on the edge of the Forty Mile desert Nevada.

Wilkins’ diary, in a manner that is consistent with other accounts, reported on Wednesday September 12 that, “We arrived at the sink late in the night having found it 25 miles instead of 15, the water poisonous, and not a spear of grass.” Mainly travelling at night to avoid the blistering heat his narrative goes on to describe the great piles of debris. Aside from the discarded objects there are stories of animal bodies which even when masked by the darkness were evident by their stench. There are many human graves that were accounted for here too. A number of accounts remark on the many holes that were encountered along and around the trail dug by people attempting to find drinkable water. On Wednesday 19th Wilkins adds, “The nearer we approach the end of our journey the more tedious and irksome does it become. But a fortnight I expect will carry us thro’ … We are most of us taken to scurvey, myself amongst the rest. The gums bleed and the skin is become discolored in patches…” The cause here being a complete lack of vitamins normally supplied by fresh food. Wilkins continues, “I have eaten nothing but bread lately, rejecting fried bacon.” Bacon, which we might assume is salty and therefore not a wise choice of food and that is likely rancid and unpalatable also.

Thankfully I had the option to stay at the Best Western hotel in Fernley Nevada – about 30 miles east of Reno. The building offered an inadequate filtration of the smoky smell, but was more successful at reducing that metallic tasting sandy dryness to a mild caveat in the back of my mouth. The city of Fernley was not in the least inviting however a sprawling place with many generic corporate store-fronts and an apparent monotony of corporate logos on concrete box-buildings. The spaces between were carelessly ornamented with a series of barely passable excuses for vegetation. Without constant irrigation these poor and un-natural stand-ins dry to crisp in a matter of hours.

The next morning, upon approaching Carson City, the road descends from the desert into a wide and shallow valley that is flanked on the western side by the Sierra Nevada. From a distance of about 15 miles the Carson River is delineated by a line of trees that snake north and southward along its banks, the greenery being an extremely welcome sight after the alkali flats. Passing through Carson City south along highway-395 towards Gardnerville the landscape takes on a more domesticated aspect that might even be described as a sleepy. Mixed farmland, homes, gardens and commercial properties punctuate a cultivated chaparral like terrain which bears a strong resemblance to the land further west in the Californian coastal ranges. On the approach to the Sierras the landscape colors change. Shifting from the pale creams and the sandy white tones of the alkali desert to a deeper range of ochres and umber browns, interspersed here and there with deep greens and the dusty evergreen colors that are more commonly seen on the other side of the Sierras in California. Upon entering Carson Pass the evergreens are suddenly in abundance and spectacular.

entering the sierra nevada via carson pass
Entering the Sierra Nevada through Carson Pass. October 12, 2017.

Taking Carson Pass along state Highway 88 offers an easy ride across the state line, once inside California the road begins a series of steep inclines and hairpin turns. Following more or less the same route which James Wilkins had taken when it was barely a narrow rocky path. The air temperature and physical environment he described was very much consistent with how felt that morning. In 1849 on Friday morning of September 28th he wrote, “ …the scenery is sublime, vastness being the great feature to express in a picture of it. here on the very summit of the back bone of the American continent, (and the backbone of the Elephant as the emigrants call it) we were favoured (sic) with a storm of hail rain and sleet. the wind blew icy cold. overcoats were in demand, altho (sic) in the middle of the day, while in the valley below but a few hours before, the sun was so hot, both coats and vests had to come off.”

The description of the sierras as an elephants back bone might give the impression that there is a narrow ridge to be crossed just once, before descending into the central Californian valley. In reality the Sierra Nevada are comprised of a series of sharp rocky edges, ranges of rock that run generally north to south. Each one apparently reaching greater heights than the one before it. There is a sense of quiet solitude and the reality of how remote these passes really are is all too apparent. Every now and then a brief east or west facing vista opens up through the thick fur tree groves along the road-sides. Ridge after ridge of heavy deep grey rocks stretch as far as the eyes can see in all directions. Deep valleys extend along the footings of each ridge holding a thick dark growth of evergreens. About 38 miles along highway 88 there is a cut off to the right. Following this slightly narrower road as it forks along a series of north-westerly oriented ridges will lead towards Pleasant Valley CA. Up to this point on todays roads from the Nevada state line is about a fifty-minute drive but this was a journey which Wilkins describes as having taken an arduous seven days of traveling.

On October 2nd Wilkins wrote: “About 2 O’clock we came to Camp creek, where there was good water, and the greatest number of wasps imaginable. they were so annoying that I had to stand in the smoke to keep them of [sic]. I noticed a great many new kinds of shrubs and wild fruit, some of which tasted very well. and the oak began to make its appearance which I hailed as an old friend, not having seen one for 1500 miles. There was no grass here consequently we went on, unluckily without filling our kegs with water. The road led over a long steep hill which fatigued our weakened oxen, and we made slow progress. The sun went down and we had made but about 5 miles from camp creek. the road too rocky and dangerous to travel after night.”

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A view east off the Mormon Emigrant Trail in the Sierra Nevada, CA.

in 2017 on Thursday 12 October I observed that the road that is marked with signage as the Mormon Emigrant Trail. It runs above Camp Creek, higher along the ridge than Wilkins’ description appears to denote. From the head of Camp Creek to Pleasant Valley CA it is under an hours drive, and the distance runs at about 40 miles. The road snakes gently downwards towards Weaverville and along a relatively even ground with few ridge crossings. Again this appears to be consistent with what Wilkins’ account indicates. Though his description of Pleasant Valley itself is infused with an uncharacteristic irritable tone. My recent experience being significantly different to his, this part of the journey was a delight. As the presence of Oak trees becomes apparent, in evidence also in the woodland off the road are forest clearings that contain Vinyards and hop fields. Today the area is a significant wine and artisanal beer brewery district.

On October the fifth Wilkins’ report gives the following assessment of things. Under the heading “Arrival at the Gold Diggins”, he writes:

“Got here yesterday and encamped about 4 miles from Weaverville alias “Dry Diggins Ville. found pleasant Valley anything but pleasant for our oxen inasmuch as there is not a blade of grass on it, everything like vegetation being burnt up by the excessive drought, which is the ruin of California. I don’t think there is any grass in the country except at the ranches or farms where it can be irrigated. it consequently makes hauling excessively dear as the stock has to be fed on barley or hay. Hay is 6$ per hundred and barley 57 ½ cts per pound. Wages are as high as was reported and everything proportionately dear.”

Reflecting presently upon Wilkins’ description and the importance of irrigation to the survival of California, feels especially pertinent. Again the comparisons give serious pause as the vast acreage in Sonoma County has burned for lack of water. The cold mountain air had bought some brief hours of respite from the smoke as a reminder of the horrors of the destruction, but as I pushed on north-west to Placerville CA (in 1849 Placerville was formerly known as Hang-Town) I wound down my car window to take in the warmer air amongst the lush green winelands in the Sierra foothills, and there it was, a hint of that same smoky smell. The news images of the burning landscapes further north came back into focus in my mind.

As the diary of James Wilkins was reaching its concluding entry my period of consciously traveling with his narrative as a guide was also coming to an end. And with this conclusion also there came a pragmatic sense of the present day and reality. I had left my home in Illinois and been traveling since September 13th and the date I arrived in Placerville was October 12th. Along with the journeys conclusion the mode of my work would also begin to shift. The initial focus has been a process of information gathering and since arriving in California I have begin working into the material in reflective and responsive ways. By mid-afternoon on October 12th I found myself approaching the city of Placerville along Missouri Flats Road. To encounter a street named ‘Missouri’ at the end of the journey which had of course begun by following the Missouri River gave the experience of constant travel a great sense of return and circularity. It seems extremely likely that there is a relationship between the name of this road in Placerville and the place that it is calling upon. Perhaps as emigrants poured down through the Sierras into California in those years around 1849 the sense of domestication in the landscape of eastern California with its gentle rolling hills and woodland clearings bought to mind the undulating prairies of Missouri. Wilkins expressed his sense of familiarity through mentioning the presence oak trees, perhaps significant to him in particular as an Englishman, but certainly also after the months of travel through the treeless environments of the high plains and Western ranges.

The bulk of Wilkins’ final entry is a report that details the excessive expenses associated with staying in Weaverville. And here again is a sense of irritation.

“Common boardg in a shantee or tent is 21$ per week, and no vegetables for there are scarcely any in the country. Onions ½$ per lb peaches 1$ per dozn potatoes none, Small watermelons 3$ each, and when I expressed my surprise at their high price, the owner informed me he had sold one this season for 16$”.

He then offers a very brief mention of the gold diggings themselves but really doesn’t comment upon the 1849 gold-rush as the particular driving force of the emigration in those years. Early in 1848, one week before the official annexation of California by the American government, the discovery of gold was announced. This was 18 months before Wilkins’ arrival in California and perhaps by 1849 he considered the gold-rush to be old news and a story that would not endure as one worth including in his panorama narrative?

News announcement from the Californian Newspaper, March 15,1848

It is difficult to know for certain what Wilkins thoughts were in preparing both for his journey and for the making of the scroll panorama. There is almost no evidence aside from the notes at the back of his journal of any other writing, and practically no more than a passing mention of gold in the printed announcements or news reports associated with Wilkins’ work. It would be inaccurate to conclude that a narrative on the gold-rush was not featured though through some careful cross examination of the details it is possible to develop some hints and suggestion towards understanding his work better.

The publication that John McDermott edited in 1968 makes careful note of the marks which Wilkins made in the text each time on the route that he had made a drawing. These marks resemble a hashtag ‘ # ‘, and are on the inside margin throughout the diary. Seeing them in Wilkins hand rather than in the printed transcription has been immensely important to my understanding of how they function. The printed reproduction gives the impression that the mark is specific to a place, but seeing them in the diary suggests they function more as a generic tally indicating the number of sketches made around and about each location. Throughout the diary there are seventy-eight times which Wilkins marked the text in this way, but this can only be used as a guide to the number of sketches he actually made. There are drawings in the collection of fifty in at the Wisconsin Historical Society that are not marked in the text, and on this basis it is possible to speculate that there could have been a quantity of drawings more than the number of marks. It is generally thought that there were as many as 200 drawings, a suggestion that has been gleaned from correspondence at the Missouri Historical Society, and is presented regularly Wilkins biography is reproduced. Based on the same details John McDermott corroborates the idea (See page 20, ‘An Artist of The Overland Trail. The 1849 Diary and Sketches of James F Wilkins’ The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, 1968.). But here an almost unanswerable question is raised of where the other one hundred and fifty sketches are, let alone what they might depict. It is tempting to speculate on their subject, and while I was traveling I took the marks into consideration as part of my visual observations. Wilkins’ last extant sketch is captioned “Steam Boat Springs Augt 4th, and depicts the place that is known presently as Lava Hot Springs. In his entry on Monday 13 August for example at City of Rocks there are five marks in the margin and he comments, “… I took several sketches…”. There are so many views within easy access of the emigrant trail in this area that it would be hard to imagine making less than five sketches, I made eight watercolors there over three days.


Wilkins Journal2
James F Wilkins. Journal of overland trip from St Louis MO to Sacramento CA. Via the California Trail. 1849, May 7 – October 6. [HM 27511] The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
The last entry in the diary is dated Friday Oct 5th, and Wilkins added the title “Arrival at the Gold Diggins” (sic). Curiously there are no ‘ # ‘ marks in that part of the text and indeed the last mark in the diary is close to the passage described above when he is enjoying the oak trees near Weaverville. It is of course possible that the narrative of the gold-rush was for him not worth going into detail over because it was so obvious, but It is impossible now to know any of this for certain. The un-answered questions seem to pile up around James Wilkins not least concerning who James Wilkins really was. What was he like to be with? Was he a good story teller? News reports around the performances of the Panorama all indicate how entertaining it was. This leads to the idea that Wilkins as the impresario was an animated and even gifted presenter, though there’re no indications elsewhere of this aspect of his personality.

As for Wilkins’ professional motivations, his reasons to make the journey are perhaps rather unique. Given the circumstances of the gold-rush he must have been one of the very few who wasn’t traveling to make a fortune in the west. His goals were focused on conducting visual research of the landscapes along the trail with the sole intention to make a scroll panorama, a risky venture on so many levels with no guarantee of making any kind of fortune. The costs associated with the journey must have added up considerably and then the construction of the panorama itself would have also come also with a significant cost. He seems to have been driven by a need to collect accurate detailed information about the landscapes. In his notes towards an introductory speech that is included in the last seven pages of his notebook there is a revealing detail. Beginning under the general heading “Lecture”, there is a narrative which presents some contextual details of the Panorama. Written as a kind of preamble for the presentation, Wilkins identifies a lack of any significant sequential pictorial work recording the overland trail and in this idea might be a suggestion of where his inspiration for the whole venture came from. Again with a sense of mild irritation in his tone, he writes about a panorama that had existed previously. Based on the “Gila River route, a route far away to the south and from the scarcity of grass never now travelled, …”. He then issues a criticism of it, saying that it was painted from a set of prints rather than from life, “…by someone who had never seen the country…,” and “… with what success I leave the public to imagine.” Wilkins appears to be seeking an authenticity in his work. Form him, as a Royal Academy trained, British artist who will have not escaped being influenced by the rich landscape traditions. He will certainly have known first-hand the elemental work of W.M.J. Turner and John Martin and given the RA’s historical connections to William Hogarth it is likely that he was no stranger to an understanding of sequential narrative too.

Having spent time recently at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. studying the Wilkins Diary I was able to see first-hand details that can only be observed in the object itself. Placed in front of me at table sixteen in the Ahmanson Reading Room item HM 27511 began to yield up its detail. Pondering the life of this small notebook, about seven inches tall and five inches wide, leather bound bearing the handwritten name, ‘J F Wilkins’ in the upper-center of the front cover. Slim, stitched eightfold paper which has traveled across the continent, perhaps from Illinois or St Louis but certainly arriving in Sacramento on October 16th 1849. Subsequently having been carried back to St Louis and now residing, by what seems like a series of miracles, in California, in the collection of the Huntington Library. The present condition of this unique object speaks significantly to its use and its after lives, it is quite worn. The spine is split and many pages are loose or no longer stitched into the binding at all. Stored now in its own archival case to preserve its integrity this object, a book, a notebook, a journal, a diary, that had once belonged to the artist James Wilkins.

Wilkins Journal4cover
James F Wilkins. Journal of overland trip from St Louis MO to Sacramento CA. Via the California Trail. 1849, May 7 – October 6. [HM 27511] The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
I began to open and turn the pages very carefully keeping it supported on two blue velvet covered soft wedges. The marks of previous handling were evident. Each page, on both sides of each sheet noticeably showed a discoloration. The slight darkening of the pale buff colored pages that might have been the deposits from fingers, greasy from eating. Mentally conjuring the self-portrait image of James Wilkins dressed in a white shirt with tied kerchief, heavy black woolen jacket and vest, I wondered where he carried his notebook. The dark staining on the upper outside corner of each page really began to seem like it bore the marks of having been repeatedly taken out of and re-placed into an inside breast pocket of his jacket. Paying attention to the narratives an object produces is a double-edged sward. Reveries of this kind of detail are entertaining thoughts and can run and run like a series of film reels if you let them. The nature of archival material as evidence of a human presence can be extremely misleading and even questionable. Arlette Farge explores the nature of archival material as evidence and in her book ‘The Allure of the Archives’. She describes a number of material encounters that produce visceral sensations – saying much more about the moment of the encounter than the personalities who might have been present at the initial stages of the life of an artifact. She writes, offering caution;

“The archive preserves these moments at random, chaotically. Each time, the person who reads, touches, or discovers them is at first struck by a feeling of certainty. The spoken word, the found object, the trace left behind become faces of the real. As if the proof of what the past was like finally lay there before you, definitive and close. As if, in unfolding the document, you gained the privilege of “touching the real.” And if this is the case, what’s the point of scholarly debate, why come up with new words to explain what is already there on these sheets of paper ( or between them)?”

And then she qualifies: “These overwhelming feelings never last; they are like mirages in the desert. No matter how much the real seems to be there, visible and tangible, it reveals nothing more than its physical presence, and it is naive to believe that this is its essence.”

Wilkins Journal
James F Wilkins. Journal of overland trip from St Louis MO to Sacramento CA. Via the California Trail. 1849, May 7 – October 6. [HM 27511] The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
After I had spent about two hours reading and observing Wilkins’ rather fine hand-writing, I found I begun to enjoy the physical shapes and qualities of the text itself. The curl on the top of the d’s have an elegance and the long almost decorative l’s stand out on every page. But then unexpectedly, as I was very carefully re-collating and restacked the loose leaves to return them item to their archival container, I was drawn to investigate a very faint few lines of text on the first page of the book. I pretty quickly realized that that this content not been transcribed by John McDermott in the 1968 publication. The text slowly revealed a recipe for soda bread. And then another film-reel narrative began to run in my imagination.

On April 20th 1849 Mr. Wilkins was packed and ready to leave his home in Shobonier, Illinois, for St Louis from where he would take the long overland journey to Fort Sutter in the territory of Californian. In his focus to prepare for the departure many details had been addressed. Then at the second he exited the threshold of his home his wife called out, “Did you take note of that recipe for soda bread!” she knew the answer from long experience and didn’t wait for his response. “You’ll wish you had it when you have no bread to mop your gravy…”. Wilkins paused and turned to look softly at her for one more time. With his right hand he reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out his note-book purchased in Vandalia two weeks previously. He sighed, and then reached again into the same pocket for his pencil. Mrs. Wilkins dictated the ingredients to him item by item and on the first pristine leaf of his new notebook, right at the top of the page, Mr. Wilkins dutifully wrote it down.

Recipe for making soda bread

 Rub into a quart of flour about 2 teaspoons

full of cream of tartar then dissolve a

tea spoonful of soda in a little water

with some shortening, mix up

in the flour and bake immediately

Wilkins Journal-3-Soda Bread
James F Wilkins. Journal of overland trip from St Louis MO to Sacramento CA. Via the California Trail. 1849, May 7 – October 6. [HM 27511] The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

The Journey 5: “…does your panorama include an elephant?”

The moving panorama which James Wilkins presented was made in three parts. Being painted onto three continuous lengths of cotton fabric (probably a heavy calico rather than canvas) of six or seven feet high with a total length of around three hundred feet. The practicalities in the presentation of this kind of moving screen entertainment were ameliorated by dividing it into two or three parts, and so it makes perfect sense to divide the narrative into three sections, each one closing on a high point. Wilkins’ presentation being no different in many respects to that of his contemporaries, the high points were located at places in the journey that are arguably uplifting. Scotts Bluff followed swiftly by the reprieve of Fort Laramie for part one, and part two was concluded with a ‘view’ of the spectacular ‘City of the Rocks’.   The three reels would be mounted in succession inside a custom-made viewing box which contained a geared winding mechanism. A contemporary reconstruction of one such presentation resides at the Velaslavasay Panorama in West Adams, Los Angeles. The detail of this particular moving panorama is described here  http://www.thecrankiefactory.com/115034648 and an excerpt of a performance can be viewed here – https://vimeo.com/25615542.

Resembling very much a small theatre proscenium the images are narrated with a dramatic vocal narrative and the whole event is propelled by a musical presentation too. Very much a forerunner of cinema, moving panoramas were the height of entertainment and story telling technology in their day.

50 Steam Boat Springs, Idaho, 1849
James Wilkins, Steamboat Springs. 1849. August 4th. 50th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. in, John Francis McDermott, (ed.) An Artist on the Overland Trail, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA. 1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID. 31685. Viewed online at Wisconsin Historical Society.
Lava Hot Springs
Present day ‘Steamboat Springs’ is called Lava Hot Springs, here is the street side view of the public hot baths. October 2nd 2017

The last of Wilkins’ drawings that we have available to us today is the one he made in Lava Hot Springs. There are fifty drawings at the Wisconsin historical Society in Madison WI. There are thought to have been over two hundred, and the rest are missing or lost completely. Wilkins indicated in his diary where he made each of the sketches and there are some indications specifically of what these might have depicted so while it feels like a visual dead end, there are some clues still to be followed on to California. To follow his route to the letter was never my aim anyway, but rather to travel in the spirit of the journey and to discover the significant details that lay in the vicinity of his route for the contemporary traveler. There are moments of speculation and other moments where it’s clear that I am looking at the same things that he looked at. A line of hills, and a mountain ridge, or the many other immovable landscape features which mark the way. But what has become most present for me from the early part of the journey along the Platte River are the structures and industrial details in the current landscapes that were certainly not around in 1849. Pylons, telegraph poles, fences, gates, refineries, roads, railways and buildings are all relatively recent additions to the vistas of North America.

It also becomes apparent very quickly today what Wilkins didn’t see. The landscape features that were missed by most emigrants because they were on the other side of the ridge, or were a few days ride north. In Lava Hot Springs that sense is more pronounced than anywhere, with Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming less than two hours away, to the north, and the ‘Craters of The Moon’ in Idaho off to the north west, with its remarkable lava fields. These being just a few of the astonishing landscape encounters in this journey, the list could go on.

craters of the moon
Craters of The Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho. October 5th 2017.

By sticking to the interstate highways today contemporary travelers run the same risks of missing so much. In Idaho for example passing along the Portneuf river from Lava Hot Springs to Pocotello by taking the interstate you will certainly be missing a landscape that was again formed through its lava flow and which encompasses the traditional winter quarters of the Shoshone Bannock tribes.

lava flow on the portneuf
The lava flow along the Pontneuf River “Indian Rocks State Park” near Inkom, Idaho. October 2nd 2017
Llama Ranch
Bear Mountain Pack Llamas, a ranch along the Pontneuf River.  www.bearmountainpackllamas.com

These valleys even through quite shallow offer a relatively sheltered aspect from the harder winter weather up on the hills and provide a ready access to the many warm springs which rise here in the valley. Take old Highway 91, off state route 30, and you will encounter many ranches and small holdings which make up a number of the communities and towns along this route.

Portneuf River Valley172dpi
The Portneuf River valley viewed from the Bear Mountain Pack Llamas ranch.

There is much to be appreciated by travelling slowly and taking the time to look, but also to chat with the owners of local gas stations and small provisions stores. Stop a while, move slowly through, and you will encounter some of the most welcoming and pleasant valleys likely to be seen while on this journey.  This is certainly not the journey that James Wilkins made, even if it is more or less following his route.

Beer Springs
James Wilkins, Beer Springs. 1849. August 3rd. 49th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. in, John Francis McDermott, (ed.) An Artist on the Overland Trail, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA. 1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID. 31699. Viewed online at Wisconsin Historical Society.
Soda Springs2
The Geyser at Soda Springs Idaho has been capped and is released every hour on the hour. Formerly known as ‘Beer Springs’ seen here on October 2nd 2017
Soda Springs Geyser
Soda Springs, Idaho. October 2nd, 2017.
Soda Springs
Soda Springs, Idaho. October 2nd, 2017.

The publication of his diary in 1968 ‘An Artist On The Overland Trail – The 1849 diary and sketchbook of James F. Wilkins. (J.F. McDernott, 1968, Huntington Library.) included Wilkins’ outline of the narrative flow he intended to develop into his script for the panorama. And this corresponds more or less to a playbill which was published to advertise the performance. A copy of the playbill is held at the Missouri Historical Society in Columbia MO. His performance is billed under the title ‘Immense Moving Mirror of the Land Route to California, by the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, embracing all of the scenery from the Missouri River to San Francisco’. The playbill communicates through a tone of sensation and wonder the dramatic flow with interludes of the journey. “Commencing at Fort Leavenworth up the Missouri river” … “The Spectator, with very little assistance from imagination, may fancy himself in an air balloon, overtaking and passing the Emigrants on the road, witnessing their distress, and seeing the country and the nature of the obstacles they have to contend with; and all with the safety and comfort of sitting at your own fireside.” The final section takes the spectator through what by most accounts was the most arduous part of the journey.

A copy of the playbill for James Wilkins presentation of the Immense “Moving Mirror of the Land Route to California…” Published in 1851. The State Historical Society of Missouri Columbia, MO.

From the relative tranquility of City of Rocks, into ‘The Sandy Desert’ to the edge of the Sierras and what must have felt like the edge of existence. The landscapes moving forward from City of Rocks slopes gently away down towards where Goose Creek rises in present day south west Idaho and into an arduous terrain which Wallace Keck, the Superintendent at the City Of Rocks National Reserve, informed me was formed through volcanic activity. Traversing a landscape which is still very remote to this day there are no finished roads for 50 miles in every direction and I decided not to go through but to go around it. By all accounts here down to Goose Creek the Overland Trail takes a precipitous turn without precedent.

Wilkins in his entry for August 13th having just described the wonders of the City Of The Rocks, kind of passes over the next arduous steps. He writes, “…rocks rising abruptly out of the ground. They are in a romantic valley clustered together which give them the appearance of a city.” Then on the descent to goose creek; “To day we have made a long days journey, having passed the dividing ridge of very difficult desent [sic] by the bye to the head waters of goose creek, …”. Only by the bye? From the edge of the basin just beyond Pinnacle Pass in City of Rocks which is at roughly 6000 ft, to its furthest edge on the opposite side of the valley the travelers would have made for via Granite Pass which is at 7000 ft. This terrain appears to be rather gentle and easy going, The ridges here climb up to somewhere above 8000 ft feet at their highest points, but here the valleys beyond are deep and the mountains run closer together. Other accounts of the pass are not so easy talking of the fear and even horror that the descent inspired. For Wilkins though it makes one wonder if he constructed the narrative in his diary here with the best hind-sight? He appears to know that the worst is very much yet to come and so saves the horror for later perhaps. Crossing from Goose Creek south west, and along the Humbolt river (formerly Marys River) to Humbolt sink, across what Wilkins called the Sandy Desert, travelers reached the threshold of the worst crossing yet. The Sierra Nevada which is described in Wilkins playbill as, “The Back Bone of The Elephant”.

City Of Rocks
City Of Rocks National Reserve. October 8th 2017

Up until travelers reached present day Nevada, there are certainly some remote and fairly treacherous open places to navigate. But the hardest crossings are arguably the rivers.  To have followed the river courses offers the best options for survival, and while traveling for months on end can have been nothing but extremely arduous, there were usually some resources to be found. Wilkins describes the odd day where water, wood and grass could not be found, but in Nevada the vegetation diminishes almost completely. And grass is especially scarce when ahead of you have eaten off all traces of the good grass for miles around too.

As I pulled into the visitors center at City of Rocks the mileage on my car read just over 3500 miles. This amount had accrued by following the rivers and the overland track at almost every turn. The more direct journey today is via I-80, along contemporary two lane highways, and comes in at just under 1700 miles to almost the same point. It is almost half the distance and takes less than one sixty-fourth of the time. Today, friends and fellow travelers may groan at the thought of crossing Nebraska and at the thought of reaching beyond Ogallala – typically a days drive from Chicago. But our contemporary equivalents are by comparison so easy, our elephant is obviously a plush toy and rather more tedious than arduous by comparison.

seeing the elephant
“Seeing the Elephant,” a mid-nineteenth-century lithograph designed by Wm. B. McMurtrie. Printed and published by Benjamin F. Butler. California Historical Society.

On this journey I have encountered a number of elephants. The first one being at the Alpaca Shack in Big Springs Nebraska. Well worth the diversion to see. Meet the owner Laurie Olsen-Zorn was a very pleasant break to my day. On the plateau just before the descent to Ash Hollow and down to the north branch of the Platte River, Laurie took the time to introduce me to her herd of Alpacas. They are the cutest wooly creatures ever. Laurie then showed me around her store, which offers a great selection of “Clothing, Gifts, WARM Accessories (Socks, Gloves, etc)”. There amongst the jewelry items was an elephant pendant. I bought two pairs of gloves and a shawl here which I was very grateful for later the following week as the weather closed in at the foot of the Wind River Range near Lander, Wyomnig.

elephantAlpacaAlpaca Shack

There are references to ‘seeing the elephant’ in many diaries, and the idea of reaching ones limits is alluded to in a number of the museum exhibits along the way. It is possible for example to speculate that these mid 19th Century travelers may have drawn amusement from Elephant Rock at City Of Rocks as they waited in line to ascend through pinnacle pass. The long days hold up may have induced travelers to camp and rest a while there. To ramble through the rocks assured that their party would have moved on up the line only about a mile or so and still not reached the pass. A featured narrative at the recently reorganized California Trail Interpretative Center in Elko Nevadan is the idea of seeing the elephant. For our contemporary travelers at this point en-route to California the hardest aspects of crossing Nevadas expanse will be gaging if they will need the restroom or not before reaching Reno.

I commented previously upon the relative fast speed at which travel goes these days and moving along the rivers at an average of around seventy-five percent faster than the crossings in the 1850’s really has enhanced my appreciation for amenities. Water, food  and a place to rest these days are relatively easy prospects. On the journey so far I’ve naturally been a little grumpy and tired along the way. And yes, there have been more than a few days and nights when I’d wished I could’ve be in my own bed at home. But at this point, four days before reaching the Pacific Ocean, the journey has been nothing but rich and interesting, never boring or that stressful. The mode of conveyance is comfortable rather than totally pedestrian, and I say this bearing in mind that ninety-nine percent of emigrants walked most if not the whole way. Rather than being at all breathless from the climb, if ever, I have had my breath taken away by the views, and the astonishing spaces one encounters. Though having said all of this I have not yet, on this trip at least, crossed either Nevada or the Sierra Nevada. The last stretch of my journey will follow the California trail which is mostly underneath or meandering around the course of present day I-80. Watch out for junk food, rest stops and cheap motels!

View south from Hwy 30-2
Looking south from highway 30 near Kelton Utah. October 9th 2017

The journey 4: lists of objects, museums and legacies

Scotts Bluff
Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska, September 2017.

In diaries and letters from the emigrant trails there are many accounts of discarded goods and possessions. Things, objects and stuff that was left alongside the wayside. Things like hand tools, and in the gold rush years there were many heavy digging tools, shovels, pickaxes, chisels and other wood working tools. There were personal effects too. Clothes, furniture, household goods, kitchen equipment of all kinds. Food stuffs like cured meat, sacks of flour and these included not just items that had spoiled along the way, but things that were simply too heavy to carry any further.

The initial part of the journey from Missouri to the Platte river road was not without its initial rigors. The going was frequently across reasonably flat land and on dry years the passage was relatively easy. But dry or wet presented their own hazards on the many creek crossings along the way. Too much water and the creeks were threateningly powerful, to little and they were ravines to be crossed. With heavy ox teams the only way to manage either was often to unload everything, make the crossing and reload on the other side – a process that could take as much as half a day.

Though the hardships were significant the flow was persistent. Westward along the Platte river bought other hardships. The rivers west of Fort Kearny are flanked with soft sandy hills and this proved to be arduous for all forms of transport but for ox teams in particular. Heavy ox-carts would mire easily in the sand, the wheels would sink in, and the animals became quickly fatigued, finding it hard to maintain traction. One of the solutions for managing this part of the road was to lighten the burden and this meant unloading and leaving heavier items behind. From this point in the trail forwards the items would pile up each season, peak time here being towards the end of May into mid June.

Many people carried things they genuinely thought they would need. Things they simply could not leave behind essential for the arrival in California and the new life being promised there. People buried their expensive or precious items with the intention of returning later to retrieve them. Almost certainly they never did return.

Reflecting on his situation James M Hutchings offers hindsight in a letter dated February 15th 1850 from Hang Town, California, (present day Placerville). “If I were to take that route again I would take a light wagon and four good mules-two per person- taking only the necessary food, cooking utensils, two suits of woolen clothing, a water-proof coat, India rubber and two good mackinaw blankets, two pairs of boots, three flannel shirts, four hickory ones, a dozen pairs of socks and a good felt hat. I would not bring mining tools of any description, nor any good clothing, (and never dream of a trunk). The road is strewn with trunks, tools etc.” He continues “When I arrive at Fort Laramie I would sell, or give away; the wagon pack one mule and ride one for after entering the black hills the trouble belonging to a wagon begins.” He then says he would re-stock again at Salt Lake City with “…thirty-five days provisions, and accomplish the whole in less than three months.”

Hutchings diary also includes the following two entries; “August 2nd [1849] We made only ten miles along the Platte over heavy road, and hills, and encamped. What an assortment of old trunks, boxes, clothes, tools chains, laying around! This heavy traveling makes people throw away what they ought never to have started with.” And; “August 3rd. Shortly after, passed “Heart Island.” Just before us lay about thirty dead oxen, a number of broken wagons, baggage, pick-axes, hammers, anvils, bellows with sundry other black-smithing tools.”

In 1849 Wilkins was about ten days ahead of Hutchings and for him the encounter with piles of discarded objects was commented upon along the wayside further up the Platte and north of Fort Laramie. A few miles along the Sweetwater river and before the Sweetwater Station he writes; “Thursday [August] 12th [1849] The road this last day or two has been very hilly and very sandy, distressing our oxen. Grass very scarce the camping places, as laid down in the guide books as having plenty of grass. We have invariably found none there, it being eaten off by previous teams. These combined causes produce effects which are everywhere visible along the roads, by the number of dead oxen we continue to pass, and the amount of property left along the roads. To this may be added rifles barrels, axes, skillets, cooking utensils. We passed today an excellent air tight cooking stove all complete, which must have cost 30$ in the states. Everything in short has been thrown away that could possibly be dispensed with…” Ironically today a stove like the one described by Wilkins is available from Walmart for $319 

The etiquette in encountering these objects was to leave things where they lay. If the diaries are accurate it was very rare to see things being carried off, the idea being that these things belonged to somebody. There was a realistic aversion for eating food left on the road, only in desperation were things consumed. Cholera was affecting populations back east and again a fear of infection with real consequences was felt and it is expressed as a concern that touching other peoples stuff may bring on infection and death.

The consequences of the overland journey are described by diarists with such tragic detail. The loss of livestock was significant but also the loss of human lives were commented upon and recorded. James Hutchings includes a list of the graves he encountered along the way and describes the unburied human remains too. Graves that were not dug deep enough would be disturbed by animals and it was common to see body parts and partial human remains too. When taken as a whole the combined length of all the western trails in the united states are understood today to be one of the largest grave sites in the united states, possibly the largest. Memorials and grave markers are maintained to this day. Recorder by many and preserved today through the Oregon-Californial Trails Association OCTA. OCTA’s web-site asserts that: “It has been estimated that one in ten immigrants died during the crossing.”

Trail Junk Tarkio-a
Contemporary trail junk – Little Tarkio Creek, September 2017.

So what happened to all these objects? If the many accounts are to be believed these things being left in significant piles ought to have left some residue. It is obvious to suggest that much of it has perished, the food and the fabric has certainly gone. It is likely that wooden items were burned. As the number of travelers increased the landscape became increasingly denuded and the need for firewood increased too. There must have been ceramic items, crockery, storage containers, cutlery and cooking pots too. Seemingly few of these items remain in the museums that dot the trail. In conversation with Gene Hunt, State Parks Superintendent at Fort Kearny NE, he described how the archeology is imprecise in most places because of the ongoing movement across the trail sites that has disturbed and altered the land so frequently. Though it is clear that things do turn up once in a while though it is rarely the case that objects can be proved to have belonged to any particular year or travelling group. At Fort Kearney a farm was operating across that location for most of the early 20th century. Even though many parts of that site were ploughed and lived on, the footings of the old fort remain largely in-tact mostly due to the respect of the farmer for the previous history – even so, little material evidence or objects remain.

Trail Junk Tarkio
Contemporary trail junk – Little Tarkio Creek, September 2017.

The forts (Kearny, NE; Laramie, WY; Bridger, WY; and Hall, ID) are all preserved today as significant archeological sites and they take into account the trail as part of their narrative. Each of these places served consistently as commercial centers and are places of consistent activity and habitation since that time. The trail itself as a place of passage ought to be rich with artifacts and detail then? Talking with the President of the Fort Bridger Chapter of the Wyoming State Historical Society, Martin Lammers, who is an archeologist, helped in advancing my understanding the context of why certain materials survive and others do not. He explained how the high alkaline soil in Wyoming and Utah is good for some things and really bad for others. Iron pretty much disappears to only bare threads and traces, whereas copper maintains a high degree of integrity. Cloth will certainly perish and paper too, but ceramic, glass and bone can survive very well in nearly all open landscape conditions. He suggested that many things left by the wayside were likely to have been carried off either by other travelers, by the indigenous people, or over the subsequent years by happenstance. Items that have not made it into museums will almost certainly have become part of family collections and are sitting around all over the place in attics, basements, sheds, and on mantelpieces, very much at home as family curiosities. The question of where things reside is one that Gene Hunt at Fort Kearny also had an opinion on. With a shrug, he made the suggestion that there are likely to be some objects still out there.

Trail Junk Robidoux
Contemporary trail junk – Robidoux Pass, September 2017.

Whether in museum collections or not bringing narrative to these object presents manifold problems. Connecting these things with certainty to the overland trail can only ever be a largely speculative exercise. As objects they can yield material details, locating the place of origin perhaps or the they can be studies to understand the processes that bought them into the world. Specific details of the human story, who owned it, why they took it with them or the feelings associated with letting it go can only be speculative. In a family collection there is usually a certain degree of anecdotal detail about where it was found and perhaps who found it. Sometimes connections that were once speculations form more concretely over time as historical facts and these details are built upon with successive retelling.

There are a number of museums associated with the trail aside from the National Historic sites and state historical society places. Usually there are displays that have been developed to illustrate an historical narrative of the place and in this mode the objects are bought in as supportive evidence. The forts for example all have displays that account for the particular detail of their histories, while relaying the story of the people who were influential in their foundations. There are some objects that are verifiable specifically to individuals – at Fort Bridger for example there are a large number of objects that relate personally to Jim Bridger and to members of the Bridger family. When developing narratives of emigration it is more often the case that objects are presented as generic stand-ins for their countless original counterparts. Though it is important to note that the story telling is no less effective.

Fort Kearny_Vitrine
Objects on display at Fort Kearny, Nebraska.

The collections at The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering NE are a great example of how the specific and generic can run in a close comfortable harmony. This museum presents itself as having a broad remit to represent the life of the region as a connected series of ongoing experiences. Announcing itself; “America’s roots run deep at the Legacy of the Plains Museum. Located on the Oregon Trail, the Legacy of the Plains Museum features an impressive collection of pioneer and early community artifacts, antique tractors, and farm implements; an 80-acre working farm; historic farmstead structures; and striking views of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Come live the timeless stories of the Nebraska prairie.”

Potato harvest
The potato harvest at The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering NE. September 2017

The museum includes a working farm and provides a focus for local people and visitors to participate through group activities built around traditional practices. I spent a morning with Amanda Gibbs, director and archivist of the museum, on a day when potatoes were being harvested in the field and hooked rugs were being made in the main building. We enjoyed a stroll through the recently opened permanent exhibition hall with Irene North a staff reporter from the local Star Herald. The entrance hall included an introduction to the seven themes of the main exhibit:

Prairie Pathways – trails and transportation

Grassland Empire – ranching and livestock

Beyond the Dust Bowl – dryland farming

Just Add Water – irrigated farming

Taking Care of Business – businesses of the High Plains

Be it Ever so Humble... – domestic and home life

Eye of the Artist – High Plains art gallery

Main Exhibit entrance
Entrance hall to the permanent displays at The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering NE.

The prairie pathways exhibit employs a series of objects to illustrate the changing modes of transportation and communications along the Platte River. Where objects function as the specific material things which they are, they also work as stand-ins for a narrative of the space and place. The integrity of this museum is based in its acknowledgment of the human experience through a sense of place and through time. Each exhibit area askes the viewer to understand their own position in relation to each of the seven categories as a larger set of questions.

‘Praire Pathways’. Detail of the entrance hall to the permanent displays at The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering NE
‘Praire Pathways’. Detail of the entrance hall to the permanent displays at The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering NE

The legacy of the plains is evident in each of the objects when viewed as part of the seven themes. Each object then can be seen to represent a conceptual place holder for something left behind on the trail. While the Scott’s Bluff shaped tourist booklet invites travelers to “travel the Oregon trail” it also offers the reminder that “you’ll miss half the west unless you…”, bear in mind the endeavors which make present day travel possible.

Many thanks to Amanda Gibbs, director and archivist at The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering NE, Irene North, staff reporter Star Herald newspaper Scottsbluff, Martin Lammers, President of the Fort Bridger Chapter of the Wyoming State Historical Society, and Gene Hunt, State Parks Superintendent at Fort Kearny NE.

The Journey 3: Along the river colors change

Crossing the South Platte at Brule1
The South Platte River near Brule NE.

From the confluence of the Platte and the Missouri rivers to where the Sweetwater river joins the Platte in Wyoming there is just over seven hundred miles in distance. The Platte has functioned as one of the great arteries of this continent and has been the focus of animal and human migration probably since it found its present course, towards the end of the cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago. To travel for a number of days with the river constantly in sight delivers a deep-time durational perspective, as well as offering the occasional vista over the water through its thick green corridor. While the Missouri and the Mississippi are majestic the Platte has a quality that is elegance itself, it spreads and flows carefully, it is delicate.

The western to easterly flow of the Platte has had such an incredible impact both as an ancient life sustaining corridor and in both directions as a channel of communications. A channel and a crossroads too. The north to south seasonal migrations of many birds is in evidence here, sandhill cranes and snow gees, amongst many others. In the initial years of the west-bound migration of Americans this was also a place to see the thousands upon thousands of bison, along with herds of antelope and elk. All these natural inhabitants were sustained by the Platte river in their annual retreat from the cold on the one hand and then their return north following the rains in the spring to catch the fresh grass growth. It is also apparent that many of the trees now growing along the length of the Platte river came with the American immigrant influx. West of Fort Kearny early travelers noted a reduction in the density of the forests. So different to the landscapes which they were all used to living with east of the Mississippi and in Europe. Wood to these people was a commodity, a resource, which as Roger Echo-Hawk pointed out recently was a significant source of tension between these American travelers and Pawnee people whose home this was. As people who depended on the seasonal changes too, the Pawnee inhabitants saw their natural resources being stripped and consumed by the ever increasing volume of traffic. Once travelers passed the place where the North and South branches of the river fork, the treeless landscape becomes a distinct focus of many diaries and guide books. There was talk of it as strange and barren place. The natural decrease in forestation is a visual signifier of a natural environmental shift, from the prairie to the planes. Today it is less obvious, but still in evidence as the land becomes dryer to the west. In conversation earlier this week Loren Pospisil, the superintendent of the Chimney Rock National Historic Site, pointed out that it is also about where the tenth meridian falls, it is in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains which also plays into the increased dryness in the region.

The North Platte at Ash Hollow
The North Platte River seen from close to Ash Hollow, NE.

Andrew Child in his 1852 guide book noted that when traveling westward the presence of trees dwindles. “Good water and plenty of grass, but no timber”, (page 11, New Guide for the Overland route to California. 1852) this is just one of a number of like comments that seem to grow in urgency as the narrative moves on west. On page 14 he utters a first recognition of what is in store later along the trail. As the presence of trees diminishes almost completely the need to be vigilant for firewood becomes ever more pressing, and he suggests a viable alternative. Referring to a place about 10 miles west of where the north and south Platte river converges he writes;

“WILLOWS, SOUTH OF THE ROAD. These are the last species of timber of any kind, on the north side of the river, for a distance of two hundred miles, except one Cedar tree.- Buffalo Chips will be found in abundance, and when dry, they answer a good purpose for fuel.”

Two hundred miles from there would bring travelers to about where Scotts Bluff is. And it is here that the next discernable changes in the landscape are in evidence. Along this route the grasslands become increasingly more arid, not quite desert but desert-like and this starts to become most evident when passing Courthouse and Jail Rocks. The color of the landscape changes too. As it gets dryer, the vegetation and the color of the earth begin to lighten. The air is noticeably drier too and it begins to feel, taste and smell more dusty. From the deep browns of the rich prairie soil and multiple green foliage of many tree species, the colors mute down to paler ochres slightly russeted sandy tones, pale powder blues and greens that stand in very sharp contrast to the deep greens and blues of dense junipers which at a distance appear almost black. Here and there sage brush makes a more regular appearance with an occasional long leaved yucca too. It feels like the desert.

Up next is Chimney Rock! A rock column, which is of a yellowish brown color. It is composed of what looks like sand stone but is actually a combination of layers of Brule clay, Volcanic Ash and sandstone. Both Chimney rock and Couthouse and Jail rocks are the residues of a former plateau that was eroded by the Platte river many centuries ago.

15 Jail and Courthouse Rocks, Nebraska, 1849
James Wilkins, Jail and Courthouse Rock. 1849. June 20th. 15th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. in, John Francis McDermott, (ed.) An Artist on the Overland Trail, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA. 1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID. 31447. Viewed online atWisconsin Historical Society
Courthouse and Jail Rock – September 20 2017
Courthouse and Jail Rock – September 20 2017
NL-Courthouse and jail2
Nicholas Lowe, Courthouse and Jail Rock, Watercolor on paper, September 20 2017

The present-day uniform greens of agriculture are also significant in the Nebraska landscape. Corn stalks that are flecked with deep brown at the base and run to bright greens and yellows up to where they meet the sun. All of this is only possible because of the river and the constant efforts to irrigate the land. The color differences and shifts in visual emphasis formed part of the conversation with Loren Pospisil. He pointed out how the present day water levels of the Platte are much less than it used to be in its natural state. The majority of its waters are held back in hydro-electric dams and there is much irrigation higher up the river too. We will never know exactly how it compares but the color of the landscape as it was encountered by the first American travelers may well also be so utterly altered to its present day appearance.

Talking with Loren lead to other considerations of environmental change, questions that have occupied my thoughts since being this project. I had spent time drawing both the Courthouse and Jail rocks, and Chimney Rock formations and was only making comparison in particular with the drawings by James Wilkins. On Lorens recommendation I then looked more closely at the paintings by William Henry Jackson, and the drawings by J. Goldsborough Bruff. Based upon a mistaken idea that I had formed about erosion I asked Loren why the monuments had reduced in size so rapidly since the mid 1800’s? He pointed out something that should have been obvious to me. A couple of factors come into play he explained. Firstly, these artists did the best they could to render what they saw with a certain and sometimes idiosyncratic accuracy. The tendency to exaggerate or alter certain features is then inevitable, either by accident or for dramatic effect, Wilkins in particular does this. Whereas Bruff takes a more analytical approach, possibly, I suspect through his experience as a cartographer, aided by lens based viewing devices and perhaps too by photography. He was not trained as an artist and perhaps too for this reason he able to develop a more analytical style. Another factor which is important to bear in mind with Wilkins is that he was preparing these watercolor drawings in support of his panorama. Itself the panorama is a dramatic visual art form, and it relies on visual high points and drama to propel the narrative. It is after all entertainment. Wilkins was trained at the Royal Academy in London and it is easy to speculate that the narrative traditions of English romantic landscape painting are resonating with him in these moments of observation. The drama in landscape is perhaps a part of his visual language.

Chimney Rock1
Chimney Rock, View from the visitors Center of the Chimney Rock National Historic Site.

Another significant factor which Loren Pospisil pointed out to me is the contemporary air quality. Today we see the air. Standing in the visitor center as he said this he gestured over towards the monument, which was perfectly framed by the large picture windows at the rear of the building, and sure enough the air between my eyes and the rock, even at this close distance, was registering as part of the scene. The effects of sunlight having a flattening effect upon what we could see. It is reasonable to suggest that looking through cleaner 1840’s air might mean that it is less reflective. And that it would have made these landscape features appear more bright with a larger visual presence perhaps.

16 Chimney Rock, Nebraska, 1849
James Wilkins, Chimney Rock 1849. 16th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. James Wilkins, Jail and Courthouse Rock. 1849. June 20th. 15th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. in, John Francis McDermott, (ed.) An Artist on the Overland Trail, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA. 1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID. 31692. Viewed online at Wisconsin Historical Society.
Chimney Rock2
Chimney Rock, September 20 2017
Joseph Goldsborough Bruff, Chimney Rock, 1849 The scale in this drawing is suggested by the figures included at the base of the rock. The size of the column is greatly over exaggerated.
Nicholas Lowe, Chimney Rock. Graphite on paper. September 20, 2017.

I had spent the previous afternoon, before meeting Loren, at Chimney Rock both painting with watercolor, making drawings in graphite, and observing the monument through my camera. I don’t claim to be doing things by any means better than Wilkins, though I do recognize that I rather tend towards a more analytic approach, aspects of which I recognize more readily in the sensibilities of Bruff. The effect of photography is to condense the light via the lenses and through the viewfinder. Looking through a camera helps me to sort out the detail firstly by framing it and then by producing a tonal effect where light and dark can be assessed more easily against each other. In these high-sky and brightly lit conditions getting an even exposure that shows both the form and the tonal detail can be a real challenge. There’s typically too much light in the background meaning that the subject is mostly silhouetted against a very bright sky. In both media, watercolor and photography, the representation is made possible through reading the light, and if the light is reflecting off the air it becomes significant almost as an object itself – the negative spaces become all the more apparent. This much is an elementary part of foundation arts training, and while I know this, it doesn’t make it any easier to wrangle form and color from what I see into tone and line. This is especially so when working plein air. While working directly from the landscape the color (and light) of the environment is constantly changing, it is one of the significant challenges to painting or drawing outdoors. It all comes down to what the light is doing. Occasionally after a rain storm in the desert I have seen the colors become noticeably more vivid. Both as an effect of the moisture and also because the air has less particular matter in it. But generally speaking it seems that air that is cleaner is in shorter supply today.

Moving on westward up the Platte revisiting some basic ideas about painting has been very helpful to me, and so too has observing the shifts in scale between Wilkins work and the things he was looking at. Wilkins’ perceptual shifts are more than evident in other places too and so from my point of view, feeling challenged by the task, to know these are human perceptual issues is really great. Its also useful to try to stand in Wilkins shoes for a while, reading his visual work while trying to make my own.

Thanks to Loren Pospisil for a really inspiring conversation, and for the recommendation to read the series of books by William E. Hill. Hills work examines the present-day sites and features of the emigrant trails (Oregon, Mormon and California) in the most meticulous and detailed ways. Working from many documentary sources, the images and the texts. Moving forward along the trail a signed copy of Hill’s book, The California Trail – Yesterday and Today (Caxton Press, 2017), is now in the passenger seat of my car alongside the stack of other maps, references and sources gathered in the months preceding this journey.

The Journey: 2 where the plains begin

The statistics are staggering. The thousands that passed along the Missouri River and the thousands that traversed the space mentally too, this journey has an odd scale about it. At first it seems logical and manageable but then in crossing the Missouri river something opens up in the minds eye, Something that is perhaps elephantine and unknowable (google the story of the blind men and the Elephant). It is now that the journey really begins. Between the confluence of the Platte River and where it rises near Fort Collins in Colorado, there is about one thousand miles in distance. Travelers in the 19th century talked about beginning to ‘see the elephant’ somewhere between old fort Kearney and new fort Kearny in present day Nebraska. Wilkins first talks about the elephant in his entry for Sunday 27th May about half way to New Fort Kearny which is more or less 2 hours by car from where I was when the elephant came to mind. The idea of seeing the elephant is a turn of phrase that indicated one has had or has seen enough, it was commonly used at the time particularly in relation to westward travel.

The confluence of the Platte and the Missouri Rivers – the Missouri is in the background and the sandy bank in the foreground is the Platte.

Yesterday morning as I crossed the Missouri river, stopped heading north and faced the West, the slightest hair of the elephant was evident. Somewhere between Nebraska City and Ashland perhaps? Maybe having seen the confluence under a dark and heavy morning thunderstorm, in the torrential downpour my mood was decidedly grey. But there it was, could I smell it? I thought a couple of times that I’d seen its tail, caught sight of it through the miles of corn stalks, that produce an endless furrowed optical vista as the light flashes in between the rows, reminiscent of the optical slits in a zoeterope.

I was headed for another State Park campground along the Missouri but decided in a moment that I really had had enough of the mid-west, and in search of a change of mood I wanted to head to the West a day early. To chase the elephant down the Platte River and to see the place that James M Hutchings described as being where ‘the prairie turns into the plains’, in his world namely Fort Childs or New Fort Kearny, or in contemporary terms, just Kearney. The landscape really does start to change here. There are noticeably less trees west of Kearney and beyond Ash Hollow there are significantly less.

But I had one last self-imposed assignment to complete. Following up on an illusive reference that had dropped out of a google search I needed to hunt down the location of the Pawnee city depicted and titled by Wilkins as a ‘Deserted Pawnee Village’ (drawing number 11 in the sequence). I had googled around and located a number of places that might be ‘this’ place. Though this location was clearly not the one, the materials I was finding were intriguing enough to go there. It is just south of Freemont Nebreska on the south side of the Platte River east of Highway 77.

11_The Deserted Pawnee Village, Nebraska, 1849
James Wilkins, The Deserted Pawnee Village. 11th in the sequence of 50 drawings by James Wilkins. in, John Francis McDermott, (ed.) An Artist on the Overland Trail, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA. 1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID. 1842. Viewed online at Wisconsin Historical Society

I had learned recently from Roger Echo-Hawk that this place was called Pahaku and that it holds special significance not only in the departure of the Pawnee from their ancestral homeland but that it is a special place of traditional spiritual significance also. An article by Paul A Johnsgard retells some of this detail but also explores how this location holds a special significance for being one of the few places that remains biologically in-tact to pre American times. http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2010/06/a-place-called-pahaku.

So now having travelled almost the length of the eastern portion of the Platte River and heading north on highway 77, a road sign pointing to “Pawnee Meadows” perhaps could be taken as an indication that the place must be close. Then, almost immediately another sign pointing in the opposite direction said “Historical Marker” coming up, on the right.

Highway 77, South of Fremont, Nebraska.

Taking the turn-off just before the bridge across the Platte leads to a small overgrown lane and then to a disused dead-ended concrete road. A line of trees and thick bushes on the right and an open field on the left. Looking along the disused road through the trees there I saw the silhouette of one of those large cast metal historical marker signs. So, there it was.

Nebraska Historical Marker: Pawnee villages. 2900-2962 U.S. 77, Fremont, Dodge County, Nebraska
Nebraska Historical Marker: Pawnee villages.  2900-2962 U.S. 77, Fremont, Dodge County, Nebraska

As I set of again west towards Grand Island NE, I began to understand that I was definitely in Pawnee Land. And the details of a previous conversation with Roger began to come back to me. Remembering too the recent post he had made about the Wilkins drawing and the place in question, which was in fact a significant city known as Marsh Town. The time of year that Wilkins passed through that area (his entry on Thursday 30th May says “Passed the deserted Pawnee village today”) coincided with the seasonal buffalo migration and so the Pawnee people had all of them left for their annual Buffalo hunt. The suggestion that the drawing makes in its appearance and in the way it is titled, is that the ‘village’ might be deserted because of some calamity. The drawing has a forlorn poignant quality and as if to make a point Wilkins includes two sets of (buffalo?) bones in the foreground. Rather than being abandoned it was a seasonally unoccupied place, part of a significant cyclical and seasonal livelihood for the Pawnee. It is significant too that the use of the word ‘Village’ to describe the place feels like a diminutive suggestion. Though I suspect that Wilkins uses this term because that’s how it is also designated in a number of the guide books of the period, like the Joseph E. Ware guide, published in St Louis in 1849 and which possibly Wilkins was in possession of having picked up a copy before he left.

The cover of Wares Guide to California, 1849. Newberry Library Chicago.
A detail of the map included in Wares Guide to California, 1849. Newberry Library Chicago.

There are a number of places like Marsh Town in this region which in 1850 were well known by the emigrants through the guide books and trail landmark descriptions that were in print, but none were actually as significant in their size as Marsh Town. Again, the details I heard from Roger regarding the cultural background and the particular historical significances of Pawnee land and places have been immensely helpful and informative in my gaining a deeper understanding of this region, and in sensing the deeper history on the continent. When I first arrived in Chicago in 2003 I was frequently struck by how thin the surface layer of American history seemed in relation to the deep time that formed this continent both in geological deep time and longer human history on the land. In reading Natures Metropolis by William Cronon the emphasis on how Chicago drove the growth of the nation took hold in my imagination. And then how this growth was significant mostly only since the Civil War made its thinness seem even more palpable. I often felt that I could just go to the lake Michigan shoreline and simply start peeling back the material, the concrete and urban residue, and there it would be, the deep rich earth of the pre-American continent.

Yesterday and today (Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th September) I have spent traveling back and forth along the Platte River, through the fields and fields of corn catching glimpses of the subsoil seeing under the blanket of this piece of the American farming industry to the suggestion of another significant but now erased landscape. A contact from Omaha whose family own land just south-west of Grand Island NE indicated to me that following a tornado or other wind damage there are places where views clear across the Platte valley are possible and here is where you can again get a glimpse of what the landscape must have been like when James Wilkins passed through it. Indeed, the landscape in which Pawnee people were living.

Nebraska State Highway 66.
Platt River-2
Fort Kearny State Recreational Road, Nebraska.

I am completely indebted to Roger Echo-Hawk for showing me a pathway through the corn today. On September 8th just past, Roger posted his own response to the Wilkins drawing and it offers many insights that are invaluable. Rather than quote and paraphrase it I will take the liberty of presenting it here in its whole form, in his own words. But permit me the liberty of borrowing one sentence to bring this short post to a close. In thinking about the space and time between myself and James Wilkins, moving along the Overland Trail, something became clear to me while standing at the Confluence of the Platte and the Missouri Rivers. There is almost nothing left here that resembles what Wilkins saw. Though in all sincerity it has been a thrill today, “to suddenly glimpse those mysterious Pawnee houses floating away on the shore of a distant river long ago”. Thanks to you Roger, the elephant has apparently evaporated today.

Platt River-1
The Platte River at Iain Nicolson, Audubon Center At Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska.
Platt River-5
The Platte River at Iain Nicolson, Audubon Center At Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska.

A long time ago an American named James Wilkins drew this sketch. It shows a few houses in a Pawnee city called Marsh Town. It is the end of May 1849, and this might be the only extant drawing of that Pawnee city. My great-grandfather’s mother dwelt there. Her name was Kaasariwa, Things Lying Nicely Inside, and she and her two siblings were born at Marsh Town, and she must have been about age 12 in 1849. Marsh Town was a rambling metropolitan center built by the Chaui Pawnees. Nearby dwelt the Real Kitkahahki and the Little Kitkahahki. In those days the only city of comparable size for hundreds of miles around was another Pawnee metropolis, Pahaku, at the far eastern edge of Pawneeland. And earlier that month, in May 1849, the Pawnees left Marsh Town to build a new multi-band metropolitan center farther down the Flat River, closer to Pahaku; and that year in Pawneeland people starved; cholera struck; and just a couple months after the Pawnees left Marsh Town, a large Sioux / Cheyenne military expedition rode into the ruins of Marsh Town and they set fire to everything, destroying everything that had happened in that Pawnee city. And 168 years later I noticed that a colleague named Nick Lowe had sent me this drawing. He phoned to tell me an interesting story. In 1849 James Wilkins set forth down the Overland Trail. He made a lot of sketches along the way, said Nick. And Wilkins took passage on a ship back home, and there he consulted those drawings and he prepared a huge scroll panorama, and he traveled with that scroll to various cities across the United States, and people sat in theaters watching the marvelous vista slowly unwind, and there would be special lighting effects, and there would be music, and when they got to the Platte River, Wilkins would point to the slowly moving pre-cinematic magic, and he would mention how he had paused in this curious city – he called it a “Pawnee Village.” And in those days my father’s father’s father’s mother was young. Things Lying Nicely Inside observed another kind of spectacle, watching throngs of Americans as they rolled in great dust clouds across Pawneeland, writing in their diaries, gathering precious Pawnee timber, dining on Pawnee game, sending their livestock to dine on Pawnee grass. And then there came crowds of people; they sat down across America to experience for themselves what had happened; and for years they told their children how it was a strange thing to see; an enchantment; to see that fellow unroll his epic artwork; to suddenly glimpse those mysterious Pawnee houses floating away on the shore of a distant river long ago.  Roger Echo-Hawk, September 2017.

For more writing and research by Roger Echo-Hawk please take a look at his blog, Pawneeland – History of the Pawnee Nation and Beyond.

The journey: 1 crossing rivers.

September 13th – 7:30 am

Depart Beach Park IL

West on Rosecrans road (173) to pick up I-39 south.

At Bloomington take 51 south via, Clinton, Maroa, Forsyth, Decatur, Macon, Mowequa, Redford, Assumption, and Dunkel to 16 West.

Follow 16 West to Pana, then pick up 51 south Oconee, Ramsey and Vandalia.

Continue south of Vandalia to Shobonier.

Shobonier Illinois.

Look for the Wilkins homestead – not in evidence.

From Shobonier take 51 back to Vandalia.

Vandalia is the terminus of the National Road, built between 1818 and 1837 between Cumberland Maryland and Vandalia Illinois. Established as the first improved road in the united states it utilized massive logs cut flat on one side to form a road surface. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Road

Then west on I-70 to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

From Cahokia to St Louis
a view from the large Cahokia mound to the city of St Louis

Cahokia is a pre-columbian city Inhabited between 600 and 1400 CE it represents one of the most significant ancient urban centers of the American continent. But Archeology shows habitation there as early as 1200 BCE. A nation with agrarian and effective hunting skills also produced remarkable sculptural ceramic objects – the detail is breathtaking. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahokia

Overnight in Collinsville IL

September 14th – 8:30 am

9:30 Meeting with Shannon Meyer, Senior Curator, Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, St Louis MO.

To view thirteen paintings by James Wilkins eleven in storage and two currently on display.

1931-073-0008 Grandmother’s Girls (currently on exhibit)

1931-073-0009 Young Girl

1931-073-0009 Girl With Gloves

1957-018-0001 Virginia & Ingham Wood (with book)

1961-073-0001 Self Portrait

1961-073-0002 Mrs. James F. Wilkins

1961-073-0003 Leaving the Old Homestead

1961-073-0004 Immigrants Night Camp (currently on exhibit)

1961-073-0005 Immigrants in the Rockies

1961-073-0006 Bird Snaring

1961-073-0007 Wilkins Homestead at Shobonier, Illinois

1961-075-0001 Covered Wagons in the Rockies

1986-130-0002 House by Stream

1:00 pm Take I-70 West to Kansas City, then I-29 North to Platte City, 273 north to 45 south and Weston Bend State Park.

Weston MO formerly on the east bank of Missouri River is the former steam boat ferry terminus for travelers from St Louis. Opposite Fort Leavenworth, Weston one of the main jumping off points for the West, either via the Santa Fe trail or the Overland trail to California and Oregon. A flood in 1881 moved the river two miles further west to occupy an older channel where it flows today. At its height in 1850 the steamboat trade bought 265 steamers per year to Weston with a traffic surpassing that of both Kansas City and St Joseph.

Fort Leavenworth from Weston Bend Bluffs
present day fort Leavenworth, Kansas, seen from the bluffs in Weston Bend State Park, Missouri.
Weston, Missouri.
Weston, Missouri.
A display about the steam boat trade at Weston Historical Museum. http://www.westonhistoricalmuseum.org
‘Weston people going to Leavenworth via steamboat, circa 1850.’ Weston Historical Museum. http://www.westonhistoricalmuseum.org

September 15th 9:00 am

Take 274 north to St Joseph, then I-29 north to 59 east via Oregon and Forest City.

111 north to Big Lake State Park.

In present day Holt County, Big Lake is a modest community built around the shoreline of a former oxbow of the Missouri river. This area is part of a massive marsh land, a flood plane of the Miussouri river. The Nodaway River borders the north of the region with the Big Tarkio and Little Tarkio rivers crossing the marsh to join the Missouri. Wilkins mentions the area –

“Thursday Morng May 18th Walked nearly the whole distance made today about 15 miles. Joined a company of about 16 wagons from Illinois, and expect to keep with them across the plaines. We crossed the great Tarcao swamp it took eight yoke oxen to pull us thro’. The mud was thick and deep. Still a person on foot could cross it without getting over the shoes but the heavy wagons cut in to the axeltrees.”

The Nodaway river crossing – on county road 400, Holt County Missouri

Though most of the land is now drained and cultivated, the Nodaway river in particular is a powerful watercourse with deep and wide canyon like cuts in the landscape, and like the Big and Little Tarkio rivers also which are still evident for their strong flow. The gullies that asre made show evidence of water that is deep and strong, the Nodaway in particular has an alarming 25-30 foot rise. The river courses in this landscape were notoriously described in diaries as difficult crossings, the soft deep soil eroding easily in times of high water.  – again Wilkins comments, “The oxen are apt to shy of the narrow bridges across the gullies.” (May 18th) and “crossed today some of the worst sloughs I ever saw – (May 19th). The sight of the Nodaway is indeed awe inspiring. The Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge is now one of the few remaining areas of natural marshland. the reserve, a 7,350 acres are protected as an internationally significant bird migration area.

Little Tarkio-2
The Little Tarkio River, highway 111 Holt County MO.
Little Tarkio-1
The Little Tarkio River, highway 111 Holt County MO.
Tarkio marsh 1
Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri – https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Loess_Bluffs/
Tarkio marsh 2
Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri – https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Loess_Bluffs/

Looking for James Wilkins – 1808-1888

Shobonier Illinois, September 13th 2017.

Based upon the printed and archival sources only the barest skeleton on Wilkins biography is available. Arriving in the United States around 1835 or 36 from England, Wilkins trained at the Royal Academy London and was known as an artist of landscapes and portraits. He initially spent time in New Orleans but moved to St Louis, Missouri, after about ten years. In St Louis he gained a modest reputation becoming well known even for the journey and through depicting the Overland Trail in his Panorama – The Grand Moving Mirror of the Overland Trail – which he presented in various places across the Midwest until about 1851.

By far the richest source of information on Wilkins is John Frances McDermotts’ book, An Artist On The Overland Trail – The 1849 diary and sketchbook of James F. Wilkins, published in 1968 by the Huntington Library. This book shows some astonishing research, pinpointing the locations of many of the drawings while also drawing on and referencing other diarists, for comparison but also as a corroboration of Wilkins’ narrative. Bringing the drawings and the diary together the essential details of Wilkins journey can be grasped though his personality is less easily read.

James Wilkins – Self Portrait (date unknown). Missouri History Museum Library, St Louis.

Some aspects of his character are legible from his writing, but still there is almost nothing known about how and much less why Wilkins took up the idea to venture out west onto the Overland Trail. The reasons other people undertook this epic journey are various, but most often they appear to have been motivated by the sense of opportunity, and of personal growth too. What makes Wilkins stand out is that his intentions were focused solely upon making the panorama. It was seemingly always in his plan to return back east, he did this by sea via Panama.  It is doubly unusual also taking into account the physical endurance and hardships which the journey would inevitably bring that the costs clearly seemed less than the potential benefits of this venture. The financial cost of the journey itself were significant and to most travelers this was always outweighed by their potential gains. The practical details of Wilkins life before and after the journey are so very poorly understood. And part of my understanding the journey by retracing wilkins steps is to some degree about getting into his mindset, of understanding more about Wilkins the artist on the Overland Trail.

In his writing James Wilkins comes across as a very self-reliant, practical and pleasant man. He appears to have been easy to get along with too – this much is evidenced by the placid tone with which he describes his relationships and perhaps by his not having reported any personal conflicts in which he was involved with his fellow travelers – this again seems unusual. It is well documented that the few people made it even as far as the New Fort Kierney (about midway in present day Nebraska) without a spat or two of some kind. The journey was well known to make travelers fractious. Frequently in the diaries of other travelers the arguments and disagreements of fellow party members are described in some detail. For an extended reading of the strife and crime amongst travelers, John Reid’s two studies on law and order on the trail offer many details from the very minor to fatal and catastrophic. (Policing the Elephant: Crime, Punishment, and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail. – 1979; and, Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail – 1980.)

First stop, Shobonier, Illinois –

Having left Beach Park, Illinois on September 13th I devised a route that would take me directly through the heartland of the state. Firstly, west to Rockford and then south on I-39 via Bloomington, Decator and Vandalia – making my first stop at Shobonier IL in the early afternoon. Wilkins lived in Shobonier both before and after he traveled to California, and he painted a picture of the family homestead which is now in the collection of the Missouri History Museum Library in St Louis. Searching the streets of Shobonier for a building with the same roof line, or for the particular configuration of windows and framing turned up nothing. unfortunately. Though talking to two present day residents of the town I learned that a whole row of buildings were demolished just a few years ago and it’s easy to assume that the Wilkins home might have been one of these. I had made an appointment for the following day to view 13 paintings by Wilkins at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, including the painting called ‘Wilkins Homestead at Shobonier, Illinois’.

1. Wilkins Homestead at Shobonier, Illinois
Wilkins Homestead at Shobonier, Illinois – date unknown. Missouri History Museum Library, St Louis.

Of all the paintings two stand out for me, distinguished by their subject and their execution. The delicate 4×6 inch ‘Girl With Gloves’, a miniature portrait on ivory, and ‘Bird Snaring’,about 8 inches across, a painting on canvas made for a round frame. Both subjects are so different to the overland drawings because they are very much more grounded in a domestic context. There is clearly much more to Wilkins than can be deduced from looking at these few paintings, though as a starting place to reflect upon both his biography and the meaning of the overland journey today, there seems none better.

With many thanks to the staff at the Missouri History Museum, St Louis, for their help and support, but especially to Senior Curator, Shannon Meyer, and Collections Manager, Jeff Meyer.

girl with gloves
James Wilkins, Girl With Gloves, (date unknown). Missouri History Museum Library, St Louis.
Bird Snaring
James Wilkins, Bird Snaring, (Date Unknown). Missouri History Museum Library, St Louis.