Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


William Henry Jackson's career as a photographer and painter spanned more than seventy years, during which he recorded the vast beauty of the western landscape, Native American life, and the expansion of European Americans into the Great Plains and the West. According to the family Bible, Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York, on April 14, 1843. He inherited his rootlessness from his father, who moved the family six times before William Henry was ten. After serving in the Civil War with the Twelfth Vermont Volunteers, he went to the Great Plains in 1866 and worked as a teamster hauling freight out of Nebraska City. Jackson made many sketches of his early travels in the Great Plains that would later serve as references for his paintings. With his brother he bought a photography studio in Omaha in 1867 and spent the next few years photographing local residents, the Indigenous peoples, the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the settlement of the Great Plains. His photographs of the Pawnee villages and people around 1870, during their final years in Nebraska, are especially evocative.

In 1870 he joined the Hayden Geological Survey as its official photographer and worked for the next eight years documenting the West and Southwest. His photographs of the Yellowstone area influenced Congress's decision to designate the nation's first national park in 1872, and his widely distributed photographs gave Americans a visual knowledge of the Great Plains and West. The quality of his work, considering the equipment and glass plate developing process of Jackson's time, is noteworthy.

From 1879 to the mid-1920s, Jackson devoted his career to commercial photography: he opened a photography studio in Denver, made a photographic survey of railroads around the world, contributed frequently to Harper's Weekly, served as photographer for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and made photographic prints and postcards for the Detroit Publishing Company.

After his retirement in 1924, Jackson painted numerous watercolors and oil paintings, some of which were based on his experiences in the Great Plains and West. The oil painting Pawnee Indian Village (1930) is representative. Many others were scenes from the Oregon Trail, which preceded his own time on the Plains. He was mainly self-taught as a painter, although his photography experience gave him compositional skills, and he had become a close associate of the artist Thomas Moran while working on the Hayden survey. Jackson's watercolor paintings have a singular appearance. They are typically small and packed full of subject matter, and they have a pale pastel appearance created by adding white to the transparent medium. He continued painting and writing until his death in New York City on June 30, 1942.

Gary Zaruba University of Nebraska at Kearney

Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Jackson, William Henry. Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1940.

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