- Historic Sites
An Artist Draws The Line
In 1850 John Russell Bartlett set out to draw up—and draw—a border between the United States and Mexico. He put up with an infernal wilderness, fractious colleagues, and a damsel ungrateful for his chivalry, but he left a rich legacy of art
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
On the late afternoon tide of August 13, 1850, over one hundred men and 160 tons of equipment sailed from New York Harbor for Matagorcla Bay on the Texas coast. The party’s goal was to draw a border of two thousand miles between the United States and its recently conquered neighbor to the south. The task would be long and arduous, for the line would run through what the survey commissioner came to call the “thorny and angular” landscapes of southern New Mexico and northern Sonora and Chihuahua—hot, barren stretches, rocky, saguaro-studded slopes, and pinonpocked mesas. The new limits of national sovereignty would be delineated by instruments carted and jostled over thousands of rough, wearying miles.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had ended the Mexican War early in iH^H, directed that the two governments each appoint a commissioner and a surveyor whose conclusions would be binding—as if inserted in the treaty before ratification. The United States had already appointed three chief commissioners: the first had died, the second had been discredited, and the third had resigned before taking up the work.
The latest commissioner, who assumed his duties less than two months before sailing, was John Russell Bartlett. Neither politician nor frontiersman, Bartlctt was a scientist and artist, a thin, vigorous New York bookseller who was intimate with the likes of Albert Gallatin, John L. Stephens, and Edgar Allan Poe. Like Gallatin and Stephens, Bartlett’s dedication to the cause of science was enhanced by a marked ability to communicate his ideas—in Bartlett’s case, by word and brush.
Bartlett was a man of parts. Much of his early life was spent in Kingston, Canada, where he became adept with rod and rifle, and where he developed a more than nodding acquaintance with the wilderness. Later, as a young man back in his native Providence, Rhode Island, he devoted his leisure hours to painting and to such interests as geographical research, antiquities, philology, and ethnology. He pursued science and art simultaneously and was grateful to the influential friends who helped him to land the commissionership that would enable him to indulge both passions.
The overland journey from Matagorda Bay to El Paso, where the party would rendezvous with the Mexican commission, was completed by mid-November. Barllctt’s first group of Western drawings, made en route, showed a progression from leisurely Sunday painting to rapid lap-sketching. The transition was a response to the hardships of that first leg: the country had begun to show its teeth; there had been some rather ugly incidents of dissension, and some men had resigned. John Bartlett, Yankee bookseller, amateur scientist, and United States commissioner, was meeting the frontier Southwest. Nevertheless, he remained the model of urban culture, carrying toothbrush, teapot, and Seidlitz powders wherever he went, and travelling in a rockaway coach that also served as fortress and sleeping quarters.
The boundary commission spent a winter of delay and frustration in El Paso. Andrew B. Gray, the chief surveyor, was ill in Washington. Bartlett did not get on well with Robert McClellan, his chief astronomertopographer, and demanded and received his resignation. But Bartlett decided to make at least a start, by establishing the “initial point” of westward departure for the boundary. He and the Mexicans under General Garcia Conde agreed on a point on the Rio Grande near Dona Ana, about forty miles north of El Paso. That arrangement—which would determine the latitude along which the boundary wotdd lie fixed—would come back to plague Bartlett, but for the time being, at least, work could begin.
In the spring of 1851 the expedition set up field headquarters at Santa Rita, an abandoned copper-mining settlement northwest of El Paso and a few miles east of the Continental Divide. It was an ideally located base camp, being just north of the specified latitude and within reasonable distance of the Gila River, the boundary’s natural route farther west. Bartlett had hopes of finishing the survey all the way along the GiIa to the junction of the Colorado River and being back in El Paso by the following winter.
The midsummer arrival of his key personnel did little to advance Bartlett’s expectations. Surveyor Gray felt that the Bartlett-García Conde line should have been drawn only eight miles north of El Paso. A Texan, he saw Bartlett as a Yankee trying to rob the South of an easy route through the mountains for a transcontinental railroad. The new principal astronomer and chief of the scientific corps, James Graham, sided with Gray in that regard—but also felt that his title placed him in charge of all surveying work, which did not sit well with Gray. Further, Graham thought Bartlett was concerning himself with secondary pursuits—botany, zoology, geology—to the detriment of the project proper. Somehow, despite the high-level bickering that prevailed during July and August, a modicum of survey work was completed between the Rio Grande and Santa Rita.