- 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
But while Santa Rita was perfectly situated, it did not provide fresh vegetables for the men or adequate forage for the animals. Signs of scurvy had begun to appear, and Bartlett made a number of forays southward into Mexico in search of supplies.
On one such trip, early in October, the party was well to the south of Santa Cruz when Bartlett began to suffer intense headaches, chills, and fever. Finally, on a portable cot in an adobe cell behind an abandoned store in Ures, he gave himself up to the ravages of typhoid. Oddly, General Garcia Conde himself contracted the disease at about the same time; in his case it was fatal, and his death did not help the joint effort, already weakened by the delays caused by the wrangling on the American team.
Although he did a few sketches of Ures during his recuperation, Bartlett was not strong enough to leave until late December. Even then the doctors advised against an immediate return to field work, so Bartlett, sketching busily and handsomely all the way, set out for the west coast of Mexico, whence he sailed for California and a winter of re-equipping his entourage for a fresh start in the spring. By this time, Gray’s survey team had made substantial progress, advancing along the GiIa River to a point sixty miles east of the Colorado. There, with supplies running low, they too decided to push for San Diego and a winter’s rest.
In March of 1852, Bartlett was in San Francisco to see to matériel, to negotiate some government drafts, and, incidentally, to enjoy the congenial bustle of urban civilization. He made junkets into the countryside and drew whatever he found—gorges, geysers, quicksilver mines. He hired two San Francisco artists, Harrison Eastman and Henry Box Brown, to render some of his field sketches into finished water colors, and further commissioned Brown to go into the upper Sacramento Valley to draw scenes of Indian life there. Brown returned with a sheaf of sketches, including some of the Chin-ohs, an obscure tribelet living in the shadow of Mount Shasta.
Back in San Diego, the outlook was promising. The men were rested. Graham and Gray had been dismissed on orders from Washington (this in itself, apparent support for the Bartlett-García Conde line). Their duties were assumed by William Emory, who was in El Paso planning the rapid completion of the project.
The boundary commission started east from San Diego late in May. Its first objective was Fort Yuma, at the confluence of the GiIa and the Colorado. The going was rough. The rugged pass separating the coastal plain and the interior desert was but a gateway, in Bartlett’s words, to a “vast field of barrenness and desolation.” The temperature was often above ninety degrees at sunrise. To compound the hardship, one of the party was murdered by two deserters from Fort Yuma, and night-raiding Indians made off with some of the livestock. They made the, fort by midJune, and were happy enough to be there.
The border eastward from San Diego to Fort Yuma had already been surveyed by one of the earlier commissions. Amiel Whipple, who had headed that work, was attached to Bartlett’s party and he now set out to finish the sixty miles east from the fort, to the point along the GiIa where operations had ceased the previous January. Whipple found that the rugged terrain prevented his men from triangulating (sighting two key points from a third, and then checking two of these from a new position—forming, crablike, a series of cross-country triangles). They worked as best they could, transit after transit, elevation after elevation. It was a tedious, backbreaking job.
But one of Bartlett’s longtime dreams had been “to be thrown among the wild tribes of the interior”; he and a small detachment of companions now went on ahead to live with and study the Maricopa and Pima Indians until the engineers caught up. It was during this period that Bartlett did some of his finest work, especially a view of Tucson and some drawings at the Casa Grande ruin near present-day Coolidge, Arizona. Bartlett tried to learn the ruin’s origins from the local Indians, but concluded that “all was in obscurity.” The natives claimed the buildings were built by Montezuma, but when pressed for information about him, they confessed “they did not know who the devil he was.”
In early August, Bartlett pushed through Guadalupe Pass, and instead of making for Santa Rita, detoured to inspect the Casas Grandes of Chihuahua—like those near the GiIa, they were “extensive ruins of an old aboriginal race.” He and his group of artist-scientist friends took what time they could to sift debris for artifacts, and Bartlett carefully measured and sketched details. A good number of villagers turned out to help throw the dirt around, expecting, as Bartlett sourly surmised, “that we should dig out quantities of gold or perhaps Montezuma himself.”