Down The Mississippi

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IN THE ERA BEFORE PHOTOGRAPHS could be reproduced in the press, newspapers and magazines sent “special artists”—the photojournalists of their time—out on assignment. Their on-the-spot drawings were then made into engravings. The most famous of these reporters was Winslow Homer, who went on to become one of America’s greatest painters. Alfred Hodolph Waud (1828-91) never achieved such artistic heights, but the thousands of sketches he made earned him the Library of Congress’s praise as “one of the most important illustrators in American history.” The English-horn Want! spent forty years sketching from the East Coast to as far west as Bismarck, Dakota Territory, and covered such national events as the Western migration and the Civil War. He would take on the most strenuous assignments, sketching so fast that he constantly ran out of paper, used any scrap on hand, glued bits together, and drew on the back of other drawings. In his more finished pictures, he often added an ink wash and Chinese white to his pencil drawing.

A Civil War diarist described Waud as a “tall man. . . blue-eyed, fairbearded, strapping and stalwart, full of loud cheery laughs and comic songs. . . . He was constantly vaulting on this huge brown horse, and galloping off full split, like a Wild Horseman of the Prairie.”

American Heritage has long been interested in Wand’s work, publishing in 1963 two portfolios of his illustrations—one of the Chicago fire of 1871 and one of Louisiana scenes—which we obtained directly from his grandson. The following portfolio of Mississippi River views contains drawings that Waud made during three trips on the great river between 1866 and 1872. This year, when the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans is celebrating “The World of Rivers: Fresh Water as a Source of Life,” it seems appropriate to follow the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans as Alfred Waud saw it more than one hundred years ago. The drawings shown here, some never published before, are part of the Historic New Orleans Collection, a small sample of the almost two thousand Waud drawings they own.