- Historic Sites
MOSQUITOES, MULES, AND MEN
On a government surveying party in the Pacific Northwest eighty-five years ago, nothing was more valuable than a sense of humor. Topographer Alfred Downing had one that happily showed in his sketches
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
Ordinarily, Downing’s struggles with the elements were less spectacular, consisting largely of an endless fight with the weather. Two sketches (7, 8), for example, indicate the lack of meteorological moderation in northern Dakota: “40° below zero” (winter), and “100° in the shade” (summer). The cloudlike phenomena around the heads of man and mule in the latter picture are mosquitoes.
Sometimes Downing recorded, with his usual ironic touch, the efforts of the surveying parties to bring a few amenities to the rough life of the unsettled West. In a large drawing captioned “Dinner on the Plains” (9) he shows a camp cook crossing from the cook tent to the officers’ mess tent, carrying a platter of meat and a dish of potatoes with the éclat of a waiter at the Ritz. The guest on this occasion was a Lieutenant Alexander of the 7th Cavalry—the regiment which a few years later was to enter the pages of history under General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Though he had a scientist’s eye for accurate detail, Downing was not beyond emphasizing natural features that appealed to him for humorous reasons—an adumbration of his later career as a cartoonist for western magazines and newspapers. Thus the face he represents in “Victoria or Profile Rock, Upper Columbia River, Wash. Territory” (10) perhaps resembles the visage so familiar on British and Canadian coins a bit more than the geological facts actually warrant.
“Sterling on the Skagit (a town in embryo)” (11) makes quite clear what the nucleus of civilization was likely to be amid the lumber camps of the Northwest: a saloon is the only edifice in view. (In this case, however, the town was short-lived: today Sterling exists only as a name on local maps of the area.)
Finally, “Unexpected arrival of Fresh Pork at Vancouver Barracks” (12), in which a parcel of fat pigs eludes soldiers more or less tripping over their taste buds, reveals Downing the cartoonist almost pure and simple. “Fine exercise for the Troops,” he says in a parenthetical caption.
Taken together, Downing’s works give a wide view of the American wilderness of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas in the days of the “second opening” of the West. While they are not great art by any means, they are always faithful to the true atmosphere of the early Northwest, almost always humorous, and never romantic or sentimental. This is nowhere better seen than in Downing’s Indian portraits. The tragic stance of a proud race in the enveloping dusk of the westward movement is not there, but the Indian as a fellow human being, “warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” as the white man, is much in evidence.
Alfred Downing’s sketchbook, containing 144 original sketches and water colors done on four major western expeditions, has only recently come to light. It is now in the collection of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, the gift of Inez M. Downing, the topographer’s granddaughter.