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The Stevens Party

March 2023
1min read

A Picture Portfolio


Published well over a century ago, the reports of the Pacific Railroad Surveys, “made under the Direction of the Secretary of War, 1853-6,” have careful maps, profile views, and illustrations of the flora and fauna and geology of the area. They also contain remarkable illustrations by the artists who went along with the various parties but these suffer from the technical inadequacies, as far as color is concerned, of the state of printing in that era. Most of the original art itself, it was long thought, had been lost. Now, however, we have been fortunate enough to come on to a set of water colors painted for a Pacific Railroad survey, the northernmost one, made along the forty-seventh to forty-ninth parallels of latitude by Isaac Ingalls Stevens. They belong to the notable collectors Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, through whose kindness they are reproduced here.

With Stevens and his subparties went two notable painters of the West, John Mix Stanley and Gustavus Sohon. The former, born in Canandaigua, New York, in 1814, was a wellknown veteran of frontier travel and exploration when he joined the expedition. In 1845 he had exhibited eighty-five western scenes at a show in Cincinnati; in 1865, in the Smithsonian fire, about 146 of his paintings were destroyed. Most of the pictures here are his. Sohon, who has only two in this presentation, was born in Tilsit, Germany, in 1825, came to America at seventeen, and enlisted in the Army, becoming an acknowledged artist on the job.

Their old water colors glow and bring back to life the successful exploration of the northernmost route. Stevens, the leader, born in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1818 and graduated from West Point in 1839, had just resigned from the Army to accept appointment to the governorship of the Washington Territory. He naturally agreed to lead the survey party for a railroad that might someday bring the iron horse to his new domain at Puget Sound. The pictures by Stanley and Sohon on the pages that follow show his sure and steady progress, a much more successful passage than that enjoyed, many miles to the south, by Captain John Williams Gunnison. Stevens planned carefully and included in his plans a partyheading east from the Pacific coast to meet him, under the command of Captain George B. McClellan, the future Civil War general, and a smaller supply party, led by Lieutenant Rufus Saxton, Jr. The route they travelled so arduously carries a few remaining overland trains to this day, but Governor Stevens unfortunately did not live to see them. In the Civil War, by then a major general, he fell at the Battle of Chantilly.


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