William Henry Jackson Photography

William Henry Jackson

American (1842-1942)

WILLIAM HENRY JACKSON, “Marshall Pass. The Summit”, ca. 1870s or 80s, albumen print, 9 11/16" x 12 15/16"

W.H. JACKSON, “Marshall Pass. The Summit”, ca. 1870s or 80s, albumen print, 9 11/16″ x 12 15/16″

Biography | Bibliography

William Henry Jackson was an American painter, photographer and explorer famous for his images of the American West. He was a great-great nephew of Samuel Wilson, the progenitor of America’s national symbol Uncle Sam.

Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843, as the first of seven children to George Hallock Jackson and Harriet Maria Allen. Harriet, a talented water-colorist, was a graduate of the Troy Female Academy, later the Emma Willard School. Painting was his passion from a very young age. By age 19 he had become a skillful, talented artist of American pre-Civil-War Visual Arts, of whom Orson Squire Fowler wrote as being “excellent as a painter”.

After his boyhood in Troy, New York and Rutland, Vermont, in 1862 William Henry Jackson, guided by patriotic feelings joined as a private in Company K of 12th Vermont Infantry and fought in the American Civil War, including the battle of Gettysburg. He then returned to Rutland, VT, where he eventually got into creative crisis as a painter in post-Civil-War American society. Having broken his engagement to Miss Carolina Eastman he left Vermont forever, for the American West.

In 1866 traveling by Union Pacific, William Henry Jackson reached its end, a point some hundred miles west of Omaha, where he joined as a bullwhacker a wagon train heading west to Great Salt Lake, on the Oregon Trail. In 1867 he settled down in Omaha, NE and got into the photography business with his brother Ed.

Going off for three or four days as “missionary to the Indians” around Omaha, Jackson made his famous photographs of the American Indians: Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes and Omahas.

In 1869, William Henry Jackson won a commission from the Union Pacific Railroad to document the scenery along their route for promotional purposes. The following year, he got a last-minute invitation to join the 1871 U.S. government survey (predecessor of USGS) of the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains led by Ferdinand Hayden. Painter Thomas Moran was also part of the expedition, and the two artists worked closely together to document the Yellowstone region. Hayden’s surveys (accompanied usually by a small detachment of the U.S. Cavalry) were annual multidisciplinary expeditions meant to chart the largely-unexplored west, observe flora (plants), fauna (animals), and geological conditions (geology), and identify likely navigational routes, so William Henry Jackson was in a position to capture the first photographs of legendary landmarks of the West.

William Henry Jackson worked in multiple camera and plate sizes, under conditions that were often incredibly difficult. His photography was based on the collodion process invented in 1848 and published in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. William Henry Jackson traveled with as many as three camera-types– a stereographic camera (for stereoscope cards), a “whole-plate” or 8×10″ plate-size camera, and one even larger, as large as 18×22″. These cameras required fragile, heavy glass plates (photographic plates), which had to be coated, exposed, and developed onsite, before the wet-collodion emulsion dried. Without light metering equipment or sure emulsion speeds, exposure times required inspired guesswork, between five seconds and twenty minutes depending on light conditions.

Preparing, exposing, developing, fixing, washing then drying a single image could take the better part of an hour. Washing the plates in 160 °F hot spring water cut the drying time by more than half, while using water from snow melted and warmed in his hands slowed down the processing substantially. His photographic division of 5-7 men carried photographic equipment on the backs of mules and rifles on their shoulders – Siouxess still made scalping – William Henry Jackson’s life experience (as military, as peaceful dealing with Indians) was welcomed. The weight of the glass plates and the portable darkroom limited the number of possible exposures on any one trip, and these images were taken in primitive, roadless, and physically challenging conditions. Once when the mule lost its footing, William Henry Jackson lost a month’s work, having to return to untracked Rocky Mountain landscapes to remake the pictures, one of which was his celebrated view of the Mount of the Holy Cross.

Despite these difficulties William Henry Jackson came back with photographic evidence of western landmarks that had previously seemed fantastic rumor: the Grand Tetons, Old Faithful and the rest of Yellowstone, Colorado’s Rockies and the Mount of the Holy Cross, and the uncooperative Ute Indians. William Henry Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone helped convince the U.S. Congress to make it the first National Park in March 1872.

William Henry Jackson exhibited photographs and clay models of Anasazi dwellings at Mesa Verde in Colorado in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He continued traveling on the Hayden Surveys until the last one in 1878. He later established a studio in Denver, Colorado and produced a huge inventory of national and international views. Commissioned to photograph for western state exhibitions at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, he eventually produced a final portfolio of views of the just-shuttered “White City” for Director of Works and architect Daniel Burnham.

Thrust into financial exigencies by the Panic and Depression of 1893-95, Jackson accepted a commission by Marshall Field to travel the world photographing and gathering specimens for a vast new museum in Chicago; his pictures and reports were published by Harper’s Weekly magazine. He returned to Denver and shifted into publishing; in 1897 he sold his entire stock of negatives and his own services to the formerly called the Detroit Photographic Company (owned by William A. Livingstone), after the company had acquired the exclusive ownership and rights to the photochrom process in America. Jackson joined the company in 1898 as president – just when the Spanish American War gained the nation’s fervent interest – bringing with him an estimated 10,000 negatives which provided the core of the company’s photographic archives, from which they produced pictures ranging from postcards to mammoth-plate panoramas.

In 1903, William Henry Jackson became the plant manager, thus leaving him with less time to travel and take photographs. In 1905 or 1906, the company changed its name from the Detroit Photographic Co. to the Detroit Publishing Co.

In the 1910s, the publishing firm expanded its inventory to include photographic copies of works of art, which were popular educational tools as well as inexpensive home decor.
During its height, the Detroit Publishing Company drew upon 40,000 negatives for its publishing effort, and had sales of seven million prints annually. Traveling salesmen, mail order catalogues, and a few retail stores aggressively sold the company’s products. The company maintained outlets in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Zurich, and also sold their images at popular tourist spots and through the mail. At the height of its success, the company employed some forty artisans and a dozen or more traveling salesmen. In a typical year they would publish an estimated seven million prints.

With the declining sale of photographs and postcards during World War I, and the introduction of new and cheaper printing methods used by competing firms, the Detroit Publishing Company went into receivership in 1924, and in 1932 the company’s assets were liquidated.

In 1936 Edsel Ford backed by his father Henry Ford bought Jackson’s 40,000 negatives from Livingstone’s estate for “The Edison Institute” known today as Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Eventually, William Henry Jackson’s negatives were divided between the Colorado Historical Society (views west of the Mississippi), and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (all other views).

William Henry Jackson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1924, and produced murals of the Old West for the new U.S. Department of the Interior building. He also acted as a technical advisor for the filming of Gone with the Wind.

In 1942, he was honored by the Explorer’s Club for his 80,000 photographs of the American West. SS William H. Jackson Steamship was in active service in 1945. William Henry Jackson died at the age of 99. Recognized as one of the last surviving Civil War veterans, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Lewis W. Selmeier, William Henry Jackson – First Camera on the Yellowstone, Montana Magazine of Western History (Helena, MT: Historical Society of Montana) XXII (3): 42–53, 1972.

William Henry Jackson, Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson, New York, G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1940.

Ed Marston, Colorado, 1870-2000 / historical landscape photography by William Henry Jackson, Englewood, Colo. : Westcliffe Publishers, 1999.

Jim Hughes, The birth of a century : early color photographs of America, London ; New York : Tauris Parke Books, 1994.

Douglas Waitley, William Henry Jackson : framing the frontier, Missoula, Mont. : Mountain Press Pub. Co., 1998.