About 450,000 people traveled the California, Oregon, and Mormon Trails between 1841 and 1868. Though they came from many places, went to different destinations, and traveled for different reasons, most passed through the Sweetwater Valley in modern-day Wyoming. Walking or riding through the 100-mile valley, with its meandering river and unique geological formations, became a shared pioneer experience. Motivations for documenting this shared space differed, but the same landscape features of the valley found their way into many journals, letters, and sketchbooks.
As travelers passed topographical curiosities along the trail west, they often noted them in word and in art. Drawing features of the landscape in journals, letters home, or in other written records was a common practice along the trail.
The westward journey through the Sweetwater Valley usually lasted about a week. Landmarks along the trail gave travelers new opportunities to describe their progress.
For those traveling west to California and Oregon, reaching Independence Rock by about July 4—the United States of America’s Independence Day—meant that they would likely arrive at their destinations ahead of winter snows. Thousands of people carved or painted their names onto the giant granite boulder’s smooth surface before moving on. Others commemorated the milestone by sketching the rock.
Military expeditions moving west often included a company artist to document the landscape. Many military artists sketched features of the landscape in the Sweetwater Valley, starting with Independence Rock.
Several artists traveled the overland trail to capture the American West for the benefit of audiences in the East.
Cut into the granite mountains by the Sweetwater River, Devil’s Gate caught the attention of those passing through the valley. The almost 400-foot-tall cliff walls and 30-foot-wide chasm inspired many emigrants to sketch the topography through which they passed.
At the end of their travels through the Sweetwater Valley, travelers passed Split Rock and moved through South Pass. For several days, Split Rock, a noticeable gap in the distant Rattlesnake Mountains, would have been visible to those on the trail. Those sketching the mountain range often included the unique formation. Crossing the continental divide at South Pass was an important milestone of the trail, but because the pass was such a gentle climb, most travelers were unaware of the actual crossing.
Mormon Handcart Historic Site: Martin’s Cove
John Francis McDermott, ed., An Artist on the Overland Trail: The 1849 Diary and Sketches of James F. Wilkins (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1968)
Georgia Willis Read and Ruth Gaines, Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, and other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944)
David Royce Murphy, Scenery, Curiosities, and Stupendous Rocks: William Quesenbury’s Overland Sketches, 1850-1851 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011)