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William Henry Jackson Biography

Born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843, William Henry Jackson was a self-taught artist who, at the age of 15, was working as a retoucher in a photographer's studio. He was successful in this pursuit and later moved to a more prosperous studio in Rutland, Vermont. He honed his artist's skills with the retouching work, but also learned a great deal about the young art of photography, a skill that would stand him in good stead later in life.

In 1860, with the onset of the Civil War, Jackson enlisted in the Union Army. His unit spent most of its time on garrison duty. Though present at the battle of Gettysburg, he was stationed in the rear areas guarding supply trains and saw no action. Mustered out in 1863, he returned to Vermont where he went to work in Style's Photographic Gallery in Burlington.

In the spring of 1866, Jackson, despondent after a broken engagement, decided to follow Horace Greeley's advice and go west. In Nebraska City, Nebraska Territory, he was hired to work as a bullwhacker for a freighting outfit bound for the gold fields of Montana. Along the old Oregon Trail, Jackson sketched the landmarks and lifestyles that have become a large part of the American experience. After his return from the west, Jackson opened a photographic studio in Omaha, Nebraska.

During the summer of 1869, Jackson began photographing the construction along the new Union Pacific Railroad. His work came to the attention of Ferdinand Hayden who was organizing a geologic survey to explore the mysterious lands known as Yellowstone, and he was asked to accompany the expedition. As a result, William Henry Jackson became the first photographer to successfully capture the wonders of Yellowstone on film. Jackson's photographs were an important factor in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as our first national park in 1872.

For the next several years Jackson accompanied other geologic surveys of the west and southwest. In 1879 he decided to open a new studio in Denver, Colorado, where he spent a great deal of time photographing the railroads and the marvels of engineering that made it possible for the trains to make their way through the Rocky Mountains. He also became famous for photographing the Mount of the Holy Cross - a place most people had thought existed only in legend.

At a time when most men consider a well-deserved retirement, Jackson developed new interests. In 1894 he set out on a world tour that visited Europe, Africa, India, Australia, Japan, and Russia. He wrote his autobiography, and once again took up the paintbrush in an effort to depict the history of the west that he had experienced firsthand. William Henry Jackson celebrated his 99th birthday in 1942, and died two months later on June 30, 1942.

The long life of William Henry Jackson allowed him to witness many changes in American life, and he used his artistic skills to document those changes for succeeding generations. A wing of the visitor center at Scotts Bluff National Monument is dedicated to the life and work of William Henry Jackson, and a large number of his original paintings are a part of the park's collection, where they are used to illustrate a vital part of our history.