Fording Laramie Creek, 1849. WHi 1840
An Artist on the Overland Trail
The 1849 Sketches & Diary of James F. Wilkins
By 1960 John Francis McDermott, longtime gold rush scholar and history professor, had known for over thirty years about the 1849 trek by James F. Wilkins to the California gold fields and the resulting panorama he painted. Fortunately, his account of that panorama in "Gold Rush Movies," an article published in the California Historical Society Quarterly in March 1953, apparently prompted Mrs. William Nance to ask him for help in selling Wilkins' diary. She (described by McDermott as "the stepdaughter of the son of the adopted daughter of the painter") had found it in 1957, "lying forgotten in a box of old family pictures" in the Illinois farmhouse where he had spent his last years. The journal, "a leatherbound pocket notebook approximately four and a half by seven and a quarter inches, the entries in pencil," was acquired by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California, and Dr. McDermott was invited by that institution to edit it for publication. The resulting book, An Artist on the Overland Trail: The 1849 Diary and Sketches of James F. Wilkins, published by Huntington Library Press in 1968, is long out of print.
While the panorama has been lost to history, fifty of Wilkins' sketches, a unique pictorial sequence of drawings, unsigned and unidentified, survived and were purchased in 1925 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The drawings were tentatively attributed by then Superintendent Joseph Shafer to Andrew Jackson Lindsay, George Gibbs, or William Henry Tappan, who had all taken the Overland Trail to Oregon in 1849 with the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen. However, some of the scenes depicted in the drawings were not on the route they had taken, so the artist remained unknown. It wasn't until some thirty-five years later, when Dr. McDermott compared and matched the notes in the newly-discovered diary to the sketches in Wisconsin, that James F. Wilkins, a relatively obscure artist in his own day and largely forgotten by the 20th Century, could be conclusively identified as the artist.
Born in London, England in 1808, James F. Wilkins studied and exhibited works at the Royal Academy before coming to the United States in 1838. He lived for a time in Peoria, Illinois, New Orleans, and St. Louis, working as a portrait artist. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Wilkins joined the thousands who rushed west in wagon trains. But he wasn't after gold -- Wilkins instead intended to collect the raw material needed to create what he first called a "Panorama of the Plains, from Independence to San Francisco."
Panoramas had been "the rage" for years, both entertaining and instructing large audiences. "Many were travelogues picturing distant scenes and famous localities which appealed as much to the armchair voyager as to the viewer who had been there in person." First presented as stationary panels arranged in a circular display, with the viewers walking around on a raised platform to experience them, by the 1850s panoramas had been mechanized to rotate in front of the seated viewers. Night after night audiences happily paid the fifty-cent admission (children only a quarter) and sat for two or three hours, while the giant canvasses rolled by and "the artist provided descriptive and informative comment mingled with anecdote and humor, and a young lady at a pianoforte from time to time played appropriate airs."
According to McDermott, "It is most likely that Wilkins caught the panorama fever from Henry Lewis, an English-born landscape painter with whom he shared a studio for several years. In 1847 and 1848 Lewis had made sketching trips on the upper Mississippi River with the idea of producing a 'great national work.'" Wilkins had spent an evening with Lewis shortly after his return in 1848. "No wonder, then, that the news from California in the fall of 1848 and the hysteria of preparations for a rush of gold seekers in the spring suggested to Wilkins that here was a special opportunity for a not-very-affluent portrait painter to reap something of a fortune.now the occasion urged him on." To avoid giving potential competitors the same idea, Wilkins kept his plan to himself, not even telling his closest friends of the real purpose of his upcoming trip but letting them think that he, too, had caught "gold fever."
Instead of signing on with one of the larger wagon trains being arranged by entrepreneurs eager to benefit from the surge of humanity rushing to the golden West, Wilkins decided to travel with a smaller wagon train organized by a man named Corwin (or maybe Cowain), who had promised an early departure from Weston, Missouri, located halfway between Independence and St. Joseph (near Ft. Leavenworth). Traveling in ox-drawn wagons making only fifteen or sixteen miles a day, "an artist would have ample time to sketch interesting scenery and incidents; and, furthermore, [by signing on with a group organized by someone else,] he would have none of the expense of gathering equipment nor the trouble of looking after baggage and stock." Unfortunately, the actuality was quite different from his expectation.
"Wilkins left St. Louis aboard the steamboat Alice on April 25 or 26 and arrived at the bustling little town of Weston.on May 1 or 2." Corwin had difficulty acquiring all the wagons and oxen he needed, so Wilkins had to wait six anxious days for the captain to gather as many provisions as he could. The wagon train ended up leaving for St. Joseph on the evening of May 7, with only six wagons and twelve yoke of oxen half as many as intended to transport thirty passengers and all their supplies. "The oxen would be used to haul two or three wagons a few miles along the road and then be sent back to bring up the other units." This hampered their progress so badly that they only accomplished three or four miles - and that was on a good day. "So much did the passengers grumble, so threatening did they become, so difficult was it for the captain to find more stock, that finally on May 11 he agreed to turn over a wagon with three yoke of oxen to any six men who cared to cut loose from the train. The next day Wilkins, joining a doctor and several others, said a heartfelt good-bye to the Corwin passenger train.The artist and his companions now continued.to Fort Kearny (now Nebraska City); here they joined others to form a sixteen-wagon train."
Although the average trek overland, covering approximately 2,200 miles, took 4½ to 5 months, Wilkins' group wasn't one of the lucky ones. "The pains and difficulties of this one-hundred-and-fifty-one-day journey the deprivations, discomforts, sickness, near-starvation, the long waterless stretches, the night marches across the desert, the increasing quarrelsomeness of the travelers, the discarding by the roadside of great quantities of supplies and food, the death of oxen from exhaustion or bad water, the abandonment of wagons that could no longer be moved, the struggle over a trail that was truly no road at all but a weary succession of mud tracks, of sloughs, precipitous hills, impossible ascents and descents, sand into which wheels sank ten inches are set down in Wilkins' journal of the trip."
The wagon train Wilkins traveled with took the northern "Carson route" across the Sierra Nevada; he was the only artist known to have done so. Once he reached the diggings north of San Francisco near Weaverville on October 4, he "stayed only long enough to make the sketches of the gold fields and of the new cities which would be needed to round off his documentary of the great American adventure of his time." Although tempted at the end of his journey to stay long enough to try his luck in the gold fields, "Wilkins held to his purpose and returned home, [traveling] fifty miles down the American River to Sacramento on the sixteenth, and left there for San Francisco on November 12. On December 1 he sailed for Panama on the United States mail steamship Unicorn, and continuing on his way home through Chagres [Panama] and New Orleans, arriving in St. Louis by the close of January..as we are told, with nearly two hundred 'water colored' sketches."
According to the St. Louis Missouri Republican on January 31, 1850, "Mr. Wilkins left this city last spring, took the overland route, and reached California in September. With a view of furnishing a Panorama of the Plains, from Independence to San Francisco, he sketched on his route every remarkable object he met with, whether in scenery or the numberless caravans of emigrants, reaching along the whole route. He describes the landscape, for a great portion of the route, as most magnificent in its character, and such as will make a picture out-rivaling the famed Panorama of the Mississippi.Such a painting must be received with great favor by the public."
By April 1850 Wilkins had returned to Peoria and set to work, with the assistance of other painters and the financial support of a Mrs. Merrick, to create a moving panorama canvas roughly nine feet high and four or five hundred yards long. "The Moving Mirror of the Overland Trail" had its first public viewing on September 18, 1850, in Peoria, for only six nights. A letter published in the local Democratic Press on October 2, 1850, serves as a rave review:
Every night numbers had to be turned away that could not get admission.We have never seen a more universal satisfaction expressed. It was remembered by those who had traveled the route delineated by Mr. Wilkins, as admirably true and correct..When Mr. Wilkins commenced rolling the vast canvass and described the scenes pictured upon it, a stillness deep as the tomb itself, pervaded the multitude, and with open mouths and stretching necks they looked upon the scene as it unfolded before them.Mind, sense, all seemed wrapped up in the great Panorama before us; and anyone with a little imagination, would actually believe that he was on his way to California, instead of viewing the route....We see all the dangers to which the emigrant is exposed we can almost feel his fatigue we can almost hear his deep breathing, after a day of perilous toils, as he sleeps in some safe and lovely spot, beneath his tent, under the shadow of a rock, or by the trunk of some giant tree. The rivers, too, they seem the living water itself, leaping and rushing amid the rocks, or flowing quietly and gently along their level beds. Mountains with their snowy tops and ragged sides, seen in the distance, gilded by the last rays of the setting sun..We have no doubt as to its excelling every other Panorama that ever was exhibited, in beauty, grandeur, and sublimity of scenery.
On October 7 it opened in St. Louis, with the Missouri Republican noting in that day's issue, "Very few can be.indifferent to the trials or fate of the Pilgrims to the land of gold. All have relations, or friends who have passed over this route within the last two years, and this painting.will convey more distinctly than words could do, a correct and vivid idea of the fatigues, the dangers, and anxiety to which the emigrants were and are liable."
Wilkins' panorama moved on to Cincinnati, Louisville and Frankfort, then back to St. Louis for a final two or three week engagement in late March 1851. A recently located newspaper clipping dated April 18, 1851 from The Democrat in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is the last trace we have been able to find of this panorama. As far as we know, no parts of it still exist.
Wilkins returned for a while to portrait painting in St. Louis. In 1872 he bought a farm in Fayette County, Illinois, and died there in 1888 never knowing that his sketches and diary would be reunited some seventy years later, and that technology would eventually result in his drawings being available to anyone with access to the Internet.
Suggestions for Further Reading
For more detailed descriptions of Wilkins' journey, in his own words, and the drawings they describe, see An Artist on the Overland Trail: The 1849 Diary and Sketches of James F. Wilkins, edited by John Francis McDermott, published by The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, 1968. Text and images used with the permission of The Huntington Library Press.
For the article "Gold Rush Movies" see Vol. 33, No. 1, March 1954, of the California Historical Society Quarterly.
For many more facts and stories about the overland voyages, see the Oregon-California Trails Association.
For a bibliography of "Diaries and Journals of Overland Crossings of the Gold Rush Era" see the California Pioneer Project.