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A New Focus on Fremont / Explorer Validated Travels Through Daguerreotypes

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Hal Schindler
Published: 12/10/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

A modern daguerreotypist believes he has found the answer to one of the West’s intriguing historic puzzles–the trail taken through Utah and Colorado by explorer John C. Fremont during the winter of 1853-54 on his fifth and final expedition to locate a central railroad route. Robert Shlaer, a research associate at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, who specializes in daguerreotype photography, has matched a scene made by Solomon Nunes Carvalho to a landscape in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.

“It proves Fremont was in Cathedral Valley in the north district of Capitol Reef,” Shlaer says. “For years, a sketch of three obelisks from the unpublished second volume of Fremont’s Memoirs has been misidentified by authors as being a scene from San Luis Valley in today’s Colorado.” The confusion seems to have come about because daguerreotypes are mirror images and artists using them for sketches unwittingly drew copies in reverse. Shlaer has located and identified a dozen or more Carvalho scenes from–daguerreotypes, or sketches made from daguerreotypes, or photographic copies of such plates, and intends to retrace Fremont’s expedition and “redaguerreotype” Carvalho’s work using the original process, but with modern equipment.

Introduced in 1839, the daguerreotype, according to Shlaer, was the first practical photographic process. Since then, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s images have been described as “exquisite perfection.” Even today, there is no other photographic image like a daguerreotype. Shlaer explains it this way: A daguerreotype image consists of tiny mercury beads forming an amalgam upon a finely polished silver surface, usually a sheet of copper that has been silver-plated. Each exposure is unique. There can be only one copy of each. Because they are mirror images, any lettering appears backward.

Because he was an innovator, Fremont became the first Western explorer to try the new science to document his travels. The “photograph” had a reputation for unimpeachable truth, in contrast to expeditionary artists whose various styles and techniques made their work notoriously unreliable. In 1842, Fremont took daguerreotype equipment on his first expedition to the West. Being unfamiliar and untrained in its use, he obtained unsatisfactory results. But he tried in 1853 in planning the fifth expedition. This time he hired an expert in Carvalho (pronounced Car-vie-yo), who was not only an artist of some talent, but by 1853 was an authority in both photography and daguerreotyping.

Since the process is mostly dry, it was suitable for use in the subfreezing temperatures expected in the mountains during a winter crossing. Because of his expertise, Carvalho was able to determine what special chemicals and materials would surmount the obstacles of extreme cold and dampness he might encounter. In Fremont’s fourth expedition in 1848-49, he attempted to cross the Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter to demonstrate that neither the terrain nor the weather would be an obstacle to a transcontinental railroad route near the 38th parallel. He was wrong about the weather. He and his men were caught in a snowstorm, and ten of his men died from starvation and exposure in what is now Colorado.

Fremont was striving to regain the popular stature he once enjoyed in the 1840s before being court-martialed and dismissed from the Army for mutiny, insubordination and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, growing out of his role in California’s Bear Flag Revolt. When, in 1853, Congress authorized survey expeditions to study possible railroad routes from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast, Thomas Hart Benton, senator from Missouri and Fremont’s father-in-law, seized the opportunity to advocate the central route.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis did order such an expedition, but ignored Fremont in favor of Captain John Gunnison (whose party later was killed by Indians on the Sevier River). Benton reacted to the snub by raising funds to privately finance Fremont for a similar exploration. Fremont and Benton counted on using Carvalho’s daguerreotypes as a photographic document arguing for the central route. Fremont was so delighted with the results of Carvalho’s efforts that by the time the expedition reached what is now eastern Colorado, he would describe the daguerreotypes as “little jewels.”

According to Shlaer, Carvalho made as many as 300 daguerreotypes from the plains of Kansas to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah before leaving the expedition because of his health. The expedition stumbled half-starved and near-frozen into the Mormon settlement of Parowan in early February 1854, after surviving on horsemeat and porcupine for almost two months. Two weeks of rest and recuperation were enough for Fremont to refit and set out once again for California, but Carvalho and the expedition topographer, F. W. Eggloffstein, both still shaky, called it quits. They journeyed to Great Salt Lake City until their condition improved. It was there Eggloffstein met Lt. E. G. Beckwith and accepted employment as topographical engineer with the remnants of Gunnison’s party. Carvalho went on to California in April.

It is known that Fremont took the daguerreotypes to California and later carried them to New York where they were copied by Mathew Brady and used by engravers as the basis of illustrations for Fremont’s intended report on the expedition. The report was never written, and, Shlaer says, the daguerreotype plates, the Brady photographic copies and the engraved plates all were lost in a Staten Island fire. “Some of the compositions survive as illustrations in the first volume of Fremont’s Memoirs written by his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, and published in 1887. Others, apparently intended for the unpublished second volume, survive in the Huntington Library as single copies. “Altogether no more than 22 pictures remain which are derived from Carvalho’s work,” Shlaer says.

Using Carvalho’s memoir of the journey–first published in 1857–and consulting the diary of James F. Milligan, who went only as far as Bent’s New Fort with the expedition, Shlaer developed a fairly good feel of the route. But it was a hunch that made him question the illustration historians had thought was made in San Luis Valley. “I thought it looked more like something from Capitol Reef, so I sent a copy to the park archaeologist and she put me in touch with Kent Jackson, Capitol Reef’s longtime orchard manager.”

Jackson thought he recognized the formation, but asked if there was any possibility that the sketch “could be backward.” That’s when Shlaer realized the obvious: The illustration had been made from a mirror-image daguerreotype plate and had been copied in reverse! Jackson drove Shlaer to the far reaches of Cathedral Valley and pointed out three spires. “My father, who was a tour guide, named them ‘Mom, Pop and Henry,'” Jackson explained. Shlaer found himself looking at Carvahlo’s obelisks. (The sketch artist had added a campsite to the scene, but there could be no mistake; it was the identical sandstone formation.)

“People at Capitol Reef are excited because it proves to them that Fremont went through what is now their park. It also seems reasonable to believe that all the illustrations Fremont had made from Carvalho’s daguerreotypes are laterally reversed,” Shlaer says. Elated, and now aware of the image reversals, Shlaer followed another hunch into nearby Goblin Valley State Park and identified another Carvalho illustration captioned “Colorado Valley” as Wild Horse Butte.

“One result of all this is to clarify some obscurities in the map Fremont published in his Memoirs, and make it easier to trust the map in its general outlines,” he adds. A Carvalho daguerreotype of the Dillon Pinnacles also proves the expedition was on the north side of the Grand (now Gunnison) River.

Shlaer’s painstaking research and field work have enabled him to piece together this trail of Carvalho’s daguerreiancq activities for Fremont, which began at Kansas City, Missouri Using modern names of landmarks, he summarizes the journey this way: “From the Shawnee Methodist Mission, up the Kansas River to the Pottawatomie Baptist Mission, on to Fort Riley, and up the Smokey Hill River into buffalo country. Leaving the river valleys they struck southwest across the Arkansas River. From there they followed the mountain branch of the old Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s New Fort and the ruins of Bent’s Old Fort, leaving it to go up the Huerfano River to Huerfano Butte in present Colorado.

After a side trip to Mosca Pass they went over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at Medano Pass, north of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and across the San Luis Valley to Saguache, up through North Cochetopa Pass on the Continental Divide, north to Tomichi Creek, down the Gunnison River to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, southwest to the Uncompaghre River, past Montrose, Delta, Grand Junction, and across the Colorado River near the Colorado National Monument.

Leaving the Rocky Mountains, they went south of the Book Cliffs near Arches National Park until they cross the Green River at the mouth of the San Rafael River. Then they went southwest in front of the San Rafael Reef, turned west through Cathedral Valley, over Thousand Lake Mountain, and ended in Grass Valley. It was there that severe winter weather forced Fremont to abandon unnecessary baggage, including Carvalho’s equipment, after which the party barely escaped to the Mormon settlement Parowan,” Shlaer says.

With help from grants from the Utah Humanities Council and the private Avenir Foundation of Colorado, Shlaer is working to produce a new set of at least 200 daguerreotypes re-creating where possible Carvalho’s original images. He intends to return to Capitol Reef this winter to reshoot “Mom, Pop and Henry,” in light snowfall, precisely the conditions depicted in the old illustration.

A self-taught daguerreotypist, Shlaer learned the procedures from old manuals published in the 1840s. And though he uses a modern 4-by-5-inch-format camera, he makes his own burnished silver-coated copper plates and processes them the old-fashioned way–with noxious mercury vapor. He had been refining his technique for nearly eight years when he was inspired to rephotograph Carvalho’s landscapes. He hopes to select 50 of the total daguerreotypes for a traveling exhibit to be offered to regional and local museums in Kansas, Colorado and Utah.

And what of Solomon Nunes Carvalho? What became of him? A Sephardic Jew of Spanish-Portuguese descent, he returned to Maryland, where he became prominent in Jewish affairs and, as one writer suggested, “was willing, presumably, to forego [sic] any further gambles with death. He settled down with greater stability than before, to a busy professional and social life in Baltimore and New York.”

Leon Watters, the historian of early Utah Jewry, firmly established that there were no practicing Jews in Great Salt Lake City at the time of Carvalho’s recuperative residence there, so “the photographer, therefore, had no opportunity to return to Jewish life immediately. But once he arrived in Los Angeles, he brought a wealth of energy and experience to bear upon the problems of its small struggling Jewish community.” Carvalho died May 21, 1897, in New York.