Last summer a photographer, with some help from an orchard keeper, proved something regional historians have been arguing over for years - that explorer John C. Fremont's last expedition went south, not north, after crossing the Green River and then through Capitol Reef National Park.
Until Robert Shlaer, 53, Santa Fe, made his discovery by matching engravings from Fremont's expedition to a landscape, the majority of Utah historians believed Fremont had gone north rather than south, according to historian Todd I. Berens of Santa Ana, Calif.Berens has been trying for the past 25 years to prove that Fremont's final expedition went south. "I'm happy that it gets done," he said, "but I'm surprised it's done by a person who does photography."
Shlaer is one of only a score of Americans who still practice the early art of daguerreotypy, photography in which silver-plated copper sheets are used in place of film. Shlaer, who takes daguerreotypes of the moon, solar eclipses, portraits and Carlsbad Caverns, claims to be the only full-time daguerreotypist in the nation.
He came up with the idea for a book recording Fremont's last expedition after seeing "Second View," a book in which photographer Mark Klett contrasts 1870 survey photographs with modern photographs shot at the same sights. Shlaer thought the same thing should be done in daguerreotypes, and the most logical subject would be Fremont's fifth expedition, the first Western expedition to employ a photographer.
So, Shlaer began reading up on Fremont's primarily unsuccessful 1853 expedition. Fremont's fifth expedition was an attempt to find a southern route for the railroad from Missouri to California. He went in the winter to disprove those who had told him that the route was impossible because of the harsh winters in the Rocky Mountains. Fremont tried the same route in his fourth expedition but was stopped in Colorado, where 10 of his 33 men died in the cold along with 45 of their animals. But he was determined to try again.
Daguerreotypist Solomon Nunes Carvalho came along on the expedition and shot more than 300 daguerreotypes in the wilderness under difficult conditions, considering that daguerreotypes must be developed on site. Shlaer said he shares a special link with Carvalho, since they're both Jewish and daguerreotypists.
Carvalho stuck with the expedition until it straggled into Parowan, where one member of the party died. Almost two weeks later, Fremont continued to California, but Carvalho and other members of the party stayed the winter in Parowan. Carvalho traveled with the Mormon settlers to Salt Lake City in the spring, where he took a daguerreotype of one of Brigham Young's home, the Beehive House.
Shlaer decided to document the expedition to the point where the party broke up in Parowan. To trace the expedition, he referred to the notes in Carvalho's account of the expedition, "Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West With Col. Fremont's Last Expedition" published in 1856.
After reading the book, Shlaer followed the trail himself, going solo in his white Dodge minivan. Shlaer matched a few landscapes with the the engravings made from Carvalho's daguerreotypes, but overall he had a hard time finding landmarks until he sent a letter to archaeologist Lee Kreuzer at Capitol Reef National Park, asking if anyone at the park recognized the rock formations in a couple of etchings taken from Carvalho's pictures.
"I was pretty skeptical at first," said Kreuzer, who suggested that Shlaer send her the copies, which she put on a bulletin board. The park's longtime orchard manager Kent Jackson immediately recognized one of the pictures depicting three obelisks.
In July, Jackson led Shlaer to the formation in Cathedral Valley, pointing out the three rocks christened long ago by Jackson's tour-guide father, as "Mom, Pop and Henry."
It was an exact match, almost. The rocks were in reverse of the image. Jackson suggested to Shlaer that perhaps the image had been reversed. Daguerreotypes produce the mirror image of a subject. Generally, artists would correct the image when sketching from a daguerreotype, but somehow they had failed to do so with Carvalho's pictures. The images on all of the etchings taken from Carvalho's daguerreotypes were reversed.
"I began to find things after that," Shlaer said. "Now I'm able to say to myself, `I'm standing within a few feet from where he took the picture.' "
Shlaer has found 11 of the 17 etchings he believes belong to Carvalho. Three of the etchings are too general to be found - buffalo grazing, an Indian village and a sunset over the upper Colorado, but he's still searching for the last three.
He plans to drive the route a fourth time this winter to shoot the landmarks under snow, the same conditions in which Carvalho took the photos. Shlaer hopes to have his book finished in two years.
Charles Peterson, a Utah historian living in St. George, said it made sense that the discovery that Fremont did indeed go through Capitol Reef was made by a photographer. According to Peterson, historians often focus too much on generalities.
"Time after time people like artists do the best detailed kind of history," he said.