1 of 7
Stansbury Expedition lithographs, 1852
Fort Utah on the Timpanogos.

Nineteenth-century Americans were fascinated with the lands that stretched beyond their western borders. Yet, they knew very little about them.

When the Mormon pioneers moved west in 1847, they had read some accounts written by early explorers and mountain men. Jim Bridger had discovered the Great Salt Lake in 1824, and John C. Fremont's mapping expedition came through in 1843.

But in those days there certainly weren't many pictures.

That changed by mid-century and later, as many explorers began taking along first artists and later photographers, as technology began to develop and improve.

Some of — if not the first — pictures that introduced the valley of the Great Salt Lake to eastern audiences were lithographs printed in connection with the 1849-50 Stansbury expedition to this area.

When my brother found a collection of some of these lithographs, which had been printed in Philadelphia in 1852, in a Kansas antique shop and sent them to me, I was tickled by this early look at the West.

The lithographs are exquisitely done and stand as works of art, but they also offer a lot of insight into the lay of our land. They show the area as it looked to the early pioneers and provide a unique window on the past.

Howard Stansbury, who led this expedition, was born in New York City in 1806 and trained as a civil engineer. He joined the newly formed United States Topographical Bureau in 1828.

Early assignments included a survey of proposed canals to join Lake Erie and Lake Michigan with the Wabash River; a study of the James River in hopes of improving the Richmond harbor; a survey of the Illinois and Kaskaskia rivers; and a charge of determining the feasibility of a road from Milwaukee to the Mississippi River.

He moved up the ranks of the Topographical Engineers, becoming a captain in 1840. In 1842 he was assigned to do a survey of the harbor of Portsmouth, N.H., which was praised for its detail and accuracy.

In May of 1849, Stansbury was sent to make an exploration and survey of the area around the Great Salt Lake. He was to do a scientific study of the flora and fauna of the area, survey the Great Salt Lake and adjacent regions, check out possible routes for a transcontinental railroad, evaluate various emigration routes and determine the capability of Mormon communities to provide food and supplies for overland travelers (after all, gold had been discovered in California, and already, fortune-hunters were on their way West).

He was joined in his endeavors by his second in command, Lt. J.W. Gunnison; a geologist named Dr. James Blake; and Auguste Archambeau, as guide. And there were apparently some people who could draw: a F.C. Grist and John Hudson, among them.

In all, Stansbury started out with 18 men, five wagons and 46 horses and mules.

Setting out from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas on May 31, they followed the "Emigration Road," which Stansbury noted in his report, "was already broad and well beaten as any turnpike in our country."

He was hampered somewhat by cholera outbreaks, as well desertion of soldiers who were tempted away by dreams of California gold. At first, the Mormons were suspicious that he was a spy, but he was able to convince them it was a scientific venture, and he added Albert Carrington, personal secretary to Brigham Young, to his crew. Young knew the Mormons would benefit from the study, as well.

In the Salt Lake Valley, Stansbury and his crew spent a year exploring and surveying the area. They circled the lake on land — the first surveyors to do so — providing some vivid descriptions of the desolation of the area west of the lake. They established triangulation stations on the islands and at other significant sites along the shore in order to do some map-making. They also named several of the islands: Fremont, Gunnison, Carrington, Stansbury, Egg and Hat.

Stansbury detailed his findings in a report that was first published for the U.S. Senate. But it was so popular with the public that it was reprinted twice by Lippincott, Grambo & Co. of Philadelphia, and it was even translated into German.

The lithography work for the prints was done by Ackerman Lithography of New York, one of the leading firms of the day. The lithography process had been invented in Germany in the late 18th century and was based on the incompatibility of oil and water.

A drawing was made with greasy crayons or ink on a specially prepared surface, often a limestone slab. The stone was then moistened with water, which soaked into the areas not covered by the ink. An oily ink, applied with a roller, adhered only to the drawing and was repelled by wet parts of the stone. Paper was then pressed against the ink drawing.

Early lithographers soon found ways to use color, and artists could capture amazingly intricate detail, as is shown by the plates in the Stansbury report.

As for Stansbury, he went back to do more work in the Great Lakes region, and at the outbreak of the Civil War became a recruiting officer for the state of Wisconsin. He died in 1863; one account of his death said it was due to "disease contracted in the Rocky Mountains," another mentioned the "overexertions and hardships" endured on the Great Salt Lake expedition."

Historian and author Brigham D. Madsen called Stansbury's report "remarkable" and noted that it, "along with Gunnison's book, 'The Mormons,' provided the outside world with an objective look at the Mormons of Utah as well as with a scientific appraisal of the resources and fauna and flora of this section of the Great Basin."

It is fun to imagine book-buyers of 1852 looking at illustrations included in the report and marveling over the diverse and dramatic landscape that was such an unknown part of the United States.

E-mail: [email protected]