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An Artist Draws The Line

July 2024
7min read

In 1850 John Russell Bartlett set out to draw up—and draw—a border between the United States and Mexico. He put up with an infernal wilderness, fractious colleagues, and a damsel ungrateful for his chivalry, but he left a rich legacy of art

On the late afternoon tide of August 13, 1850, over one hundred men and 160 tons of equipment sailed from New York Harbor for Matagorcla Bay on the Texas coast. The party’s goal was to draw a border of two thousand miles between the United States and its recently conquered neighbor to the south. The task would be long and arduous, for the line would run through what the survey commissioner came to call the “thorny and angular” landscapes of southern New Mexico and northern Sonora and Chihuahua—hot, barren stretches, rocky, saguaro-studded slopes, and pinonpocked mesas. The new limits of national sovereignty would be delineated by instruments carted and jostled over thousands of rough, wearying miles.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had ended the Mexican War early in iH^H, directed that the two governments each appoint a commissioner and a surveyor whose conclusions would be binding—as if inserted in the treaty before ratification. The United States had already appointed three chief commissioners: the first had died, the second had been discredited, and the third had resigned before taking up the work.

The latest commissioner, who assumed his duties less than two months before sailing, was John Russell Bartlett. Neither politician nor frontiersman, Bartlctt was a scientist and artist, a thin, vigorous New York bookseller who was intimate with the likes of Albert Gallatin, John L. Stephens, and Edgar Allan Poe. Like Gallatin and Stephens, Bartlett’s dedication to the cause of science was enhanced by a marked ability to communicate his ideas—in Bartlett’s case, by word and brush.

Bartlett was a man of parts. Much of his early life was spent in Kingston, Canada, where he became adept with rod and rifle, and where he developed a more than nodding acquaintance with the wilderness. Later, as a young man back in his native Providence, Rhode Island, he devoted his leisure hours to painting and to such interests as geographical research, antiquities, philology, and ethnology. He pursued science and art simultaneously and was grateful to the influential friends who helped him to land the commissionership that would enable him to indulge both passions.

The overland journey from Matagorda Bay to El Paso, where the party would rendezvous with the Mexican commission, was completed by mid-November. Barllctt’s first group of Western drawings, made en route, showed a progression from leisurely Sunday painting to rapid lap-sketching. The transition was a response to the hardships of that first leg: the country had begun to show its teeth; there had been some rather ugly incidents of dissension, and some men had resigned. John Bartlett, Yankee bookseller, amateur scientist, and United States commissioner, was meeting the frontier Southwest. Nevertheless, he remained the model of urban culture, carrying toothbrush, teapot, and Seidlitz powders wherever he went, and travelling in a rockaway coach that also served as fortress and sleeping quarters.

The boundary commission spent a winter of delay and frustration in El Paso. Andrew B. Gray, the chief surveyor, was ill in Washington. Bartlett did not get on well with Robert McClellan, his chief astronomertopographer, and demanded and received his resignation. But Bartlett decided to make at least a start, by establishing the “initial point” of westward departure for the boundary. He and the Mexicans under General Garcia Conde agreed on a point on the Rio Grande near Dona Ana, about forty miles north of El Paso. That arrangement—which would determine the latitude along which the boundary wotdd lie fixed—would come back to plague Bartlett, but for the time being, at least, work could begin.

In the spring of 1851 the expedition set up field headquarters at Santa Rita, an abandoned copper-mining settlement northwest of El Paso and a few miles east of the Continental Divide. It was an ideally located base camp, being just north of the specified latitude and within reasonable distance of the Gila River, the boundary’s natural route farther west. Bartlett had hopes of finishing the survey all the way along the GiIa to the junction of the Colorado River and being back in El Paso by the following winter.

The midsummer arrival of his key personnel did little to advance Bartlett’s expectations. Surveyor Gray felt that the Bartlett-García Conde line should have been drawn only eight miles north of El Paso. A Texan, he saw Bartlett as a Yankee trying to rob the South of an easy route through the mountains for a transcontinental railroad. The new principal astronomer and chief of the scientific corps, James Graham, sided with Gray in that regard—but also felt that his title placed him in charge of all surveying work, which did not sit well with Gray. Further, Graham thought Bartlett was concerning himself with secondary pursuits—botany, zoology, geology—to the detriment of the project proper. Somehow, despite the high-level bickering that prevailed during July and August, a modicum of survey work was completed between the Rio Grande and Santa Rita.

But while Santa Rita was perfectly situated, it did not provide fresh vegetables for the men or adequate forage for the animals. Signs of scurvy had begun to appear, and Bartlett made a number of forays southward into Mexico in search of supplies.

On one such trip, early in October, the party was well to the south of Santa Cruz when Bartlett began to suffer intense headaches, chills, and fever. Finally, on a portable cot in an adobe cell behind an abandoned store in Ures, he gave himself up to the ravages of typhoid. Oddly, General Garcia Conde himself contracted the disease at about the same time; in his case it was fatal, and his death did not help the joint effort, already weakened by the delays caused by the wrangling on the American team.

Although he did a few sketches of Ures during his recuperation, Bartlett was not strong enough to leave until late December. Even then the doctors advised against an immediate return to field work, so Bartlett, sketching busily and handsomely all the way, set out for the west coast of Mexico, whence he sailed for California and a winter of re-equipping his entourage for a fresh start in the spring. By this time, Gray’s survey team had made substantial progress, advancing along the GiIa River to a point sixty miles east of the Colorado. There, with supplies running low, they too decided to push for San Diego and a winter’s rest.

In March of 1852, Bartlett was in San Francisco to see to matériel, to negotiate some government drafts, and, incidentally, to enjoy the congenial bustle of urban civilization. He made junkets into the countryside and drew whatever he found—gorges, geysers, quicksilver mines. He hired two San Francisco artists, Harrison Eastman and Henry Box Brown, to render some of his field sketches into finished water colors, and further commissioned Brown to go into the upper Sacramento Valley to draw scenes of Indian life there. Brown returned with a sheaf of sketches, including some of the Chin-ohs, an obscure tribelet living in the shadow of Mount Shasta.

Back in San Diego, the outlook was promising. The men were rested. Graham and Gray had been dismissed on orders from Washington (this in itself, apparent support for the Bartlett-García Conde line). Their duties were assumed by William Emory, who was in El Paso planning the rapid completion of the project.

The boundary commission started east from San Diego late in May. Its first objective was Fort Yuma, at the confluence of the GiIa and the Colorado. The going was rough. The rugged pass separating the coastal plain and the interior desert was but a gateway, in Bartlett’s words, to a “vast field of barrenness and desolation.” The temperature was often above ninety degrees at sunrise. To compound the hardship, one of the party was murdered by two deserters from Fort Yuma, and night-raiding Indians made off with some of the livestock. They made the, fort by midJune, and were happy enough to be there.

The border eastward from San Diego to Fort Yuma had already been surveyed by one of the earlier commissions. Amiel Whipple, who had headed that work, was attached to Bartlett’s party and he now set out to finish the sixty miles east from the fort, to the point along the GiIa where operations had ceased the previous January. Whipple found that the rugged terrain prevented his men from triangulating (sighting two key points from a third, and then checking two of these from a new position—forming, crablike, a series of cross-country triangles). They worked as best they could, transit after transit, elevation after elevation. It was a tedious, backbreaking job.

But one of Bartlett’s longtime dreams had been “to be thrown among the wild tribes of the interior”; he and a small detachment of companions now went on ahead to live with and study the Maricopa and Pima Indians until the engineers caught up. It was during this period that Bartlett did some of his finest work, especially a view of Tucson and some drawings at the Casa Grande ruin near present-day Coolidge, Arizona. Bartlett tried to learn the ruin’s origins from the local Indians, but concluded that “all was in obscurity.” The natives claimed the buildings were built by Montezuma, but when pressed for information about him, they confessed “they did not know who the devil he was.”

In early August, Bartlett pushed through Guadalupe Pass, and instead of making for Santa Rita, detoured to inspect the Casas Grandes of Chihuahua—like those near the GiIa, they were “extensive ruins of an old aboriginal race.” He and his group of artist-scientist friends took what time they could to sift debris for artifacts, and Bartlett carefully measured and sketched details. A good number of villagers turned out to help throw the dirt around, expecting, as Bartlett sourly surmised, “that we should dig out quantities of gold or perhaps Montezuma himself.”

Soon after he reached the Rio Grande, Bartlett began to hear of official discontent in Washington. He was being castigated in Congress as a wastrel of public funds, as inefficient, incompetent, and unable to coordinate the project’s men and interests. Democratic senators feared that the Bartlett-García Conde line would set back the cause of a transcontinental railroad indefinitely; southern politicians said it would forever preclude a link between the South and California. Soon Congress flatly renounced the line, and demanded the establishment of a boundary no farther north than El Paso. The commissioner decided to return to Washington to defend himself, but with the inauguration the following March of Democrat Franklin Pierce, Bartlett, a Whig appointee, found himself out of a federal job.

Bartlett decided to edit his journal of his boundary years, and it was published in 1854 as the two-volume Personal Narrative . A commercial venture—he surely could not hope for government publication—the Narrative had a tight budget, and none of the water colors Bartlett had commissioned appeared in it. Nonetheless, it contained ninety-four woodcuts and sixteen lithographs (some Bartlett’s, some the work of artists he hired) and was written in clear, vivid prose that was evocative yet uncluttered by Victorian rhetoric.

When the Gadsden Purchase was ratified in June of 1854, the dispute over the Bartlett-García Conde line became a dead letter, for the area that the former commissioner had supposedly compromised was well above the southern boundary of Mr. Gadsden’s acquisition. With the line settled and the political questions removed, the survey work went forward rapidly—under William Emory.

Bartlett thus received little recognition for his years on the boundary, but through his own art and that which he commissioned, he can safely be placed among the best interpreters of the Southwest. Though once the province of a relatively few scholars, Bartlett’s work is beginning to receive the wider attention it deserves, as a visual record fascinating in at least three dimensions—art, science, and history.

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