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July 2024
5min read

On a government surveying party in the Pacific Northwest eighty-five years ago, nothing was more valuable than a sense of humor. Topographer Alfred Downing had one that happily showed in his sketches

Alfred Downing, a United States government topographer in the 1870’s and 80’s, was a soldier-artist in the fine tradition of those usually attached to surveying expeditions in the American West in the second half of the nineteenth century. From John Mix Stanley, who in 1853 accompanied the Pacific Railroad surveys, to Thomas Moran and Henry Wood Elliott of the great Hayden surveys of the Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in the 1870’s, artists attached to scientific expeditions produced some of our finest pictorial records of western history.

Downing is a modest but genuine member of this illustrious company. What he lacked in artistic talent he made up for in a quality rare among western artists: a sense of humor. To him, his images of the opening West, of the rigors and hardships of the rugged trails, the misery and squalor of the Indian camps, searing suns and freezing blasts, were all illustrative of the great human comedy.

The U.S. Northern Boundary Survey of 1873-74 gave Downing his first important field experience. Then, as a lieutenant of Army Engineers, he accompanied the U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, in 1877. He went with several exploring parties out of the Department of the Columbia from 1881 to 1883, and in the latter year, under Lieutenant George W. Goethals (who later built the Panama Canal), he surveyed the trail from Colville, Washington Territory, to Fort Hope, British Columbia. For each trip, he sketched at least a partial record.

Downing’s “self-portrait” (1), which shows him sketching the Grand Coulee of the Columbia, is about as serious as any drawing he ever did. Yet even here there seems to be a hint of humor: the artist perches on a boulder, head protected from the sun by a jaunty pith helmet, while his horse, tethered to his arm, stands patiently by.

Surveying parties have to travel, and the sundry forms of transportation never failed to catch Downing’s interest. While on the U.S. Northern Boundary Survey in 1873, he sketched a “stampede of mules” (2) in Dakota Territory. The intractable animals run off in every possible direction, and their recovery by the pursuing surveyors seems to be in considerable doubt. A more peaceful scene, recorded ten years later on the Fort Hope Trail, shows the artist and another member of the party enjoying a cup of coffee beside their campfire (3); but Downing’s caption adds a wry note: “Ready for business at 3.30 a.m.” His sketch of the tiny steamer by means of which they negotiated Lake Chelan, Washington Territory, (4) suggests that at least some men in the group made the most of the limited circumstances: two of them sit at their ease, smoking with all the aplomb of J. P. Morgan on the deck of his famous yacht.

The army mule, long renowned in song and story, was a natural object for repeated attention from a man with Downing’s sense of the comic. Surveying parties might come and go, but the behavior of this exasperating beast remained erratically constant from one expedition to another. Somewhat surprisingly, Downing lived to sketch from memory a moment in 1877 on the scary edge of the Raft River canyon, Idaho Territory (5). His mule stands implacably fixed atop a boulder that itself is precariously balanced, while the topographer, encumbered by his transit, attempts to lure the animal from its pedestal. Five years later, Downing depicted himself clutching ineffectually at a scrub of a pine on a precipitous slope of the Cascade Mountains, while his mule, feet locked in a parallel arrangement that would be the envy of any two Olympic skiers, descends the mountain without ever taking a step (6).

In the long run, however, the mules were dependable, and it would appear that Downing’s one truly narrow escape had nothing to do with them. In the official Report of an Examination of the Upper Columbia River and the Territory in its Vicinity in September and October, 1881 , Lieutenant Thomas W. Symons, the chief engineer of the party, had this to say: “We left Chelan at 7:30, after saying goodbye to our Indian friends, and with a good swift current went gliding rapidly along. … Passing through an occasional ripple, we came soon to some quite strong rapids, caused by a collection of rocks near the left bank. These I have called ‘Downing’s Rapids,’ from my assistant, Mr. Alfred Downing, who, during the previous year while encamped at the Chelan Crossing, got adrift in a small boat and went through this portion of the river at night, and was wrecked in Rock Island Rapids, and barely escaped with his life.” Downing remembered the experience in a series of three sketches (not reproduced here), the last of which shows him dickering with an Indian, after he has made it ashore, to take him to the opposite side of the river. Downing holds out his watch to the Indian, saying: “Watch all same as chick-a-min”—that is, money. The Indian replies: “Wake cum-tux,” roughly translatable as: “Not much good, I think.”

Ordinarily, Downing’s struggles with the elements were less spectacular, consisting largely of an endless fight with the weather. Two sketches (7, 8), for example, indicate the lack of meteorological moderation in northern Dakota: “40° below zero” (winter), and “100° in the shade” (summer). The cloudlike phenomena around the heads of man and mule in the latter picture are mosquitoes.
Sometimes Downing recorded, with his usual ironic touch, the efforts of the surveying parties to bring a few amenities to the rough life of the unsettled West. In a large drawing captioned “Dinner on the Plains” (9) he shows a camp cook crossing from the cook tent to the officers’ mess tent, carrying a platter of meat and a dish of potatoes with the éclat of a waiter at the Ritz. The guest on this occasion was a Lieutenant Alexander of the 7th Cavalry—the regiment which a few years later was to enter the pages of history under General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Though he had a scientist’s eye for accurate detail, Downing was not beyond emphasizing natural features that appealed to him for humorous reasons—an adumbration of his later career as a cartoonist for western magazines and newspapers. Thus the face he represents in “Victoria or Profile Rock, Upper Columbia River, Wash. Territory” (10) perhaps resembles the visage so familiar on British and Canadian coins a bit more than the geological facts actually warrant.

“Sterling on the Skagit (a town in embryo)” (11) makes quite clear what the nucleus of civilization was likely to be amid the lumber camps of the Northwest: a saloon is the only edifice in view. (In this case, however, the town was short-lived: today Sterling exists only as a name on local maps of the area.)

Finally, “Unexpected arrival of Fresh Pork at Vancouver Barracks” (12), in which a parcel of fat pigs eludes soldiers more or less tripping over their taste buds, reveals Downing the cartoonist almost pure and simple. “Fine exercise for the Troops,” he says in a parenthetical caption.

Taken together, Downing’s works give a wide view of the American wilderness of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas in the days of the “second opening” of the West. While they are not great art by any means, they are always faithful to the true atmosphere of the early Northwest, almost always humorous, and never romantic or sentimental. This is nowhere better seen than in Downing’s Indian portraits. The tragic stance of a proud race in the enveloping dusk of the westward movement is not there, but the Indian as a fellow human being, “warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” as the white man, is much in evidence.

Alfred Downing’s sketchbook, containing 144 original sketches and water colors done on four major western expeditions, has only recently come to light. It is now in the collection of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, the gift of Inez M. Downing, the topographer’s granddaughter.

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