Surviving images and artistic renditions of Oregon-California Trail scenes are rare. A collection of previously unknown views by Arkansas artist William Minor Quesenbury recently surfaced. The “Omaha World-Herald Quesenbury Sketchbook” contains over five dozen finished drawings and unfinished sketches, many of them showing trail landmarks in Nebraska and Wyoming. They exhibit a skill surpassing the work of virtually all other sketch artists on the trail.
In 1850 Quesenbury left his Arkansas home for California and briefly worked on a California newspaper before joining John Wesley Jones, a daguerreotypist making a return trip overland in 1851. Unfortunately none of Jones’s photographic work has apparently survived; fortunately, the search for his work by an eastern scholar turned up Quesenbury’s sketchbook, which was held by a Jones descendant. The treasure lay essentially forgotten in a family trunk until it surfaced in 1994. Luckily, the Omaha World-Herald Foundation appreciated the sketchbook’s value to Nebraska and purchased it to be conserved, exhibited, and published by the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Most of the sketches cover the 1851 journey. They begin with views of Devil’s Gate, follow the trail east through Wyoming, and end with a distant view of Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Nebraska. The prized page of the sketchbook, however, has two remarkably detailed drawings of Chimney Rock. They show the rock in its pristine state, its column tall and intact. Though little remembered for his western travels, future publication of Quesenbury’s artwork will reveal his skill to a wider audience.