Sketching Ash Hollow in 1851

How a historian identified one of the earliest known sketches of Ash Hollow.

By David L. Bristow, Editor


Imagine sitting in a darkened theater watching a giant canvas on stage. The canvas is spooled at both ends and advances like a giant scroll. Painted on the canvas are scenes of the Oregon Trail. A narrator describes the great journey that thousands of your fellow citizens are making.

The giant scroll was called the Pantoscope, and it was big hit in Eastern theaters in the 1850s. Designed and promoted by entrepreneur J. Wesley Jones, it was based on sketches and photographs made along the trail by several artists and photographers that Jones hired for the project.

The Pantoscope and most of the original images are lost, except for those of one of the artists, William Quesenbury (CUSH-en-berry). The Omaha World-Herald purchased his sketchbook and donated it to History Nebraska.

David Murphy of History Nebraska co-authored a book about Quesenbury titled Scenery, Curiosities and Stupendous Rocks. He visited places “Cush” had sketched, and was impressed with the artist’s accuracy. Some of the sketches were labeled, but most were not.

The one shown here was not, but its placement in the sketchbook led Murphy to believe it portrayed Ash Hollow, an important stop along the trail and now a state historical park. A drawing made in 1851 would be one of the earliest views of the site, and would show it at the peak of westward migration.

A detail of Quesensbury’s sketch.


To be sure, Murphy studied topographic maps and then visited Ash Hollow. He carried a copy of the sketch to help identify the place where his view matched the lines on the paper. When he found the spot he was looking northeast toward the Platte valley.

One big difference was all the trees that now obscure the 1850s view of the valley. Fire suppression allows them grow thick, and present-day travelers aren’t cutting them down for firewood. Here’s how Jones described the scene for the Pantoscope: “Winding over Precipitious Crags We descend through Ash Hollow, to the north branch of the Platte river in the distance   It take its name from the fine groves of Ash Trees which … have nearly succumbed to the necessities of the traveller, Who here lays in a supply of fuel to boils his coffee, for the next two hundred miles affords not even a schrub Large Enough for a Walking Stick.


Ash Hollow from the air. History Nebraska RG3013-2-8


Posted April 12, 2022. This story first appeared in the July 2021 issue of NEBRASKAland magazine.

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