Way We Were: Sketches of Utah life
Two artists depicted the mysterious West for a New York magazine
Park City Museum researcher
In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant had recently signed legislation designating Yellowstone the first National Park. The Jesse James Gang conducted their first successful train robbery and only 37 states made up the United States of America. In between the 34 eastern states and the three western states of Nevada, California and Oregon was a massive and mysterious frontier for white Americans.
Public curiosity of the wild west had already begun, but the completion of the Transcontinental Railway, at Promontory, Utah, in 1869 allowed access to and through this huge expanse of land.
Harper’s Weekly, A Journal of Civilization (1857-1916), published in New York City, featured news from around the world, plus fiction, essays, humor and illustrations. Readers were fascinated with the mythical West and to satisfy their curiosity and promote western industry and tourism, the Harper brothers selected two French-born American artists, Jules Tavernier and Paul Frenzeny, to observe and illustrate the expanding frontier, its people and the lifestyles.
In 2013, historian Claudine Chalmers published a book entitled “Chronicling the West for Harper’s: Coast to Coast with Frenzeny & Tavernier in 1873-1874” in which she outlines their journey and engravings with extended captions and in-depth narration.
Given the duo’s combined artistic and journalistic skills and their trained eye for observation, Harper’s hoped the artists would make a brilliant team and supply the magazine with images of the West. In July 1873, Tavernier and Frenzeny embarked on what would be a year-long adventure.
Traveling by train, stagecoach and horseback, the artists made their way across the territory visiting settlements, remote mining camps and booming mining towns, expansive ranches, military forts and Native American tribes.
The duo passed through Utah on their way to California and several depictions resulted. In the sketch “Two Bits to See the Pappoose,” the Native Americans depicted are Shoshone and the Union Pacific Hotel in the background indicates it was drawn in Ogden.
Another sketch, “Indians Trading at a Frontier Town,” was also drawn in a railroad town, but the Native Americans are from the Ute tribe. At that time, a large Ute reservation existed east of Ogden on the western edge of the Colorado territory.
While they did not come through Parleys Canyon or the Snyderville Basin, the artists rode the Utah Central, which ran from Ogden into Salt Lake City — from where Tavernier and Frenzeny added several sketches involving various aspects of Mormon life such as quarrying stone for the new temple, gentlemen at the communion table and even a scene of a husband introducing sister wives to a fifth wife. Another sketch titled “Mormondom — A Fresh Supply of Wives — Going Out to the Settlements” was published in Harper’s Weekly on Jan. 30, 1875.
The illustration process was very involved. The artists made sketches of scenes and then, using mirrors, carved those scenes in reverse on blocks of boxwood. The blocks were then sent back to Harper’s where engravers would carve away the extraneous material leaving only the artists lines. Printers would ink the blocks and print the images. Their illustrations and journalistic comments helped Harper’s Weekly readers learn about and have a deeper understanding of life in the western territories.
Chalmers’ book and some of the illustrations are currently on display in Park City Museum’s Tozer Gallery as part of the traveling exhibit “The Great Frontier Odyssey: Sketching the American West,” open through April 4. Chalmers is also hosting a virtual Museum lecture on Wednesday, March 25, from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Register for the talk here.
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