California Emigrants 1856


Hammatt Billings.  “California Emigrants.  The Last Day on the Plains.”  From Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion.  Boston: M. Ballou, April 4, 1856.  Wood engraving by John Andrew.  13 3/8 x 20 3/4.  Very good condition.  With article.


An original antique print showing a California emigrant caravan.  The illustrated newspapers of the second part of the 19th century are one of the best sources for lively, informative images of America at the time.  Each issue of these popular periodicals was filled with popular genre scenes, detailed historical prints, sporting scenes, and accurate, contemporary views.  Without television, easy access to photography, and modern printing and transmission techniques, these prints were the only means by which much of the country had access to visual images of the people, events and places in other parts of the country and around the world.  The prints are not only of some historic note, but they provide us with a contemporary window on our own past.

One of the first American illustrated newspapers, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, was founded in 1851 by Frederick Gleason.  The intent of the paper was nicely put by Gleason as “…the object of the paper is to present, in the most elegant and available form, a weekly literary melange of notable events of the day, its columns are devoted to original tales, sketches and poems, by the Best American authors, and the cream of the domestic and foreign news; the whole well spiced with wit and humor.”  In 1854, Maturin Ballou became the managing editor, and in 1855 he purchased the paper, renaming it Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion.

This image was drawn by Hammatt Billings, an important American illustrator who became the primary artist for Gleason’s/Ballou’s.  [The image is often attributed to John Andrew, whose name appears in the lower right corner, but the article accompanying the print specifically says this image was drawn by Billings and only engraved by Andrew.]  It is one of the earliest printed pictures of a California wagon train, showing the emigrants encamped in western Nevada just before ascending the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the last main obstacle on their trip to California.  The leader of the caravan is shown at left, “armed to the teeth” as the article states, and blowing reveille, “to recall stragglers and give notice that the hour for the march has arrived.”  A contemporary and fascinating print of this important part of the nation’s history.