American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

previous objectback to exhibit casenext object

Exploring the Colorado

Black Cañon Looking Above from Camp 8, Colorado River, Arizona
Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882)
Black Cañon Looking Above from
Camp 8, Colorado River, Arizona

Albumen silver print, 1871
Prints & Photographs Division

Cañon de Chelle walls of the Grand Canyon
Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882)
Cañon de Chelle
Walls of the Grand Cañon
about 1200 Feet in Height


Prints & Photographs Division

In 1871 Lt. George Wheeler was put in charge of the United States Geological Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian, the fourth official exploration of the West. Wheeler was tasked with collecting an accurate physical description of parts of eastern Nevada and Arizona, including the topography and mineral resources, information on resident Native Americans, and other facts valuable for settlement and economic exploitation. One of the first assistants he hired was the highly experienced field photographer and surveyor Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882).

Probably born in Ireland, O'Sullivan joined Mathew Brady's Washington, D.C., studio as an apprentice photographer in 1856 or 1857. It was on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, working first for Brady and then Alexander Gardner, that O'Sullivan won his reputation for technical proficiency in the tedious wet collodion photographic process and for artistry in the field.

After having witnessed the cataclysm of his country torn by civil war, O'Sullivan satisfied a lust for adventure by joining government-sponsored missions intended to support America's rush to fulfill its Manifest Destiny. O'Sullivan worked on assignments with geologist Clarence King's survey of the Fortieth Parallel and the Navy's Darien Survey in Panama before being chosen for Wheeler's team.

Hoping to test the limits of practical navigation by measuring the width and velocity of the Colorado River, Wheeler commanded a party of three boats for the month-long journey. The trip up the Colorado to Diamond Creek in the Grand Canyon was two hundred miles against a strong current. Two boats in Wheeler's party--including O'Sullivan's boat, "The Picture"--accomplished the feat of reaching the highest point believed to have yet been navigated at the time, with Wheeler's own boat lost in the effort.

"The Picture" is shown in this photograph with a tiny figure aboard, who mediates between the viewer and the dramatically lit landscape of stilled water and harsh rock walls. The photograph provides proof that the crew survived the long and tortuous journey through the mysterious canyon, while at the same time implying how they must have been humbled by the chilling experience.

The Wheeler Expedition: In the 1870s, Lt. George Wheeler led a U.S. Geological Survey of the West to collect an accurate physical description of the territory west of the 100th meridian. O'Sullivan and a small group traveled 35 miles across a dry, desert plateau before descending into this fertile canyon. Their campsite is visible in the foreground.

previous objectback to exhibit casenext object

Library of Congress
Contact Us ( July 27, 2010 )
Legal | External Link Disclaimer