Mathews' Exit of the Yellowstone

Lithograph from Pencil Sketches of Montana

by Alfred Edward Mathews (1831-1874)

black and white sketch of large river entering the mountains

Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana, Missoula

Published by the author in New York, in 1868.

Alfred E. Mathews, a veteran of the 31st Ohio Volunteers in the Civil War, and famous for his on-the-spot drawings of battle scenes, especially "The Siege of Vicksburg" (1863), was one of the first American artists to focus attention strictly on the scenic highlights of the West, with a book of sketches of the Colorado Rockies (1866), and another of views of mountains along the Union Pacific Railroad (1869). Mathews was deeply moved by the scenery in the region that as recently as 1864 had become known as Montana Territory. He himself wrote of this particular vista:

Nothing can exceed the grandeur of the mountain scenery of the upper Yellowstone. The view represents its exit from these mountains, as seen from a point three miles below, and thirty miles from Bozeman, in the Territory of Montana. At the time the sketch was made (1867) no white inhabitants lived in the valley below the canyon, but several mining camps had been established in the mountains along the river and some of its tributaries. In the foreground of the view two antelopes are seen. These animals are quite numerous in the region, and during two days that the artist remained in the valley, he saw many large and small herds. Elk and mountain sheep also abound, and have frequently been seen in immense droves.

Mathews continued with a description of the river that had appeared in the weekly Montana Post in 1866.

The Yellowstone is one of the most peculiar rivers on the continent, and is 1,600 miles in length. It is this stream and some of its tributaries that give to the missouri its turbid appearance. Their waters, however, are all clear until nearing the Bad Lands—a region destitute of vegetation, and without springs or small streams. This barren waste is thickly strewn with animal and vegetable petrifications and curious stones; and has been little explored. The source of theYellowstone is a clear, deep, beautiful lake, far up among the clouds; that is kept cool by drippings from the eternal glaciers Near this lake the river makes a tremendous leap down a perpendicular wall of rock, forming one of the highest and most magnificent waterfalls in America.

The scene Mathews captured hasn't changed much since Clark and his contingent saw it in July of 1806, but Allenspur Dam, first conceived in 1902 and nearly begun in the 1970s, would have ruined it forever. The elevation of the riverbed at this point is about 4,540 feet above mean sea level; the summit of Canyon Mountain, on the right (west) side of the defile, is at 8,038 feet MSL. The proposed earthfill dam would have towered 380 feet above the river.

Precisely what the Montana Post meant by describing the Yellowstone as "one of the most peculiar rivers on the continent," is hard to guess, but what is truly peculiar is the extent to which its real and imaginary lengths have differed. Compare the figure of 1,600 miles for its overall length, with the United States Geological Survey's calculation at 678.2 miles. Also, compare Clark's estimate of 837 miles for the Lower Yellowstone—from the point where it exits the mountains at the Big Bend (Livingston, Montana) to its mouth—with the actual length of that stretch, which is 498.2 miles, a difference of 338.8 miles. Mathews' distance is long by 58%; Clark's estimate of the lower leg of the Yellowstone is 40% too long.1

What all these figures represent is that as of 1867 much remained to be done to complete the topographic and cartographic work begun by Clark. It continued soon after the Civil War, and Mathews' sketches were important contributions. The upper Yellowstone River was explored by the Folsom-Cook expedition in 18692, and by the Hayden expedition of 1871. Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, and the USGS in 1879.

One of Mathews' prefatory comments to Pencil Sketches of Montana is especially illuminating with regard to the character and quality of early scenic photographs, and thought-provoking in the context of early 21st century graphic values:

The author has frequently been asked why he did not take a Photographic Instrument along, in order to photograph Mountain scenery; for it is generally supposed that a photograph of Mountain scenery is always perfectly accurate. This, however, is far from being the case. In taking a picture, the lens of an instrument must be adjusted to focus on a certain object or objects; and all others more distant, or nearer, will be more or less indistinct. Another disadvantage of an instrument is that objects near at hand are magnified, while those farther off are reduced in size. So apparent is this defect in large photographs of persons that a small picture is now first taken, and afterwards copied and enlarged. Shadows, too, are apt to be deepened and lights intensified. A good artist can, with ordinary care, produce a more accurate and pleasing picture with the pencil or brush.

1. River Mile Index of the Yellowstone River. Water Resources Division, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (September 1976). River measurement today is based on the thalweg, German for "valley way," which is the line defining the lowest points along a river bed. Clark's measurement was based on his estimates of the distance from one landmark to the next, day by day, throughout the course of his journey. Thus Clark's estimates would have been somewhat shorter overall than a modern thalweg measurement.

2. See William Goetzmann and Glyndwr Williams, The Atlas of North American Exploration From the Norse Voyages to the Race to the Pole (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 176-77.