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Many of the figures whose names we summon to flesh out the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition may seem to have lived for no other purpose, when in fact their own stories are varied and interesting. Such a man was Gustavus Sohon (1825-1903). Born in the city of Tilsit, in today's Lithuania, near the Baltic Sea, Sohon emigrated to the U.S. in 1842, at the age of seventeen, and began working as a bookbinder. He was also a talented artist, as well as a gifted linguist. In 1852, having easily learning several Indian languages, he began a five-year enlistment in the U.S. Army as an artist and interpreter on several government-sponsored expeditions, most notably the one led by Isaac Stevens in 1853-1855 to locate potential railroad routes to the Pacific Coast. In 1862 he was called to Washington, D.C. to assist in the completion of the official report of the Stevens survey. After military service he operated a photographic studio in San Francisco for two years (1863-1865), then returned east to carry on a show business in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Sohon's hand-tinted lithographs of Western scenes remained an important basis for popular perceptions of the Far West.
1. Isaac. I. Stevens (1818-1852), Narrative and final reports of explorations and surveys to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi river to the Pacific Ocean....made under the direction of the secretary of war in 1853-5; Volume 12 of the Pacific Railroad Surveys (Washington, D.C.: Beverly Tucker, 1855), Plate 9. About 53,000 copies of this book were published, thus widely disseminating some of the first visual impressions of the Northwest, including the route followed by Lewis and Clark. Howard R. Lamar, ed., The New Encyclopedia of the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 915.
--Joseph Mussulman; 11/03