Richard H. Kern
April 1, 1986
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Richard H. Kern: Expeditionary Artist in the Far Southwest, 1848-1853.
By David J. Weber. Published for the Amon Carter Museum. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985. List of Maps. List of Illustrations. Notes. Bibliographical Essay. Index. 355 Pages.
Reviewed by Clifford E. Trafzer, Chair and Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University and author of The Kit Carson Campaign (1982).
On 18 December 1851 Richard H. Kern accompanied a small, bedraggled band of explorers into the plaza of old town San Diego. Completing a journey of over 800 miles from Zuni, New Mexico, to San Diego, the survey party of Captains Lorenzo Sitgreaves rested for the first time in months. The men shared a few drinks with the residents of the little adobe town while telling tales of their adventure which had been filled with “much anxiety and constant suspense.” With his brothers, Edward and Benjamin, Kern had set out in 1848 with John C. Fremont to explore a railroad route along the 38th Parallel from Missouri to California. After three years of work, hardship, and deprivation, Richard Kern had finally reached the Pacific Coast. He had joined the Sitgreaves expedition as an artist and cartographer, and he arrived in San Diego a seasoned frontiersman.
The years between 1848 and 1851 had been productive and exciting ones for Richard Kern. By the time he reached San Diego he had traveled hundreds of miles in Old and New Mexico doing what he did best – sketching the people and scenes of the Far Southwest. In March, 1849, James H. Simpson, a lieutenant and member of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, hired Richard and Edward to help prepare maps relating to Simpson’s survey of a wagon road from Fort Smith to Santa Fe. In August Simpson rehired the two artists to accompany him and Colonel John Washington on the famous Navajo Expedition of 1849. Simpson signed on Edward as a topographer and Richard as an artist to draw “portraits of distinguished chiefs, costume, scenery, singular geological formations, petrifactions, ruins, and fac similies of ancient inscriptions.” The Kerns traveled with the party for 41 days, covering nearly 600 miles through remote and dangerous – yet wonderfully enchanting – country.
Richard Kern’s work with Simpson illustrates much of what he accomplished on every expedition he accompanied. Kern sketched such natural set-tings as the Ortiz Mountains, Inscription Rock, and Canyon de Chelly. He made some of the first drawings of Indian pueblos ever seen by the American public, including scenes of Jemez and Zuni. Along the way, Kern made detailed watercolors of Hosta, the Governor of Jemez Pueblo, and his wife, Wharte, “in her best attire, with some of the accessories of their way of life.” Kern drew portraits of Pueblo and Navajo Indians, including the well-known wash drawing of the Navajo Naat’ani, Narbona. The artist made a rare sketch of the inside of a Kiva (a subterranean religious chamber common in Southwestern pueblos) and watercolors of kiva wall paintings, perhaps the first ever reproduced by a non-Indian. He also sketched the Anazasi ruins at Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, pottery shards from ancient pueblo sites, petroglyphs found on sandstone walls, and historic inscriptions found east of Zuni Pueblo.
Whether Kern remained in his rooms in Santa Fe or traveled the dusty trails leading to Chihuahua, Bosque Redondo, or San Diego, the artist graphically illustrated the peoples, places, and things that interested him. In addition, Kern left many fine accounts which tell us a good deal about the subjects he sketched. His descriptions of Utes, Navajos, Pueblcs, Mojaves, Quechans, and other Indians are most enlightening because Kern was well educated and intellectually honest. His written accounts and maps constitute a unique contribution to American history, but his illustrations are even more important. Between 1848, when he set out with Fremont to explore the 38th Parallel for a possible railroad route, and 1853, when he returned to survey the same route with John Gunnison, Kern composed a remarkable number of illustrations, depicting life in the Far Southwest. Kern’s contributions are expertly presented by David Weber in his handsome volume which includes 151 black and white sketches and 16 watercolors. The book is well researched, yet written in a lively style. The University of New Mexico Press and the Amon Carter Museum are to be congratulated for producing this volume which is a solid contribution to Western American history.