Richard Kern’s Far West Sketches

A Visual History of the 1853 Gunnison Expedition

In 1853 Richard Hovendon Kern was hired as topographer and artist for a government-sponsored reconnaissance led by Captain John Williams Gunnison. Kern sketched landscape panoramas as the group made its way from the eastern border of Kansas Territory toward the Pacific Ocean. When the expedition reached Sevier Lake, Utah, however, it was attacked by a band of Indians. Seven men, including Kern and Gunnison, were killed and Kern’s drawings were stolen. The sketches were soon recovered and eventually carried to Washington, D.C. 

Robert Shlaer came across them many years later at the Newberry Library in Chicago and was inspired to locate the views depicted in the drawings and to photograph them, as nearly as was possible, from the same spot where Kern stood when he sketched them. 

Richard Kern’s Far West Sketches juxtaposes Kern’s drawings with Shlaer's photographs, presenting 389 illustrations in geographic sequence from east to west, as well as a detailed narrative of the expedition. An associated website will include maps, drawings, and photographs so that they can be enlarged, compared, and studied in detail, providing an immersive experience of this important and ill-fated expedition.

Click here to visit the interactive map site

Robert Shlaer worked as a professional daguerreotypist for twenty years. His book Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Frémont’s Last Expedition through the Rockies became a traveling exhibition of the same name and received the Ralph Emerson Twitchell Award from the Historical Society of New Mexico.
Table of Contents:Prelude
Introduction: The “Central Route to the Pacific”
The Great Plains
Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The Rio Grande del Norte
Down the Grand River
In the Company of Indians
Into the Deserts of Utah
Rushing to the Massacre
Scenes Unseen
Postlude: Mount Shasta

Praise and Reviews:“The correct attribution, identification, sequencing, and site location of the original sketches are significant accomplishments in themselves and Shlaer’s photographs are works of fine—even phenomenal—documentary art.”
—Ben W. Huseman, cartographic archivist, University of Texas Arlington Special Collections

“Shlaer’s work provides historians access to a body of sketches previously unknown. It represents a significant contribution to the history of exploration in the West and highlights one of the expeditions that has not received much attention.”
—Ephriam D. Dickson III, deputy chief, Field Museums Branch, U.S. Army Center of Military History