Drawing the Line

Tucked away in the National Archives of Washington, D.C., lies a watercolor painting of a late afternoon in Eastern Washington's channeled scablands, captured by an artist nearly 150 years ago. In the right foreground, dark shadows leak onto an escarpment of basalt, heightening the oily green color of the stiff sagebrush and spring wildflowers that crawl across the rocks. A breathtaking coulee opens up below, defined by walls of fluted columns that stretch away into the distance and put into perspective by 12 small covered wagons arcing across a bunchgrass rise.

The watercolor was painted sometime in the spring of 1860; an inscription on the back reads "Aspen Camp Looking N. Trail from Palouse R. to Plants' Crossing on the Spokane." Given the span of wild country between the Palouse and the Spokane rivers, such a title might indicate that the artist did not have a clear idea of exactly where he was. Today that coulee remains an out-of-the-way place, tucked beyond Sprague Lake on a family ranch and basically unchanged: the aspen grove and bunchgrass have all hung in there for a century and a half. The artist who captured it was named James Madison Alden, and today he remains, like Aspen Camp, a little off the beaten track of Northwest lore.

Son of a Sailor

Alden was born into a Massachusetts seafaring family in 1834. His father ran a sailmaking business, and his uncle, James Alden Jr., was soon to shine as a rising star in the United States Navy. While James Madison practiced his first drawings at a Boston grammar school, his uncle sailed with the famous U.S. Exploring Expedition under John Wilkes that circumnavigated the globe and sent curious naturalists up the Columbia River all the way to Fort Colville. Uncle James next distinguished himself in the Mexican War of 1846-48, and was rewarded with command of a hybrid steamship and sailing sloop named the Alert, which the Navy soon loaned to the U.S. Coastal Survey in San Francisco.

In early 1853, just after James Madison Alden graduated from high school, his father died of pneumonia. On the very day he passed away, the younger Alden executed a sketch of the house on Hanover Street where the family had lived -- the first known example of his art. It was obvious even in this early effort that the boy had a fine hand.

Within a few weeks of his father's death, young Alden received a letter of condolence from his uncle. In it, Captain Alden suggested that if James Madison enlisted in the Navy, the captain might be able to secure a position for him with the Coastal Survey. Young James signed on, and was dispatched to Washington, D.C., to study scientific rendering at the U.S. Government Printing Office. Young Alden showed enough promise to sit for four months under the accomplished British artist Thomas Cummings in New York City in the fall of 1853. The result was a dramatic improvement in the young man's skills.

James Madison Alden was still a teenager when he arrived in San Francisco in April 1854. While waiting for the Alert to return from an assignment, he dropped by a photography studio to have his portrait taken. The picture shows a rather callow, heavy-lidded youth dressed in fine formal wear — a most unlikely looking explorer of the wild Northwest. But photographs can be deceiving.

When the Alert returned to San Francisco Bay, James Madison went on board to greet his captain uncle and meet William Birch McMurtrie, the Survey's official artist. McMurtrie soon became a friend and mentor. Soon, the Alert was inspected by Isaac Stevens, the second in command of the entire Coastal Survey. Within a year, Stevens would be named first governor of Washington Territory.

On Alert

The artists James Madison Alden and William McMurtrie were aboard the Alert when it steamed north on June 30. Three days later, they crossed the fearsome bar of the Columbia River — the water was as smooth as glass — and began to fulfill their duties. From the beginning, Alden rendered sensitive, accurate and technically solid landscapes of the lower section of the river.

Alden had a way of blending the upper limit of the coastal land with cloud formations in the sky, and affecting subtle transitions between sea and shore. His compositions were highly organized and full of tiny details: rock shelves and tree bark; roof lines and burial effigies; the shifting qualities of water and light reflecting off prisms of endless green trees.

In stories preserved by grandchildren who listened to him many years later, Alden described his introduction to the Pacific Northwest. He recalled seeing the skeleton of the vessel Peacock at the mouth of the Columbia, which his uncle had watched wreck on a sand bar during the Wilkes expedition. He painted views of old Astoria and the declining Hudson's Bay Company post of Fort Vancouver. He had dinner with James Birnie, a corpulent furman who, as a boy Alden's age, kept the 1822-23 post journal at Spokane House and was now retired with his native family far downstream.

Alden described how after the Alert recrossed the Columbia bar and headed north for Fort Victoria and the San Juan Islands, dozens of killer whales followed her course up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, bumping the hull and blowing their spouts off the bow for almost 100 miles. He marveled at the funereal artwork of the coastal tribal cultures. On September 26, 1854, after all this and more had passed before his eyes, James Madison Alden marked his 20th birthday on board.

The Alert spent the winter of 1854-55 in San Francisco Bay, then steamed north again for Puget Sound. For the next three years, Alden served on the Alert and her sister ship Ewing for the Coastal Survey, painting scenes from southern California to Vancouver Island. His ships ducked inside Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, but no exact account of his movements and only a small number of his paintings have survived. It is clear that in the summer of 1857, Alden made another trip to the lower Columbia and traveled upstream as far as the Dalles. Renderings of the Willamette River and Falls, Cascade Portage, Beacon Rock and a delicate triptych of the early Dalles town site all provide glimpses of the lower Columbia during a turbulent period of transitional government and tribal protests.

Cutting a Swath

In that same year, word arrived from Washington, D.C., proclaiming the Northwest Boundary Survey. Both Great Britain and the United States had agreed to send out teams of axmen, surveyors, cartographers and scientists to delineate the 49th parallel, which would then serve as the official marked international boundary between Canada and the U.S. from the Continental Divide to the mouth of the Fraser River. Everyone knew it would be a large, confusing project, full of political pratfalls and nationalist competition, and word had it that the U.S. was looking for an official artist. Alden applied immediately and won a job.

For the first two years of the Boundary Survey, Alden and everyone else spun their wheels, trying to figure out how to locate the 49th parallel in the wilderness that divides the Skagit and Fraser River drainages. He did complete some paintings of Puget Sound and the lower Fraser while traveling on the Alert, and also finished an accomplished likeness of fellow artist William Birch McMurtrie before the latter, incapacitated by rheumatism, retired and returned back east. It is James Madison Alden's only known formal portrait.

When the Alert returned to the mouth of the Fraser in the spring of 1860, Alden found himself surrounded by all manner of chaos — gold strikes up the Fraser had increased the population of Victoria from 300 to 20,000 people in only two short years. Yet within a few weeks, he managed to travel upriver, join a party on horseback and connect with American survey crews on the east side of the Cascades. For the next several months, Alden painted his way around the Inland Northwest, recording sites that ranged from what is now downtown Spokane to Bonners Ferry and from Walla Walla through the channeled scablands to the crest of the Continental Divide in modern Glacier National Park. During this whirlwind summer and fall, the artist's whereabouts were rarely spelled out. Official documents and stray diaries of the Boundary Survey barely mentioned Alden's name, and much of the material from the survey has been lost. But the record of his paintings remains.

Many of the watercolors depict the boundary itself, cleared in 40-foot swathes by the competing U.S. and British crews and marked at intervals by stone or iron monuments. In his depiction of the Moyie River Valley, Alden climbed a hill and positioned himself so that the boundary ran up the left side of his painting parallel to an impressive snag. All the mountains are identifiable, and the close trees are rendered carefully enough to determine their species. In the immense, unbridled distance of the new world, the boundary swath unrolls exactly straight, ordered and on the mark.

Alden painted several of the supply depots positioned along the route, often with a British camp on the north side of a river and U.S. tents on the south side. In "Chelemta Depot From the Right Bank of the Kootenay Looking Up," he rendered a strange variety of both log and canvas structures, tight packs of mules, cleared land bounded by huge trees and a ferry making its way across the Kootenay River. The site of the depot lay very close to a Kootenai winter camp first visited by David Thompson half a century before, near the modern town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

When Alden arrived at the boundary camps in late spring of 1860, supplies from Fort Walla Walla had been delayed and provisions were meager. Members of the American slash crew, who were expected to wield axes and handsaws all day long in steep terrain to cut the treaty-ordered swath, had begun to complain of lethargy, bleeding gums, loose teeth and easily bruised skin — clear symptoms of the dreaded vitamin deficiency scurvy. The doctor in charge must have huddled with some of the native guides, because in June, assistant surveyor and journal keeper G. Clinton Gardner wrote that, "Dr. Hammond the Surgeon of the Escort advises that we send them to the Spokane River where there is a wild onion which grows along its bank which may prove of service."

Alden tagged along on the plant-hunting expedition when he produced the Aspen Camp watercolor. The "wild onions" Dr. Hammond referred to were probably some of the many species of wild lilies that have been utilized by Plateau people for millennia. Those wild onions, the aspen grove and the ancient trail from the Palouse to the Spokane all point to the timeless nature of the scabland coulee, and, at 26, James Alden managed to capture that quality.

Spokane Country

It may have been on his way to or from this root-gathering excursion that Alden painted several scenes along the Spokane and Pend Oreille rivers. One of the watercolors centered on the supply depot at the traditional Sinyakwatin crossing of the Pend Oreille River, behind modern Laclede, Idaho. On a calm day, a dory ferries supplies from the river's south shore. The flag of the American camp is clearly visible, as are distinctive U.S. Army tents. High water consistent with spring runoff surrounds serviceberry, rose and willow bushes along the shoreline, and ripples of strong current snake across the surface. Skeins of ducks quack off in front of the boat, flying downstream. On both the far left and the far right of the picture, what appear to be small native canoes manned by single paddlers poke around in the marshlands, perhaps hunting for food. The boats do not show the traditional sturgeon-nosed shape of the local Kalispel canoes; either Alden has made an ethnographic error, or perhaps he was seeing dugout workboats used at the busy crossing.

This Alden painting of Sinyakwatin is directly comparable to a photograph (among the earliest ever, as cameras were a recent invention) taken at the same time from the same spot by an engineer working for the British Boundary Survey team. The photo, which also includes a tule-mat teepee and sturgeon-nosed Kalispel canoe, confirms the accuracy of Alden's composition. But the painter one-upped the photographer when he ascended a peak called "Lookout Mountain" high above the crossing to paint a panorama of the river's outlet and distant curving form of Lake Pend Oreille.

Like everyone else who traveled in Eastern Washington around that period, Alden crossed the Spokane River on Antoine Plante's commercial ferry. For his painting of this scene, he scaled the basalt cliffs above Plante's house until he was standing very near the courtyard of the current Arbor Crest Winery. From there, the artist could look down on the Coyote Rocks and the landing for Plante's cable ferry. From the east, across a pristine Rathdrum Prairie, a line of Alden's trademark mules plod down the wagon road from Sinyakwatin.

Antoine Plante was in the habit of taking visitors downstream to show off Spokane Falls, and he may have done the same for Alden. The artist's painting of the falls is oddly disorienting, without a building or trail in sight, only a few scattered ponderosa pines along the banks, and the river running hard with spring runoff. At the foot of the torrent a single tribal man stands with a spear, patiently fishing.

At some point, Alden also crossed the Spokane at what is known as Lower Crossing. This is a clearly recognizable site not far upstream from Long Lake Dam and Devil's Gap, where a native trail from the Snake River country to Kettle Falls was overlain by a fur trade route and then the army road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Colville. Alden's painting of the scene depicts a gentle curve in the river, with the familiar flood-carved bluffs and flattened bench above. The rounded bump of Mount Godfrey, dipping to touch the northern edge of the river, dominates the center distance. In the foreground, as in several of his other scenes, Alden fixes a ferry halfway across the water, and details the collection of tents and wooden buildings that have sprouted on either bank. All the open space in the painting is spotted with bunchgrass and fat ponderosa pines — good grazing as far as the eye can see. The wagon road, still visible on some sections of present-day farmland, rolls easily down the hillside; the long climb up Corkscrew Canyon to reach Chemokane Creek and the Colville River remains hidden off to the left.

On Top of the World

After his trip to the Spokane country, Alden returned to the survey camps along 49th parallel. He executed sketches of the Kootenay River from high in the mountains and down in the camps, looking east and west, upstream and downstream. He bent with the river to the east, capturing its course not only through the Purcell Trench on its way to Kootenay Lake, but also through the Rocky Mountain Trench, where the river rushed down from its sources on the west slope of the Continental Divide. Along the way, Alden probably encountered a Kootenai headman who kept both horses and cattle and regularly provided the surveying crews with milk. Like many of his cohorts, Alden may well have traded for berries with Kootenai women.

According to Clinton Garner's journal, in late September Alden, a Mr. Harris and George Gibbs (the party's geologist and assistant naturalist, as well as one of the Northwest's most energetic early travelers) separated from the main crew to cross the Continental Divide because they wanted to have a look at the Saskatchewan River Prairie. At the height of that journey, Alden painted one of his triptychs of the view from the last boundary monument at the very summit of the Divide. The array of mountain peaks remains one of the most spectacular in all of Glacier and Waterton parks. On this journey, Alden also painted watercolors of what he called Kishinena Pass above Kintna Lake, and of the distant Alberta Prairies.

By the time the trio of adventurers returned to the survey party's encampment, the snow had started to fly, and on October 22, 1860, Alden departed for Fort Walla Walla. Along the way, he visited the famous Palouse Falls and Grand Canyon of the Palouse, rendering sketches of both, then quickly embarked on a steamboat bound downstream for Portland. From there he and George Gibbs hopped steamers to San Francisco, Panama and finally New York City.

While Gibbs worked up his naturalist's notes aboard ship, Alden spent his time laying in watercolor tints according to a number code on sketches made over the summer. He also compiled a delightful portfolio of 20 watercolors called "Rocky Mountain Reconnaissance" to present to Gibbs, in memory of their jaunt over Kishinena Pass. For some unknown reason, the gift was never given, and remained in possession of Alden family members until passed to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

In 1862, under the shadow of the Civil War, Alden and Gibbs both went to Washington, D.C., to continue work on the Boundary Survey report. Alden eventually completed 67 watercolors meant to accompany the finished document, which was never published because of the war's disruption. All but one of the watercolors currently reside in the National Archives, but many other papers went missing.

Within the year, Alden resigned from Boundary Commission to serve as secretary for Admiral David Dixon Porter. It was a job Alden held for 28 years while Porter served as everything from Superintendent of the Naval Academy to Chief Admiral of the Navy. In 1892, following the admiral's death, Alden retired to Florida with his second wife on a modest pension. In 1922, he died at the age of 88, spending his final years tending to his fruit trees and, of course, painting.

Spokane author Jack Nisbet's most recent book is Visible Bones. He's currently working on his second book about early explorer and fur trapper David Thompson.

Publication date: 03/03/05