By Ephriam D. Dickson III, Programs and Education
National Museum of the U.S. Army Project Office
In the spring of 1858, Captain James H. Simpson departed Fort Leavenworth, Kan., mapping the main emigrant road west. He was one of the first Army officers to hire a photographer to capture images for his expedition report. Throughout that summer, his photographer documented prominent landmarks and military forts along the trail all the way to Utah Territory. As the expedition prepared to strike out for southern California in the spring of 1859, Simpson discovered he had run out of the necessary photographic chemicals. With no way to resupply, the officer was forced to seek another approach to document the landscapes.
At Camp Floyd, Utah, Simpson noticed several sketches drawn by Private Henry Sommer. A native of Cassel, Germany, Sommer had attended college as an architect and draftsman. After immigrating to the U.S., he was unable to find a job and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to the 7th Infantry and soon made the three-month journey overland to Utah Territory where he was stationed at what was then the largest army post in United States. En route, Sommer drew a number of sketches for his company commander who later proudly displayed them on the walls of his quarters. The detail and accuracy of Sommer’s drawings caught Simpson’s eye and the officer realized he had the answer to his artistic need. Captain Simpson requested that Private Sommer be allowed to accompany him on his adventure across the desert.
Over the next several months, Sommer traveled with Simpson’s expedition to California, sketching the mountains and valleys they explored. His work included views of the extensive salt flats near the Great Salt Lake as well as the startling blue waters of Lake Tahoe. Sommer returned to Camp Floyd and rejoined his company at the completion of the expedition and his drawings were shipped back to Washington, D.C. His artwork was eventually incorporated into Simpson’s official report published by Congress. Few readers realized the beautiful drawings were from the talented hand of this Soldier turned artist.
In the years to come, Sommer reenlisted in the 2nd Infantry and after rising to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank at the time, he was given a commission as a second lieutenant. Wounded during the Civil War to such an extent that he eventually lost the use of his arm, Sommer remained in the Army until 1866.
Until recently, his artwork has been largely forgotten, but the rediscovery of a set of his unpublished drawings in the private papers of his old company commander has brought new attention to his work.
Once lost to history, the story of Private Sommer reminds us of the many contributions individual Soldiers made to the exploration and eventual settlement of the Old West. Through stories like this, the National Museum of the United States Army will tell the Army’s story through Soldiers’ eyes and illustrate how Army history influenced American history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ephriam Dickson has recently joined the education staff at the National Museum of the U.S. Army. He has over 20 years of professional museum experience, most recently as curator of the Fort Douglas Museum in Salt Lake City.