Mountain of the Holy Cross

Mountain of the Holy Cross

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After the Civil War the United States turned its full attention to exploration of the West. A number of geological survey teams, organized by the Department of the Interior, spent the 1870s traveling throughout the region, charting the landscape and employing photographers and engravers to capture images of the people and the environment. One such photographer was William Henry Jackson, a member of the United States Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories from 1870 to 1878. The photographs that Jackson brought back to the East helped to introduce much of the population to the existence and phenomena of the western landscape, and helped to shape public perception as well as governmental policies surrounding the region.
One of Jackson's most enduring and iconic images is his photograph of the 14,000-foot Mountain of the Holy Cross, located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The mountain was already a legend when Jackson photographed it, because of the snow-filled cross that appeared on its eastern face when weather conditions permitted. His struggle to actually locate and get the photograph—including an arduous trek up a mountainside carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment without the benefit of pack animals, and a night spent exposed to the high altitude air in order to be in the right place when the sun —only added to the status of the mountain after the image was published.
In subsequent years the Holy Cross photograph continued to influence American culture. Jackson won a number of awards for the image; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the picture as inspiration for his poem The Cross of Snow; and many Christians saw the presence of the cross in such a landscape as an invitation to participate in Manifest Destiny and further explore and populate the unknown territories of the West.
This image was donated to the Smithsonian in 1967.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Date made
ca 1870s
date made
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth
Jackson, William Henry
place made
United States: Colorado
Physical Description
paper (print material)
cardboard (mount material)
overall: 40.64 cm x 50.8 cm; 16 in x 20 in
image: 26 cm x 34 cm; 10 1/4 in x 13 3/8 in
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
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Work and Industry: Photographic History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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I believe Edward is correct, this appears to be one of the later retouched versions of the photo. It also has a waterfall "Photo-shopped" into the foreground that isn't there in real life.
"Isn't it useful to know that this image was altered by Jackson in his studio? My understanding is that he arrived to photograph the mountain too late in the spring to discern the cross he had earlier spotted, and so he adjusted his photo by "making " snow appear in one of the arms of the cross. "

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