Girardin, Original drawings from North America - 1849-1859 <div align="center">Untitled Document</div>

 

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A trip in the Badlands, by E. de Girardin, 1864


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Girardin : a Frenchman on the Trail of the Far West

Most of what we know about Eugène de Girardin (1828-1888) can be traced through his albums of drawings and watercolours of the landscapes of the American West and portraits of Indian chiefs and warriors dating from 1852 to 1859. The young Frenchman dropped out of school and boarded a boat to America as a cabin boy at the age of twenty. His journey, which followed the opening of the Northwest Passage, was to last 10 years.

Carrying a rifle in one hand and his pencils in the other, Girardin was to participate in several geological expeditions on the North American continent, including the one to trace the future Pacific railroad line. His journeys led him over the Great Plains of the Dakotas, across the Rocky Mountains and the uncharted territories of Oregon and Washington, from Vancouver Island to Salt Lake Valley.

I had gone to seek my fortune...

Eugène de Girardin was born in the west of France (near Angers, Maine-et-Loire) in 1828. He came from a family that had been in the military for generations. He was sent, in 1840, to Vendôme College, a former royal military school, and expelled 6 years later. Banished from the house by his father, a former royal officer, and game for adventure, Girardin hired himself out as a cabin boy, landing on U.S. soil around 1848, the year gold was discovered in California (on January 24th on Sutter's ranch).

In Saint Louis, Girardin met up by chance with Dr. John Evans, an American geologist, and joined up with him as draughtsman. The group set out twice from Fort Pierre Chouteau on the Missouri, first heading for the Badlands of South Dakota to gather fossils, then to Fort Union in North Dakota. Girardin's written account of these travels, subsequently published in a French travel review (Le Tour du Monde, 1864) is rich in anecdotes and shows the author's keen sense of observation. He travelled up the wild and rough Missouri by steamboat, then across Sioux and Crow Indian territory, through a land as hostile as it was beautiful.

Over the next 10 years, Girardin was to crisscross the Northwest from east to west, and north to south, from Saint-Louis to Oregon City and the Columbia basin and from Vancouver Island in Canada to Salt Lake Valley in Utah, covering thousands of miles. Riding across mountain ranges, fleeing Indians, bears and wolves, suffering from heat, mosquitoes, snakes, then cold and hunger, Girardin recorded the startling images of a yet unfinished new nation.

The Pacific Railroad and the Northwest Survey

One can assume that the geologist who retained Girardin in 1850 at Saint-Louis was Dr. John Evans (1812-1861), one of the first scientific explorers of the northwest part of the United States who was to spend several years studying the topology and geology of the Oregon and Washington territories. After several exploratory journeys in the Missouri basin, Evans was appointed in 1851 to the Institute of Geological Research in Oregon by the Department of the Interior. In 1853, he was named chief geologist of the survey for a northern route by Isaac I. Stevens, governor of the new Washington territory.

In April 1852, two years after his trip to the Great Plains, Girardin sketched Mount Adams in Oregon. Although we aren't certain how Girardin actually got there, we do know that John Evans had crossed the Rockies the summer before. We also know that the two men remained linked until 1856, as testified by several drawings done in the Grand Ronde Reservation (Bushnell Collection, National Archives of Canada).

According to the records, Girardin was designated as Evans' assistant by Governor Stevens in his Narrative Report of Exploration for a Route for a Pacific Railroad between the Forty-Seventh and Forty-Ninth Parallels of North Latitude, Saint-Paul to Puget Sound, published in 1855.

At the conclusion of the Railroad survey, Evans remained in the Pacific Northwest to continue the Geological survey of the Oregon and Washington Territories. Evans was preparing his Geological Survey of Oregon and Washington Territories. The Evans Report did find its way to the government printing office but for some unknown reason was never published. When the new governor of Washington took up his position after the Civil War, he could find no geological chart of his territory.The next few years of the geologist's life seem to have been spent in Washington D.C. and Panama.

The 277 page manuscript that Evans worked so hard to produce, accompanied by 105 illustrations, a number of which can reasonably be attributed to Girardin, has been lost to history.

The next few years of the geologist's life were spent in Panama and in Washington D.C.

Eugène de Girardin did not remain in the United States. He left the country for France about 1860-63, taking along with him his albums and texts.

According to a genealogical record of Maine-et-Loire, Girardin died at the age of 59 (1888) and is listed as "settler in Panama".

Girardin's life remains, in part, a mystery - all except for the extraordinary ten years he spent over a century and a half ago recording the changing face of America.

 

François de Gourcez

 

 

Translation by Sandra Freland & Geoffrey Taylor

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