Frederick S. Dellenbaugh

Frederick S. Dellenbaugh established his artistic reputation in Nevada with one painting. "Las Vegas Ranch," executed in 1876, was painted as the artist was resting on his way to a mining camp in Southern California. It has the distinction of being the first known painting of the Las Vegas Valley. Dellenbaugh studied art in New York, Munich, and Paris. However, it is his career as a topographer and writer that is highly regarded to this day.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
David Millman
In the spring of 1871, seventeen-year-old Frederick Dellenbaugh began the great adventure of his life. He joined Major John Wesley Powell and a crew of scientists on Powell's second exploration trip down the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon. These were the last great stretches of land and river still unknown in the continental United States. Powell and his men spent many years mapping the Grand Canyon country, noting its geologic features, and observing its Indian inhabitants; their work paved the way for twentieth-century America to expand into the Southwest.
Dellenbaugh's youth was not his only source of inexperience. The son of an Ohio doctor, he had never been in undeveloped country and possessed no survival skills. Though he lacked formal training, he signed on as artist and boatman, and also assisted with the topographic mapping. Dellenbaugh did bring something to the expedition; he had a natural artistic talent, and he was hardy and eager to work. He was also able to climb and sketch from places where a photographer's bulky equipment was impractical. [1] Dellenbaugh's sketches formed an important part of the mission's record.
The expedition was beset by troubles. Danger from the rapids, lack of funds for proper equipment, boredom, and homesickness plagued the men. But problems with the expedition did not upset Dellenbaugh; his mind was on his sketches:
The Major is anxious that we should learn all we can. I have now sketched about four hundred miles of river-walls from ten or less to three-hundred feet in height. Sometimes I had to make quick work between rapids for suddenly I would hear the Major shout "oars" and I would have to snatch up my oars and pull through a rapid, then drop them and go to work again. You see, it requires some steadiness of nerve to have steadiness of hand, to make any kind of an outline. [2]
After his return from the Colorado River expedition, Dellenbaugh began to concentrate on his art. His formal art training commenced in New York in 1873, and he later studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich and the Academie Julian in Paris. Today, Dellenbaugh is known more for his writing and exploring than as a great artist, but contemporary art critics occasionally characterized him as gifted. [3]
In 1875 Dellenbaugh and a friend returned to the Southwest to retrace the route of the previous expedition. During this trip, he sketched and painted the geologic features of the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas. Based in Kanab, Utah, Dellenbaugh also indulged his passion for exploration, and an 1876 wagon trip to Ivanpah, a mining camp in Southern California, brought him to the Las Vegas Ranch. While resting there, Dellenbaugh created the first known painting of the Las Vegas Valley.
The Las Vegas Valley held very little interest for the United States or even for Nevadans until the arrival of the railroad in 1905. In the nineteenth century only a handful of settlers occupied the valley; it was simply a place to cross over, usually as quickly as possible. Las Vegas was of interest to explorers like John C. Fremont, traders on the Old Spanish Trail, and Mormons primarily because its springs provided much needed water.
The Las Vegas Ranch occupied the site of the former Las Vegas Mission, which Mormon settlers had founded in 1855 in order to complete an all-weather corridor from Utah to the Pacific. The ranch, established in the mid-1860s by Octavius Decatur Gass and later owned by Helen J. Stewart, was the very heart of Las Vegas for fifty years. Its fields and orchards fed the miners of El Dorado Canyon and Ivanpah. Its kitchens fed hungry and weary travelers and provided the only supplies on the Mormon Road for hundreds of miles. The ranch was the site of the first post office in Las Vegas and was the social and holiday center for the entire valley. On the land that Mrs. Stewart sold to railroad interests grew the modern city of Las Vegas. Today, the ranch site is occupied by convention facilities and the Cashman Field baseball complex. A portion of the structure used during both the Mission and Las Vegas Ranch periods may still be seen at the complex.
After his two Colorado River trips, Dellenbaugh pursued the life of explorer and writer. He traveled in and wrote about Iceland, Norway, Siberia, the West Indies, Alaska, and the American West. A Canyon Voyage (1908) told of the Powell expedition from Dellenbaugh's point of view. Among his many other books, The Romance of the Colorado River (1902) was foremost in creating the association of Dellenbaugh with the Grand Canyon country.
Dellenbaugh made his home in New York City, from which he continued his travels. There, he served as librarian of the American Geographical Society (1909-11) and helped found the Explorers' Club. In the winter of 1935, at the age of eighty-one, Frederick Dellenbaugh died of pneumonia after walking through the snow to a meeting of the Explorers.
The Dellenbaugh painting of the Las Vegas Ranch is not a great work of art. It is, however, a very important work of art. The painting is one of the very few existing items from nineteenth-century life in Southern Nevada. Las Vegas today is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and the values and lessons of its history are often ignored amid the crush of new arrivals and new buildings. Frederick Dellenbaugh was not a Nevadan; he has no roots or connections in Nevada other than this painting. Yet he left to Southern Nevada an unexpected gift–a rare glimpse into its past–a view that is increasingly difficult to find.
1. Martin J. Anderson, "Artist in the Wilderness: Frederick Dellenbaugh's Grand Canyon Adventure," Journal of Arizona History 28 (Spring 1987): 47.
2. Frederick S. Dellenbaugh Papers, Special Collections, University of Arizona Library, Tucson; Frederick S. Dellenbaugh to his parents, 29 August 1871, cited in Anderson, Ibid., 52.
3. Robert C. Euler, "Frederick Dellenbaugh: Grand Canyon Artist," Journal of Arizona History 28 (Spring 1987): 32.

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