A pioneer railroad man, an old mountain man and a prominent Indian chief are featured in images taken 140 years ago in Utah Territory.
In the mid-1970s, in my quest to find original photos of the Old West for my personal research archives, I answered the newspaper ad of a railroad historian in San Jose, California, who was selling off parts of some vintage scrapbooks of pioneer California railroading man A.C. Bassett. The collector didn’t want to sell any of the train photos, but he didn’t care about keeping the dozen or so cartes de visite of people who ranged from Brigham Young and some of the Mormon apostles to San Francisco pioneer Charles Crocker, and three cartes de visite taken in Utah Territory in 1867. What is unique about these last three images is that Bassett had carefully written descriptions alongside each of them, leaving behind a brief history of the men in the photos who had posed proudly for the camera.
The first of the three images was of Bassett standing beside his co-worker George Stewart, in full snow gear, when they were repairing telegraph lines “over Big mountain between Salt Lake and Echo Canyon.” The second was of Shoshone Chief Washakie, wearing a presidential peace medal. The third was of “Uncle Jack Robinson,” one of the first mountain men to trap, trade and settle in what became Utah. As a group, these three photos become a unique time capsule image of the immediate post–Civil War history of Utah Territory.
Almeron Cornelius Bassett was born in Ohio in either 1838 or 1840 and was a bank clerk in Boston in the 1850s. It is unclear when the “go west young man” bug bit him, or when he first became a railroad man. He apparently was the same “A.C. Bassett” who was listed as a member of the state militia in San Jose, Calif., from 1864 to 1866, as the street that fronts the old railroad station there would later be named after him. In early 1870 he was the chief dispatcher for the superintendent of the Western Division of the Central Pacific Railroad, and in late 1870 he was appointed assistant superintendent of the Southern Pacific Railroad line from San Francisco to Gilroy, which is just south of San Jose. From that time on, Bassett would be the right-hand man of the “Big Four”—Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Colis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins—the legendary owners of the Southern Pacific. By 1883 Bassett was superintendent of the Northern Division of the Southern Pacific, and by 1889 he was superintendent of the entire Coast Division of the Southern Pacific.
Chief Washakie was born in 1798 in what is today Montana, to a Flathead chief and his Shoshone wife. Washakie migrated into future Idaho, but ended up settling near Fort Bridger (in present-day southwestern Wyoming). He became the last war chief for the Eastern band of Shoshones, and was chief of the Shoshones for more than 60 years. As a young warrior, he was a guide and scout for the Hudson’s Bay and American Fur Company trappers. Although he was known early on for his fearlessness in battle against other Indian tribes, particularly the Blackfeet and Crows, he always advocated peace with the white man. In the summer of 1866, Washakie was awarded the presidential peace medal by President Andrew Johnson, “in recognition of [his] good service to the whites and good influence over [his] own people,” and he was described by the superintendent of Indian Affairs in Salt Lake City as “by far the noblest-looking Indian I have ever seen.” When Washakie died on February 24, 1900, he was given the military rank of captain by order of President William McKinley, and he received a full military burial.
Uncle Jack Robinson’s real name was John Robertson. Born in North Carolina in 1805, he became a fur trader in 1822 and friend to the likes of Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Joe Meek and John Frémont. Robertson built a log cabin in 1834 on Black’s Fork (where Robertson, Wyo., named in his honor, is now located). Jim Bridger later built his famous post a few miles to the north. In 1836 Uncle Jack built another cabin farther south at Henry Fork and lived there about half the year. That cabin, in what is now Daggett County (just south of the Wyoming border), is on record as being the oldest permanent residence in Utah. Robertson was one of the interpreters for Chief Washakie when the Fort Bridger Peace Treaty was signed in 1863. He died in 1882 and was buried in the U.S. Army post cemetery at Fort Bridger, which had been in Utah Territory in 1867 but became part of newly formed Wyoming Territory in July 1868.
Frequent Wild West contributor Lee A.Silva is a collector and historian working on the second volume of his Wyatt Earp biography
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.