Brian Levine


Antique maps & photographs

Historic Colorado books, documents & artifacts

P.O. Box 3048, Crested Butte, CO 81225-3048 USA

Specialists in Colorado history and the works of:

F. Scott Fitzgerald & Ernest Hemingway

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2024 Mt. Gothic Tomes




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2024 Mt. Gothic Tomes


CAPTAIN JOHN WILLIAMS GUNNISON, Original Ambrotype Photograph


Captain John Williams Gunnison

Explorer, Surveyor, Topographical Engineer

1812 - 1853



Captain John Williams Gunnison was considered one of the last great explorers of the vast American West, and is often placed in the honored ranks of Zebulon Pike, Stephen H. Long, and John Charles Fremont.

Parents: Samuel and Elizabeth Gunnison

Birthplace: Goshen, Sullivan County, New Hampshire

Date: November 11, 1812.

As soon as he was able to pick up a pail, John Williams helped his father work the family farm near the Sunapee Mountains.  Age eighteen (1831), he was sent 30 miles away to attend Hopkinton Academy.  Two years later, in 1833, he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Gunnison's record at West Point was impressive.  He was noted as being energetic, an outstanding student, dutiful, dedicated to his work, appreciated by teachers and students alike, and a natural leader -- all significant qualities that would interact and define his later life.  He graduated from West Point in June 1837 second in a class of fifty.


July 1837: Gunnison received his first commission, that of Second Lieutenant; and soon thereafter, was stationed at Point Comfort, Virginia.

November 1837: Gunnison was ordered to active duty in Florida as an Ordinance Officer; here, he began his career as an explorer and surveyor, journeying over uncharted lakes and rivers, looking for waterways suitable for transporting the U.S. Military.

February 1838: Gunnison was transferred to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

August 15, 1841: Lieutenant John Williams Gunnison married Martha A. Delony of St. Mary's, Georgia.

June 1841: Gunnison was assigned to the survey of the boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan.

1842: Gunnison was involved with the survey of Lake Michigan.

1844 - 1845: Gunnison was in Washington, D.C., assisting with the cartography of his previous Michigan surveys.

1845 - 1846: Gunnison became interested in the village of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and purchased property there.

May 9, 1846: Gunnison was promoted to First Lieutenant, Topographical Engineers.

1847 - 1848:  Gunnison and his division prepared to join the war with Mexico, but were not called upon.

April 1849: Gunnison was ordered to St. Louis, Missouri to become a part of an expedition to Ft. Hall in the Rocky Mountains; to survey a new route to the Mormon settlement in the Utah Territory; also, to obtain data on the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.  This expedition was commanded by Captain Howard Stansbury.

Summer 1849: Stansbury Expedition begins, travels from Ft. Leavenworth to Ft. Kearney, then to Ft. Laramie, then to Ft. Bridger, and then Lieutenant Gunnison led part of the explorers to Salt Lake City.  Gunnison explored and surveyed Utah Lake and vicinity.  Severe weather conditions of fall and winter keep Gunnison in Salt Lake City area until August 1850.  While there, Gunnison also studied religious doctrines and practices of Mormon Church.

September 1850: Gunnison returned to Ft. Bridger.

January 1851: Gunnison traveled to Washington, D.C. to assist with the cartography and publication of the journals of the Stansbury Expedition.

1852: Publication of EXPLORATION AND SURVEY OF THE VALLEY OF THE GREAT SALT LAKE OF UTAH, Including A Reconnoissance of New Route Through the Rocky Mountains.  By Howard Stansbury, Captain Corps Topographical Engineers, U.S. Army, printed by order of the Senate of the United States.  Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co.

1852: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., of Philadelphia published, THE MORMONS, OR LATTER-DAY SAINTS, IN THE VALLEY OF THE GREAT SALT LAKE: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition, and Prospects, derived from Personal Observation, during a Residence Among Them, by Lieutenant J.W. Gunnison, of the Topographical Engineers.


 "John W. Gunnison, who had been promoted to the rank of Captain on March 23, 1853, was a trained soldier and engineer who had traversed the western country in 1849 - 1850, making a survey of 2,000 miles ... his experience and training made him a desirable leader, and the Secretary of War selected him to head the railroad survey ...." Mumey, Page 32, JOHN WILLIAMS GUNNISON, 1955


Military superiors regarded Gunnison as a "gallant officer, conservative and brilliant, and one who placed the interest of his country above all ambitions.  This background made him well-suited for the great task of exploring the wilderness country of the West ...." Page 34, Mumey.


June 1853: Captain Gunnison, while still in Washington, D.C., specifically requested staff for the Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean -- the proposed "Transcontinental Railroad."


Among the staff were: Lieutenant E.G. Beckwith, 2nd in Command

R.H. Kern, topographer and artist

J.A. Snyder, assistant topographer

Sheppard Homans, astronomer

F. Creutzfeldt, botanist

Dr. James Schiel, surgeon and geologist

Charles Tapin, wagonmaster


Summer 1853: expedition began along the Santa Fe Trail

October 26, 1853: Gunnison and part of his exploratory team were in a camp they had established between the Sevier River and Sevier Lake when they were massacred by Pahvant Indians.  Captain Gunnison, R.H. Kern, F. Creutzfeldt, William Potter, and privates Caulfield, Liptrott, Merhkeens, and John Bellows were all among those killed.

1855:  Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, Volume II, by Gunnison, Captain J. W. And Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith, F.W. Lander, Captain John Pope, Lieutenant John G. Parke, Colonel W.H. Emory., Illustrated by R.H.Kern, J.M.Stanley, published by Beverly Tucker, Washington.


The ambrotype -- exhibited at the top of this page -- of Captain John Williams Gunnison is the only one known.

According to a Gunnison News-Champion article, dated April 27, 1903, a half-tone image was made from this ambrotype so the image could be displayed on the newspaper's front page.  The caption under that half-tone image reads: "Fascinating Romance of the Famous United States Army Officer From Whom Our Gunnison Country was Named.  Only Portrait in Existance (sic) ...."  At the time this Gunnison News-Champion article was written, this ambrotype was already distinguished as being the one and only known.  It was in the possession of A.R. Gunnison, a brother of the famous and respected Captain.  A.R. Gunnison, at that time, lived in San Francisco, California.  (Further provenance on this ambrotype will be provided to the purchaser.)


The ambrotype - process was invented by Frederick Scott Archer and Peter Fry in the early 1850s. An ambrotype is a direct positive, made by under-exposing collodion on a glass negative, bleaching it, and then placing a black background - usually black velvet, occasionally varnish - behind it. The ambrotype - process gained popularity because it required less time-exposure; production was less costly and required less time (no printing was required); the perspective of the final product depending on which side the backing material was placed; and, unlike daguerreotypes, ambrotypes could be viewed from any angle.



Photograph: The photograph is a gelatin silver image in a collodion (cellulose nitrate) binder. There is some apparent hand-coloring. The image is on the back of the glass, and a black varnish has been applied over the image side of the glass. In transmitted light this varnish has a warm, dark reddish-brown color, suggesting it may contain asphaltum. The varnish has also been applied over the original paper tapes at the edges, which hold the two pieces of glass (cover glass and ambrotype glass) together. There does not appear to be any additional material or layer between the two pieces of glass.

Case: The ambrotype is in a half-case, the cover component missing. The case is a typical wood construction covered with leather. The leather has a stamped floral design on the back. There is a brass component in the right side which is one half of the case catch. The inside of the case has red velvet components at the edges and a brown paper back, on which is written in pencil "Steele". Other case components include a brass mat with an oval opening and a shallow stamped border in a floral design; and three pieces (top, right and left) of the brass foil preserver.

Dimensions:       Case: 4 " high X 3 " wide X 3/8" deep.

                        Glass package: 4 " high X 2 " wide X just shy of " deep

This ambrotype has been professionally stabilized and conserved.


Please view our other web pages on Gunnison County, Colorado:

Gunnison County, Colorado

Gunnison County, Colorado Page 2

Gunnison County, Colorado Page 3

Gunnison County, Colorado Page 4

Gunnison County, Colorado Page 5

Gunnison County, Colorado Page 6

Gunnison County, Colorado Page 7

Gunnison Ambrotype




Please understand: we are a professional Company offering historic artifacts for sale.  We do not give free advice, issue appraisals, allow photographic duplication without payment, or work with consignment.  If you wish to sell us quality historic artifacts, you must submit precise digital photographs, thorough descriptions, and price you hope to attain.  If any of the aforementioned requirements are not included, your inquiry will be deleted.  Thank you for the respect of our 35 years experience.


"... But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment -- when life was literally a dream...."  F. Scott Fitzgerald, from 'Early Success,' The Crack Up, October 1937

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2024 Mt. Gothic Tomes