Henry Sommer, Simpson Expedition, 1859.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Army Soldiers played a crucial role in defining and defending the expanding boundaries of the American frontier. The output of Army painters, draftsmen and photographers was essential in communicating the drama and beauty of the West to a curious public on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.

Private Henry Sommer was a native of Cassel, Germany, where he studied drafting and architecture in college. After immigrating to the United States he was unable to find work and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to the 7th Infantry and soon journeyed three months overland to Utah Territory where he was stationed at Camp Floyd, then the largest Army post in the nation. Sommer drew a number of sketches for his company commander during the trip, which the officer displayed in his quarters.

A portrait of Captain James Simpson.

The detail and accuracy of Sommer’s work caught the attention of Captain James Simpson, Corps of Topographical Engineers, who had arrived at Camp Floyd after mapping the main emigrant road west from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In the spring of 1859, Simpson was preparing for the second leg of his trip, to southern California, when the expedition photographer discovered he had exhausted his supply of photographic chemicals. With no way to resupply, Simpson was forced to seek another approach to document the western landscape. Private Sommer was enlisted to accompany the officer and his team on their adventure across the desert.

Henry Sommer, Cascade Falls.

Over the next several months, Sommer sketched the numerous peaks and valleys that marked the far west of the United States. His work included interpretations of the vast salt flats near the Great Salt Lake as well as the chill blue waters of Lake Tahoe. When the Simpson expedition was complete, Sommer returned to his company at Camp Floyd and his drawings were shipped back to Washington, D.C., where they were incorporated into the official expedition report published by Congress. Few readers realized the beautiful drawings were from the talented hand of this Soldier turned artist.

In the years that followed, the artist Private would climb the ranks to Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank at the time. He soon received a commission to Second Lieutenant. Civil War wounds resulted in the loss of use of his arm, and Sommer retired from active duty in 1866. The artwork of Henry Sommer and fellow Army artists helped document the exploration and eventual settlement of the Old West, and illuminate the link between Army history and American history.

Henry Sommer, Lake Bigler from the East.