Harmon’s Histories: Pencil sketches impart the beauty of early day Montana

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Photography was in its infancy in the earliest days of Montana Territory, but still we have a good idea of what the first towns and military forts looked like, thanks to artists.

Alfred Edward Mathews was among the best, and besides, he always felt that a good artist could produce “a more accurate and pleasing picture with the pencil or brush” than with a camera. The camera, he said, must focus on a particular point, making “all others more distant, or nearer … more or less indistinct.” 

Another defect of photography, according to Mathews, was that “objects near at hand are magnified, while those farther off are reduced in size (and) shadows are apt to be deepened and lights intensified.”

So naturally, when A. E. Mathews arrived in Montana in 1867, he came with pencils and sketch books, not photographic equipment. (Click here and then click again on the green book cover, to view Mathews’ Montana sketches).

James H. Mills, at that time the editor of the Montana Post (the Territory’s first newspaper), was delighted at Mathews arrival. It will be quite gratifying to all art lovers in our Territory to learn that Mr. A. E. Mathews, the artist who delineated the fine pictures of Colorado now found in nearly every library in that Territory … has arrived in Virginia and is now preparing to make up a sketch book of Montana’s unequaled scenery.

Virginia City by A.E. Mathews

“These sketches are to be lithographed, or published as chromo-lithographs, and bound handsomely about 30 views to a volume, and furnished for the moderate sum of $15. Mr. M. has recommendations from Generals Grant, Sherman and other noted personages, the former granting him the protection of the military, if necessary, in the prosecution of his labors.

“He proposes to make a six or seven week’s stay in the Territory, and will be sketching in a day or two. It should be the aim of all who admire fine pictures to secure a copy of this work.”

Mathews traveled from Virginia City to the Madison and Yellowstone valleys and on to Three Forks, Helena, Fort Benton and the Great Falls of the Missouri.

In the resulting book, titled “Pencil Sketches of Montana,” Mathews said, “A simple sketch will often convey a better idea of a locality than lengthy descriptions, and while several able works have been written, or are in press, descriptive of the country, no correct pictures have yet been published for general sale.”

Helena by A.E. Mathews

All of this made me want to know more about the artist’s back story.

Alfred Edward Mathews was English – about 2 years of age when his family moved from England to America in 1833, settling in Ohio.

As a youngster, he worked as a typesetter at the newspaper which his brother owned, the Ohio Democrat. In his 20s, he traveled extensively as a bookseller and for a brief time was a schoolteacher.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he enlisted in the Union Army, serving in the 31st Ohio Volunteer Infantry and participating in a number of battles. He made a name for himself preparing topographic maps and sketching battle scenes.

In June 1863, the Nashville Daily Union newspaper took note of his work: “Someone yesterday laid on our table five large and handsomely lithographed battle scenes … doubly valuable from the fact they were sketched and published by Mr. A. E. Mathews, a soldier of the 31st Ohio Volunteers, who has portrayed with an artist’s pencil, the perils and deeds of his comrades.”

When he arrived in Montana, Mathews was immediately awestruck, writing, “Nowhere within the bounds of the Union is there an extent of country more full of the elements of future greatness. 

“The climate of Montana is remarkably mild and delightful in summer, but the winters are long and severe, and in the mountains intensely cold, The dryness of the atmosphere, however, and the uniformity of temperature renders the cold less chilly and penetrating than it is in the same latitude farther east. The purity, rarity and dryness of the climate have a magical effect on invalids.”

Of Virginia City he remarked, “Mining towns are apt to be uninteresting in appearance and inconveniently laid out, but Virginia City, the Capital of Montana, seems to be free from these objections” adding, “There is perhaps no other city in the entire western country that contains a pleasanter or more public spirited set of people.”

Mathews described Helena as “the commercial metropolis of Montana,” and unlike many places that originated as mining camps, “its location is pleasanter and more favorable than the location of mining towns are apt to be.”

In addition to individual sketches, Mathews created a number of canvas panoramas, many of which were of Civil War battles, including the capture of Vicksburg. The Montana Post informed its readers in advance of one of Mathews’ visits that the artist “proposes to entertain us with his new Panorama of the Rocky Mountains … which is the successor of his well-known Panorama of the War.” 

Over the years, Mathews traveled extensively across the West, including time in California sketching cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. 

He eventually settled in the mountains of Colorado at a home on the Big Thompson River near present-day Loveland. In the fall of 1874, he died of what was believed to have been appendicitis.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.