John russell bartlett (1805–1886)

EARLY CAREER.  John Russell Bartlett is remembered primarily for his role in the U.S. and Mexican Boundary Survey but also for his later career that included seventeen years as the Secretary of State of Rhode Island and authorship of numerous publications. He was born in Providence in 1805 and raised in Ontario, Canada, until he was 18. In spite of a humble education, he became a skilled draftsman and artist and acquired a love of learning. He returned to Providence in 1824, where he worked as a clerk in his family’s business and also held positions as a bookkeeper and teller for several banks.

His move to NYC in 1836 established his reputation in the book world. Bartlett and Welford books dealt in imported literary and scientific books and became a gathering place in the city for a wide variety of professionals. He had a decided bent toward scholarship, belonging to a number of societies devoted to the advancement of knowledge, including the Franklin Society, the American Geographical Society, and several historical societies, and he was co-founder of the Providence Athenaeum and served as its librarian and cataloger. He also helped found the American Ethnological Society and wrote The Progress of Ethnology in 1847 and the popular Dictionary of Americanisms the following year.

APPOINTMENT TO THE U.S.-MEXICAN BOUNDARY SURVEY.  Given this background, it is hard to imagine a less likely candidate to lead a surveying party in the unexplored West. Yet because of his political connections, Bartlett was appointed in 1850 by President Zachary Taylor as Commissioner for the U.S. and Mexican Boundary Survey. While it is true that he had a great intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure, he had no knowledge of the American Southwest, no topographical experience, and no experience in traveling under the harsh conditions to be expected in the desert—not to mention his lack of experience in managing such an enormous expedition.

Bartlett’s time with the Boundary Commission was plagued with troubles, many of his own creation. There had been three previous commissioners named to head the survey, which began in earnest in 1849, and the boundary line had been completed from the Pacific Ocean to the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers. In late 1850, Bartlett arrived in El Paso del Norte and soon found himself at an impasse over the location of the southern boundary of New Mexico. Bartlett made a formal compromise with his Mexican counterpart, but it was not widely accepted by his own survey party and led to persistent bickering and animosity among the expedition's members.

To make matters worse, Bartlett made frequent exploratory excursions on his own that were unrelated to the official survey and certainly were not in the interest of a timely and efficient survey. Even so, he made hundreds of valuable sketches during his wide-ranging travels that extended into the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. It is interesting to note that Bartlett's mode of transportation for both his official and unofficial travels was a mule-drawn coach complete with a collapsible bed and curtains.

Accompanying Bartlett was the artist Henry Cheever Pratt, whose skills were of a considerably higher caliber than those of other members of the expedition. Pratt grew up on a New Hampshire farm until his drawing talents were discovered by the famous American painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who took the budding artist under his tutelage in his studio in Charleston. Pratt was hired to join the survey expedition in 1851 and accompanied Bartlett on his various sight-seeing tours.

In 1853, after three years and with the boundary dispute still unresolved, President Pierce relieved Bartlett of his commission; he was replaced in 1854 by Major William H. Emory, whose experience and abilities greatly overshadowed Bartlett's. The boundary impasse was finally settled when the 1853 Gadsden Purchase acquired the disputed land from Mexico, and the boundary survey was quickly completed by Emory and his surveyors.

ARTISTIC LEGACY.  Neither Bartlett’s nor Pratt’s wonderful drawings from their travels were included in the government's final boundary survey report, but in 1854 Bartlett published his own two-volume account of his adventures with his pencil sketches fleshed out in ink wash. Pratt refined many of his and Bartlett’s sketches in oil paintings, such as the striking painting of saguaro fruits based on a Bartlett sketch (bottom right). Many of the works are the first artistic depictions of these areas. Bartlett’s Personal narrative of incidents & explorations in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua became an important and entertaining source of information about the area for emigrants to the West.

Bartlett lived in Providence from 1854 until the end of his life. From 1855 to 1872, he was Secretary of State of Rhode Island, served as the official librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, and published several historical and bibliographical works. He may have seriously hindered the progress of the boundary survey, but his time with the expedition created an important legacy of images of the botanical wealth of the new territory.

FURTHER READING.  Personal narrative of explorations & incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, during the years 1850-1853 by John Russell Bartlett can be found at Biodiversity Heritage Library (

To read more about the intrigues and difficulties in resolving Bartlett's border dispute, see History of the United States—Mexican Boundary Survey 1848–1855 by Harold James, a publication of the New Mexico Geological Society.