Plate V, removed from Volume X of Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, published in 1859.

This is an original 161-year old illustration, professionally stabilized and conserved, mounted in archival materials.  As framed, it measures 15” x 11”.  It was donated to ABA so 100% of your purchase supports the organization!

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History of the work

Pressure for a transcontinental railroad grew in the mid-1800s.  This arose from numerous sources including the westward spread of settlers, growing commercial interests in the west, the acquisition of massive new lands after the Mexican-American War, and the California gold rush.  The construction of such a railroad would be one of the most expensive projects ever funded by the United States, and politicians and lobbyists all argued for routes that would benefit their areas.  There was at the time, however, little known about the West on which to base a decision.  Finally, on March 3, 1853 Congress appropriated $150,000 and charged Secretary of War Jefferson Davis “to ascertain the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean”.

The explorations and surveys not only included the geography of possible railroad routes, but also the land’s potential value for agriculture, mining, and forestry, as well as the native inhabitants, plants, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and insects.  Four transcontinental routes were surveyed between 1853 and 1855, as was a route to connect them in California.  The final reports of the surveys were submitted to Congress in twelve volumes from 1855 to 1860.  At the time of publication, these volumes constituted the most comprehensive understanding of western North America.

Ash-colored Fly-catcher lithograph

Ornithologist Adolphus Lewis Heermann was the naturalist on this survey and took responsibility for the section on birds in the report.  He shot birds he found, prepared the skins, and then forwarded them to the Smithsonian Institution, which was cooperating with the surveys.  Spencer Fullerton Baird, at that point Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, oversaw the creation of the engravings by artists working at the Smithsonian.  They produced the illustrations using the specimens provided by the survey’s collectors.

Heermann also wrote brief comments about each bird in the report.  His note on the ash-colored fly-catcher reads:

MYIARCHUS MEXICANUS, Kaup. – Ash-colored Fly-catcher

Abundant. The individuals obtained for the collection were shot near Posa Creek.  Of shy and retiring habits, it prefers the deep shady forests, where its insect food abounds.  The nest, found in the hollow of a tree or in a deserted squirrel or woodpecker’s hole, is composed of grasses lined with feathers.  The eggs, five in number, are cream color, marked and speckled with purplish red dashed and faint neutral tint blotches.

Current Taxonomy

This bird is now known as the ash-throated flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens.