Thomas Ayers (1816-1858) was an artist of historical significance because it was his drawings from 1855 that were the first renderings of Yosemite Valley. He was born in Woodbridge, New Jersey in 1816. After spending time in the Wisconsin Territories (in what became St Paul, Minnesota) as a draftsman, he headed out to California because of the announcement of the Gold discovery. As most did, he failed as a prospector, but made a name for himself as a landscape artist.
In 1855, James Hutchings, a promoter, had started Hutchings Illustrated California Magazine. As one of his first ventures, Hutchings hired Ayers as an illustrator to accompany his party to Yosemite Valley in June of 1855. During this trip, Ayres created five drawings. These drawings, along with a story of the trip, were published in Hutchings’ magazine. This is the article that Galen Clark read and inspired him to travel to Yosemite in August of that year.
Ayers also published an account of his trip in the Daily Alta California[i].
The following year (1856), Ayers returned to Yosemite and created more drawings. He took those drawings[ii] to New York and put his drawings on exhibit. This got the attention of Harper & Brothers publishers who commissioned him to return to California to do more drawings of the state for publication in Harper’s Weekly. After returning to San Francisco, he sailed down to Southern California to work on more material. On his return trip, the schooner he was on, Laura Bevan, with “10 or 11” aboard, sank in rough waters shortly after leaving San Pedro. Pieces of wreckage were found at Point Dume near Malibu and off Santa Cruz Island along the Southern California
Coast. All aboard perished, including Ayers, along with all the drawings he had with him. The date is said to be April 16, 1858. Reports of the incident say among the passengers, according to one report, was “…T. A. Ayres, an artist of merit….” Ironically, Ayres had cancelled return passage on another schooner because it was deemed unseaworthy. While the schooner, Senator, was recovering floating pieces of the wreckage a week later, the “unseaworthy” ship docked in San Francisco.[iii]
Though his work is not considered of high quality, it is significant in that it was the first to depict Yosemite Valley and that there are only 7 original drawings of Yosemite left, all of which are now owned by the National Park Service.
The five original drawings are:
The entrance to the valley now called Artists Point
El Capitan noted as “Scene of the Valley of the Yo Hemity, California. The Cliff of El Capitan, looking West.
The Domes of the Valley
Cascades of the Rainbow
The High Falls (Of Yosemite Falls)
The two of the valley from 1856 were:
The Falls of Ta-sa-yue, South Fork (Illiouette Falls)
The Falls of Ca-no-pah (now called Vernal Falls)
[i] This was a San Francisco newspaper. It was comparatively new and a combination of two papers that both “bellied up” because most of the employees quit in order to search for Gold in 1849.
[ii] All but two drawings, which he sold to an Admiral James Alden of Boston.
[iii] Thomas A. Ayres: Artist-Argonaut of California Jeanne Van Nostrand. California Historical Society Vol 20 No 3, Sep , 1941