In this painting, Jackson once again uses his talents to tell a story. In addition to depicting Sweetwater Station near Split Rock, the various types of transportation and communication available on the western frontier are shown in one painting. It is doubtful that a diverse cavalcade such as this ever crossed paths as shown here, but Jackson opted to use his artistic license to make a point.
Here, no fewer than nine different modes of transportation are depicted. In the background is a small parry of Plains Indians on horseback. With the horse, the native tribes were able to follow the buffalo herds and hunt at will. Also, by using travois with their horses, the Plains Indians were able to haul larger loads faster and more efficiently.
A little closer to the viewer is an ox-drawn freight wagon of the type Jackson used in 1866. In contrast to this heavy wagon, which is being pulled by five yokes of oxen, out ahead of it is a small, two-wheeled cart drawn by a single mule. Two wheeled carts were commonly used early on the Plains, before the network of road ranches and stage stations were established along the overland routes. While carts could not haul as large a load, they were easier to repair and maintain.
Passing in the opposite direction is another freight wagon. In this case it is being pulled by eight teams of mules. A major difference between the use of oxen and mules lie in how they were handled. The much larger and more powerful oxen were simply yoked together, and the yoke was attached directly to the wagon tongue.
One step closer to the viewer, the two most famous modes of rapid transit on the Plains are seen passing each other. The horse-drawn stagecoach was introduced to the frontier in the late 1850s and carried passengers and mail. Despite the bouncing and dusty seventeen-day ride from Kansas to California that the stagecoaches offered, they were a common sight in the West, until finally replaced by railroads.
The Pony Express rider shown doffing his hat to the stagecoach's passengers has become a mythic figure in American history. Perhaps it is the fact that he rode alone across a wilderness dedicated to delivering mail to America's far flung outposts that has so captured our imagination.
In the foreground are some of the less romantic, but most efficient methods of hauling goods in the form of the pack smile and the pack horse. The pack mule offered the means of hauling a medium-sized load with relative ease, and was most often used by prospectors and single men making their way west during the California Gold Rush. The pack horse could carry a similar-sized load over short distances, and was a method Jackson himself used to transport his camera and glass plate negatives through the Rocky Mountains.