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Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection

Identifier: PC-RM-Watkins
The collection consists of 176 albumen mammoth prints (including 2 panoramas – one of San Francisco and one of Yosemite), 137 photographic prints (including 6 cyanotypes), 4 photograph albums, 409 complete stereographs, 10 partial stereographs, and 67 glass stereographs. The collection also includes 101 boudoir cards, 74 cabinet cards, and 33 cartes de visite. The bulk of photographs taken depict the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, and were taken at various points between 1861 and 1881. The collection includes photographs of various mining operations, including Las Mariposas Mining Estate, as well as the New Idria and New Almaden mines. There are also photographs documenting railway building and industry, including images of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, and of the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company. Watkins travelled extensively around the West, documenting Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, as well as various California counties across the state. He also photographed plants and flowers native to California and the Southwest, as well as natural features such as Mount Shasta and the geysers in Sonoma County. There are numerous photos of California missions from throughout the state. There are photographs of the homes of prominent Californians, such as the Thurlow Lodge album (Governor of California Milton Latham’s home), and photographs of the homes of bankers Darius O. Mills and William C. Ralston, among others. The collection also includes images of the Sierra Madre Villa in Pasadena and the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. The cabinet cards and cartes de visite feature portraits of artists, writers, and professors such as Louis Agassiz, Galen Clark, Albert Bierstadt, and William Cullen Bryant. There are also portraits of Japanese businessmen Tomomi Iwakura and Kaikichi M. Hirose. There are photographs of architectural plans, artwork held by local museums, and an album photos of drawings by Virgil Williams. There is a great depth and breadth of images of San Francisco, Watkins’s home for much of his life. These include images of Alcatraz Island and the Farallon Islands, as well as views of the city taken from various vantage points. There are photographs of major intersections and important buildings, like the Palace Hotel and the Bank of California. There are also photographs of local industry, such as the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the San Francisco Woolen Factory, as well as of photos of attractions like Woodward’s Gardens. The collection also includes two photographs of Carleton Watkins taken by other photographers.


  • 1856-1885

Language of Materials

Collection materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access to glass stereographs and "Pacific Coast Views" photograph album is restricted due to rarity and fragility of materials.

Conditions Governing Use

Materials in this collection are in the public domain in the United States. Permission to publish or reproduce is not required.


65.25 Linear Feet (28 flat boxes, 4 legal document boxes, 3 half-legal document boxes, 2 photo boxes, and 4 half-size photo boxes)


Carleton E. Watkins was a 19th century photographer based in San Francisco who made his name documenting the rapid growth of the American West, and whose name is frequently associated with the birth of the photographic medium – particularly with early landscape photography. This collection contains albumen prints taken throughout his career, between the years of 1856 and 1885. The bulk of photographs taken depict the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, and were taken at various points between 1861 and 1881. It includes large-format mammoth plate photographs and smaller photographic prints, as well as more commercial formats such as stereographs, cabinet cards, and boudoir cards. The photographs depict a variety of subjects, from San Francisco to various locations around the Western United States, as well as images of prominent visitors to San Francisco, and photographs of the homes of some of Watkins’s wealthy patrons, among them bankers, railroad magnates, and politicians.

Biographical / Historical

Carleton E. Watkins was a 19th century photographer based in San Francisco who made his name documenting the rapid growth of the American West. His majestic photos of the Yosemite Valley, in Mariposa County, California, are said to have influenced Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 Yosemite Land Grant - the first act of Congress to designate federal land for public use. It is often referred to as “the birth of the national parks system.”

Watkins was the oldest of eight children, born to a carpenter and an innkeeper in Oneonta, New York, on November 11, 1929. He moved west with childhood friend Collis Huntington during the Gold Rush in 1851. He later took a job in San Francisco working next door to daguerreotypist Robert H. Vance, who eventually hired Watkins and taught him the basics of photography. Watkins probably began his photography career next year, in 1855, when he photographed the mines at New Idrea and New Almaden, as well as Mission Santa Clara.

Watkins first appeared in the San Francisco directory in 1861, listed as a daguerrean operator at 425 Montgomery Street. It was also the year that he first travelled to Yosemite to photograph it – a difficult undertaking that required nearly two thousand pounds of equipment, including at least a dozen mules, flammable chemicals, a stereoscopic camera, an oversize mammoth-plate camera, and 18 x 22 inch glass plates. On the strength of this work, Watkins was hired by the California State Geological Survey from 1865-1866 to further document the Yosemite region.

These photographs of Yosemite (which exposed many Easterners to previously-unseen parts of the West) made Watkins famous, and in 1867 he opened his lavish Yo Semite Art Gallery in San Francisco. He also travelled to the Pacific Northwest, photographing Oregon, British Columbia, and the Columbia River – the first photographs ever taken of the region. Despite his remarkable success as a photographer and his many wealthy patrons, Watkins was a poor businessman and, following the financial panic of 1873, lost his gallery, as well as his photographic negatives, to J.J. Cook, Isaiah W. Taber, and Thomas H. Boyd. Taber then began issuing prints of Watkins images with his name attached and without credit to Watkins. Watkins’s “New Series” of photographs were created to replace some of the images he lost.

In 1876, Watkins travelled to Virginia City, Nevada to visit the Comstock Lode, and it is here that he is rumored to have met his future wife, Frances Sneed, who first became his assistant. In 1879, on his 50th birthday, Watkins married Sneed, who was 22 at the time. They had two children, named Julia and Collis.

In 1894, Watkins began to experience health problems, and was unable complete a photographic commission. He also began to experience vision loss, and by 1903 was almost completely blind. In 1906, while in the process of negotiating the sale and transfer of his photographic archive (including his mammoth glass plate negatives) to Stanford University, the 1906 earthquake, and subsequent fire, struck. Watkins’s studio was lost. When his poor health made it difficult for his family to care for him, he was placed in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Of Watkins’s death, on June 23, 1916, Peter Palmquist writes: “He is thought to have been buried in the hospital graveyard, but no tombstone marks his grave.”

Information taken from:

Naef, Weston and Christine Hult-Lewis. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs. Getty Publications, 2011.

Palmquist, Peter E. Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West. University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Whitney, JD. “A Watkins Chronology.” California History. Vol. 57 No. 3, Fall (1978): 264.

The Photographs of Carleton Watkins. Accessed November 23, 2018.

“Carleton Watkins.” The J. Paul Getty Museum. Accessed November 23, 2018.


The collection is arranged by format into eight series and, from there, are organized into subseries according to subject (usually location). Materials in each subseries are arranged chronologically. Because Watkins photographed Yosemite at multiple times, on different trips, these photographs are organized according to the “CEW” (for Carleton E. Watkins) negative numbers assigned by Weston Naef and Christine Lewis in their book Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Getty Publications, 2011), and were given titles that match those in the book. These CEW numbers are based on numbers that Watkins assigned to nearly all of his negatives, and which were published as a list by Isaiah Taber around 1883. Many of the thematic groupings from the book have also been used to organize the collection. Titles and dates have been taken from the backs of photographs when available. When they were not, they were supplied by the archivist.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Collection is comprised of multiple donations from various donors. Please see collection files for more information.
Finding aid to the Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection
The collection was processed by Erin Hurley in 2018. Wendy Welker previously processed the Yosemite mammoth prints and cabinet cards in 2015, and her finding aids were incorporated into this one.
November 2018
Description rules
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the California Historical Society Repository

678 Mission Street
San Francisco CA 94105