Chapter Ten

“Ho! For California!”[1]

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          Carleton Watkins was reunited with his mentor and employer, Robert Vance, for the first time in nearly a year upon the latter’s return to Valparaíso in May or June of 1850, following travel through northern Chile, Bolivia and Peru.   Having reached the age of twenty on November 11, 1849, Carleton had been entrusted with the operation of the cameras at the 113 calle de la Aduana portrait studio while he was still a teenager (see Chapter Nine), so we believe.  During this period of on-the-job training Carleton mastered the mysteries of the “dark chamber,”[2] possibly with occasional advice from Vance’s next-door neighbor, the daguerreian portraitist, William Helsby [Fig 1], whose origins were in Liverpool, U.K.  While he was in Chile, Carleton had come to be known as “Carlos” and his family continued to refer to him by that nickname into the twentieth century.[3]

After spending nearly a year operating the daguerreotype cameras making portraits for Vance in Valparaíso, we believe Carleton broke the mold and took his camera to locations around Valparaíso to make a few experimental views of the city sometime during the first half of 1850.   Soon after Vance’s return from travels in northern Chile, Bolivia and Peru, we believe Vance, accompanied by Carleton, journeyed to San Francisco with stops along the way.  This chapter presents evidence on the timing and route of the journey.

When employing the inferential method of history as described by Hayden White, connecting the dots between isolated factual benchmarks is required to complete the picture (see Chapter Six).[4]  Regarding the journey from Valparaíso to San Francisco, the factual benchmarks are found in the inventory of daguerreotypes that were created in the Spanish speaking Americas and later catalogued by Vance when they were put on view in New York in October, 1851.  The inventory was published in a small book entitled Catalog of Daguerreotype Panoramic Views in California; a single copy is known to survive in the Rare Book Collection of the New York Public Library (Room 328).[5] 

          No mention is found either on the title page or in Vance’s brief introduction to his Catalogue that, in addition to “Views in California,” also present in the collection were nine daguerreotypes made at four locations in the Spanish speaking Americas.  Nor does the brief introductory text offer any insight as to the background of the nine non-California views.  Lacking as well is any background as to the genesis of what was undoubtedly the most ambitious and important project of its time: using photographs to document aspects of American land, architecture and society.  The legendary three hundred lost pictures were described by Peter Palmquist as “A Daguerreian Holy Grail.”[6]  


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[1]Source of quote is Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, Travels in the United States During 1849 and 1850,  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851, p. 288, where she reports the outcry heard on the streets of Panama City in 1850.

[2] From the phrase in Italian, “camera obscura” (“dark room”) a device used as an aid by artists for drawing first described by Giambattista della Porta in his book  Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic) of 1858.  Photography was associated with “occult philosophy, astrology, and alchemy .”

[3] Watkins’s nephew, E. A. Strong, son of Carleton’s sister, Caroline Watkins Strong, referred to his “Uncle Carlos” in a letter to Mabel R. Gillis, California State Librarian, 14 November 1931, California State Library, Sacramento.   Carleton was identified as “Carlos Emmons Watkins”  on the paper label affixed to the whole plate daguerreotype held by the archives of Mission Santa Clara, now in the possession of Santa Clara University.

[4] Hayden V. White, "The Burden of History," History and Theory, 5 (no. 2, 1966), p. 111.

[5]Call number: *KF 1851,  R. H. Vance, Catalog of Daguerreotype Panoramic Views in California on Exhibition at No. 349 Broadway (Opposite the Carleton House), New York:  Baker, Godwin & Co. Printers, 1851.  Online  reconstructed facsimile by Gary Ewer at

[6]Peter E. Palmquist, “The Sad but True Story of a Daguerreian Holy Grail,” in Drew Heath Johnson & Marcia Eymann, eds., Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush, Iowa City:  University of Iowa Press for the Oakland Museum of California, 1998, pp. 43-73.