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COLLECTION Identifier: arn00026

Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove photographs by C.E. Watkins

Scope and Contents

The collection is made up of twenty one mammoth plate albumen photographs with separated binding consisting of landscape views in Yosemite and Mariposa Valley, California. They were taken by Carleton E. Watkins probably between 1860-1875, and most likely bound together around 1875.


  • circa 1875


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research by appointment. Researchers must register and provide one form of valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


0.2 linear feet (1 oversize box)

Biographical note

Born in Oneonta, New York, on November 11, 1829, Carleton Eugene Watkins was a photographer of the American West, best known for his photographs of Yosemite, San Francisco, the Pacific Coast, Arizona, and Nevada.

Watkins initially headed west in 1851 after hearing of the California Gold Rush and eventually ended up in San Francisco. In 1854, while working at George Murray’s bookshop, he became acquainted with Robert H. Vance, a gallery owner looking for a temporary replacement photographer. Watkins, with no prior photography experience, took the job and quickly caught on to the medium.

In 1860, Watkins was commissioned to photograph the Mariposa mining estate of Colonel John C. Fremont, to procure future business ventures. An important stepping stone in Watkins's career, the photographs of the 44,000-acre estate, are his largest surviving body of work before 1861. Referring to himself as a "photographist," by 1861 Watkins had become known for his field and landscape photography. In July of that year, Watkins first traveled to Yosemite. It would also be the first time he traveled to the park with his custom-made mammoth plate camera, which held 18 x 22 inch glass plate negatives. During this trip, he would produce thirty mammoth and one hundred stereoscopic negatives. It was these photographs that led President Lincoln to sign the 1864 bill to preserve Yosemite. In 1865, Mount Watkins in Yosemite would be named in his honor.

Watkins became the official photographer for the California State Geological Survey, and just two years later, in 1867, opened his own Yosemite Art Gallery in San Francisco. During this time, Watkins began to take photographs of trees and other botanical specimens. Harvard botanist Asa Gray was one of the experts to identify plants collected as part of the California State Geological Survey.

Watkins lost his studio and his collections of the "Old Series" in 1875 to Isaiah West Taber due to financial trouble. Taber printed Watkins's negatives under his own name. This prompted Watkins to start his "New Series of Pacific Coast Views'' in an attempt to recreate his past work and discover new sites. He continued to photograph until the early 1890s but had to stop due to his rapidly diminishing eyesight and arthritis. Also burdened by financial troubles, Watkins would live his final years in poverty and even lived in an abandoned railcar with his family for 18 months. In 1906, he lost many of his photographs, negatives, and stereo works when his studio burned after a massive earthquake. In 1910 he was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane where he would remain until his death on June 23, 1916. He is buried on the hospital grounds in an unmarked grave.

Friedel MK. 2007. “Guide to the Carleton E. Watkins Photographs 1861-1885.” Northwest Digital Archives. Accessed Jan 2022.

Hathaway B. July 2008. “About Carleton Watkins.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed Jan 2022.

Naef W. 2011. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs. Los Angeles (CA): J. Paul Getty Museum.

National Gallery of Art. n.d. “Carlton Watkins, the Art of Perception.” Retrieved from Accessed Jan 2022.

Nickel DR. 1999. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. San Francisco: H.N. Abrams

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

Historical note

Mammoth Plate Photographs are part of a wet-collodion process, developed out of the ambrotype, that produces large glass plate negatives, usually 18 x 22 inches but could vary from 15 x 18 inches to 22 x 25 inches depending on the camera size. Cameras had to be custom made and often had a wide-angle lens. This process began the idea of oversized photographs before the development of enlargers.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. n.d. “Mammoth Plate Photographs of the North American West.” Retrieved from Accessed January 2022.


Gift of Boston Museum of Fine Arts, March 21, 1925.

Related materials

Other related material at the Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria: Mammoth Albumen Photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, 1861-1885. gra00091. Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University.

Whitney JD. 1868. The Yosemite book: a description of the Yosemite Valley and the adjacent region of the Sierra Nevada and of the big trees of California. New York: J. Bien.

Variant title

Collection formerly referred to as: Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, circa 1875.

Processing Information

Finding aid and additional research updated from catalog record by Ashley Tooke, Febraury 2022.

Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916. Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove photographs by C.E. Watkins, circa 1875: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Arnold Arboretum Library (Cambridge), Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Arnold Arboretum Library (Cambridge), Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Arnold Arboretum Library in Cambridge specializes in the identification and classification of Old World plants with emphasis on Asia. The Archives of the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge) houses unique resources, primarily field notes related to the plant specimens housed in Cambridge.

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