Earth Notes: The Kern Brothers

Feb 6, 2019

Adventurer artists Richard Kern and Edward Kern left Philadelphia to accompany expeditions to the Southwest in the mid 1800s. What they left behind were some of the earliest, and most important, images of New Mexico and Arizona.


The brothers were with the Fremont, Sitgreaves, and Gunnison surveys—and their artistic renderings were especially valuable documentation because photography was in its infancy and impractical in rough conditions.

The Kerns carried their art supplies in rubberized knapsacks. They nearly died during Captain Fremont’s failed winter crossing of the San Juan Mountains in December 1848. To lighten their loads, they stashed their knapsacks and supplies in a cave. Their third brother, Benjamin, the expedition’s doctor, was killed by Utes while attempting to retrieve their belongings.

The Kerns parted ways with Fremont in Taos and walked on to Santa Fe. There they scrounged paper and ink to make drawings and maps for the Topographical Corps’ survey of New Mexico. They visited Chaco Canyon and El Morro, where they diagramed ruins and the famed Inscription Rock. Soon after, the army commandeered the brothers to accompany an expedition into Navajo lands, reaching deep into Canyon de Chelly.

Their illustrations appeared in official expedition reports, but some of their art was lost. But in 1958 three boxes of their expedition journals, sketchbooks, and paintings were discovered in the basement of a hotel in Pennsylvania once owned by their cousin.

The Kerns’ careful artwork—portraying  buttes, canyons, mountains, and Native Americans—presents  an invaluable record of the beauty of the Southwest and the dignity of the people who lived here.