William de la Montagne Cary was born in Rockland, New York on June 30th 1840. He would become an established illustrator for Harper’s and Leslie’s by the time he was 20. In 1860, he and two companions left New York City to start a trip to the West, with no particular destination in mind. They took the riverboat Spread Eagle from St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1861, transferring to the Chippewa at Fort Union in mid-June to see the upper Missouri River. On the way to Fort Benton, the boat caught fire and the entire party returned on a handmade flatboat. The young New Yorkers remained at Fort Union for six weeks, exploring with the neighboring Indians. In August, they joined a wagon train for Fort Benton that was captured by Crow Indians, and then freed because of the presence of an official of the fur company.
In September, the three started from Fort Benton with only a guide and a cook, until by chance, after 300 miles on their own, they met a railway survey team that took them toward Portland, Oregon. Cary left for home, New York City, via San Francisco and the Isthmus, arriving at the outbreak of the Civil War and loaded with sketches of the forts along the upper Missouri just before the forts were abandoned.
Cary then spent the rest of his life painting the West from his sketches and his memory, beginning about 1866 and continuing for at least 30 years. His illustrations appeared in publications such as Leslie’s Weekly, Harper’s Weekly, and Scribner’s. He also illustrated the account of his 1860 trip, written in 1895 by ones of his companions. He made at least one other trip West, in the summer of 1874, when he was invited to accompany the US Government’s survey of the Northern Boundary.