Historical Vignette 094 - A noted African-American artist was once employed by the Corps of Engineers

Grafton Tyler Brown, credited with being the first black artist to depict California and the Pacific Northwest, worked for the Corps of Engineers during part of his long and notable career. Brown was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1841. He moved to California in the 1860s and learned the art of lithography at the San Francisco firm of C. C. Kuchel, which he took over after Kuchel’s death. At the age of 26, he established his own firm, G. T. Brown & Co


One of Grafton Tyler Brown’s lithographs. (His company’s name is on the bottom left corner.)
Wells Fargo Mining Co., (transaction date 1877). Lithographed stock certificate, 5.25" H x 9.25" W.
Collection of California African American Foundation.
Courtesy of California African American Museum.
(Image reproduced with permission.)

At San Francisco, and elsewhere in California, Brown produced skillfully illustrated stock certificates for Wells Fargo, Levi Strauss and Co., and several mining companies. He also created bank notes, labels, maps, and bird’s-eye views of urban areas. His most significant lithographic production was The Illustrated History of San Mateo County (1878), which featured seventy-two views of the county’s communities and ranches. Brown traveled throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and British Columbia (where he settled in 1882), producing maps and illustrations, including many landscape paintings.

Making a living as a free-lance artist has always been a precarious existence, so Brown was fortunate to secure steady employment as a draftsman at the St. Paul office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the economically depressed 1890s. He began his duties in 1893, with an annual salary of $1,440. Under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel William A. Jones, he prepared maps, charts, and drawings in support of the engineers’ principal duties in that area. These included the improvement of navigation on the Upper Mississippi River, its principal tributaries in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Red River of the North, as well as the construction of reservoirs at the headwaters of the Mississippi. Sometime during his St. Paul years he married Elberta Brown.

Brown’s work with the Corps of Engineers ended in December 1897, after which time he worked in the civil engineering department of the city of St. Paul until 1910. He died on March 3, 1918, in Nicollet County, Minnesota, bringing to a close a rich and varied career as an artist and illustrator of the American West. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is fortunate to have had the benefit of his talents during part of that career.

Brown's "Across the Ferry/Columbia River at Kalama, Washington," 1900.
Oil on artist's board. 31.25" H x 23.25" W.
Collection of Painting Restoration Studio, Portland, Oregon.
Grafton Tyler Brown’s "A Canyon River with Pines and Figures," ca. 1886.
Oil on canvas, 43" H x 63" W.
Collection of Martha Henry, Inc. Fine Art, 70th Art Gallery, and Seth Taffae Fine Art.

(Both images reproduced with permission of California African American Museum.)

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February 2005