The question comes up because I recently ran across Fredric Remington’s painting titled Register Rock, a photo of which is shown below. Remington painted many iconic scenes of the West. They captured a sense of place like few other works of art. Yet, this depiction of Register Rock, described as a “twenty-foot-high boulder” in the book One Hundred Years of Idaho Art, 1850-1950, resembles the actual rock very little.
There are two Register Rocks in Idaho. The one on the Oregon Trail is located near the Snake River and is a part of Massacre Rocks State Park. It has its own interstate exit. The rock is closer to 10 feet high than 20, and it doesn’t look as if it’s aspiring to be a spire, as the one in the painting does. The real rock is a more or less round, featureless boulder, much like a dozen others of its size in the park. It’s also black. The only thing that sets it apart is that someone travelling the Oregon Trail decided to carve their name and a date on its surface, starting a tradition that other travelers followed.
Remington likely sketched the rock and the surrounding scenery and took the sketch back to a studio to paint. It was painted in 1891. The painter was known for his realism, so why doesn’t the rock look like the rock?
Remington may have given it a more dramatic shape for the… drama. Or, maybe this is a painting of the other Register Rock, the one near the Utah border in City of Rocks National Reserve. There pioneers on the California Trail left their names on the rock in axle grease. It looks much more like the rock depicted in the painting, though not decisively so. The coloration is closer.
The names on both rocks have been documented, so it would seem a simple thing to just read a few from the painting and determine which rock Remington was depicting. Au contraire. The writing on the Remington piece is just representative, squiggles that look like names from a distance. Close up, they are still just squiggles.
So which register rock is it, where do we register a complaint?