- Carleton Eugene Watkins is born in Oneonta, New York, on November 11, the eldest of eight children of carpenter and innkeeper John Watkins and his wife, Julia. As a young man he is an avid hunter and fisherman and active in a local glee club and Presbyterian Church choir.
- Arrives in San Francisco, then proceeds to Sacramento, where he is employed by childhood friend Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900) to deliver supplies to the gold mines.
- Begins photography career by chance, probably in the studio of Robert Vance (1825-1876), by filling in for a photographer who had left his post without warning. By March 1856 newspaper advertisements indicate that Watkins is employed by James May Ford (1827-c. 1877) in San Jose, taking portraits using both the daguerreotype and ambrotype processes. By November the San Jose gallery is taken over by a new owner; Watkins operates as a freelance photographer in the San Jose and San Francisco areas and probably begins outdoor work.
- Experiments with wet-collodion process for making glass-plate negatives; produces salted-paper photographs and continues to be interested in outdoor work.
- Commissioned to document the site of the Guadalupe quicksilver mine for use as courtroom evidence (United States v. Fossat). The finished image is composed of two large salt prints joined to form a panorama of the site. In court testimony on August 27 he states his profession as "photographicist" and says that he personally selected the standpoint for his camera, and that the image(s) represented an "accurate" view. Produces large-format (imperial-size) pictures of San Francisco and undertakes earliest stereoscopic work as well.
- Commissioned to document the Mariposa estate of John C. Frémont (1813-1890); employs both imperial and stereographic formats. The Mariposa images form the largest surviving body of Watkins' work before 1861 (at least fifty-two of the large-size negatives). These images are shown to potential European investors and Napoleon III. Begins association with the California State Geological Survey. Produces stereographs of the Third San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Industrial Exhibition and a series on San Francisco fire departments. Establishes important social contacts in the Black Point home of Frémont's wife, Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902), among them Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), the popular pastor of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco.
- On February 22 photographs crowds of people in San Francisco at a mass meeting in support of the Union; King is keynote orator. Accepts commission to photograph the San Antonio Rancho for the Northern District Court (United States v. D. & V Peralta); gives sworn testimony on May 8 and 10. Arranges to have a local cabinetmaker construct a camera capable of handling negatives as large as 18 by 22 inches (mammoth size) and fits it with a Grubb Aplanatic Landscape lens for wide-angle work. In July travels to Yosemite, where he makes at least thirty mammoth photographs and one hundred stereographs of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Finishes prints on albumenized paper; signs and titles many of these on the mounts.
- William H. Brewer (1828-1910) of the California State Geological Survey views the Yosemite photographs on January 31 and calls them "the finest I have seen." Enthusiastic comments received from King and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would visit the valley nine years later. By December Watkins' giant Yosemite prints are placed on display at the prestigious Goupil's Gallery in New York City. Mariposa mining views are exhibited in London. Watkins photographs members of the California State Geological Survey with the "Carleton Iron" meteorite fragment and records Fourth of July celebrations in San Francisco.
- Uses studio at 649 Clay Street, San Francisco, possibly with photographer George Howard Johnson (born c. 1823). Photographs King's church and makes a panorama of San Francisco from five mammoth-plate negatives. Yosemite photographs are praised in both the North Pacific Review and Atlantic Monthly. Photographs New Almaden quicksilver mine in the spring and Mendocino Coast lumber mills in the fall. Also, at about this time, undertakes a series of views of the Spring Valley Water Works (principal source of San Francisco's water supply) in San Mateo County. Publishes the album Yo-Semite Valley: Photographic Views of the Falls and Valley.
- Watkins' Yosemite photographs play influential role in persuading United States Congress to pass legislation to preserve Yosemite Valley; bill signed by Abraham Lincoln. Actively photographs San Francisco, including new panoramic overviews and documentation of the ironclad vessel Comanche. Notations in Watkins' 1864 Daily Pocket Remembrancer suggest that his gross income for the year was nearly $3,000.
- Yosemite commissioner Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) consults Watkins on the best means for preservation and use of Yosemite as a public trust. Watkins joins the California State Geological Survey in Yosemite; by July he is on his way to the valley with "2000 lbs. of baggage" and enough glass for one hundred mammoth negatives. Photographs Schuyler Colfax (1823-1885) party in Yosemite. Begins ongoing series of images of trees and other botanical specimens for Professor Asa Gray (1810-1888) of Harvard University. Report of Progress 1860-1864 (volume 1 of the Geological Survey of California), by Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1896), is published with woodcut illustrations based on Watkins' 1861 Yosemite images. Mount Watkins, in Yosemite, is named in honor of the photographer. Wins award for "Mountain Views" at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Industrial Exhibition. Relocates gallery to 425 Montgomery Street, referring to it as the "Yo Semite Gallery." Visited by Utah photographer Charles Roscoe Savage (1832-1909), who is greatly impressed by Watkins' water-bath techniques for handling collodion-plate negatives in Yosemite, "a climate so dry and difficult to work in."
- Extensive reviews of Watkins' Yosemite work are published in the photographic press. Continues his work with the California State Geological Survey, making negatives in four sizes: 18 by 22 inches, 9 1/2 by 13 inches (for albums), 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches (for Whitney's forthcoming Yosemite Book), and stereo (two prints mounted side by side on a 3 1/2 by 7 inch card). Sends six of his new mammoth Yosemite images to Edward L. Wilson (1838-1903), editor of the Philadelphia Photographer. Watkins' 1861 Yosemite images are pirated by D. Appleton & Company, New York, and sold in a reduced size (6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches) under the title Album of the Yosemite Valley, California. Experiences persistent economic problems because his expenses exceed income from sales.
- Despite continuing economic troubles, makes a four-month trip to Oregon and the Columbia River for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company; takes at least sixty mammoth-size negatives as well as a number of stereographs. Returns overland to California, on the way photographing Mounts Lassen and Shasta. Copyrights his photographs for the first time to prevent pirating of his work. Wins bronze medal for landscape photographs at the Paris International Exposition and gains a worldwide reputation through reviews in the foreign press; the landscape painter Albert Bierstadt buys a set of Watkins' Yosemite views. His photographs are praised at a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences.
- Exhibits fifty mammoth views of Oregon at Shanahan's Art Gallery, Portland. Whitney's Yosemite Book is published in an edition of two hundred fifty copies; includes twenty-four photographs by Watkins. Painter William Keith (1839-1911) designs special logo commemorating Watkins' award at the Paris International Exposition, reproduced on the verso of Watkins' stereographs of this period. Mounts major exhibit of Pacific Coast photography at San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Industrial Exhibition; wins top award. Photographs Lime Point project on San Francisco Bay for U.S. Topographic Engineers. Records the wreck of the ship Viscata near San Francisco. Poses for his likeness in cameo, carved by sculptor Pietro Mezzara (1820-1883).
- Moves Yosemite Gallery to 429 Montgomery Street and greatly expands his inventory of landscape views--under the topical heading "Pacific Coast Views"--by photographing geysers, the Farallon Islands, hydraulic mining, and urban development in San Francisco and adjacent towns. Undertakes an ambitious program of stereograph production, including a series on the Central Pacific Railroad for the Illustrated San Francisco News. Obtains the Central Pacific Railroad negatives of Alfred A. Hart (1816-1908) and publishes them as his own. Begins production of Yosemite Gallery albums. Exhibits again at the San Francisco Mechanics' Industrial Exhibition, where his photographs are praised for "clearness, strength, and softness of tone."
- Begins extensive use of an enclosed traveling wagon for field work. Travels to Mount Shasta with geologist Clarence King (1842-1901); ascends to the 14,162-foot summit and photographs Whitney Glacier. Exhibits at the Cleveland Exposition.
- Becomes charter member of the San Francisco Art Association. On borrowed money, opens lavish new Yosemite Art Gallery at 22-26 Montgomery Street; it includes portrait-taking facility, stereo viewers, and wall display space for one hundred twenty-five mammoth photographs. Travels frequently to expand his inventory of images from all points along the Pacific coast. Makes first photographic excursion to the North Bloomfield gravel mines and documents the facilities of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in San Francisco Bay. Wins silver medal for photography at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Industrial Exhibition.
- Invited to join the Bohemian Club. Becomes increasingly involved in San Francisco art circles; photographs the estates of many of the city's wealthiest families. Revisits Yosemite and establishes a separate exhibit and sales outlet for his photographs at the Woodward Gardens in San Francisco.
- Travels with Keith along the Central Pacific Railroad as far as Salt Lake City, then on to Weber Canyon and Echo Canyon on the Union Pacific line. For the first time, employs two special railroad flatcars to carry his photographic wagon, horses, etc., to distant sites. Accepts a commission to photograph the Carson & Tahoe Fluming Company's operations in Nevada, east of Lake Tahoe. Begins series of images for the California Horticulturalist and Floral Magazine. Publishes the Modoc War negatives of Louis Heller (1839-1928). Receives Medal of Progress award at the Vienna Exposition. Travels to New York to learn the Albertype process from Edward Bierstadt (1824-1906); uses the new process to reproduce two sketches by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). Photographs paintings by Keith and Virgil Williams (1830-1886) for record and portfolio uses. Landscape painter Thomas Hill (1829-1908) uses Watkins' photographs as a source of inspiration for his paintings.
- Local business depression hampers gallery sales; price of stereographs drops precipitately throughout the industry due to mass production by eastern publishers. Undertakes commission to photograph the Milton Latham estate at Thurlow Lodge, south of San Francisco; produces some seventy-three large negatives, and sixty-three of the finished mammoth prints are mounted in two presentation albums imprinted Views of Thurlow Lodge, Mollie Latham, Photographs by Watkins (now in the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal). Watkins' printer breaks eight mammoth-plate negatives from the 1873 Utah trip.
- Begins extensive series on Nevada's Comstock mining region--in at least two trips--including images inside the stamping mills. Returns to Yosemite. Joins Photographic Art Society of the Pacific Coast. Continuing economic slump leads to loss of the Yosemite Art Gallery and most "Old Series" negatives to businessman John Jay Cook (1837-1904), who had lent money to Watkins. Cook becomes owner of the gallery in association with photographer Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912).
- Although embittered by the loss of his Yosemite Art Gallery, Watkins begins to replace his lost negatives by revisiting his favorite locations; calls these images his "New Series of Pacific Coast Views." Continues Comstock series, including panoramas of Virginia City, Nevada. Photographs Centennial celebrations in San Francisco. Exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and also wins award at the Chilean Exposition. Travels by rail (again using his special two-car arrangement) to Southern California, where he begins a series on mission architecture and documents the elaborate Tehachapi Loop and other features of the Southern Pacific Railroad for Collis Huntington.
- Spends most of the summer in Yosemite; makes forced-perspective images in smaller formats with wide-angle lens. New work, displaying a renewed and deeply personal involvement with the landscape, appears to be a catharsis. Becomes romantically involved with Frances ("Frankie") Sneade (1856-1945), a studio assistant.
- Opens a new gallery at 427 Montgomery Street with William H. Lawrence as financial partner. Marries the twenty-two-year-old Sneade on his fiftieth birthday.
- Embarks on major journey southward along the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad and makes numerous photographs of Southern California agriculture, fledgling oil industry, etc. Travels as far as Tombstone, Arizona, where he photographs mining and railroad development, as well as the prehistoric Casa Grande ruins. Returns to San Francisco by traveling wagon as he completes his mission series and makes views all along the Southern California coast from San Diego northward.
- In January photographs Kern County agricultural estates for court case Charles Lux v. James B. Haggin; testifies on 31 July 1882. Daughter, Julia, born April 18. Visits Yosemite (probably for the last time) and completes a series showing the work of the Yolo Base Line project for Davidson and the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey.
- In the fall travels north by rail to Portland, Oregon, the Washington Territory, and Victoria, British Columbia, where he photographs Port Blakely and the Puget Sound area and makes overviews of Victoria and surrounding sites.
- Travels to Oregon to photograph the Cascade Locks on the Columbia River. Son, Collis, born October 4.
- Bentley's Handbook and Ben Truman's Illustrated Guide are published with photographic illustrations by Watkins. Returns to Oregon, then travels eastward into Idaho and Montana, where he also photographs Yellowstone. Commences use of eight-by-ten-inch dry-plate negatives for field work.
- Begins advertising his line of landscape photographs "from Mexico to Alaska" in Overland Monthly and similar popular journals. Exhibits at the New Orleans Exposition.
- Undertakes and completes massive series on Kern County agriculture, producing an estimated one thousand negatives.
- Photographs Montana copper mines in Butte and Anaconda, using electric light and flashpowder underground. Eyesight failing and health weakening; suffers from vertigo. Details hardships in a series of letters to his wife. Photographs St. Ignatius College, San Francisco.
- Photographs Golden Gate and Golden Feather Mines, Butte County, California, in mammoth-size wet plates--the last commercial enterprise completed. Relocates studio to 425 Montgomery Street.
- Suffers greatly from arthritis and diminished eyesight; also experiences increasingly desperate economic privation.
- Obtains commission from Phoebe Hearst (1842-1919) to photograph her Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, near Livermore, California. After spending nearly a year on site, he is unable to complete the project. Relocates studio to 417 Montgomery Street.
- Unable to pay rent, Watkins lives with his family in an abandoned railroad car for eighteen months. As an act of kindness for past favors, Huntington deeds Capay Ranch in Yolo County to Watkins. Rents photographic rooms at 1249 Market Street.
- Almost totally blind, Watkins is assisted in his photographic printing by his son and Charles Beebe Turrill (1854-1927), a photographer and amateur historian.
- Desperately poor, Watkins accepts financial support from Turrill. Exhibits at the Lewis and Clark Exposition on behalf of the state of California but fails to receive financial compensation for his photographs.
- California State Library purchases examples of Watkins' historic photographs at Turrill's encouragement.
- Loses everything in the April 18 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Retires to Capay Ranch.
- Watkins is declared incompetent and placed in the custody of his daughter.
- Committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. His wife begins to refer to herself as a "widow."
- Dies June 23 and is buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.
Excerpted from the chronology by Peter E. Palmquist published in Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, exhibition catalogue, ©1999 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.