Some have suggested that perhaps Thomas Cole did not know where the Willey Slide actually happened and unwittingly painted the wrong location when he intended to refer to the story of the Willey Slide.
However a treasure trove of Cole sketches with his notations now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts proves different.
Cole's 1828 sketch below clearly shows that he understood the Willey House size and shape and it's relationship to the tall mountains that surrounded it.
Here are some details from the sketches.
The sketches match up quite well with one of the earliest known American photographs by Samuel Bemis.
FMI on this 1841 photograph at the Art Institute of Chicago see here. Note for this blog I have flipped the image horizontally and lightened up the image.
Note the cut and "blasted" tree stumps and the standing dead trees in the photos, the sketches and the Cole painting (click on images to enlarge them).
Here is another view showing the front of the barn from the Getty Museum with tree stumps around the barn and standing dead trees in the background.
The Bierstadt brothers included the view in a book of stereoviews that they printed.
This fascinating book had the stereo lenses built into the cover of the book.
Ironically, the sketches by Cole and Durand were done in the summer, so in his painting Cole is resetting the story into the autumn.