Crawford Notch, a deep valley in New Hampshire's White Mountains, gained notoriety in 1826 when nine lives were lost in a catastrophic avalanche nearby. Cole's painting depicts the site of an earlier landslide whose destruction prompted the victims—Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Willey and their five children, along with two farmhands—to immediately leave their home in Crawford Notch and construct what they thought would be a safe haven close by. Instead, they ran into the very path of disaster—the next night's avalanche struck their temporary refuge. A rescue party arriving the next day searched feverishly for the family. The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Willey, two children, and the farmhands were eventually located, but no trace of the other three children was ever found.
_Crawford Notch_ is thought to allude to this dramatic and tragic episode as emblematic of man's frailty in the face of the vast and unpredictable forces of nature—a theme Cole often explored in his landscapes. Amid this seemingly idyllic autumnal setting, the painting's diminutive human figures appear oblivious to the possibility of tragedy. A man on a black horse rides along a path zig-zagging through the picture space; two figures and a dog stand outside the well-known Notch House Inn, and in the distance a stagecoach is about to pass through the notch. Yet evidence of nature's destructive potential is everywhere apparent: the twisted trees of the foreground, the skeletal, gesturing dead trees of the middle distance, the V-shape form of the notch (seemingly riven by some supernatural process), and the dark, sweeping storm clouds at the upper left.
For Cole, ever fascinated by the multiplicity of meanings embedded in landscape, Crawford Notch was a subject rich with possibilities: a family's harrowing misfortune, the power of natural forces, the passing of time. In _Crawford Notch_ the artist successfully integrated these various threads of content into a richly textured whole. At once vibrant, vital, and beautiful, the painting is also provocatively expressive of instability, change, and uncertainty.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication _American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I,_ pages 87-95, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf