On August 28, 1826, torrential rains in the White Mountains caused a mudslide on Mount Willey in New Hampshire. The Willey couple, with their five children, lived in a small house in the notch between Mounts Willey and Webster. They evacuated their home with the help of two hired men to escape the landslide, but all seven Willeys and the two hired men died in the avalanche. The Willey home was left standing. Rescuers later found an open Bible on a table in the home, indicating that the family retreated in haste.
The news of the Willey tragedy quickly spread across the nation. During the ensuing years, it would become the subject of literature, drawings, local histories, scientific journals, and paintings. One such example is the painting by Thomas Hill (1829–1908) titled Crawford Notch, the site of the Willey tragedy before the slide. The Willey disaster started a new awareness of the American landscape and the raw wilderness of the White Mountains. This allure — tragedy and untamed nature — was a powerful draw for the early artists who painted in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Thomas Cole (1801–1848) in his diary entry of October 6, 1828, wrote, "The site of the Willey House, with its little patch of green in the gloomy desolation, very naturally recalled to mind the horrors of the night when the whole family perished beneath an avalanche of rocks and earth."
The incident provided the basis for an 1835 story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled "The Ambitious Guest."