The American West Goes East

By Peter H. Hassrick



"The gifts of fortune are promised in the West," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "and to the West they bend their course." The first fingers of white settlement to reach out into the trans-Mississippi wilderness appeared as forts established by the fur companies. Indians Approaching Fort Union by the St. Louis painter Charles Wimar shows one of these early mercantile extensions of civilization. Established by the enterprising Scotsman, Kenneth McKenzie, as a trading post for the American Fur Company in 1828, Fort Union was the best built and most commodious post on the upper Missouri. In the interior, a vast stock of goods was kept on hand since, as George Catlin pointed out, "numerous outposts concentrate here with the return of their season's trade, and refit out with a fresh supply of goods to trade with the Indians." This was the first commercial enterprise to open in the West and the last in which white man and Indian joined in profit.

The Great Plains which rise up from the Mississippi Valley and roll a thousand miles or more to the Rockies were considered by the early explorers, not as the lush prairies that they truly were, but as "The Great American Desert." Zebulon Pike, who made the first government survey of the area, reported that the untimbered grassland would someday be "as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa:" Supported by the reports of later explorers, the legend persisted in the minds of most Americans for over fifty years -- the Far West, they thought, was uninhabitable.

The trappers and hunters were the first to prove the desert theory at least partly false. The unending sea of grass supported the ubiquitous buffalo and the rivers and streams were rich in furs. The artist, William Ranney, who had crossed the Plains to serve in the Texas fight against Mexico in 1836, knew the brilliant clarity of the western sky and the vastness of space from firsthand experience. Halt on the Prairie, painted in 1850, emphasizes this by utilizing a low horizon line and bringing the figures into prominent silhouette against the sky.

"The Atlantic states seem to have had their day," wrote a traveler in about 1815. "The people who partake of youth, enterprise, and hardihood. . . are looking more and more to the West." When the cry for gold echoed through the California canyons in 1849, everyone's eye was caught. Robinson, Colorado, painted thirty-five years later by the itinerant artist, Harry Learned, exemplifies the promise and frustration of the gold nugget era. Ore had been first reported in 1880 by two grubstakers. Within a year's time over 2,000 people resided in a town which boasted a hotel, newspaper, Catholic church and marching band. Five years later the harvest from the mines began to dwindle and by 1890, three years after this picture was painted, Robinson was virtually a ghost town.

The people, however, continued to flood west. Ruts in the road, deepened with the traffic of settler's wagons, told the natives of the Plains and Rockies that white migration was pushing westward in sufficient numbers to constitute an invasion. This incursion, and the indifference with which the Anglo treated the reverent balance of nature, brought the wrath of the Indian upon him. Jumped, painted by Charles Russell after the turn of the century, depicts one of the repercussions of the resulting confrontation.

When the cloud of dust had settled, the Indians found themselves captives of a new America, an America which promised a silver lining to almost everyone but the Indian. The acculturation process was gradual, painful and unrelenting. William Fuller, carpenter on one of the Sioux reservations in the Dakota Territory, painted his version, 1884, of this transformation in Crow Creek Agency, D. T. The Yanktons, a group of the Sioux nation, were persuaded to move to the Crow Creek Reservation east of the Missouri River in the present-day South Dakota. Here they were given promise of annuities for thirty years and rations until such time as they could become self-supporting. Education, too, was promised as a means of converting the nomadic Indians into self-sufficient farmers.

Already the "civilizing" processes are in evidence in Fuller's painting -- two of the tribe's three leading chiefs are attired in white man's clothing (1, 2, and 3). Beside them stands the interpreter, Mathew Wells (4), and mounted in the central foreground is his brother, Wallace (5), who served as the government agent. Below them on the river plain are the agency buildings, most conspicuous of which were the Episcopal Church (9), mill (20), and various school facilities (11, 12, and 13). Aside from the children, who were no doubt required to live in the dormitories, most of the Indians still preferred their traditional tipis to the clapboard dwellings of the whites. In the background a steamboat plies the muddy waters of the Missouri River. Even at this date, over ten years after the first railroads crossed the West, water transportation was integral.

Today people recall not life on the reservations it: the Dakotas, but rather the deeds of nefarious desperados who lurked in those hills. Big Nose George was typical to the point of stereotype in The Hold Up by Charles Russell. He and his victims are straight out of the pages of a dime novel -- a preacher (whom Russell termed "sky pilot"), a prospector, a school teacher, the widow Flannagan, a gambler, a Chinaman, and a Jewish merchant, Isaac Katz. George's exploits were known from Miles City to Bismarck and his grand finale was staged on the road which traversed the Black Hills between those two towns. Lawlessness, as the catalogue points out, "has become so much a part of the romantic history of the Old West, it is often difficult to separate truth from fiction, good from bad heroes from villains. As in all folk-lore, the events and characters take on the mantle of myth.... The American West probably had no more than its share, but the myth of the western outlaw has long outlived the truth." This story, however, was fact.

Frederic Remington joined Russell in creating and preserving the image of the western saga. Though he had found conspicuous success as an illustrator, Remington's first-time accolade as a professional artist came after 1895 when he turned to sculpture. "I have a receipt for being Great," he wrote to Owen Wister shortly after finishing his first piece, "I am to endure in bronze." The Stampede, among many others of his work, has proven him true. It stands as lasting testament to the romance and excitement seen by so many but known only by one, the cowboy.

The demise of that historic figure, the cowboy, announced the closing curtain in the drama of America's West. Yet after the last actors departed the stage, even when bib overalls, barbed wire and derby hats prevailed, the West would not give up its part. Its story was to be told and retold by and for countless thousands. Its image too would never relinquish its splendor as evidenced in Thomas Moran's magnificent Mists of the Yellowstone painted in 1908. This river, which winds one thousand miles across the American West, rises in the Shoshone Mountains of northwest Wyoming. Before reaching the northern prairies, the powerful current cuts a deep and impressive canyon through a wonderland of wilderness. Before the 1870's the Yellowstone region was possibly the least known area in the West. John Colter, a member of Lewis and Clark's exploratory force, had ventured alone into this country in 1806 and returned with tales of Colter's Hell, a world of geological marvels too astounding to believe. Later, stories of mountain men like Jim Bridger told of geysers, boiling springs, scalding mudpots, and plummetting waterfalls. In 1871 a party of the United States Geological Survey under the direction of Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, geologist, explored the area. Thomas Moran, an established landscape painter from Philadelphia, was hired to record pictorially what the expedition saw. The artist ventured to the brink of the Yellowstone Canyon with paint brush in hand and later recalled that "the impression made upon me by the stupendous and remarkable manifestations of nature's force will remain with me as long as my memory lasts." A larger version of this view of the three hundred foot cascade of Grand Falls was presented to the United States Congress in 1872 and was influential in persuading the government to establish Yellowstone as the first national park.

The artwork in the exhibition was supplemented with a group of artifacts, icons if you will, of the American frontier. The Stetson Hat Company loaned nine fine examples of western head gear. These were exhibited next to other bits of cowboy haberdashery (spurs, chaps and boots) on one of three large portable display islands. On the other two islands were objects from the Plains and Southwest Indian cultures loaned by museums and private collectors across the country. An elegant Plains headdress with eagle feathers, a Sioux scalp shirt, an Osage scalp, Navaho Chiefs blankets, Hopi baskets and five Hopi Kachina dolls were among the items. From the Vincent Price collection came a cotton tipi liner depicting the death of Sitting Bull, one of three examples of Indian painting in the show. And so, the native culture and interpretation were presented alongside of the paintings. The result was that the exhibition was broadened and enhanced considerably.

Probably the most fascinating thing in the exhibition was one of these artifacts rather than any of the paintings. An Osage scalp of long, sleek black hair trailed off the shelf on one of the display islands. Even with vigilant guards, restraining ropes, and signs with clear instructions such a "Molimo ne dirajte" (Serbian for "Don't touch") the visitors were beside themselves with the urge to touch. Eyes bulged and fingers pointed in astonishment as viewers confronted the scalp and many, unable to restrain themselves, reached out to test if the locks were real.

The scalp and other artifacts were secured so even the most light fingered enthusiast could take no souvenirs. However, there was available a fully illustrated color catalogue, with index, biographical sketches on the artists, a five part essay on the development of the West and extended captions for each painting. And in all museums it was either given free to visitors or sold at a modest charge to benefit either the gallery or some other deserving cause. The catalogue was printed in Beirut and the color work completed in Vienna and Belgrade. Authored by the staff of the Carter Museum, it was translated into seven languages. An accompanying multimedia slide show which served as an introduction to the exhibition was also translated and presented in those tongues.

Charles Russell once named a painting When East Meets West. It pictured a scruffy, bowlegged cow puncher leaning carelessly against the outside of a Montana saloon eying a pretty lady in taffeta and lace who sauntered past him on the plank sidewalk. The American West exhibition fits the title of that painting though the curiosity is slightly different in motivation" and the rolls reversed. So now the "twain" have met and they have met on account of what John Shirley, USIA Director of Eastern Europe, termed "the most important American fine arts exhibition which has been in Eastern Europe for many, many years."


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