BY PATRICIA CONDON JOHNSTON
A SERIES OF WATERCOLORS BY SETH EASTMAN, THE FOREMOST NINETEENTH-CENTURY PICTORIAL HISTORIAN OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN, IS NOW ACCESSIBLE TO THE PUBLIC.
In late 1994, the James Jerome Hill Reference Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, sold its collection of 56 Seth Eastman watercolors depicting Native American life on the Western frontier to W. Duncan MacMillan, a director of Cargill, Inc. of nearby Wayzata. The largest extant collection of Eastman watercolors, the paintings had been in the library since its completion in 1920, and before that, in Hill’s personal library at his Summit Avenue home in St. Paul.
This stunning collection comprises paintings prepared mainly for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s gigantic six-volume work, Information Regarding the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, which was published between 1851 and ’57. Monumentally important as American art, the paintings are also paramount to an understanding of Dakota and Ojibwa life in Minnesota in the 1840s. In addition to the Minnesota paintings, the collection includes works based on Eastman’s experiences in Texas and his visits to other parts of the country; landscapes drawn from nature; maps relating to Native American ethnography and history; and depictions of Indian artifacts.
Widely regarded as the foremost pictorial historian of the American Indian in the nineteenth century, Eastman was a career army officer and talented artist with a keen eye for cultural detail. Assigned to frontier duty, including a seven-year stint at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, Captain Eastman recorded such things as winter villages, temporary summer encampments, and Indian burial grounds; courtship and marriage customs; and medicine men concocting potions and ministering to the sick, as he set out to preserve a visual record of even the most commonplace activities of everyday Indian life, which was then undergoing rapid change.
For many years, the paintings were kept largely under wraps, locked in a safe at the Hill Library, which more recently was moving away from its original mission as a general reference library toward becoming a more specialized facility that focused on business. The decision to sell the artworks, which was severely criticized in the local press, was predicated on the library’s changing needs and budgetary concerns. Proceeds from the sale were added to the library’s endowment to support general operations.
With the Eastman paintings now in private hands, however, they will be more accessible to a wider public than was previously the case. MacMillan, also president of the Afton Historical Society Press in Afton, Minnesota, has already published a lavish, coffee-table book–Seth Eastman: A Portfolio of North American Indians–showcasing the collection. Publication of the book was celebrated with an exhibition of the paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the artworks will also travel to other museums throughout the country.
“Not everything you touch has to make money,” said MacMillan. “I didn’t want to see the collection broken up and scattered. . . . It seemed to me that if it was possible to acquire them, we could keep them together on behalf of the people of Minnesota. The Eastmans are an extraordinary resource and legacy.”
Born in Brunswick, Maine, on January 24, 1808, Seth was the eldest of 13 children of Robert and Sarah Lee Eastman. A gentleman devoted to scientific pursuits and a talented inventor, Robert hoped to send his firstborn son to Maine’s Bowdoin College, where he had friends among the faculty, but young Seth had a dream of his own. Enamored with soldiering–a great-great-grandfather, Captain Ebenezer Eastman, had taken part in the reduction of the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1745–the lad at length persuaded his father to allow him to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Sixteen years old when he entered the Academy in July 1824, he spent five fruitful years there, preparing to be both a military man and an artist.
A two-year course taught by Thomas Gimbrede, a French-born miniaturist and engraver, at the school’s Drawing Academy, gave Eastman training in sketching the human form, landscape studies, and topographical drawing. The purpose of the course was to turn out practical draftsmen with engineering skills who could provide civil services for the developing nation, but drawing was also deemed valuable for processing information and honing perception.
Although otherwise an undistinguished scholar, Eastman graduated in 1829 at the top of his drawing class. The new second lieutenant’s first assignment took him halfway across the continent to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. There Colonel Zachary Taylor was rebuilding Fort Crawford–originally of log construction–with native rock. An exacting pencil sketch that Eastman made of the soon-to-be-demolished post and fledgling Prairie du Chien is the earliest extant example of his meticulously drawn military landscapes.
Early in 1830, Eastman was transferred 150 miles up the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling, then the country’s northernmost frontier post. Built in the wake of the War of 1812 to block British infiltration of the American Northwest and to protect the newly organized fur trade by maintaining peace among the Native Americans in the region, Fort Snelling was a stone behemoth situated on high limestone bluffs above the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters rivers in Minnesota.
While at Fort Snelling, Eastman used some of his free time to sketch the untamed beauty of the surrounding, pristine northland. His drawings from this period have been lost, but he is known to have always carried a sketchbook and pencils in his saddlebags. Landscape sketches of Fort Snelling and the Upper Mississippi Valley made in 1830 and ’31 served as studies for oil paintings that Eastman completed when he later returned to the East.
Records indicate that Lieutenant Eastman satisfactorily carried out his duties at Fort Snelling. The Minnesota frontier was relatively quiet; only rarely were soldiers dispatched to put down Indian trouble. In fact, many of the officers, including Eastman, were cohabiting with Indian women. In 1831, when Eastman was transferred to topographical duty in Louisiana, he left behind a Native-American wife, Stands Like a Spirit, third daughter of Chief Cloudman of the Lake Calhoun village, and an infant daughter, Nancy Eastman.
After assisting with a railroad survey in Louisiana, Eastman served briefly with the Topographical Engineers at New London, Connecticut. Then in January 1833, he was recalled to West Point. His former drawing teacher, Thomas Gimbrede, had died, and, while the Academy sought a permanent replacement, Eastman assumed the hastily-created, temporary position of assistant teacher of drawing. The “temporary” assignment lasted for seven years. Gimbrede’s job finally went to Robert Weir, a landscapist of rising reputation with whom Eastman studied privately.
Preferring the outdoors to classroom duty, Eastman twice–in 1835 and ’38–applied for a transfer to the Topographical Engineers, but to no avail. In the meantime, always giving his best to whatever occupied him, he proved to be a conscientious and productive instructor. In 1837, he prepared A Treatise on Topographical Drawing, a small book with folding plates that became the official text for classes at West Point.
These years at the Academy were happy ones for Eastman. In June 1835, when he was 27, he married 17-year-old Mary Henderson, the daughter of West Point’s assistant surgeon. An able young woman, who expressed herself well in prose and poetry, Mary would capture the fancy of the literary world with several books about Indians, which were illustrated by her husband.
In 1838, the National Academy of Design in New York City exhibited eight Eastman canvases; five were Eastern scenes, the remaining three relied on sketches he had made years earlier on the Upper Mississippi. A promotion to captain that year relieved Eastman of his classroom duties and led to his participation in the Second Seminole War in Florida. After a brief assignment at Sarasota, he took command of Fort Fanning, a temporary garrison on the Suwannee River. At both places, Eastman found time to paint not only his usual landscapes, but also, for the first time, the local Indians.
By late spring 1841, half of Eastman’s regiment was suffering from dysentery and fever brought on by maneuvers in the steamy Florida Everglades. Unwell himself, Eastman was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, to recover his health. In the fall, he was reassigned to Fort Snelling, where he remained for the next seven years. No longer the inexperienced officer he had been ten years earlier, he served on four occasions as commandant of the post.
Eastman and his wife Mary raised five children–four sons and a daughter–at Fort Snelling, and from all accounts, he was a first-rate frontier officer. He had no fear of the Indians, seeing them as wards of the government to be treated fairly but firmly. Besides keeping peace on the frontier, Captain Eastman engaged in a personal crusade to preserve for posterity the customs of a race he thought to be dying, by assembling a pictorial history of the Dakota who inhabited the region.
Landscape artist Charles Lanman, who came upriver from St. Louis to Fort Snelling in the summer of 1846, was spellbound by Eastman’s collection, which by then already amounted to some four hundred drawings and paintings. It was, he said, “the most valuable in the country, not even excepting that of George Catlin.”
By the next year, Eastman was sending oil paintings to St. Louis, where they were exhibited in artist Henry Lewis’s studio. Ranking him “out of sight the best painter of Indian life the country has produced,” the Missouri Republican judged Eastman’s work “quite unlike the vast mass of Indian pictures it has been our bad luck to see.” Unlike most of his contemporaries, said the reviewer, Eastman stuck to the plain truth, producing masterful paintings that “one less conversant with Indian character . . . could never have painted.”
At the same time that Eastman’s Indian paintings were gaining national attention, he was angling for a new assignment. Congress had authorized the publication of a major study of the American Indian to be written by explorer and former Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft, and the post of illustrator for the book was still open. Eastman wrote to the Office of Indian Affairs requesting that he be appointed to the position. He also petitioned the secretary of war for a transfer to the Office of Indian Affairs.
While waiting for a reply, Eastman was transferred to Texas. On October 1, 1848, he and his family reluctantly boarded the steamboat Dr. Franklin at Fort Snelling for the trip downriver to St. Louis, en route to a new posting in Texas. From St. Louis, Mary Eastman and the children went east to her father’s home in Connecticut, while the captain followed his company into Comanche territory. When the War Department’s long-awaited decision finally reached Eastman in November, the answer was disappointing; he would not be assigned to the Schoolcraft project.
Baffled and angered, Eastman pleaded his case with friends in government, and his wife did the same. He declared his willingness to accept a leave of absence to work on the pictures, if a transfer could not be arranged. Writing to Minnesota territorial delegate Henry Sibley, Mary Eastman pointed out that “during the twenty three or four years Capt. E. has been in Service he [has] never had a leave (except for a few days) but the one which occurred during the Florida War, when he was very sick . . . . If Captain E. is not here in the Spring, it may be a great loss to him . . . one which he could not repair.”
Possibly as a result of Sibley’s support, Eastman eventually won a five-month furlough. By Christmas 1849, he had settled in Washington with his family and was working on the Indian pictures. As yet, there were no funds for an illustrator, and Eastman’s work was entirely speculative. Nonetheless, he plunged into the project, determined to win the long-term appointment that would be needed to complete the task. Finally, in February 1850, he received orders from the War Department that would allow him to complete the illustrations at his ordinary military pay. The monumental work, which comprised 275 pages of illustrations, consumed Eastman for five years.
Although he would have preferred to remain in Washington after finishing the Schoolcraft paintings, Eastman returned to his regiment in Texas in June 1855. Past his prime at age 48 and in failing health, he was soon back East on sick leave. In October, he was promoted to major and transferred to the Fifth Infantry. He served a short stint with the Quartermaster General’s Office in Washington, but for the most part, Eastman spent the final years of his military career on the move.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Eastman was promoted to lieutenant colonel and named mustering and disbursing officer for Maine and New Hampshire. After suffering a sunstroke that left him permanently impaired and prone to apoplexy, he served for one year, beginning in January 1863, as military governor at Cincinnati. He then served as commandant of the military prisons at Elmira, New York, and Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania. Appointed brevet brigadier general in 1866, he took charge of the Harrodsburg Military Asylum in Kentucky, remaining there until 1867.
Although frail in body, General Eastman returned to painting with renewed enthusiasm after the war. During his last years, he received a commission from the War Department to paint nine scenes of Indian life, based on his Minnesota sketches, for the House Office Building in the nation’s capital. His final commission, also for the government, specified 17 paintings of American forts for the House Committee on Military Affairs. On August 31, 1875, Eastman was completing a painting of West Point when he slumped over at his easel and died.