Sunday, March 9, 2014

John Mix Stanley in the Oregon Country

Buffalo Hunt on the Southwest Prairie
John Mix Stanley  

Visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum I noted this painting by John Mix Stanley. George Catlin is the much better known painter of Indians in the 19th Century, but Catlin never traveled to what is now Washington State. Stanley did travel to the Oregon County as it was then known and may have equaled Catlin except for some very bad luck.

Like Catlin Stanley wanted to capture what he viewed as fast disappearing cultures.

". . . a few generations hence our descendants will have nothing, except . . . memorials, to remind them of the former existence of a race, which had made perhaps a more gallant and prolonged defense of their independence, than any recorded in the widespread annals of warfare between savage and civilized men." - John Mix Stanley, 1852

After his initial trips to the Southwest, Stanley traveled north to the Oregon Country. His work from that trip was displayed at the Smithsonian and he became acquainted with Isaac Stevens at that time. He joined Stevens on the Northern Pacific Railway Expedition as a paid artist to help illustrate the scientific and survey work and it is that work that survives.

Old Fort Walla Walla, 1853
From the Northern Pacific Railway Expedition
The view is down Wallula Gap from near the mouth of the Walla Walla River

After that expedition Stanley produced a large body of work of images and paintings of Indians including presumably Northwest Indians. Alas, most of his work was destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian in 1865. He then had further bad luck when a large collection of his work was lost in the fire that burned Barnum's_American_Museum. With those loses, we lost some of the earliest images of the Pacific Northwest.

J.M. Stanley self portrait
courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution 

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