Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West

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Alexander Philip Maximilian, Prinz zu Wied-Neuwied , a Rhineland princeling of venerable ancestry, an honored veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and a dedicated student of the natural sciences, came to the United States in 1832 to gather data for an account of the land and its people—a report with “true and well-done illustrations” that would, among other things, chart the farther West and faithfully describe its native tribes. He brought with him as artist-reporter Carl Bodmer, a young Swiss then at the start of his long career. Their travels in this country led them from Boston to the upper Missouri River. The published account of the two-year expedition, including a magnificent atlas with eighty-one reproductions of Bodmer’s western water colors, has maintained a unique importance since its original appearance in 1839. Recently, however, the much more complete record of Maximilian’s American experiences—his diaries, journals, account books, correspondence, and an assortment of miscellany, together with more than four hundred of Bodmer’s original sketches and paintings—was discovered in the family archives of the prince’s ancestral schloss in Neuwied, near Coblenz. Last summer this extraordinary cache of documents was purchased by the Northern Natural Gas Company of Omaha, Nebraska, and deposited in the Joslyn Art Museum of that city. The pictures we reproduce here—some of them never published before.—suggest what a truly princely collection it is.

One of the most remarkable documents any President ever laid before Congress was presented by Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. The new territory was virtually unknown country; its boundaries were undefined, its terrain uncharted, its inhabitants but vaguely identified. Yet the President’s message, incorporating scraps of intelligence and bits of hearsay that had filtered through from the farther West (and that would be very hard to substantiate), told of a fabulous world—a world that included among other natural wonders a tribe of gigantic aborigines (winged beings, according to one Indian report); veritable cathedrals fashioned by nature from the rocky bluffs that towered above the Missouri River; and, one thousand miles up that great waterway, a huge, glittering mountain of solid white salt.

Federalist critics seized on the report of that last marvel to ridicule Jefferson’s extravagance in buying up such an unbelievable wasteland. (Was the mountain, perhaps, Lot’s wife? Or had the President been reading the Mysteries of Udolpho ?) After all, William Penn had given little more than five thousand pounds for the rich and flourishing commonwealth that bears his name. To pay Napoleon more than fifteen million dollars for such a monstrous pig in a poke as Louisiana was simply irresponsible.

In spite of the oddments of legend and exaggeration that embroidered his message, the President’s proposal was of course by no means uninformed. He was well aware that a vast treasure in furs was being drained out of the western plains and mountains, portaged and paddled across Canada to Montreal, and thence shipped to England—wealth that could be diverted down the Missouri River, and then by other waterways more easily carried to eastern American markets. North American beaver pelts were a prime commodity at the annual Easter and Michaelmas fairs at Leipzig, and the young nation urgently needed foreign exchange.

Beyond the Rockies, Yankee merchants had already established a beachhead along the northwest Pacific Coast and were rapidly cornering the rich trade in seaotter pelts, a commodity highly valued in distant China. By 1803 this exotic commerce had become vital to the national economy. To discover an easy inland route between east and west coasts, a northwest passage that would shorten the tediously long and perilous sea voyages around Cape Horn and around the world, would quicken the turnover and add to the security of the enterprise.

Also, Jefferson shared with every European chancellery the foreknowledge that America’s headlong progress to the West would sooner or later cross the Mississippi, and the flag would have to follow the tide of emigration. If the way were not prepared by peaceful negotiations, a costly border war was all too likely. In 1803 Jefferson closed the deal with ridiculous ease. It was the most stupendous real-estate bargain in all history; the cost was about four cents an acre for all or part of thirteen future states of the Union.