Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West

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Maximilian was passionately concerned about the Indians of the New World, and on his first day in the United States, the Fourth of July, 1832, noted with regret that he could not spy a single redskin on the streets of Boston. Nor could he find what he considered a faithful picture of one, although he ranged the book stores and print shops in his quest. He was confounded by the hatred and neglect shown toward the true Americans by the “foreigners” from Europe who were filling the land.

As his party slowly worked its way westward, Maximilian paused at every chance to study and record the world that was opening before him, cramming his journals with data and his diaries with remembrances. He spent his first winter in the United States at New Harmony, Indiana, in the company of such distinguished naturalists as Thomas Say and Charles Alexander Lesueur, and worked with the collection of books in the library of that western scientific center. Say had an unexcelled collection of entomological specimens, which, Maximilian noted, was by some remorseless irony within the natural world being continuously destroyed by living insects. Lesueur was depending partly on a pension Napoleon had granted him in recognition of his earlier services on a French exploration along the coasts of Australia, ever increasing his considerable reputation as as artist-ichthyologist. The companionship and conversation of these men was for Maximilian and Bodmer valuable orientation. As every visiting naturalist discovered, the American wilderness presented a bewildering variety of novel phenomena. A century before, the Swedish traveller Peter KaIm had been “seized with terror at the.thought of ranging so many new and unknown parts of natural history” and KaIm had encountered only the eastern seaboard.

It was not until the spring of 1833 that Maximilian’s small party reached St. Louis, to set out for the wilder West that lay beyond. By then St. Louis had become the main crossroads of the fur trade; through its streets and along its waterfront a busy traffic in men and merchandise coursed in all directions. Washington Irving, off on his own personal voyage of discovery after seventeen years of voluntary exile in Europe, had passed through the city a few months earlier with a young Swiss count in his company. And in St. Louis Maximilian met, among others, Captain William (later Sir William) Drummond Stewart of Grandtully—another veteran of the Napoleonic wars, who was planning an expedition across the Plains to the Rockies and back. Even in its more primitive stage a cosmopolitan strain ran through the American borderland; it was a vastly thinned-out back yard of the world at large, where men of all nations and stations might meet and mingle in the course of their various adventures.

Maximilian’s was the most important of the early expeditions to follow Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri River and the last to witness at least some aspects of that passing scene. The beavers were already disappearing from the river valleys, and, just four years later, a recurrent wave of smallpox virtually wiped out, among other native groups, the once-populous Mandans, the first of the western tribes that had been known to European explorers. Earlier travellers had deduced from the light complexions of these people and from the various colors of their hair and eyes that they were in some mysterious way linked with the white race; that perhaps they were the “Welsh” Indians of legend.

Lewis and Clark had wintered amid the Mandan villages in 1804, and Fort Clark had subsequently been built near the site of their encampment, some forty-five miles north of what is now Bismarck, North Dakota. Here Maximilian paused both on his way upstream and again, during the winter of 1833-34, on the way downstream. The drawings Bodmer made of these doomed people in the course of that frightfully cold season comprise a substantial and irreplaceable part of his work in America. Ten years later, on his trip up the Missouri, Audubon found the prairies around Fort Clark dotted with small mounds, where, in the face of sudden calamity, bodies of the dead had been thrown and hastily covered with earth. There had been neither time nor manpower left to raise the corpses of the deceased on scaffolds according to ancient custom. Remnants of the Mandans had by then been attached to other Indian tribes, their interesting culture reduced to a memory.

Bodmer’s work was not always easy. At times the inks and water colors froze solid in the cabin that had been built especially for the comfort of the visitors at the command of Kenneth McKenzie, Scotch “Emperor of the West.” (As agent of the American Fur Company, the great combine directed from the East by John Jacob Astor—“our worthy countryman,” as Maximilian referred to him—McKenzie ruled over an area greater than many notable empires of history.) At other times the Indians made it the more difficult, either because of their inordinate vanity or their dread of this strange, white-man’s magic.

A year earlier, the American artist George Catlin had created a sensation among these natives by taking their likenesses, portraits that seemed to the Indians, at their first exposure to this sort of thing, so lifelike that Catlin was credited with having created twin beings of his subjects. This was strong medicine indeed; that it was good rather than bad medicine was determined only after the tribesmen deliberated the matter in solemn council—and even then there remained misgivings. To some it still seemed, for example, that a profile drawing effectively reduced a man to half his full being.

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