Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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Charles Marion Russell, born outside St. Louis, in Oak Hill, Missouri, of a locally prominent family in 1864, came west to Montana Territory four days short of his sixteenth birthday. Charlie Russell, the “Cowboy Artist,” died there in Great Falls forty-six years later, in 1926. Those forty-six years spanned a period of enormous change in the West, and Russell’s artistic importance resides in his record of that change, or, more precisely, in his comprehension of what that change meant for Americans and his skill in translating that understanding into paint and clay.

Russell’s escape west in 1880 was right out of the dime novels that fired so many youthful imaginations in the period after the Civil War. Charlie Russell was the American boy who grew up dreaming of breathless adventure and impossible heroism on the far frontier. But if he was like many other boys of his day, a captive to the spell of the West, there was one significant difference: he was to realize his every fantasy.

 

Congenitally restless, Russell was never able to settle into the accepted routine of a well-to-do family with judges, legislators, executives, and Yale graduates in its background. His parents’ expectations of him—a good education and an eventual management position in the family-owned Parker-Russell Mining and Manufacturing Company—conflicted with his own desires. Growing up near St. Louis, storied gateway to the upper Missouri River country—the High Plains and Rockies, the Idaho and Montana gold fields, the land of the Sioux and the Blackfoot—Russell had his heart set on going west. St. Louis’ intimate link to the whole romantic era of the fur trade was directly reflected in his own family line : on his mother’s side he was the descendant of the Bents- Charles, William, George, and Robert—whose activities out west, particularly the establishment of Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in southern Colorado about 1830, were a part of family tradition. Charlie bridled at the restraints of school, played hooky, even ran away from home twice. He haunted the St. Louis waterfront to watch with yearning the swarms of men leaving on steamboats for fabled destinations far up the Big Muddy. As a last measure, the Russells sent Charlie to a military boarding school in New Jersey, Burlington College, late in 1879. But even military discipline was to no avail. Visions of the Wild West still flooded Charlie’s mind, spilling over into a sketchbook that he filled with crude drawings based on the work of such pioneer painters as George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. [See A Schoolboy’s Sketchbook , A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1971.] Indians skulked across his pages, tortured hapless prisoners, and raced their ponies at a gliding gallop over a sea of grass. Since the stint at Burlington had conspicuously failed to divest Charlie of his western daydreams or curb his restive spirit, his parents, in resignation, gave him permission to go west in the company of a family friend. Perhaps a summer on a sheep ranch in Montana would knock the idle fancies out of his head and return him home, sober and mature, prepared to assume his educational responsibilities and a business career.

The Russells were right in one respect : Charlie did not take to sheep. A careless shepherd at best (“I’d lose the damn things as fast as they’d put ‘em on the ranch”), he was quickly fired from his job with the parting advice that he pack up and return home. But the land itself—the remote, still-undeveloped Judith Basin in central Montana—had already possessed him. Cut loose, he drifted into an acquaintance that was to influence the course of his life. A professional meat hunter, Jake Hoover, took “Kid” Russell under his wing. In exchange for shelter and food Charlie spent a year and a half as Jake’s assistant, soaking up lore about Indians, animals, and Montana’s past. The world was young and free then, and life could hardly have been better. In Russell’s fond recollection the culinary arts of the greatest chefs in the finest hotels would never equal Jake Hoover’s wizardry with a fry pan, and no scientist would match his understanding of “nature’s secrets.”

But it was cowboying that had most stirred Russell’s imagination, and as the cattle industry began to flourish in the Judith Basin he seized the opportunity to fulfill his dreams. In 1882 the Twelve Z & V outfit hired him as a night wrangler. Russell had found his occupation, and for the next eleven years he “sung to the horses and cattle” for a living. Though he claimed to be “neither a good roper nor rider,” he did take pride in his record: “I worked for the big outfits and always held my job.” In later years, in the erratic spelling and grammar that were a hallmark of his letters, he often poked fun at his inadequacies: I never got to be a bronk rider but in my youthfull days wanted to be and while that want lasted I had a fine chance to study hoss enatimy from under and over the under was the view a taripan gits The over while I hoverd ont the end of a Macarty rope was like the eagle sees grand but dam scary for folks without wings …

But the fact remained, the kid from Oak Hill, Missouri, had become a genuine cowboy.