Charlie Russell’s Lost West

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Charlie Russell arrived in Montana when the land was still raw, exciting, and dangerous, just four years after Custer’s fatal stand on the Little Big Horn and only three after Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce were stopped at the Bear Paw, short of the international boundary line and a Canadian sanctuary. He had been in Montana for over a year when Sitting Bull’s band of die-hard Sioux, expatriate in Canada since 1877, surrendered to the United States authorities at nearby Fort Buford, Dakota Territory. But even in 1880 evidences of change were everywhere, and the years that followed merely confirmed first impressions. A decade after Russell came to Montana, on a frosty December dawn in 1890, the still-defiant Sitting Bull was shot to death while resisting arrest by Indian policemen garbed in cavalry blue. His killing sparked the last violent confrontation of any magnitude between red and white in America, the battle of Wounded Knee Creek. When it was over, General Custer’s old regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, had brought the long resistance of the Plains tribes to an end. Indian wars, a fact of American life since the first settlement was planted in Virginia, had passed into memory, and on reservations dotted across the West the tribes were left to mourn a way of life that would be no more. They were not alone in experiencing a sense of loss, however.

The United States had come of age since the Civil War. Scientific thought had injected an element of doubt into the comfortable flow of religious security for the postDarwinian generation, and once immutable truths had been exposed to the challenge of evolution. As industry had superseded agriculture, so the city had begun to displace the country as the locus of American life. In literature a lingering colonial mentality had been largely outgrown, and artists once burdened with a sense of cultural inferiority no longer felt so compelled to strive for approval from abroad. Manifest Destiny now scanned distant horizons, seeking its outlets overseas, as America moved into empire and a new era of global commitment.

The pace of national life may have justified the “Gay Nineties” label, but a pervasive uneasiness lay just beneath the gaudy surface. The popular vogue of the Vanishing West was one reflection of fin-de-siècle melancholy. Since ancient times special meanings had accrued to the West. It was not so much a region or a direction as a tantalizing concept implying possibilities yet untried, a future without limitations. Regret naturally accompanied the recognition that America’s last Wild West was rapidly disappearing, and a chorus of voices in the 1890’s sounded the lament. Francis Parkman was a fit spokesman for all the others. He had originally travelled the Oregon Trail back in 1846, the “Year of Decision” in which Americans realized their continental destiny. His account of his experiences among fur trappers and the free-roaming Oglala Sioux, published in 1849 as The Oregon Trail , had become an American classic. In 1892, the year before his death, Parkman attached a retrospective preface to a new edition of the book. Out west, he observed, “change has grown to metamorphosis. The sons of civilization, drawn by the fascinations of a fresher and bolder life, thronged to the western wilds in multitudes which blighted the charm that had lured them.” The buffalo were gone, along with the furbearing animals and the men who trapped them, and the Indian had become “an ugly caricature of his conqueror.” In short, “the Wild West is tamed,” and its savage charms have given way to “irresistible commonplace.”

 

This sentiment was in the air as the nineteenth century neared its end, and besides the writers a sizable group of artists discovered the Vanishing West. Of all their combined production, no other single work was more inclusive —or more explicit—than a pen drawing executed in 1898 by a relatively unknown artist, Charles M. Russell. Gathered together in it, as it were for the final time, are several representative frontier types: Indian, outlaw, stagecoach driver, cowboy, trapper, gambler, bullwhacker, and muleskinner. Facing them is Father Time, his skinny arm pointing off into the distance, banishing them to oblivion. Next to Father Time stands the haughty figure of Civilization, draped in a diaphanous gown, a scroll of “Laws” in one hand and a book of “Science” in the other. At her feet lies a reel of barbed wire; beside her are a tourist, box camera at the ready, and a rather effeminate cyclist. Behind this imposing vanguard of Progress a column of women do-gooders advances under a banner proclaiming’” Salvation,” grimly determined to domesticate the West. Above their ranks a smokestack belches its pollution over the prairies. Aptly titled Dame Progress proudly stands, the drawing illustrated a verse by cowboy poet Wallace David Coburn, addressed to the “Wild West”:

Yes! you are gone and in your stead Dame Progress proudly stands, With stolen crown upon her head And blood-stains on her hands.