Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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In the summer of 1885 a young artist from New York by way of Kansas City found himself resting by a campfire with a couple of prospectors out in Arizona Territory at a time when Geronimo was on the prowl, perhaps “even in our neighborhood.” It was about 9 o’clock in the evening, and the three men were drowsily relaxing, puffing on their pipes and looking up at the stars through the branches of the trees overhead. Suddenly, the artist later recalled, “my breath went with the look I gave, for, to my unbounded astonishment and consternation, there sat three Apaches on the opposite side of our fire with their rifles across their laps.” His companions spotted the Indians at about the same time, and “old, hardened frontiersmen as they were, they positively gasped in amazement.” Before the white men could react and get their guns out, the Indians assured them they had come in peace and wanted only flour, not a fight. Yet they stayed by the fire all night, making it sleepless for the artist and the two prospectors. When the Indians pulled out in the morning, “I mused over the occurrence,” the narrator went on, “for while it brought no more serious consequences than the loss of some odd pounds of bacon and flour, yet there was a warning in the way those Apaches could usurp the prerogatives of ghosts, and ever after that I used to mingle undue proportions of discretion with my valor.”

So Frederic Remington opened another of his patented essays on western life for his rapidly growing audience in the East. He was writing in 1889, at a time when his name was still not synonymous with the far frontier, though after three years of ever more frequent exposure in some of the most popular magazines of the day he was quickly establishing a reputation that would make him, for most Americans, the supreme interpreter of the Wild West. Moreover, Remington already had his approach shrewdly worked out. The extended anecdote about the uninvited Apache guests served to launch an article entitled “On the Indian Reservations.” It was, fundamentally, a rather routine account of some firsthand observations made among the Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, and Wichitas. Nothing of particular note happened to Remington, nothing truly exciting to enliven his report and grip his readers with that sense of peril that was the better part of the Wild West mystique. So Remington provided it himself, drawing his readers into his narrative by creating at the outset a siege mentality that would give them the thrill of vicariously participating in a daring adventure. Who knew what dangers still lurked in the dark shadows of Indian country? It was a bait, expertly administered; it was also, in microcosm, a fitting introduction to Frederic Remington’s Wild West.

Frederic Sackrider Remington was born on October 4, 1861, in the small town of Canton in upper New York State. The Civil War was not yet six months old, and it would be over before Remington was four. Nevertheless it seems to have left a definite impression on him, for his father, a Republican journalist who owned the local newspaper, was a major in the 11 th New York Cavalry and came back from the war with a wealth of stories to tell about fighting in Virginia and Louisiana. From an early age Remington was steeped in the lore of combat and had formed an interest that he would never relinquish. In 1897, long after he was established as the artist-historian of the Indian-fighting army, he was still chasing the smell of battle. “We are getting old,” he wrote a friend, “and one cannot get old without having seen a war.”

Two other lifelong interests were shaped by Remington’s boyhood. With a father who was not only an ex-cavalryman but a harness-racing enthusiast as well, Remington grew up around horses. As an adult he confessed that he “always likefd] to dwell on … [the] subject of riding” and had “an admiration for a really good rider which is altogether beyond his deserts in the light of philosophy.” His work reflected that fact, as did his oft-repeated choice for an epitaph: “He knew the horse.” Remington’s upstate New York boyhood was also an education in the outdoors. Fishing, hunting, swimming, canoeing, hiking, and camping were the normal recreations of a boy from his region. The Adirondacks, his beloved Cranberry Lake, and the rivers and streams that interlaced the area became part of Remington’s mental landscape, and he cherished an abiding passion for the north woods that found fulfillment when, near the end of the century, he acquired an island of his own, Ingleneuk, in Chippewa Bay on the St. Lawrence River. There for a decade he passed many of his happiest hours, painting, relaxing, and enjoying a “summer” break from the city that some years stretched from March to October. The north country, where he grew up and is buried, rather than the West, with which he is so intimately identified, remained home in Remington’s heart. It bred in him those tastes that eventually drew him westward. “A real sportsman, of the nature-loving type,” he wrote, “must go tramping or paddling or riding about over the waste places of the earth, with his dinner in his pocket.”