Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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At this juncture in his life, however, Remington was less concerned with establishing himself as an artist than freeing himself from his desk in Albany and getting back west again. The opportunity came in the fall of 1882, when, upon turning twenty-one, he received the bulk of his inheritance, some nine thousand dollars, which he at once proceeded to spend with a free hand. Then in late February, 1883, acting upon the advice of a former Yale classmate, he plunged what was left into a quarter-section sheep ranch about ten miles south of Peabody, Kansas. It was not cattle ranching, and it was certainly not the frontier; but it was a chance to live in the West and become in fact a Westerner.

Remington stuck with sheep ranching for about a year, doubling his spread and passing his time with a set of like-minded young bachelors who appear to have been most adept at fun. One caper, however, ended unamusingly. It took place on Christmas Eve in the tiny settlement of Plum Grove, where a crowd was on hand at the schoolhouse to celebrate the festivities. Remington and his friends managed to make themselves obnoxious and were asked to leave. This called for retaliation and so, with the inspiration of high spirits both youthful and distilled, they piled straw outside one window, lit it, then screamed “Fire! Fire!” The aftermath was a two-day trial during which Remington suffered the embarrassment of being referred to by one of the attorneys as “Billy the Kid.” No more serious consequences resulted, and the culprits were let off upon payment of costs. But the episode was humiliating and perhaps lessened the charms of sheep ranching. Remington moved to Kansas City early in 1884, disposing of his ranch that May before departing on an excursion through the Southwest and into Mexico.

The precise effects of the sheep venture on Remington’s artistic development are difficult to assess. Throughout the year he had continued drawing, and if he learned little about the workaday realities of running a sheep ranch and less about financial responsibility, he had profited in other ways. The year on the ranch was to be his longest continuous residence in the rural West, and while the area around Peabody could hardly be called wild, vestiges of its frontier past remained in the early i88o’s. The country had impressed Remington, and his imagination was active enough to provide the missing element of hair-raising adventure. Shortly after arriving in sedate Peabody he scribbled the following to a friend in Canton: “Papers came all right—are the cheese—man just shot down the street—must go.” That the Peabody newspapers of the period record no shooting incident is not surprising. The West had won Remington over, and he had begun the process of making it conform to his impression of what it should be like. If Kansas had failed to live up to his expectations, it had still offered him room to be young and feel a glorious sense of freedom galloping across the prairie at dawn, his mare’s stride “steel springs under me as she swept along, brushing the dew from the grass of the range. …”

Such carefree times must end for all, but Remington did better than most at resisting the inevitable. His move to Kansas City was followed by a trip east, and on September 3o, 1884, he married Eva Caten. Just what in his activities over the past four years had convinced Mr. Caten that Remington would now make an acceptable son-in-law remains a mystery. The new bride and groom left at once for Kansas City to set up house. The details of this period of their life are sparse, perhaps because Eva, after only a few months away from friends and family, decided that the West—even the urban West—was not for her and returned home. Evidently there were other considerations, too. What Remington had made from the sale of his sheep ranch he had invested in a saloon. He was himself a heavy drinker throughout his life, perpetually climbing on and tumbling off the water wagon, as he was frank to admit in his letters. While Eva suffered from isolation and loneliness, her husband, who avoided mixed social gatherings whenever possible, whiled away the hours working on his art, selling an occasional painting, and doing pretty much what he wanted to do. He boxed, went riding, and, according to one of the bartenders who worked there, spent “a good deal of time” in the saloon he jointly owned. When this enterprise failed, Remington lost the last of his patrimony and suddenly found himself strapped for funds. This may have precipitated Eva’s decision to return to New York.

With Eva’s departure Remington was on his own again, and he spent the next few months wandering across the desert Southwest, sketching what he saw and filling his portfolio. At the end of summer he rejoined Eva in New York and thereafter accepted the fact that they would never live out west again. Instead he would periodically return on his own, often on assignment once he had become an established illustrator. His trips were far-ranging and included visits to the Canadian plains and Mexico. Some lasted for a month or more. But it was an arrangement that the Remingtons were able to accommodate themselves to throughout their marriage.