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“What A Sight It Was!”

March 2023
2min read

William Cary, traveling west on the Missouri, recorded the life and landscape of a rapidly vanishing frontier

For adventurous young men of the nineteenth century, there was no magnet, not even the sea, to compare with the Plains frontier. Here was the excitement of buffalo hunting, beautiful scenery, and narrow scrapes with Indians enraged at the advance of the white man. Fortunately, William de la Montagne Cary, born in 1840 in Tappan, New York, combined his sense of adventure with a talented hand both for writing and for lively, realistic, genre painting.

“Pretty near the first sketch I made got me in a mess,” the self-taught Cary recalled shortly before his death in 1922. Taking the opportunity of a short refueling stop on his first trip up the Missouri River in 1861, the young artist had arranged a sitting for an Indian girl whom he saw standing near a wigwam. To add color to the scene, he plated a bright-hued blanket about her shoulders. As he did this, a nearby squaw shouted excitedly, ran to Cary, and “made several queer passes” over him.

When the whistle blew for departure, Cary returned to the river boat, but noticed frantic movement on shore. A trapper who understood the Indians’ sign language informed the artist that he had just gone through a wedding ceremony with the Indian girl. Cary was horrified, but, he recalled, “Then the whistle blew again and I hopped aboard. I reasoned that if getting married was as easy as all that, divorce could be just as simple.”

Not all of Cary’s dose calls were matrimonial. The steamboat Chippewa, on which Cary was traveling from Fort Union to Fort Benton in the upper Plains, blew up when a keg of alcohol caught fire and touched off the cargo of explosives. Cary and his companions jumped just in time. On the same trip, Cary’s hunting party was surrounded and disarmed by unfriendly Crees, but was spared death when their guide recognized his father-in law among the head men of the attacking Indians.

The upper Plains Cary visited and painted was mostly trading country, where the far-flung cabins of the mountain men reflected the pioneer nature of the fur industry. It was still the old frontier—the gold rush that clogged the Oregon Trail in 1849 and changed it so radically would not come to the upper Missouri country until 1862, one year after Cary’s first visit.

If there was danger, there was grandeur, too. A beautiful passage in Cary’s diary recalls his first sight of a buffalo stampede: … the air became thick and trembled, and a buzzing and droning increased until there was a thundering noise and a trembling of the earth as a million buffalo came pouring over the hill in a mad rush towards the fort … What a sight it was!”

Despite the hardships and the physical dangers, the upper Missouri country fired Gary’s artistic imagination, and during the next fifty years, though his home remained in New York—where at one time he shared a studio with Albert Bierstadt and George Inness—he made several trips into the Plains, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with colorful and exciting scenes of Indian and pioneer life. He drew many of the famous Plains leaders from life—including Buffalo Bill Cody, Rain-in the Face, Custer, and Sitting Bull—and was invited by them to join many of their expeditions. His oils and sketches, most of them now preserved at the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, served as illustrations for Harper’s, Leslie’s, Currier & Ives, and many other publishers for almost thirty years. Thus Cary helped perpetuate the frontier symbol and preserve a fast dying chapter in the history of the West.


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