Frederic Remington’s Image of the Frontier

 

Robert L. Stevens

No matter how the settlement of the West is interpreted, one fact stands out above the rest: whites took land from the Indians.”1 Despite a Supreme Court decision favorable to the Cherokees, their removal along with other southeastern tribes to an Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi was effectively accomplished during the Jackson presidency.2 During the 1840s, reformers mounted efforts to develop government policies that would offer some protection to Indian nations. Yet, from the end of the Civil War to the closing of the frontier during the 1880s, the U.S. government pursued land and military policies that in retrospect appear more like extermination than reform. The haunting comment of an anonymous Indian reveals our historic past: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”3

In spite of this grim reality, many Americans at the time romanticized this dark chapter in our history. Among them was the late nineteenth century artist-illustrator Frederic Remington. Remington’s depiction of the West moved beyond a familiar romanticism to a mythical representation of the frontier struggle. Bold masculine images of strength, courage, and perseverance dominate his work. The fact that these virtues of character were attributed mainly, if not entirely, to one side in the struggle was hardly unusual for the time. Remington’s work both reflected prevailing attitudes and furthered a vision of the Westward Movement that still influences us today.

A romantic vision of the frontier as pristine wilderness was an established tradition in American art. The “wilderness painters” of the Hudson River Valley schoo#151;among them Thomas Cole and Asher Durand—had celebrated the grandeur of the American landscape early in the nineteenth century. As the frontier moved westward, their vision moved with it. The panoramic paintings of Albert Bierstadt, whose work extended over several decades, combined romanticism with a realistic attention to geographic detail in his compositions. Two other artists working before mid-century offered visions of the Plains Indians that were more realistic—even documentary-like—in their nature. George Catlin produced a series of works depicting hunting and village life on the Plains, while Karl Bodmer executed detailed portraits of members of various tribes.

By the end of the Civil War, very little of the West remained uncharted. As two great railways laid their tracks toward a famous junction in northern Utah, the great tribes of the Plains were still hanging on to their way of life tenaciously. But their efforts were doomed, not least by the near extinction of the buffalo—a reality depicted by Bierstadt in a canvas titled “The Last of the Buffalo” (c. 1889). But, as art historian Robert Hughes points out, the reality the artist presented here was a lie. “It shows no white hunters with Sharps rifles. The blame for the ecocide is put on the Indians themselves.”4

 

The Closing of the Frontier

Remington entered the frontier shortly before the official pronouncement of its demise. Based on the findings of the 1890 Census, its superintendent issued this report:

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.5

This statement caught the imagination of a young Wisconsin historian, Frederick Jackson Turner. Speaking before an assembly of historians in Chicago in 1893, Turner presented his thesis about the meaning of the frontier in American history. According to Turner:

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.6

The Turner thesis itself became part of the myth of the Westward Movement. But not all historians have accepted Turner’s notion of a moving frontier where, with available land virtually free for the taking, industrial workers in the East could at any time pull up stakes and migrate West. Louis Hacker argues that “the free farmers of the American West, beginning in the 1820’s, were not recruited from the industrial workers of the East, for these simply could not afford the cost of the long journey into the prairie states and the purchase and establishment of a family farm.”7

Another Turner critic, George W. Pierson, asserts that mobility, not the continual movement of the frontier, explains the American character. “I am suggesting that all kinds of space, settled as well as unsettled, urban as well as rural, were made available by our expectation and practice of moving; and I am further suggesting that the expectation and practice of moving increased when there was no more free land or empty space. Hence mobility has continued to serve as a safety valve.”8

Though these and other recent historians offer alternative theories about the role of the frontier in forming the American character, it is Turner’s thesis that seems most appropriate to explaining the art of Frederick Remington.

 

Remington and the West

Born in New York State, Remington was an art student before taking his first trip west to Montana in 1881. Not yet decided on becoming an artist, he did sell a sketch to Harper’s Weekly upon his return. He went west again in 1883 to try, and fail, at sheep ranching in Kansas. His third trip west in 1886 proved decisive to his career: “Travelling in the Southwest, he joined a military unit searching for a small band of Apaches led by Geronimo. Following his return to the East, he sold virtually all of his sketches to Outing.”9

Americans at the time hungered for accounts of frontier life. The palette of cowboys, soldiers, trappers, and Indians that Remington came to portray in such publications as Harper’s Weekly, The Century Magazine, and Youth’s Companion made him one of America’s most popular illustrators. What accounted for Remington’s romantic perception of the West and the public response to it? Remington’s drawings were full of adventure. Did his illustrations serve to fill a psychic need—his own and that of others—as Americans far removed from it came to sense what they were about to lose, or had already lost, in the passing of the frontier?

Urban Americans were not interested in the social reality the West represented, and Remington was not dealing with social and economic forces as they existed in reality. Rather, he presented a mythical conception of the frontier wherein all his subjects became characters in a cosmic drama. Although set in the West, Remington’s paintings omit any strong sense of geographical place. Because his characters represent values, the setting is not important. The idea of the last stand—Custer and his men fighting to the end, cowboys shooting it out with Indians—represented to Remington the struggle for white man’s values against all odds.

And just what was at stake here? As Hughes points out, “Turn of the century America was filled with anxiety about immigration: many of Anglo-Saxon stock felt imperiled by the rising tide of racial ‘impurity.’”10 He points to Remington’s own xenophobia as exhibited in a letter the artist wrote:
“Jews, Indians, Chinamen, Italians, Huns ... rubbish of the earth ... I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins I can get my share of them, and what’s more, I will.”11 Remington’s West may be seen as a metaphor for mainstream culture standing its ground against the profound social and economic changes being wrought by industrialization and immigration.

 

Remington and the Indian

Although Remington’s art includes many portrayals of Indians, it shows little sympathy for their struggle in the battle for the West. Asserts Matthew Baigell:

Remington never questioned the right of whites to possess the land. His point of view was in total sympathy with the architects of Manifest Destiny—that somehow whites had a God-given right to settle the trans-Mississippi lands and to run off anyone who tried to stop them. Rather than portray the Indians’ majestic struggles to preserve what was rightfully theirs, Remington cast in heroic mold those who usurped their lands—the explorers, mountain men, fur traders, soldiers, Indian Agency employees, cowboys, and settlers, as well as their Spanish and French equivalents.12

It was this attitude and what undergirded it that conflicted with the reality of frontier life. The trouble between the whites who were rapidly streaming through Indian territory and the Indians who were justifiably protecting their ancestral lands involved a number of misconceptions about the true nature of the Plains Indians. “These misconceptions were brought ready-made from the East,” writes Walter S. Campbell, “and for these misconceptions—so terrible in their effect—I am afraid the American editor and the American author were largely responsible.”13

Campbell outlines five views of the American Indian that were prevalent at the time. The most popular one saw the Indian as a Child of Nature. This was a pleasant conception for the white man, as it left no doubt as to his superiority while also nourishing his more humane and romantic feelings. The Indian was also viewed as a a Noble Savage, a Worthless Degenerate, a member of the Lost Tribe of Israel, and most dangerously for him, a member of a Vanishing Race. This was a highly popular view in its basic assertion that “God knew what he was about in making the white man victorious on this continent.”14

Remington fell prey to these misconceptions, as did some of his literary counterparts, including the popular novelist Owen Wister and the young Theodore Roosevelt (both of whom commissioned Remington to illustrate their books). In Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, the young T.R. wrote that “even the best Indians are very apt to have a good deal of wild beast in them; when they scent blood they wish their share of it, no matter from whose veins it flows.”15 Reinforcing this misconception of the Indian, Remington in his writings described the following scene: “Occasionally the Indian caught one of them alive (Yellow-eyed soldiers), staked his to a hill, and burned his in sight of his camp.”16 For all the Plains Indian’s joy of battle, he was not given to wanton cruelty. And the dangerously one-sided nature of the argument becomes evident when one considers the cruelties visited on Indians—including massacres of defenceless women and children by the U.S. cavalry at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.17

Yet this Eastern painter persisted in representing the frontier as a place where whites were savaged by Indians and never the other way around. “A Dash for the Timber” (1889) and “Fight for the Waterhole”(c. 1903) portray cowboys alternatively being chased or surrounded by Indians. Another turn of the century illustration, “The Emigrants” (ca. 1895-1902), harks back from range to covered wagons days in presenting a similar scene, investing it with greater poignancy in its depiction of a white boy who is valiant but obviously doomed.

Given the reality of the situation—by this time, all of the Plains Indian tribes were consigned to reservations—one may wonder about the persistence of this siege mentality. Is it the simple repetition of a subject bound to be found gripping? Or, was the West as metaphor becoming an increasingly potent image for “a beleaguered white society holding out against invasion?”18

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Remington undoubtedly struck a nerve in many of his countrymen. He was able to give their anxieties and insecurities meaning through the illustrations, paintings, and bronzes he so carefully crafted. Concludes Baigell, “In Remington’s paintings, we can easily slip into the roles played by the figures, but this easy identification implies acceptance of Remington’s values. Whether we realize it or not, he tells us things we do not always want to know.”19

 

Notes

1. Matthew Baigell, The Western Art of Frederic Remington (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976), 2.

2. See Lee Ann Potter and Wynell Schamel, “Teaching with Documents: General Orders Pertaining to Removal of the Cherokees,” Social Education 63, no. 1 (January/February 1999): 32-38.

3. Baigell, 7.

4. Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf., 1977), 201.

5. U.S. Bureau of the Census.

6. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” available on the web at xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/TURNER/chapter1.html

7. Louis Morton Hacker, The Triumph of American Capitalism: The Development of Forces in American History to the End of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), 9.

8. George Wilson Pierson, The Moving American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), 37.

9. Baigell, 10.

10. Hughes, 205.

11. Ibid.

12. Baigell, 13-14.

13. Walter S. Campbell, “The Plains Indians in Literature and in Life,” in James F. Willard and Colin B. Goody Koontz, eds., The Trans-Mississippi West (Boulder, CO: Publisher, 1930), 181. (Paper read at a conference held at the University of Colorado, June 18-21, 1924.)

14. Ibid., 185.

15. Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

16. Frederic Remington, The Way of the Indian (New York: Fox Duffield and Company, 1906; reprinted by Literature House, 1920), 199.

17. Dee Alexander Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971).

18. Hughes, 205.

19. Baigell, 27.

 

Robert L. Stevens is a professor of middle grades and secondary education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

 

The Turner Thesis

 

These excerpts are from“The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” an address delivered by Frederick Jackson Turner to the American Historical Association meeting in Chicago on July 12, 1893. This was the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which opened on May 1 and closed on October 30. It was also the year of the Cherokee Outlet land rush (the largest of five land runs on Indian Territory in Oklahoma), which opened and closed on September 16.

 

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.

 

... American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.

 

... The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile. The term is an elastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp definition. We shall consider the whole frontier belt including the Indian country and the outer margin of the “settled area” of the census reports.

 

... The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.

 

... In the middle of this century ... the distinctive frontier of the period is found in California, where the gold discoveries had sent a sudden tide of adventurous miners, and in Oregon, and the settlements in Utah ... so now the settlers beyond the Rocky Mountains needed means of communication with the East, and in the furnishings of these arose the settlement of the Great Plains and the development of still another kind of frontier life. Railroads, fostered by land grants, sent an increasing tide of immigrants into the Far West. The United States Army fought a series of Indian wars in Minnesota, Dakota, and the Indian Territory.

 

... The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.

 

... Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.

 

... Why was it that the Indian trader passed so rapidly across the continent?...The explanation of the rapidity of this advance is connected with the effects of the trader on the Indian. The trading post left the unarmed tribes at the mercy of those that had purchased fire-arms ... Thus the disintegrating forces of civilization entered the wilderness. Every river valley and Indian trail became a fissure in Indian society, and so that society became honeycombed. Long before the pioneer farmer appeared on the scene, primitive Indian life had passed away. The farmers met Indians armed with guns. The trading frontier, while steadily undermining Indian power by making the tribes ultimately dependent on the whites, yet, through its sale of guns, gave to the Indian increased power of resistance to the farming frontier.

 

... the Indian trade pioneered the way for civilization. The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader’s “trace;” the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads ... In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist.

 

... The effect of the Indian frontier as a consolidating agent in our history is important ... In this connection may be mentioned the importance of the frontier, from that day to this, as a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman ... The frontier army post, serving to protect the settlers from the Indians, has also acted as a wedge to open the Indian country, and has been a nucleus for settlement.

 

... The public domain has been a force of profound importance in the nationalization and development of the government ... The purchase of Louisiana was perhaps the constitutional turning point in the history of the Republic, inasmuch as it afforded both a new area for national legislation and the occasion of the downfall of the policy of strict construction.

 

 

... But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism ... The frontier states that came into the Union in the first quarter of a century of its existence came in with democratic suffrage provisions, and had reactive effects of the highest importance upon the older States whose peoples were being attracted there.

 

... The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

 

... And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

 

Turner’s speech as it appeared in the Report of the American Historical Association for 1893 can be found on the Web at: xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/TURNER/chapter1.html

Teaching Activities

Thinking about

Remington’s West

 

The art of Frederic Remington coincided with the closing of the frontier, as officially proclaimed by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890 and expounded upon in the Turner thesis of 1893. This lesson asks students to draw connections between the frontier as described by Turner and as depicted in the art of Remington.

 

Objectives

 

> To analyze Turner’s view of the importance of the frontier in American history by reading the excerpts contained in this article and answering a series of questions

 

> To analyze the frontier art of Remington by viewing the pictures in this article and answering a series of questions

 

> To place Turner’s thesis and Remington’s art within the broader historical context of the period

 

> To evaluate Turner’s ideas and Remington’s images in terms of the attitudes they promoted about the American Indian and the loss of tribal lands

Procedures

 

1. Students should read the excerpts from Turner’s thesis contained in this article and answer the following questions. The answers could be done all or in part as an assignment to be followed by class discussion.

 

> How did the U.S. Bureau of the Census define the frontier? Why did it declare the frontier closed in 1890?

 

> What assumptions about who owned the West did Turner make? Document this with statements from his thesis.

 

> According to Turner, the wilderness transformed the colonist who entered it. How did he explain this? What assumptions about the American Indian were contained in his explanation?

 

> What view did Turner hold of the Indian trader? What effects on Indian culture did he attribute to this trade?

 

> How did Turner describe the role of the U.S. Army on the frontier? What is the effect of saying the Army fought a series of “Indian wars?” What if Turner had said that American Indians fought a series of “U.S. Army wars?”

 

> Turner’s thesis, both explicitly and implicitly, propounds a theory of social evolution. How is this view presented here? How do you think it might relate to the Social Darwinism of his time?

 

> Compare Turner’s portrayals of the “American” and the “Indian.” What traits appear distinct to each? What traits appear interchangeable? Do you think Turner saw them as such?

 

> Turner viewed the Westward Movement as a “procession of civilization.” This being so, how does one square his statement that, with the advance of the Indian trader, “the disintegrating forces of civilization entered the wilderness?”

 

> According to Turner, what was the most important effect of the frontier on American history?

 

> Do you agree with Turner that the end of the frontier “closed the first period of American history?” Or, are the issues raised by the Turner thesis still alive today?

2. Students should view the images of the frontier by Remington presented in this article and answer the questions that follow. It would enrich this activity for students to see more pictures by Remington and to read the article before or after viewing the pictures. A good and easily available book on the subject is Matthew Baigel#146;s The Western Art of Frederick Remington.

 

A Dash for the Timber (1889) Oil on canvas.

 

> What is the geographical location of this painting?

 

> Where is the action in this painting concentrated?

 

> What human qualities does the artist give the cowboys?

 

> How does the artist depict the Indians? (students may note that they are equipped with rifles)

 

> Is the painting a more “romantic” or “realistic” portrayal of the Western conflict over land?

 

Fight for the Waterhole (1903) Oil on canvas.

 

> What is the geographical location of this painting?

 

> What perspective on the fight does it present?

 

> What human qualities does the artist give the cowboys?

 

> How does the artist depict the Indians?

 

> Is the painting a more “romantic” or “realistic” portrayal of the Western conflict over land?

 

The Cheyenne (1901) Bronze statue.

 

> What tribal member does this statue depict? (a warrior)

 

> What features help to define this Cheyenne? (student responses have included “flowing hair,” “long spear,” “strong leg muscles,” and “speed of the galloping horse”)

 

> What human qualities does the artist give the Cheyenne?

 

> What overall impression do you think this statue conveys?

 

> Is the statue a more “romantic” or “realistic” portrayal of the American Indian?

 

3. Students should compare and contrast the concepts of the frontier offered by Turner and Remington. What do they have in common? Do they differ significantly in any way?

4. Students should evaluate the art of Frederick Remington using the following questions.

 

> What is the relationship between the closing of the frontier and the art of Remington?

 

> How do you think Remington’s portrayal of the frontier reflected/affected American attitudes and values at the time?

 

> Do you think Remington’s image of the frontier still influences Americans today? Why or why not?

Teaching Resources

Baigell, Matthew. The Western Art of Frederic Remington. New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.

Ellwood, Parry. The Image of the Indian and Black Man in American Art, 1590-1900. New York: George Braziller, 1974.

 

Hassick, Peter H. Frederic Remington. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973. (In association with the Carter Museum of Western Art.)

—————. “Frederic Remington’s Studio: A Reflection.” Antiques Magazine (November 1994).

Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Kendricks, Gordon. Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West. New York: Harry N. Abrams, DATE. (In association with the Ann Corter Museum of Western Art.)

McCrachen, Harold. George Catlin and the Old Frontier. New York: Bonanza Books, 1959.

Powe, Fay. “Perspectives on the American Landscape: The Conflict between Native and European American Ideas of Landownership.” Social Education 62, no. 3 (March 1998): 126-133.

Truettner, William H., ed. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1900. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1991.