Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Before They're Gone--the Work of George Catlin

Ojibwa Woman, ca. 1832

There are many artists known for their images of the West, but the one whose work enthralls me the most is George Catlin.  Painting somewhat in the ‘naive’ style, Catlin’s life project was to capture the American Indian before they vanished, and this he did:  his subjects came from over fifty nations.
Mandan Village, ca. 1833

Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, later moving to upstate New York, Catlin’s fascination with American Indians started at an early age. His mother had regaled him with her tales of being a captive of the Iroquois during the Revolutionary War, and his cheek bore a scar from a ‘tomahawk’ thrown in a childhood game. An encounter in 1805 with an Oneida may also have influenced him.   
Although he initially studied law, Catlin was accepted by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and started his career as a portraitist. Successful enough to be commissioned by clients such as Sam Houston and Dolly Madison, Catlin spent time in Philadelphia’s museums painting tribal costumes, weapons, and ornaments brought back by Lewis and Clark. When a delegation of Native Americans came to Philadelphia in full regalia, his ambition took root.
Choctaw Stickball Player, ca. 1834
 Catlin began by painting people from the various tribes in upstate New York. His empathy for the Indians is obvious in his work, portraying them as individuals rather than savages—the general concept of the day. Catlin foresaw that they would soon be wiped from the earth by diseases such as small pox, and ills such as whiskey. When the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced tribes of the southeast on the notorious Trail of Tears, Catlin decided—despite being recently married—to venture west.
Armed with letters of introduction as well as some of his earlier work, Catlin called upon William Clark in St. Louis. Clark was then Governor of Missouri Territory as well as Indian Agent for the Territory of the Upper Louisiana, the latter position giving him full authority over all Indian matters in the West. Clark let Catlin set up his easel in his office where he painted visiting Native Americans there to trade or for treaty matters. Subsequently, he and Clark became close friends, and Clark took Catlin up the Mississippi to a council with Sauks and Foxes, and again up the Missouri and overland to Kansas. Clark also posed for a full length portrait.
A Mandan Ceremony, ca. 1835
During six years from 1830 to 1836, Catlin traveled throughout the west, returning to his family for the winter. He painted warriors and women at work, villages, buffalo hunts, ceremonies, and the scenery of the west, as well as everyday implements the Indians used. So many  purportedly wanted their likenesses drawn, it was often necessary for Catlin to develop a shorthand of sketching and filling in later. In addition to painting the Plains Indians, he made trips up the Arkansas and Red Rivers, and into Florida and the Great Lakes.
Boy Chief, Ojibbeway, ca. 1843
Catlin was determined that the world should see the American Indian through his paintings and, to this end, he started a series of exhibitions and lectures, including not only the paintings but artifacts and costumes he had collected as well. ‘Catlin’s Indian Gallery,’ as it was called, was largely successful and motivated him to approach Congress with the idea the collection should be bought as the basis for a museum. Despite the support of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and William Seward, the resolution got no further than the House of Representatives.
This apparent failure prompted him to take the collection to London. There he received such popular support he remained for five years, the exhibitions evolving over time into a sort of Wild West show. This eventually went on to Paris where he was befriended by King Louis Phillipe, and the paintings were exhibited in the Louvre.
However, when revolutionaries overthrew the King, Catlin was forced to return to England. Bankrupt and surrounded by creditors, he was bailed out by one Joseph Harrison of Philadelphia, who took possession of all the works.
By 1852, with his wife deceased and his children sent back to America, Catlin was persuaded by a Parisian acquaintance to go to Brazil in search of gold. He found no gold but proceeded to paint the indigenous peoples of South America over the next five years.   He later made trips to Alaska and up the Columbia and Snake Rivers, crossing the Rockies and canoeing down the Rio Grande.
Choctaw Woman, ca. 1834

In 1870, Catlin returned to the United States. He had a collection of copies of his original works, which he now called a Cartoon Collection, as well as an historical series he had done for Louis Phillipe. With the Indian Wars now raging in the west, Catlin received an invitation from the Smithsonian Institution to exhibit. Catlin saw this as his last chance to persuade the government to take possession of this pictorial record of a peoples and life that would soon vanish. But in 1872 Congress was more concerned with defeating the Indians rather than gaining pictures of them, and George Catlin passed away in October of that year, his life’s work packed away .
In 1879, the heirs of Joseph Harrison donated the original Catlin gallery to the government. Moth-eaten and with smoke and water damage, the Smithsonian restored them, finally putting them on show for seven years from 1883. In 1912, one of Catlin’s surviving daughters sold the cartoon collection to the American Museum of Natural History while others were in the collection of Paul Mellon, who donated them to the National Gallery of Art.
While Catlin’s work may not be regarded as great as a Remington or Russell, for me, the palette, the vitality of the paintings, and the sincerity of the portraits is more enthralling than either artist.
George Catlin rests in a Brooklyn cemetery.
Buffalo Bulls Back Fat, a Blood Chief, ca. 1832

All photographs of paintings are public domain.
Previously posted at

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Woman with Steel Ribs to Match Her Steel Spine (or, You Don't Mess with a Girl's Corset)

By Heather Blanton
Doing research for a book (Hang Your Heart on Christmas), I came across an amazing story of a woman with a steel backbone ... and ribs to match! Fashion saved her life and I mean that in the most literal sense possible.
Juliet Constance Ewing was born in Ireland, date unknown. On September 17, 1839, she and her brother, William G. Ewing, entered Texas as immigrants. And it was women like her who gave the state its reputation.
Juliet had the misfortune to suffer firsthand Texas change in policy toward Indians. Under the earlier leadership of Sam Houston, the Republic had few problems with the tribes, as he understood and respected them. His successor, Mirabeau B. Lamar, did not. Nor did he care to.
He promised the extermination of the Comanches.
On July 18, 1840, Juliet married station manager Hugh Oren Watts. This same year, talks with the Comanches broke down and 35 braves were massacred by US troops. The tribe hit the warpath with a vengeance, pun intended. Shockingly brutal attacks ensued, ending with the "Great Comanche Raid" that Texans still talk about today.
Just like Sherman would march through Georgia decades later, the Comanche thundered across Texas, burning, scalping, raping, and pillaging. When they attacked the small community of Linnville, where Juliet and William resided, the town was completely unprepared. Panicked, running for their lives, the townsfolk made a bee line for the boats in the bay, thinking to float out of reach of the marauders.
Only, William suddenly realized he’d left behind a gold watch. And went back for it. Juliet followed him. I don’t know which of the two was dumber.
William was killed and scalped. Juliet was taken captive. The Comanche spent most of the day pillaging the community, setting ransacked buildings on fire, and,—no kidding—trying to figure out how to get Juliet out of her steel-boned corset.
Running out of time and exasperated by the infernal garment, the Indians tied the woman to a tree and shot an arrow into her breast. Only, the steel ribbing and thick material slowed the arrow enough so that it didn’t kill her. Merely lodged in her breast bone.
Hollywood wouldn’t even believe this, yet it is fact.
From his eye witness report, Private Robert Hall recalled, “A little further on I found Mrs. Watts. They had shot an arrow at her breast, but her steel corset saved her life. It [the arrow] had entered her body, but Isham Good and I fastened a big pocket knife on the arrow and pulled it out. She possessed great fortitude, for she never flinched, though we could hear the breastbone crack when the arrow came out.
Clearly, Juliet was one tough Texan. This should have been a big hint to her second husband.
She married Dr. James Stanton in 1842, but divorced him five years later, “the first divorce in the new state of Texas.” Oddly, the woman demanded nothing short of complete fidelity from her husband. He didn't see it her way and for the disagreement, got to hand over to her the hotel the couple had opened.
Juliet’s third, and, thankfully, final, husband was a Dr. Richard Fretwell. They were married until her death in 1878.
I’ve no doubt Juliet was buried wearing her corset. Steel ribs to match her steel spine.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The First Beauty Salon

This post has nothing to do with any of my books. The subject simply caught my attention when mentioned on a TV show my husband was watching a few weeks ago.

Martha Matilda Harper was born in Canada in 1857. At the age of seven her father ‘farmed’ her out to relatives as a domestic servant. For the next 22 years she worked in that capacity, and then moved to New York, also working as a servant. Her last Canadian employer was a doctor who taught her ‘hair health’.  Upon his death, he bequeathed her with his formula for hair tonic. While working as a servant in New York, Martha developed her own hair tonic and after three years, left being a domestic servant to open her first hair salon, The Harper Hair Parlour, mainly to have a way to market her tonic. 

Her floor length hair was her best marketing tool. P.T Barnum tried several times to hire her for his circus in order to put her tremendous tresses on display.

Martha emphasized customer ‘pampering’ and comfort at her salon. Using scientific techniques and natural products, she promoted healthy skin, hair, and inner beauty by also offering massages. She invented the reclining ‘shampoo’ chair (several different styles) and was the first American business person to start a franchise.  Upon training under her and with her regular visits to assure consistency and performance, she would allow others to open salons under the Harper name. (All franchises were owned and operated by women.) The salons also offered refreshments and child care to allow women the pampering they needed to reduce their every day stress. At the height of success there were over 500 Harper Salons operating across the United States. Over the years customers included Susan B. Anthony, Woodrow Wilson, Grace Coolidge, and Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Martha died in 1950 at the age of 92. In 1956 her husband sold the business. Her original shop located in Rochester, NY was the longest running and the oldest beauty parlor in the United States. It closed in the early 2000’s.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Not Quite Bone Dry

Hidden away in southwestern Wyoming, the Red Desert—a high altitude desert and sagebrush steppe—consists of approximately six million acres (9,320 square miles) of stunning rainbow-colored hoodoos, towering buttes, swirling sand dunes, vast open spaces and prehistoric rock art which Native peoples have left in the form of petroglyphs and teepee rings that outline ancient campsites. The Red Desert is the largest unfenced area in the lower 48. Its emptiness can overwhelm visitors at first, but as you explore and look more closely, the desert has a way of drawing you in.  The Red Desert has captivated hundreds of thousands of people over the years, myself included.

The Red Desert is a rich landscape that offers world-renowned pronghorn and elk hunting, wildlife viewing and one of the largest active sand dune complexes in North America.  Animals have adapted over generations to thrive in this harsh landscape.  One of the largest desert elk herds in North America makes the Red Desert its home.  Each year a portion of the 50,000 pronghorn antelope and 50,000 mule deer herds migrate to the Red Desert for the winter and then into the Upper Green River Basin and Wind River Mountains during the summer.  The Red Desert provides these animals with crucial wintering habitat.  In the springtime, thousands of sage-grouse gather for their mating dances as they have for centuries.

Among the natural features in the Red Desert region are the Great Divide Basin, a unique endorheic drainage basin formed by a division in the Continental Divide, and the Killpecker Sand Dunes, the largest living dune system in the United States. In the 19th century, the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails tracked through the northern and western regions of the Red Desert after crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. Today, busy Interstate 80 bisects the desert’s southern region.

The majority of the Red Desert is public land managed by the Rock Springs and Rawlins field offices of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Red Desert supports an abundance of wildlife, despite its scarcity of water and vegetation. The largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states and a rare desert elk herd, said to the be world’s largest, live in the desert. Ponds fed by snow melt attract a wide range of migratory birds such as ducks, trumpeter swans, snowbirds, and white pelicans.  Herds of feral horses known for their long manes and tails roam the area in large numbers, despite roundups and population control efforts by the BLM. The Hayden Expedition (1871) said Bighorn Sheep were numerous during their stay at the Honeycomb Buttes in the Red Desert, but today wild sheep are only found high in the mountain ranges and are rarely seen. Bison were also common and their skulls and horns can occasionally be found there.
Despite the vastness of the Red Desert, it isn’t silent here.  One would think, as wide open as the desert is, silence would reign.  But, that’s not the case.  Grasshoppers continually click their way through the air.  In the evenings, coyotes can be heard barking and yelping.  And there is the wind—ever present, ever moving.  It shifts over the sands of the Killpecker Dunes, letting the sand hiss and whisper in its undulating motions. 

Light here changes rapidly, from the soft, pastel hues just before dawn and at twilight to the harsh, glittering glare of noon, seemingly so sharp in defining the landscape that it seems the light itself could shatter.  In the summer, shade is a precious commodity. The combination of the vastness, openness of the landscape, and the light makes judging distances difficult and incredibly deceptive in the Red Desert.  What appears to be a few hundred yards away quite often is over a mile in the distance. 

The contradictions are what make the Red Desert so special and unique.  Aridness hiding seasonal ponds and pools that shelter water fowl, distances that stretch as far as the eye can see that shrink perception down to the ground at your feet, diverse and hardy life thriving in a place that at first blush appears to be devoid of life. 
The Red Desert is a place that has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Deadwoods Ghosts by Paty Jager

Have you ever experienced a ghost? Thought you might have seen one? Or even felt that cold whisper of air or the feeling you weren't alone?

Fairmont Hotel
Last month I attended the Wild Deadwood Reads Reader/Author event in Deadwood, South Dakota. You can read more about it here. It was a fun-filled weekend of sightseeing and attending events with readers. While I enjoyed the bus ride and games up to the 1880's train ride and the train itself was a unique peek into how characters set in my historical books would have ridden the rails; and I had fun watching the crowd and the bull riders at the PBR rodeo; I would have to say my favorite event of the weekend was our ghost tour through The Historic Fairmont Hotel Brothel.

To start with, the man giving the tour was a showman. He had us all sit at a long table in a room with memorabilia covering the walls and told us stories of the brothels, the clientele, and the woman who lived in the building.

There were three buildings on the block that were all connected on the second floors. This floor and
the third floor were the brothels. Men would enter the barber shop in the basement as if getting a shave and a haircut, exit the back, and take a back staircase to the second floor. There they were led into a "meeting" room. Here they visited with the ladies and made their choice if they didn't already have one in mind.

On the second floor, they could also move from one brothel to the next if they preferred a woman who worked for a different place.

The sad thing about these poor woman was that drinking, drugs, and getting involved with the wrong man usually ended up with them dead- either by someone else or their own doing.

The owner of the hotel told a story of how he purchased the hotel, and because he had no where else
Are those ghosts in the upper left corner?
to live, and was slowly renovating, he  lived in the big three story building all by himself for several years. He had incidents where he would wake because it felt like someone was pulling his arm, or someone had sat on his bed. Others who visited and slept on the bed had similar occurrences. He also saw a woman named Maggie several times. She had fallen in with the wrong man, discovered she was pregnant and he was married. She sat on the window ledge and pushed- killing herself and the baby. In the photos he took of her, you see her extended belly. He has one photo where his sister was in the room talking about the man, who was a prominent citizen in the day in Deadwood, and you see ghostly hands around his sister's throat. Were the photos doctored? Or does Maggie's ghost haunt the building?

I didn't see Maggie, but in one of my photos there is a shadow that doesn't fit anyone who was in the room and a flash of light in another.
shadow is looking through the door.

The way the man told stories and prepared our minds to "see" things that may or may not have been there was a definite art. Some walked around saying they could feel something in that corner or they saw the boy the man talked about in one hall. Did they? Or are they more susceptible to ideas put in their heads?

I do believe in ghosts. I've had two encounters in my life that can't be explained any other way. And I do believe there are ghosts who have not left this plane due to circumstances they can't control.

But did I see ghosts or was I as gullible as the rest of the people who paid money to walk through a dark building? ;) Join us in Deadwood next June and you can see if there really are ghosts.

Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 32+ novels, a dozen novellas, and a passel of short stories of murder mystery, western romance, and action adventure. All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters.

This is what readers have to say about the Letters of Fate series- “...filled with romance, adventure and twists and turns.” “What a refreshing and well written love story of fate and hope!”

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