Western art: A window into our heroic past

The centerpiece of "Beauty and Bounty," an environmental art exhibition currently running at the SAM, gives visitors a glimpse into the harrowing challenges posed to Northwest pioneers in the face of its untamed wilds.

Crosscut archive image.

Albert Bierstadt's Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast is on exhibit at the SAM.

The centerpiece of "Beauty and Bounty," an environmental art exhibition currently running at the SAM, gives visitors a glimpse into the harrowing challenges posed to Northwest pioneers in the face of its untamed wilds.

This is the third of three essays by the author about nature and the art of the Far West, corresponding with a current show at the Seattle Art Museum, "Beauty and Bounty."

As a boy in the 1890s growing up in a farming community near Utah’s Sevier River, my grandfather-in-law, Peter Marlin Sorenson, knew the men who had settled his valley: He remembered them not as sober Mormon pioneers, but as “real wild men.” After Saturday night dances, they’d whip their horses, drop their reins, and — trusting providence once again — gallop off, no hands, into the dark. Their luck had held when they ventured, sight unseen, into the western deserts; they evidently believed it would last. This was a faith that went beyond religion.

What did it take to cast yourself adrift on the vast spaces of the continent’s unknown interior? It’s a lot easier to put names and personalities on the people who followed the wagon ruts west in the nineteenth century than to understand, perhaps, what lured them from comfortable houses and cabins, from friends and churches to the dust, fatigue, danger, and, above all, uncertainty of the long trail across the continent. That was the truly epic quality of the West’s settlement by people whose ancestors hadn’t lived there: The acceptance of the unknown and the prodigious labor required to survive and prosper once they arrived in the unknown land.

Near the Whitman mission site in Walla Walla lie the remains of people who slipped off into the void and vanished. In a grassy spot at the base of a hill, an unknown number of pioneers who died there after the Whitman Massacre lie in an unknown number of graves. Nobody knows who they were. Did anyone know their names when they died? Did mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, ever know where they had gone? Had there been letters? Or did each of these people simply head west one day — on impulse, out of desperation, following a dream — and disappear?

In the west, the epic history has been one of people moving through the landscape, “discovering” the landscape (even though it had been inhabited for thousands of years), confronting the landscape. Remember the unfortunate Donner Party, following the route that Interstate 80 now takes through the Sierras in the fall of 1846, halted by November snow above what is now Truckee, alone, starving, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive before they were rescued the following spring. People at the time saw the Donner experiences as modern parables.

“What shocked Californians about the Donner ordeal was its intensity . . . and its force as a dystopian symbol,” writes Kevin Starr in Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915. “Taken collectively, the Donner party was Everyman in a morality play of frontier disintegration. As a group, acting democratically, representative of the varieties of settlers coming into California, amateurs on the frontier, filled with hopes for a better life, the Donner party showed itself capable of bad behavior and bad decisions — which the wilderness compounded into disaster. . . . It was the communal failure which frightened most profoundly, and cannibalism was but its exponent. . . . The earthly Eden could turn . . . into an eating of one another’s flesh.”

The story burned itself into at least some contemporary minds — and not as a tale of survival. “When they were rescued in the spring,” Starr writes, “Californians forgot their heroism and remembered only that they had eaten one another’s flesh . . . "

The Donner story was extreme, but the experience of winding up at the limit of one’s competence and the limit of society’s ability to help, was relatively commonplace. From 1869 into the 1880s, when people drove livestock across the Cascade Mountains to sell in Seattle, the swampy eastern shore of the undammed and narrower Lake Keechelus, just east of Snoqualmie Pass, was a particularly troublesome spot. And drovers weren't the only ones who had trouble.

In the fall of 1869, writes Clarence Bagley in his History of King County, Washington, M.S. Booth was returning from the Yakima Valley with 130 beef cattle when he found a group of immigrants with three wagons stuck beside the lake. “The horses had played out,” Bagley writes, “several members of the party were sick, and Mr. Booth, upon his arrival in Seattle, gave it as his opinion that the party must be given assistance if it was to get through the pass before the winter rains set in and made the roads impassable. Seattle came to the rescue. . . . $100 was raised, and a man with a yoke of oxen was sent over the pass to [help] the stranded party which, a little later, was reported to have reached [Issaquah] in safety.”

And yet those miserable migrants, stuck on the marshy shore of a minor lake, unable to make the push across one last mountain pass, or even the unfortunate members of the Donner Party, stuck in the Sierra snows, are not the people who have captured our imagination. Lewis and Clark, slogging through snow and paddling down terrifying rapids to the mouth of the Columbia River, had the classic encounter with the Western landscape. They are the archetypes.

They were traveling through what to them was an unknown wilderness, and we tend to think of them rather like Christopher Columbus sailing into unknown seas, or even the Apollo astronauts, stepping onto the untrodden moon. But of course they weren't. We should probably think of them more like Marco Polo.

Marco Polo set off across a landscape unknown to him but inhabited, he knew, by other civilizations with which he hoped to become familiar. That is exactly what Lewis and Clark did in the American west, exactly what President Thomas Jefferson had told them to do. They knew people lived there. They just weren’t sure who those people were. They were supposed to meet them, report on them, win their allegiance to the United States. Those people fed them, sold them horses, told them how to get where they were going.

Of course, along the way, Lewis and Clark had the ultimate series of western adventures. I like Clark’s description of their predicament camped on the shore of Grays Bay, almost to the mouth of the Columbia River, where they are pinned down by a fierce storm. “[W]e are all very wet and disagreeable,” Clark writes on November 8. “The waves are increasing to such a hight that we cannot move from this place. . . . We are compelled to . . . camp between the hite of the Ebb and flood tides, and rest our baggage on logs.”

That's what I think of when I see the centerpiece of the Seattle Art Museum's Beauty and Bounty exhibit — Albert Bierstadt's Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. In the Bierstadt painting native fishermen have drawn and are drawing their dugout canoes onto a strip of beach beneach a rocky outcrop, while offshore, to the right, a great wave swells beheath a dark, stormy sky.

Bierstadt was painting a fantasy of Baker Bay, just downriver from Grays Bay, where he once spent 20 hours on a San Francisco-bound steamship, waiting out a storm. But the explorers might have recognized it as something close to their reality. During their second day trapped on the beach, “the flood tide came in accompanied with emence waves and heavy winds, floated the trees and Drift which was on the point on which we Camped and tossed them about in such a manner as to endanger the canoes . . . [Everyone in the party worked to ] Save our Canoes from being crushed by these monsterous trees maney of them nearly 200 feet long and from 4 to 7 feet through. [O]ur camp [was] entirely under water dureing the hight of the tide, every man as wet as water could make them . . . At this dismal point we must Spend another night as the wind & waves are too high to proceed.”

Three days later, the storm had still not let up. At around 3 a.m., they were struck by a “[t]remendous wind from the S.W. . . . with Lightineng and hard claps of Thunder and Hail . . . the waves tremendous brakeing with great fury . . . [O]ur Situation is dangerous. . . . [At low tide, the party moved around a point on the river bank to a camp site at the mouth of a brook. Life didn’t improve.] It would be distressing to see our Situation, all wet and colde our bedding also wet . . . Canoes at the mercy of the waves, altho Secured as well as possible. [The canoes were] “Sunk with emence parcels of Stone to wate them down to prevent their dashing to pieces against the rocks.”

A couple of days after that, the “wind blows very hard. But . . . we cannot tell from what point it comes. One of our canoes is much broken by the waves dashing it against the rocks.”

There was no way the explorers would venture far on that violent river. Then, like what must have seemed an apparition, “5 Indians came up in a canoe. . . only 3 of those Indians landed, the other 2 which was women played off in the waves, which induced me to Suspect that they had taken something from our men below.”

Clark may have fixated on the possibility that the Indians had swiped something, but he was missing the big picture. He and his colleagues, who had just crossed the continent, canoeing down every river that could float them, daring the rapids of the Columbia, were terrified by this storm. They knew — just knew — that to venture out onto the water would be certain death. And yet here were these Clatsop Indians paddling up just to have a look at them — or, if you prefer, just to commit an act of petty theft — and while the men were ashore doing whatever they were doing, a couple of women held the boat steady in the waves. The explorers had never seen canoe-handling skill like that.

People who lived along the Pacific coast knew the water in ways even the most skillful visitors never would. The old, frightening Columbia is long gone. Even before the great dams built in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s turned it into a chain of lakes, submerging not only the historic fishing sites but also the terrifying rapids, the federal government started building breakwaters at the river mouth to keep the surge of the ocean waves at bay. No one living remembers what the river used to be. And no one living remembers the skills of the people who lived on and with the old river.

Lewis and Clark may not have acknowledged that these people handled a canoe better than anyone else they had ever seen, but they did acknowledge that they had never encountered such an exalted level of canoe building or design. Six decades later, the design and construction of canoes at the mouth of the Columbia impressed the journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who accompanied Bierstadt on his 1863 trip west. "Rarely inclined to be even charitable in his general impressions of the natives," Patricia Junker writes in the catalog for Beauty and Bounty, "Ludlow remarked on the ingenuity of the Chinooks as seen in their 'well-adapted tools, comfortable lodges, and beautiful canoes.' . . . Ludlow took care to note that the impressive canoes they saw upriver were actually surpassed by the oceangoing canoes they eventually saw downriver, nearer the coast. Some of these carved and painted canoes, Ludlow said, were the equal of 'the "crackest" of shell-boats in elegance of line and beauty of ornament.'"

But Lewis and Clark were impressed by more than elegance of line. These things worked. In February 1806 Lewis wrote that “the na[t]ives inhabiting the lower portion of the Columbia River make their canoes remarkably neat light and well addapted for riding high waves. I have seen the natives near the coast riding waves in these canoes with safety and apparently without concern where I should have thought it impossible for any vessel of the same size to [have] lived a minute.”

Why should the natives have been concerned? They were home. The historian Richard White has written about people knowing the Columbia River through work more intimately than it can be known by anyone whose acquaintance with the river is more casual. Well, the people Lewis and Clark saw canoeing the waves inside the Columbia River bar didn't just work there; they lived there. They trusted their tools and their skills. And — like those "wild men" my grandfather-in-law saw galloping off into the darkness — they accepted a certain amount of risk. The natives who paddled through the unchecked waves that hurled old-growth logs at river-mouth beaches, like the pioneers who left everything and everyone they knew for the roadless, unirrigated, sweep of the intermountain West, not only knew a landscape that we can't really imagine; they knew it in ways that we can't really imagine, either.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.