As tame as the state of Nebraska may seem in these days of interstate highways and carefully plotted section lines, it was not always so. There was a time in America’s history when the land that would become Nebraska was a dangerous unknown, an unforgiving, unending plain, cut through by a long, broad river which offered the perfect avenue into the country’s largely unexplored regions to the west. This river is, of course, the Platte, and it was up this river that Major Stephen H. Long prepared to lead an expedition in 1820.
While his men were not the first to travel this route—fur trappers and of course countless Native Americans had traveled this way before—Long’s expedition did represent a few firsts in American history. He and his men were the first to scientifically survey the land along the Platte to its head in the Rocky Mountains, and his was the first federally-sponsored expedition to include artists. Long brought with him young naturalist Titian Ramsey Peale and landscape artist Samuel Seymour to record the unique flora, fauna, and geology encountered on the journey. Perhaps Long recognized the error Lewis and Clark had made in not bringing an artist to paint their journey to the Pacific Northwest. Possibly he acknowledged how much easier it is to transport and preserve sketchbooks than specimens. Maybe, though, Long and his sponsors understood how thirsty the American public back east was for images of these new territories as it turned its collective eye eagerly to the West.
Expedition artists certainly had a lot to deal with. Safety could never be guaranteed, paints and oils froze in harsh weather, and the Great Plains were so foreign, flat, and unending that it led Long to term them “The Great American Desert.” But out of this seeming barrenness, Peale and Seymour found plenty to fill their field books. Peale, as the natural history expert, produced hundreds of images of prairie wolves, bison, pronghorns, ground squirrels, magpies and other unfamiliar western creatures. Seymour painted vast prairies, distant mountains, and river views.
Both artists were also drawn to sketch and paint the native inhabitants they encountered along the way. They drew Cheyenne and Arapaho, Oto and Pawnee. This fascination with the indigenous remained a theme in the art of the Platte Basin, and indeed the entire West, for decades. Artists exploring the area were eager to record, and the American public was eager to see, the variety of Native American faces, clothing, and habits encountered on the frontier. George Catlin, who spent time among many tribes including the Omaha and Pawnee of the lower Platte, became known primarily for his depictions of Native Americans and their customs.
The next expedition to pass along the Platte included an artist of quite a different breed. John Fremont, tasked in 1842 to map the road along the Platte River for the ever-increasing flow of settlers west, brought with him Charles Preuss. Preuss was an artist and botanist, but most importantly, one of the finest cartographers of the time. He was a skilled topographer and drew more accurate maps than had yet been created of the largely unsettled territories. This accuracy was crucial, for the final product of this expedition was a day-by-day guide of the Platte River Road for pioneers who would need to know exactly which miles would bring them water, forage, wood, safety, and steep travel as they reached the mountains. This guide neatly ordered the unsettled territories, made them seem inviting and manageable, and ultimately encouraged further settling of the West. This last result, of course, was exactly what the government had intended when it sent Fremont and Preuss out.
As the traffic along the Oregon, Santa Fe, and Mormon trails increased, so did the volume of artwork from the West, amazing and enticing eastern audiences. Albert Bierstadt, who accompanied the Lander expedition up the North Platte in 1859, became renowned for his almost heavenly depictions of Western vistas and creatures. His creative use of light in his studio renderings of his travels was both lauded and heavily criticized. However one felt about his paintings, they left the West looking undeniably romantic and inviting.
Other artists found themselves more drawn to painting scenes of daily life on the trail rather than the grand views seen along the way. Covered-wagon pioneers became a popular subject among artists such as William Ranney, who portrayed white pioneers as they lived, died, and searched for a better life out on the frontier. Alfred Jacob Miller combined both of these subjects when he was hired for an expedition up the North Platte to the fur trade rendezvous in Wyoming. His paintings were singular for the time, since Miller was the first artist to see and paint this annual gathering of mountain men and Native Americans. He was a talented and versatile artist who captured all aspects of his journey—the landscapes, the wildlife, actual scenes from camp life, and imagined scenes which captured the essence of life out on the frontier.
As the wilderness of the West began to give way under the pressure of settlement, some artists began to play a new role—painting things that were no longer new, but in danger of disappearing. As the great herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn dwindled, as the wilderness was logged and mined and parceled out for settlement, and as the native tribes quickly lost their ancestral lands, art became a means for memorializing the West and stirring protective emotions in the public.
Bierstadt’s paintings of Yellowstone were integral to the establishment of the first national park and thus the entire National Park system. Carl Rungius, wildlife artist and sometime resident of Wyoming, helped inspire a wildlife conservation movement with his inspiring paintings of game animals. Art depicting Native Americans became increasingly romantic and nostalgic as they lost more and more of their land and way of life.
With the settling of the West came the transition from oils and watercolor to photography. As this new technology became sharper and more portable, it was increasingly used to record accurate images of the West. Its advantages are undeniable, and it remains the dominant art form used by conservationists today. More modern advances in camera technology allow anyone to share images anywhere of anything. It makes it easy to connect people to the beauty and inspiration of a place such as the Platte River and the preserve along its banks where I work.
Photography is such a valuable tool to us conservationists, but it will never hold my interest like pencils and sketchbooks do. I’m proud to carry on the old tradition. My main interest is in wildlife art, where sometimes I have to strip my subject right down to its skeleton in order to realistically put it together back on paper. This stripping down to basic structure, and the painstaking recreation of lines and forms, gives the artist the most intimate knowledge of their subject. It’s this connection that I find more and more as I work to improve my skills. I also like how it allows me to share scenes that happen too fast to catch on film, or that I don’t have the opportunity to observe myself. Art’s greatest strength, I think, is the ability to create novel scenes and images, which I am learning to do in illustrating ecological concepts that may not be apparent in a single photo. Plus, it gives me something to do way out in rural Nebraska. Ultimately, the longer I live along what used to be the Great Platte River Road, the more connected I feel to the long line of men and women who traveled this landscape long before me, back when it was a wild and unforgiving frontier.