The Oregon Trail, 1869
Oil on canvas, 31 X 49" (78.74 x 124.46 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Gift of Joseph G. Butler, III, 946-0-101
Albert Bierstadt went west for the first time in 1859, a young,
ambitious painter in the party of Colonel Frederick W. Lander, who had been charged by the
Interior Department to survey a new wagon route to California which would go north of Salt
Lake and thus prevent further friction between emigrants and Mormons. Lander was also to
placate the Native Americans whose trading would be disrupted by relocating the California
and Oregon wagon trails that
had been in use for years. The expedition offered the artist an opportunity to see America's fabled mountains, known to a fascinated public through written descriptions and photographs in black and white, and to encounter Native Americans in their natural setting. If the Rockies were as grand as the Alps, paintings of them would find buyers already enthusiastic at the prospects of westward expansion, especially merchants and boosters of the railroads.
When Bierstadt set out he was a better landscape painter than previous artists who had gone west, having studied for three years in Dusseldorf and painted in Italy. In Boston and his hometown of New Bedford, he was enjoying success with his paintings of landscape and European genre, due in no small measure to a talent for self-promotion.
Lander's expedition crossed Nebraska, and continued northwest following the North Fork of the Platte River into western Wyoming. Along the way Bierstadt sketched and took photographs of Native Americans and emigrants, some bound for Pike's Peak but others returning discouraged, like those he encountered near Fort Kearny with their 150 wagons. Yet three sketches published in 1859 as woodcuts in Harper's Weekly are among the very few Bierstadt images which include what was a common sight along the trail and the subject of The Oregon Trail: emigrants, animals, and wagons under way. By late June Bierstadt had left Lander, who continued on to California. Bierstadt stayed three weeks in the Wind River Mountains, sketching and photographing Native Americans and scenery. It was here, after exploring the mountains, that Bierstadt wrote a letter to The Crayon, an artistic journal, declaring the Rockies true rivals of the Alps and marking the beginning of his occupation with the subject which was to bring him fame and enormous fortune.
Bierstadt exhibited his first Rocky Mountain picture by March, 1860, and hoped to travel west again that year. However, helping his brothers Edward and Charles establish a photography studio and the beginning of the Civil War delayed his next trip until 1863. He was also faced with the difficulty of obtaining permission to accompany an army unit since Native Americans were attacking Overland mail stations. By the time Bierstadt again went west his reputation for painting the Rocky Mountains had been established by the exhibition of The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), large at 6 by 10 feet, which had been shown in New York, Boston, New Bedford, and Portland, Maine, often with an admission charge. Emanuel Leutze had painted Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1862, United States Capitol), and the West was on many minds.
In May, 1863, Bierstadt and the prominent writer, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, having failed to find a willing army unit, set out from St. Joseph, Missouri, trusting the Overland mail stagecoach to get them safely to California where they planned to visit Yosemite and then go north through the Oregon and Washington territories into lower Canada. Ludlow planned to send back letters about their adventures and gather notes for a book. Bierstadt sought more Rocky Mountain and Western subjects which he knew would be made even more popular by Ludlow's writings.
Near Fort Kearny, Nebraska, they passed a wagon train described by Ludlow as:
... a very picturesque party of Germans going to Oregon. They had a large herd of cattle and fifty wagons, mostly drawn by oxen, though some of the more prosperous "outfits" were attached to horses or mules. The people themselves represented the better class of Prussian or North German peasantry. A number of strapping teamsters, in gay costumes, appeared like Westphalians. Some of them wore canary shirts and blue pantaloons; with these were intermingled blouses of claret, rich warm brown, and the most vivid red. All the women and children had some positive color about them, if it only amounted to a knot of ribbons, or the glimpse of a petticoat. I never saw so many bright and comely faces.... The whole picture of the train was such a delight in form, color, and spirit that I could have lingered near it all the way to Kearney.
Over three years later Bierstadt was reported to be working on a large painting representing an emigrant train on its way across the Plains. Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1867, National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City) was finished by November 27, 1867 and went on exhibit in a San Francisco art gallery. It was sold a year later to Amasa Stone of Cleveland, Ohio. The Oregon Trail is identical in subject to the Oklahoma City painting but only one-half its size. It could have been painted during Bierstadt's European sojourn from 1867 to 1869 when he took studios in London, Rome, and Paris, showed Rocky Mountain pictures to Queen Victoria, and made pictures of the American West popular in Europe and Britain. The Butler Institute picture, probably painted after the artist's return to America, was bought in Washington, D.C. from the artist and descended in the same family until 1946.
Except for the Harper's Weekly woodcuts and a wood engraving after a Bierstadt drawing of an Overland mail stagecoach in Ludlow's 1870 account of the 1863 trip, there are no images by Bierstadt of any coach or wagon actually en route west. This seems even more curious when we read a description by Bierstadt from 1865: "The wagons are covered with white cloth; each is drawn by four to six pairs of mules or oxen; and the trains of them stretch frequently from one-quarter to one-third of a mile each. As they move along in the distance, they remind one of the caravans described in the Bible and other Eastern books."
The Oregon Trail turns what to Ludlow was a jolly encounter with a colorful band of emigrants into a spectacular allegory of westward expansion. Under a dramatic orange-red sky the travelers trek into the western sun, which tinges the high cliffs as it sets beyond a grove of ancient trees. They pass animal bones and a broken stove which testify to previous unlucky travelers. Native American tepees in the distance are reminders of a constant menace. No matter that by sundown camp should have been made, accuracy of fact is no more a goal here than in any other historical allegory of America's westward migration.12 This subject first appeared soon after the end of the Civil War when America, with heightened interest in the West, turned its attention to peaceful rather than military matters. The Butler Institute version was painted in 1869, the completion year of the transcontinental railroad which would soon make history of the emigrant wagon. There may have been, even in 1869, on the part of Bierstadt or his patrons, a degree of nostalgia for this particular aspect of the pioneer experience soon to disappear in fact, but to persist in myth for over a century as one of the iconic images of Americas expansion westward.
WILLIAM S. TALBOT