Lesson 21 – Artists of the Minnesota Frontier

Lesson 21 – Artists of the Minnesota Frontier

Frank Blackwell Mayer

The novel Ceding Contempt, centers around a young artist from Baltimore named Frank Blackwell Mayer.  Mayer studied art as a boy and was inspired by his teacher, Alfred Jacob Miller, who had been a member of an exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains.  When Mayer learned about the proposed treaties in Minnesota in 1851, he immediately traveled to Washington DC to apply for a position with the expedition.  Mayer was not appointed a position, so instead he decided to fund his own trip.  Traveling to Minnesota in June of 1851, Mayer sought to capture images of the fleeting frontier, its landscape, and its native population.  In doing so he wished to create an “original American work of art” that would be the “crowning effort” of his life.

Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux by Frank Blackwell Mayer, 1851

George Catlin

Artist George Catlin arrived in Minnesota in 1835 in order to record on canvas the faces and homes of Indigenous populations before they were overrun by what he called “the splendid juggernaut rolling on.”  Although settlement in the northwest territory was not open at that time, Catlin recognized that it would not be long before the region’s native population was forced aside and the beautiful landscape forever altered.  Through his artistic expressions, Catlin sought to memorialize the frontier before it was gone.  This he may have accomplished, but his work fueled the forces marching west by settlers and tourists who were inspired by the beauty and nostalgia of the frontier.

Pipestone Quarries by George Catlin, 1836

Seth Eastman

Artist and military commander Seth Eastman studied sketching and topography at the West Point Military Academy.  In 1830, he was assigned to Fort Snelling when he first began making sketches of the Minnesota frontier.  Eastman returned to Minnesota in 1841 as the military commander of Fort Snelling and remained there until 1848.  During this time, Eastman began recording the everyday way of life of the Dakota and Ojibwe people.  He also illustrated his wife’s books who, through her work, sought to preserve the local tales and legends of Indigenous cultures.

Indian Sugar Camp by Seth Eastman, 1853

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

Before we go any further, allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Frank Blackwell Mayer and I am a young artist from Baltimore, Maryland—or at least I was in 1851.  I was born December 27, 1827, to a distinguished Baltimore family.  My father, Charles F. Mayer, was a prominent lawyer while my mother, Eliza Blackwell, was the daughter of Captain Francis Blackwell, a commander in the merchant service.

At this point you may be wondering what a young artist from Baltimore has to do with the history of Minnesota.  Please bear with me as I try to explain.

As a child my parents encouraged my artistic talent.  When I was still very young they hired for me a tutor named Alfred J. Miller, a local artist of some fame, who, in 1837, traveled all the way to the great Rocky Mountains in the far west.  He divulged the tales of his travels and shared with me his experience with the strange and mysterious aborigines that populated the west.  These stories inspired within me a sort of wanderlust: a thirst for travel.  Just as Mr. Miller before me, I longed to utilize my skills and talents as an artist, to capture scenes of the now-shrinking frontier and to share those scenes with the rest of the world.

My ambition led me to Washington City, the nation’s capital, in order to obtain an appointment as an official artist to one of the government expeditions being sent west.  I had a number of interviews, including one with the Office of the Topographical Bureau, but such appointments were scarce and I met only with rejection.  But, early in 1851 I had heard of an expedition going to Minnesota to purchase from the Indians a land called the Suland.  This immediately sparked my interest as I recalled a great explorer named Joseph Nicollet who had established himself near St. Mary’s College in Baltimore.  My readers, you no doubt recognize that name as it has been given to a large island above the Falls of St. Anthony, a principal street in Minneapolis, a town, and a county.  During the 1830s Joseph Nicollet led several expeditions throughout the upper Mississippi River Basin which included the land that would become Minnesota Territory.  After visiting the region, Nicollet himself called it the garden spot of the Mississippi Valley.  This, I knew, was the region that I must see.  This was the region I must record.

Historic Fort Snelling in Art and Photos

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Mary Lethert Wingerd, “North Country:  The Making of Minnesota,” (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

“Seth Eastman,” Historic Fort Snelling, http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/collections/art/seth-eastman

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