Seth Eastman (1808-1875)

The Soldier Artist’s Life

by Patricia Condon Johnston

The Soldier

Arguably the foremost pictorial historian of the American Indian, Seth Eastman was born in Brunswick, Maine, on January 24, 1808. Thomas Jefferson was finishing his second term as president of the United States - there were seventeen States - and less than four years earlier, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had set out from St. Louis to explore Louisiana Territory (which would become the States of Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, North and South Dakota, most of Louisiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Colorado and Oklahoma). The rapidly growing country counted almost seven million inhabitants (fewer than in New York City in 2000); one in every seven people was a black slave; Indians were not counted in census figures.

The eldest of thirteen children of Robert and Sarah Lee Eastman, Seth Eastman descended directly from Roger Eastman, the first Eastman in the colonies. An adventurous young man from Wiltshire (the southern county of England wherein lies Stonehenge), Roger boarded the ship Confidence in Southampton harbor bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in April 1638. The ship’s papers identify him as the servant of a man named John Saunders, but the Eastman family has always believed that Roger was masquerading as such either to evade emigration restrictions or for political reasons. A carpenter by trade, he received lands in the first division in Salisbury, Massachusetts, where he was listed on church rolls until his death in 1694.

Described as a "gentleman devoted to scientific pursuits and possessing much talent as an inventor," Robert Eastman hoped to educate his first-born at Bowdoin College where he had friends among the faculty. Had Seth attended the school, his classmates would have included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the young man had other ideas. Enamored with soldiering, he had "early conceived a passion for military life" and convinced his father to let him attend West Point. Seth Eastman was sixteen years old when he entered the Military Academy in July 1824, and he spent five happy years at the school, preparing to be both a military man and an artist.

Upon graduation from West Point, Second Lieutenant Seth Eastman was assigned to the First Infantry and sent halfway across the continent to the edge of civilization at Prairie du Chien, where Colonel Zachary Taylor was rebuilding old log Fort Crawford from native rock. Picturesquely located on the left bank of the Mississippi, a few miles above the mouth of the Wisconsin River in what is now southwestern Wisconsin, Fort Crawford occupied low ground that for generations had been an Indian gathering place.

Eastman remained at Fort Crawford only a matter of months. Before spring, he was transferred 150 miles upriver to Fort Snelling, the country’s northernmost frontier post. Official rosters show him stationed at Fort Snelling between February 2, 1830, and November 25, 1831. Built in the wake of the War of 1812 to block British infiltration of the Northwest and protect the newly organized American fur trade by maintaining peace among the Indians, Fort Snelling was a hunkering, stone behemoth on steep limestone bluffs that overlooked the confluence of the Mississippi and the St. Peters (Minnesota) Rivers.

Manned by up to two dozen officers, mostly West Point graduates, and as many as three hundred enlisted men, many of them European immigrants, this self-sufficient wilderness garrison’s squat stone buildings included a sutler’s store, hospital, school, powder magazine, guard house, and workshops for blacksmiths, carpenters, and wheelwrights. Its stables quartered one hundred horses, and a four-story commissary carved into the perpendicular riverbank stored four years’ provisions and supplies. The officers’ quarters and the two troops’ barracks were built of lumber milled by the soldiers.

History would call Fort Snelling the best fort in the West. More secure than Bent’s Fort, the legendary adobe stronghold of the Southwest, more grandiose than the great American Fur Company posts of the future, it was an extravagant display of American sovereignty that would never be equaled in the two thousand miles that stretched west of the Mississippi. Minnesota still belonged to the Indians. Though white settlement was inevitable, when Seth Eastman arrived at Fort Snelling in 1830, the United States laid claim only to the parcel of land on which the fort stood and a modest buffer zone, one hundred thousand acres in all, that explorer Zebulon Pike (for whom Pike’s Peak in Colorado is named) had purchased from a handful of Dakota warriors in 1805.

The Artist

Largely unbeknownst to the outside world, besides keeping peace on the frontier, Captain Eastman was also amassing an amazing portfolio of paintings of Indian life. Consumed by an unquenchable passion to preserve for posterity the customs of a race he thought to be dying, Eastman was assembling a pictorial history of the Dakota that would be second to none. Landscape artist Charles Lanman who made the fashionable tour upriver from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony, seven miles upstream from Ft. Snelling, in the summer of 1846 was spellbound by Eastman’s collection, which already amounted to some four hundred drawings and paintings. It was, he said, "the most valuable in the country, not even excepting that of George Catlin." This "soldier-artist of the frontier," reported Lanman, had devoted his leisure time "to the study of Indian character, and the portraying upon canvass [sic] of their manners and customs, and the more important fragments of their history.

The reasons for Eastman’s success as a painter of Indians are somewhat obvious. In addition to a well-honed, natural talent for delineation, he had ample time on the frontier. Other artists periodically went west to paint the native people, but most could only work hurriedly for a few weeks, frantically transferring Indian images to their canvases, before returning to their eastern studios. None had Eastman’s advantage of a long-term military residency among the Indians. Living among them, he became fluent in their language and familiarized himself not only with their colorful external trappings but also with the whole complex fabric of Indian culture.

At the same time that Seth Eastman’s Indian paintings were first coming to the nation’s attention, the army officer was also angling for a new assignment. Eastman had not tired of his command, but a lengthy circular that arrived at Fort Snelling in mid-1847 apprised him of an opportunity to make use of his unique ability that could only come once in his lifetime. Congress had authorized the publication of a major study on the American Indian, and the office of Indian affairs, charged with collecting the necessary statistics and material, had prepared an exhaustive questionnaire covering virtually every aspect of Indian life. Circulated among hundreds of people known to be familiar with Indian life, including frontier officers like Eastman, it probed tribal history and organizations, religion, language, manners, and customs, intellectual capacity and character, present condition, and future prospects for Indian tribes of the United States.

The report would be written by explorer and former Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who in recent years had devoted his life to the study of Indians, but the post of illustrator, if there was to be one, was still open. Eastman wanted the position, and he was not without public support. "We know not whether it is the intention of the projectors to illustrate this work," stated the Weekly Reveille in St. Louis on July 31, 1848, "[but] if such is the purpose, Capt. Eastman possesses more ability for such a task than any man in this country… Illustrate such a work by all means, set Capt. E. to work upon it, and our country will possess a history of its original inhabitants which will reflect credit upon the administration under whose direction it is produced."

On August 28, 1848, Eastman wrote a formal request to the Office of Indian Affairs asking to be ordered "to the duty of painting, if the work being compiled on the N. American Indians is to be illustrated with engravings." He also petitioned the secretary of war for a transfer to the Office of Indian Affairs (which was still under the War Department).

He would wait three months for a reply. In the meantime, Captain Eastman had new orders transferring him to Texas. The War Department’s long-awaited reply reached Eastman in late November, and the answer was no; his request had been refused. Baffled and angered, Eastman pleaded his case with friends in government, and his wife did the same. If a transfer could not be arranged, then Eastman would accept a leave of absence to work on the pictures.

Taking matters into her own hands, Mary Eastman, now back out East, wrote to their friend Henry H. Sibley, territorial delegate to Congress from Minnesota, pointing out that "during the twenty three or four years Capt. E. has been in Service he [has] never had a leave (except for a few days) but the one which occurred during the Florida War, when he was very sick….If Captain E is not here [out East] in the Spring, it may be a great loss to him… which he could not repair."

Sibley also heard from Captain Eastman: "I presume my wife has written to you before this...I hope you have been able to do something for me in regard to my painting those Indian pictures." But although Sibley personally pressed Eastman’s request to the secretary of war, the answer was still no, and Eastman remained on assignment in Texas nearly a year.

Possibly though Sibley’s support, Eastman eventually won a five-month furlough. In September 1849, now forty-one years old, Captain Eastman hastened east to retrieve his wife and children, probably at her father’s home in New London, Connecticut. By Christmas, the family was settled in Washington, and Eastman was happily at work on the Indian pictures.

Eastman’s work for the Schoolcraft volumes was entirely speculative; there were as yet no funds to pay an illustrator, but Eastman plunged into the project, determined to win the long-term appointment that would be needed to complete the task. Finally, on February 27, 1850, he received special orders from the War Department that placed him under the jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs when his leave expired. He would be allowed to complete the illustrations at his ordinary military pay.

It was a monumental work that for Eastman consumed five years. During that time, he completed some 275 pages of illustrations to accompany Schoolcraft’s six-volume Information Regarding the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. When Volume I came off the press in early 1851, Eastman could take just pride in his accomplishment. His precise and exquisitely executed illustrations of Indian life, painted almost entirely from his frontier sketches, proved that he was singularly the best-qualified person in the country to undertake this epic work.


Fifty-six of the original watercolor paintings prepared for the Schoolcraft volumes will be exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. This exhibition of the MacMillan Collection will open on April 5, 2001, and be on display through October 7, 2001. This collection has never before been exhibited in its entirety. Many of the paintings have never before been on public display.