John mix stanley (1814–1872)

Of the eleven artists and draftsmen appointed to the Pacific Railroad Surveys, none was more qualified than John Mix Stanley, both from the standpoint of his artistic ability and from that of his considerable travel experience in the West. Upon completion of the reports, Stanley had contributed more plates to the project than any of the other illustrators—landscapes and portraits of American Indians and botanical plates.

Born in New York in 1814 and orphaned at twelve, Stanley began painting at an young age while apprenticed to a carriage maker. He moved to Detroit in 1832, where he made a living as a sign painter and studied portrait painting with the artist James Bowman, with whom he traveled and worked for several years. In 1839, he painted his first American Indian subjects in Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

As with so many artists of the day, he was lured to travel in the West. Stanley’s interest was in painting the Indians, and in 1842, he settled in Fort Gibson (now Oklahoma) and established a studio. He could not have chosen a better location for finding diverse subjects, as Fort Gibson was an important frontier post, and there was a constant stream of frontiersmen of many nationalities and Indians of many tribes traveling through the area. On occasion, he was allowed to attend and paint the huge gatherings of the Indian councils. In 1846, with more than 80 completed Indian portraits, Stanley opened a gallery in Cinncinnati and began public exhibition of the works.

Leaving his gallery partner to handle the exhibitions, Stanley left for the West again in 1846 to travel the Santa Fe Trail. His party reached Santa Fe just as Col. Stephen Kearney’s Army of the West took the city from the Mexican Army. He was hired as artist for the Army, and they proceeded on to California to secure territory there. The final report of this expedition was Lt. William Emory’s Notes of a Military Reconnoissance to which Stanley contributed 23 plates of American Indian portraits, various landscapes along the route, and natural history specimens.

After the expedition reached California, Stanley continued traveling and painting in the West and also spent a year in Hawaii, painting the king and royal family. The culmination of all these travels was a major exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1852, where his works portrayed 43 American Indian tribes. The portraits remained at the Smithsonian for several years, with Stanley continually adding to the exhibit until the total number exceeded two hundred. It was thought by many that his representations of Native Americans were superior to those of the better-known George Catlin. He had hoped that the entire collection would be purchased by the government to establish a national gallery, but funds were never appropriated. There was hope that the Smithsonian could acquire the collection, but funding for the purchase was not available. Tragically, in 1865, all of the paintings, save five, along with many of the maps Stanley had made during his Western travels, were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian.

In 1853, Stanley was chosen by Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, as artist for the Pacific Railroad Survey expedition, which would extend from Minnesota Territory to the Pacific coast. One illustration from the report is especially noteworthy: an enormous herd of buffalo (right)that is one of the few remaining depictions of the staggering numbers of bison that wandered the plains before their extermination.

After the completion of the survey, Stanley returned to Washington in 1854, where he spent the next year completing the illustrations for Stevens’s final report. He used the illustrations of the northern survey route to create a huge panorama of 42 episodes that was available for public viewing at the National Theatre. It is reported that it took two hours to view the entire panorama. After the Washington display, the panorama traveled to Baltimore, and according to newspaper reports, was then exhibited in Boston and London. Unfortunately, as with Stanley’s Indian gallery, the paintings of the panorama were lost.

After returning to Washington, Stanley married and gave up his travels in the West. He remained in Washington until 1862, working as a studio artist, and settled finally in Detroit, where he died in 1872. In addition to the horrific loss of his paintings and maps in 1865 in the Smithsonian fire, a number of his works housed at the Barnum's American Museum in New York City were destroyed in a fire the same year, and in 1872, a fire at his Detroit studio destroyed most of his original collection of western paintings. Arguably, his work represented the finest depictions of American Indians at that time, and the loss of so much documentation is inestimable.