Did these western buffoons invent the selfie and mistakenly preserve Plains Indian culture?

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Karl Bodmer was a European of many names and accomplishments, but his reputation received a transatlantic boost in 1832. That year, Prince Maximilian, a Prussian explorer, ethnologist and naturalist, was planning an expedition to the North American frontier and, in a rare moment of humility, realized he needed a professional artist to complement his own considerable skills as an illustrator. He patted Bodmer for the task.

Born in 1782, Alexander Philipp Maximilian was the hereditary ruler of Wied-Neuwied, a state annexed to Prussia along the Rhine south of Bonn. During the Napoleonic Wars, he had served as a hussar major in the Prussian army. In early 1815, when the exiled French emperor seemed neutralized on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, the young prince, inspired by the writings of the Prussian explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt, had taken military leave and s embarked on a two-year journey to southeastern Brazil. Maximilian wandered the rainforest, rendering illustrations of belligerent naked tribesmen, as the Battle of Waterloo raged in Belgium that summer. His resulting writings and sketches had brought him some fame in Europe, but in 1832 the prince, toothless and pushing 50, realized that if he had to make another excursion abroad, he had better do it quickly. He intended to make a comparative study of the Plains Indians with the tribes he had encountered in Brazil, and this time he thought of bringing in a real artist.

Bodmer depicts one of the rest camps the Prince and his party built on their way back downriver from the beleaguered Fort MacKenzie. (Ackerman & Co.)

During a visit in January 1832 to Koblenz, further south along the Rhine, Maximilien met Bodmer, a watercolourist and engraver born in 1809 in Zurich. Prince Max, as he was informally known, had enough humility to recognize a superior artist and convinced Bodmer to join his planned expedition to North America. The prince also hired hunter and taxidermist David Dreidoppel, and on May 17 the trio sailed for North America. In a letter to his brother, Prince Max wrote that Bodmer “is a lively and very good man and companion, seems well educated and is very pleasant and very suitable for me; I’m glad I chose it. He demands nothing and he never lacks diligence.

Their ship arrived in Boston on July 4 with much pomp and celebration, and that evening the prince and his party watched a fireworks display. After visits to New York and Philadelphia, riddled with cholera, the trio set out for the West. Upon reaching New Harmony, Indiana, in October, the group made an unscheduled stopover of nearly five months. Having contracted what they suspected to be cholera, the prince and Dreidoppel were both bedridden. Bodmer, who dodged illness, took a detour by steamboat to visit New Orleans while they recovered.

The travelers went to the country of the Blackfoot, where this warrior attracted the attention of the artist. (Library of Congress)

Resuming their journey on March 16, 1833, the trio traveled by steamboat on the Ohio and then on the Mississippi to St. Louis. There they conferred with Superintendent of Indian Affairs William Clark (of the famed Corps of Discovery), saw their first tribesmen, and arranged to travel up the Missouri. On April 10, the trio headed upstream on the steamer yellow stone under the protection of the American Fur Co., which, they were assured, was the surest way to see the Indians without unfortunate consequences. The trip was bad enough. Faced with snags and sandbars, the crew had to repeatedly unload and load the boat, and in the process they threw some of Prince Max’s botanical specimens overboard, until he raises strong objections. (During the return trip, flooding damaged several crates of specimens, while a steamer carrying other crates caught fire, destroying another valuable cache.) Finally, Leavenworth officials threatened to confiscate the brandy the trio had brought to preserve animal specimens, such as “burning spirits” in Indian country, was banned.

The German-Swiss side had far fewer problems with the Indians than expected. In recent years, American artist George Catlin had covered the same ground, and after some deliberation, the Indians had decided that faithfully rendered watercolor portraits did not necessarily capture their souls, for hardly anyone whom Catlin had painted did was dead. Some tribesmen still suspected that such portraits could cut a man’s mind in two.

Heading west on an Ohio River steamer en route to Missouri, Bodmer noticed Cave-in-Rock, now an Illinois state park. (Ackerman & Co.)

An Indian was outraged after Bodmer returned his portrait but did not provide him with a copy. In retaliation, the Indian demanded a brush and an easel to capture the artist on canvas, a likeness that Prince Max confessed “possessed a certain talent for the art”. Bodmer amused his Indian subjects in seances with a music box – concealed in which, a candid Mandan concluded, must have been a little German on a miniature keyboard. Prince Max, meanwhile, distributed tobacco. The stoic pose that tribal Indians adopted when confronted by strangers made them reliable and stable role models, as they were in the photographic age of the following decades.

Some fur company boatmen found the prince a bit overbearing. “Hardly a bluff or a valley in all of upper Missouri,” recalled one frontier, “didn’t repeat, in an angry tone with a heavy Teutonic accent, Boardman’s names. [Bodmer] and Tritripel [Dreidoppel]”

On their return journey, the travelers encountered Crows, whom they found proud and dismissive of white people but prone to theft. (Library of Congress)

The trio made their way to Fort MacKenzie, the fur company’s new trading post on the Missouri in Blackfoot country (present-day Montana). In late August, a war party of Assiniboine and Cree attacked the Piegan Blackfeet friends camped just outside the post. Aroused from his sleep, Prince Max joined others and courageously rallied to their defense, climbing the ramparts with rifle in hand. Historian Bernard De Voto embellishes the account with an account that, in his excited haste, the prince drove a double charge into the barrel, the force of the resulting explosion knocking him on the back. It was not embarrassment, however, but potential danger that prompted the prince to quietly cancel a long trip to the Rockies.

On the return trip downriver, the party wintered at Fort Clark (in present-day North Dakota), where Prince Max succumbed to another illness and feared for his life. “The cook”, he recalled, “expressed his opinion that my illness must have been scurvy.” Based on previous outbreaks, the cook advised the prince to eat wild onion (textile allium), a small white flowering plant common to the prairie. “So the Indian children provided me with an abundance of this plant and its bulbs,” the prince recalled. “These were cut into small pieces, like spinach [sic], and I ate a lot of it. By the fourth day, the swelling in my leg had subsided considerably and I was gaining strength every day.

Bodmer depicts the fight between the Assiniboine and allied Cree Blackfoot that caused Prince Max to turn back. (Newberry Library, Chicago/Bridgeman Images)

So it was Indian children who helped save Prince Max, and Prince Max, through Bodmer’s paintings, helped save the Indians – at least from memory – by capturing their culture before the trade goods changed their dress and that alcohol and disease devastate their populations. Prince Max returned home to Wied-Neuwied in late August 1834, three years before smallpox virtually exterminated the Mandans and ravaged the Hidatsas and Arikaras, among Bodmer’s favorite subjects. By the time of the death of Prince Max, old and full of honours, in 1867, the Indian wars had spread to the plains, and no such ethnographic expedition would have been possible.

For his part, Bodmer remembered “his kind and instructive highness” for the rest of his long life. On October 30, 1893, the 84-year-old artist, then a French citizen calling himself Charles Bodmer, died in Paris. He had lived just long enough to hear of the tragic 1890 clash along a South Dakota creek named Wounded Knee, among the last major actions of the Indian Wars. At that time, nearly all Plains Indians were American dependents living on reservations. Prince Max had hidden some 400 of Bodmer’s original paintings and his own meticulous notes at the ancestral castle, and whatever the tragedy of the Native Americans, the Prussian royal and his world-class hired Swiss painter had left a superb record of ‘a period.

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