Art, Ethnography and Everyday Life in Newberry Western Collections

Two arbitrarily chosen “bookends” that may help describe the Newberry Library’s amazingly rich and varied western collections are William Clark’s (of Lewis and Clark) account book for the years 1825-1828, and Elbridge Ayer Burbank’s portrait of his uncle ([Portrait of Edward E. Ayer]), Edward Everett Ayer in his study, surrounded by his books, pictures, and Indian artifacts. Clark’s account book is a matter-of-fact recap of everyday life on the Missouri frontier during the mid-1820s. But more to the point, it also tells us how he managed to carry on several demanding jobs during those years. Two of these were official: he was both governor of the Missouri Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs for an even larger area, which included the tribal homelands of the Sioux, Mandan, Blackfoot, and Crow, whose villages were further west and north, along the Upper Missouri River. Unofficially, he traded with Indians, working as an agent for the Missouri Fur Company, a not unusual combination of interests for a time when civil authority and commercial enterprise often overlapped. One might even say the account book is a roughly drawn portrait of Clark and his activities during those early years on the frontier, before artistic life in St. Louis had progressed beyond locally produced field notes and sketches, and before well-known artists, such as like George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and Alfred Jacob Miller, passed through the gateway city on their way to record Indian tribes, buffalo hunts, and fur trade activities further west, across the Great Plains and along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

What the account book doesn’t bring to light, however, is yet another of Clark’s pursuits during these same years: his passion for collecting Indian artifacts, including, by the early 1830s, portraits of Upper Missouri Indians he had encountered on his extensive travels. Like Ayer, one can imagine Clark seated in the large wing attached to his official residence in St. Louis, where he maintained his Indian collection. No picture exists to record such a moment, but we do have a fairly good idea of what his “museum” contained, enough apparently to send each of the three artists mentioned above (all of whom visited Clark and his museum on their way west) looking for more of the same. Ethnographic interest ranked high among their artistic goals; getting it right, telling a story about the West that amounted to a stirring last stand for tribal life, was deeply important to all three painters. We might also conclude that belief in such a West encouraged both Clark and Ayer to devote their considerable resources to preserving Indian culture, although they did so in very different ways. Clark’s job, after all, was to maintain good relations with Indians living along the Upper Missouri, and to assure them of government support for their tribal authority. But he also had to persuade these same Indians to allow white travel and commercial activity up and down the river. In hindsight, we can see Clark poised between past and present, with little hope of keeping either one under control. Thus he collected artifacts from cultures that were already in danger; the very existence of such artifacts in his museum would primarily serve to memorialize a deeply important but already transient moment in western history. Clark himself embodied that moment: a fur trade entrepreneur who was also enamored of a so-called Old West, one he sought to keep intact, if only within the four walls of his museum.