Thursday, September 15, 2016

Protecting the Newcomers - Fort Mackinac, Michigan by Seth Eastman 1808-1875

During the late 18C & through much of the 19C, army forts were constructed throughout the United States to defend the growing nation from a variety of threats, both perceived & real, both external & internal. Internal threats included those from the Native Americans who had been on the land for enons.

Seth Eastman (American artist, 1808-1875) Fort Mackinac, Michigan

Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac is located on Mackinac Island, Michigan, in the narrow waterway between Lakes Huron and Michigan, very near the present border with Canada. During more than a century as an active military post, the fort changed ownership several times and participated directly in only one conflict, the War of 1812. British soldiers built this outpost in 1781, on a high limestone bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. The isolated post provided much needed protection and support for the Great Lakes fur trade. In 1783, following the American victory in the Revolutionary War, the fort became United States property. However, the British remained for another 13 years in an attempt to control fur trade in the upper Great Lakes. In 1796 they evacuated the fort in accordance with the terms of Jay’s Treaty, and the American army occupied and repaired the aging outpost. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the British attacked and recaptured the fort, holding it until the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and returned the post to American possession. The fort sat idle during the Civil War and thereafter was irregularly garrisoned by troops until 1895, when it was finally closed.

The painting successfully conveys a place and climate quite different from the other locations in the fort series. Like a walled town, the elevated structure consists of separate buildings within the walls. At the right, outside the fort, is a very large house. At the foot of the steep hill are three houses, then a stone wall with a gate, and finally the shore with a rudimentary jetty. A canoe approaches the jetty. A large fishing boat is on the shore, partly covered, with a fisherman in attendance. The looming cloud in the darkening sky warns of an approaching storm, whose advance winds have stirred the water of this safe harbor into small whitecaps, occasioning this small flurry of activity. In the distance at the left, beyond the point, the viewer glimpses a steamship and a sail on Lake Michigan. For the weather-bearing clouds, Seth Eastman has employed blended swirls of blue-black paint in an improvisatory pattern. It is clear from the painting that the island is populated, if sparsely, but there is no evidence of the very slight military presence that was still there in 1872.

From the office of the United States Senate curatorwe learn that in 1870, the House Committee on Military Affairs commissioned artist Seth Eastman 17 to paint images of important fortifications in the United States. He completed the works between 1870 & amp; 1875. 

Born in 1808 in Brunswick, Maine, Eastman found expression for his artistic skills in a military career. After graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point, where officers-in-training were taught basic drawing & amp; drafting techniques, Eastman was posted to forts in Wisconsin & amp; Minnesota before returning to West Point as assistant teacher of drawing. 

While at Fort Snelling, Eastman married Wakaninajinwin (Stands Sacred), the 15-year-old daughter of Cloud Man, Dakota chief. Eastman left in 1832 for another military assignment soon after the birth of Their baby girl, Winona, & declared His marriage ended When He left. Winona was also known as Mary Nancy Eastman & was the mother of Charles Alexander Eastman, author of Indian Boyhood.

From 1833 to 1840, Eastman taught drawing at West Point. In 1835, he married his 2nd wife & was reassigned to Fort Snelling as a military commander & remained there with Mary & their 5 children for the next 7 years. During this time Eastman began recording the everyday way of life of the Dakota & the Ojibwa people. Eastman established himself as an accomplished landscape painter. Between 1836 & amp; 1840, 17 of his oils were exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City. 

Transferred to posts in Florida, & amp; Texas in the 1840s, Eastman became interesed in the Native Americans & made sketches of the people. This experience prepared him for the next 5 yeas in Washington, DC, where he was assigned to the commissioner of Indian Affairs & illustrated Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's important 6-volume Historical & amp; Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, & Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. 

In 1867 Eastman returned to the Capitol, this time to paint a series of scenes of Native American life for the House Committee on Indian Affairs. Of his 17 paintings of forts, 8 are located in the Senate, while the others are displayed on the House side of the Capitol. Eastman was working on the painting West Point when he died in 1875.

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