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Eastman, Seth (1808–1875)

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Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman, ca.1860.

Brigadier General Seth Eastman, ca.1860.

Seth Eastman was a painter and soldier best known for his depictions of the everyday life of Dakota and Ojibwe people around Fort Snelling in the 1840s. He stands out among other nineteenth-century American artists—particularly those who also painted American Indian people—because of his commitment to realism. Unlike his peers, Eastman mostly avoided romanticizing the Native people with whom he lived.

Seth Eastman was born in 1808 in Brunswick, Maine. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was trained in topographical drafting and sketching. After graduation, he was sent first to Fort Crawford in Wisconsin and then to Fort Snelling in Minnesota.

In 1830, during his first tour at Fort Snelling, Eastman married a Bdewakaŋtuŋwaŋ Dakota woman named Wakaŋ Inażiŋ Wiŋ (Woman Who Stands Sacred). She was a daughter of Maḣpiya Wic̣aṡṭa (Cloud Man), leader of the village at Bde Maka Ska (White Banks Lake, also known as Lake Calhoun).

The couple had a daughter named Wakaŋ Tanka Wiŋ (God Woman/Great Spirit Woman). Wakaŋ Tanka Wiŋ—called Nancy or Mary Nancy in English—was the mother of author and lecturer Ohiyesa (The Winner, called Charles Alexander Eastman in English).

After his first tour was completed, in 1833, Eastman left his new family and returned to West Point to teach drawing. Soon afterward, without officially separating from Wakaŋ Inażiŋ Wiŋ, he married Mary Henderson, a military surgeon’s daughter, in New York. She published a number of books and essays, most illustrated by Eastman.

During Eastman’s time as a teacher, he published a Treatise on Topographical Drawing. He also became an increasingly skilled oil painter. Most of his paintings from this period were landscapes made around West Point, but he also created paintings based on previous sketches made during his time in Minnesota, like Fort Snelling on the Mississippi Near the Falls of St. Anthony.

After being briefly stationed in Florida in the summer of 1840, Eastman returned to Fort Snelling. Between 1841 and 1848, he served as commander of the fort four times. He also produced a large number of oil paintings, drawings, and watercolors of his surroundings and the Native people of the area. Both Seth and Mary built strong relationships with their Dakota and Ojibwe neighbors and learned their languages.

In 1848, Eastman was transferred to Texas and stayed there until 1849. He left Texas in September of that year and was granted a five-month leave to go to Washington. There, he worked on the illustrations for Henry R. Schoolcraft’s Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. The first volume was published in 1851.

For this work, Eastman created eighty-five compositional drawings of Native life and more than 180 drawings of artifacts and maps. The subjects of these drawings included weapons, tools, clothing, pictographs, landscape views, and ceremonies. The images were then reproduced as engravings or colored lithographs for publication.

Soon after he arrived in Washington, Eastman was asked by congressional delegate Henry Sibley to help design the Minnesota territorial seal. Eastman took on the job, and his version was adopted.

From 1855 to the outbreak of the Civil War, Eastman was stationed throughout the country. In 1861, he was made a mustering and disbursing officer for Maine and New Hampshire. He officially retired in December of 1863.

In 1867, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing Eastman to paint decorations for the rooms of the committees on Indian affairs and military affairs in the House and Senate. He painted nine canvases for the House Committee on Indian Affairs—largely based off his work for Schoolcraft’s books—that can still be found in the U.S. Capitol building. Eastman also painted seventeen military forts for the House Committee on Military Affairs between 1870 and his death in 1875. He died of a stroke while painting his beloved alma mater, West Point.

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Boehme, Sarah E., Christian F. Feest, and Patricia Condon Johnson. Seth Eastman: A Portfolio of North American Indians. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1995.

Eastman, Seth. Treatise on Topographical Drawing. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1837.

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1956.

Heilbron, Bertha L. "Sources for Northwest History: Seth Eastman's Water Colors." Minnesota History 19, no. 4 (December 1938): 419–423.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/19/v19i04p419-423.pdf

Johnson, Lila M. "Found (and Purchased): Seth Eastman Water Colors." Minnesota History 42, no. 7 (Fall 1971): 258–267.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/42/v42i07p258-267.pdf

Johnston, Patricia C. "The Artist's Life, The Indian's World." American History Illustrated 13, no. 9 (January 1979): 39–46.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Painting the Dakota: Seth Eastman at Fort Snelling. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 2000.

McDermott, John Francis. Seth Eastman: Pictorial Historian of the Indian. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

Minnesota Original. “Minnesota Historical Society Paintings.” Episode 230. March 31, 2011.
http://www.mnoriginal.org/episode/mn-historical-society-sharra-frank-the-honeydogs-230/minnesota-historical-society-paintings/

Historic Fort Snelling. Seth Eastman.
http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/collections/art/seth-eastman

The Eastman Forts-The Artist: Seth Eastman. U.S. Army Center of Military History.
http://www.history.army.mil/html/artphoto/pripos/eastman/artist.html

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman, ca.1860.
Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman, ca.1860.
Mendota from Fort Snelling
Mendota from Fort Snelling
Color image of Owamniyomni (St. Anthony Falls), 1848. Oil painting by Seth Eastman.
Color image of Owamniyomni (St. Anthony Falls), 1848. Oil painting by Seth Eastman.
Color image of American Indian women gathering rice, 1849–1855. Drawing by Seth Eastman.
Color image of American Indian women gathering rice, 1849–1855. Drawing by Seth Eastman.
Color image of Seth Eastman’s design for the Minnesota Territorial seal, ca. 1849.
Color image of Seth Eastman’s design for the Minnesota Territorial seal, ca. 1849.
Painting of the prairie just beyond the north side of Fort Snelling, ca.1847. Painting by Seth Eastman.
Painting of the prairie just beyond the north side of Fort Snelling, ca.1847. Painting by Seth Eastman.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Color image of a Dakota summer lodge, ca. 1846–1848. Watercolor painting by Seth Eastman.
Color image of a Dakota summer lodge, ca. 1846–1848. Watercolor painting by Seth Eastman.
Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman late in his life, ca.1873.
Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman late in his life, ca.1873.

Turning Point

Eastman is stationed at Fort Snelling in 1841.

Chronology

1808

Eastman is born on January 24 in Brunswick, Maine.

1829

In July, Eastman graduates from West Point and is sent to Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on his first tour of duty.

1830

Eastman is transferred to Fort Snelling. There, he meets and marries a Dakota woman named Wakaŋ Inażiŋ Wiŋ, with whom he has a daughter.

1831

In November, Eastman is assigned to topographical duty in Louisiana.

1833

Eastman begins teaching drawing at West Point.

1835

In New York, he marries Mary Henderson. Mary wrote and published a number of books and essays, which Eastman often illustrated.

1837

Eastman publishes a Treatise on Topographical Drawing due to his desire to establish a uniform and permanent system of topography and to help future students of topography in their studies.

1838

He is elected an “honorary member amateur” of the National Academy of Design in New York and exhibits works at several academy shows in New York.

1840

He is stationed in Florida, where he documents the lives of Seminole people.

1841

Eastman returns for a second time to Fort Snelling, where he and his family will live for almost seven years, and serves as commander of the fort four times.

1849

In December, Eastman is called to Washington to illustrate a book on American Indian history. He is also asked by then-Congressional delegate Henry Sibley to help paint a design for the Minnesota territorial seal.

1851

Henry R. Schoolcraft’s six-volume study of American Indian people, titled Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States and illustrated by Eastman, is published.

1867

Congress passes a joint resolution authorizing Eastman to paint nine scenes of American Indian life for the House of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Capitol building.

1870

Eastman is commissioned to complete paintings of seventeen important forts for the House Committee on Military Affairs, housed in the U.S. Capitol.

1875

In August, Eastman dies in Washington, D.C.