Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
Before the White Man Came, ca. 1922
Ink and graphite on paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
In the early 1920s a group of Charles M. Russell’s closest friends in Great Falls, Montana, were partners in the Montana Newspaper Association, a venture that published advertising supplements in the state’s daily newspapers. They hit upon the idea to publish a series of entertaining stories chronicling the history of the Old West, and they prevailed on Russell to provide pen-and-ink illustrations for each one. These stories appeared nearly every Sunday for a year, from March 5, 1922, through February 18, 1923. Most of Montana’s 170 newspapers carried this popular series. For his part, Russell was glad to participate; he loved the history of the American West and avidly read many books on the subject. Today these wonderfully narrative drawings stand apart from the articles they once accompanied. The original ink drawing pictured here was originally in the estate of the artist’s widow, Nancy C. Russell. It is part of the largest selection of them to be found anywhere—almost half the number that the artist eventually produced for the series. In each of them, Russell’s fluid and dexterous lines create a vivid picture of truly historic events—elevating them to the power of epic and myth. Russell often recalled how plentiful the wildlife was on the open grasslands of central Montana when he first arrived there, and how quickly it disappeared after the arrival of white “civilization.” This was especially true of the great herds of buffalo that Lewis and Clark had seen stretching endlessly to all horizons; by Russell’s time they had been reduced to a few hundred pitiful remnants in isolated valleys. The story that accompanied this drawing echoed Russell’s own belief that the coming of the white man destroyed a natural paradise that was sacred to the Native Americans who had inhabited it. In the millennial thinking of the Indians who occupied the Montana reservations at the end of the nineteenth century, their heaven would consist of the mountains and plains, abundant with wildlife, that their forefathers had known. “When it comes to making the beautiful Ma Nature has man beat all ways from the ace,” Russell wrote near the end of his life, “and that old lady still owns a lot of Montana.”