Drawing the Western Frontier: The James E. Taylor Album

ne of the most important of these artists was
James E. Taylor. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1839, Taylor graduated from Notre Dame, and then fought with the Tenth New York volunteers in the Civil War. In 1862 he joined the staff of Leslie’s Illustrated newspaper as a "Special Artist" and war correspondent. His first major assignment was to accompany General Phil Sheridan during the Shenandoah Valley campaign on 1864. During this assignment, Taylor distinguished himself as an illustrator, a skill which enabled him to establish friendships and professional relations with many generals and high-ranking government officials. This provided him with an inside track to information and photographs at the same time that the United States began its process of Westward expansion.

Old Man Careful of His Horses
Old Man Careful Of His Horses (Oglala Sioux) in treaty negotiations with U.S. government representatives.

In the spring of 1867, the U.S. government sent a peace commission to treat with the Indians at Ft. Laramie, Wyoming Territory. Contrary to previous treaties, settlers had established a route known as the Bozeman Trail through sacred Indian lands and hunting grounds and the U.S. government wanted to insure their safety by establishing military posts along the way. The peace commission was largely unsuccessful. Indeed it touched off "Red Cloud’s" war as military troups started to establish forts before any agreements had been made. The negotiations themselves were recorded by the famous Civil War photographer, Alexander Gardner. This extremely rare series of photographs includes the only known image of the smoking of a peace pipe during negotiations, one print of which is preserved in the Taylor album (above).

That same year, the government sent another commission to treat with the Indians at Medicine Lodge, Kansas. At stake was the opening up of the trans-Mississippi West to railroads and settlers. The treaty negotiations were the largest such gathering with an estimated 5,600 people, and newspapers were understandably eager to cover this landmark occasion. Although no photographers were present, at least nine reporter/illustrators were sent to cover the story including Henry M. Stanley, the famous African explorer, and James Taylor. Taylor also signed as a witness to the treaty made with the Kiowa and Comanche. Many of Taylor’s works were published in Leslie’s marking a refocusing of the publication on western stories and earning Taylor the nickname, "The Indian Artist."

Portrait of James E. Taylor

James E. Taylor. Photograph from the collection of Richard W. Taylor.




















John Wesley Powell and
his exploring party on the Green River, May, 1871. Notice the camera beside the boat on the left.

Zoom photo
Zoom detail of camera.

John Wesley Powell and his Exploring Party

When compared to written descriptions and drawings by other artists, Taylor’s on-site drawings appear to be quite accurate. One may ask why he did not simply take photographs and turn these into drawings. In all likelihood, the equipment of the day was too difficult to use and was unwieldy at a time when mobility and deadlines were more important in "scooping" a story.

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