Seth Eastman (1808 - 1875)

Birth date: 1808 Death date: 1875  
Birth location: Death location:  
Media: Drawing , Painting , Painting / Oil Web site:
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Seth Eastman
Born in 1808
Died in 1875

Seth Eastman was an artist and career military man who, along with George Catlin and others, earned recognition as an important pictorial historian of frontier and Native American life in the mid-19th century. His documentary artwork is straightforward in style and attentive to detail.

Eastman’s involvement with Native Americans was lengthy and varied. Assigned to “Indian country” and tasked with recording his observations, he made many sketches and paintings of Sioux (Dakotah) and Chippewa life and customs. He learned the Sioux language, and his first wife was the daughter of a chief (though he abandoned her in 1832). Involved with the implementation of U.S. policy, his relations with Indians were deep, but not uniformly good.

Born in Maine, Eastman graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1829. His first military service was at Fort Crawford (Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin). In 1830, he was transferred to Fort Snelling (near Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota). He was then assigned to topographical reconnaissance duty from 1831 to 1833.

At the time, all West Point cadets received instruction in drawing people and landscapes, so that they could make useful records and reports. Having proven his skills, Eastman was made an assistant teacher of drawing at West Point. He served in that capacity from 1833 to 1840, during which time he also took lessons from several noteworthy artists at the Academy.

After serving in the Florida War in 1840, Eastman (having attained the rank of Brigadier General) returned to Fort Snelling as its commander, 1841 to 1848. There, he started a family with his second wife, Mary Henderson Eastman, who became famous for her bestselling 1852 book Aunt Phillis’s Cabin: or, Southern Life As It Is, a defense of southern slaveholding society written in response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1849, the Eastmans published Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux, with text by Mary and illustrations by Seth.  

Eastman and his family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1851. The Bureau of Indian Affairs chose Eastman as the illustrator for a massive multi-volume monograph by Henry R. Schoolcraft entitled Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (published 1851-1857).

Late in life, he completed a commission for seventeen paintings of important fortifications in the U.S. These can be seen on public display at the Capitol. They were completed in the year of his death, 1875. These depictions of forts and their picturesque settings drew his career full circle, and to a fitting close, because sketching forts Crawford and Snelling had been among his first assignments as a talented young soldier.

Wisconsin Affiliations

Wisconsin Art Organizations

No art organizations were found.

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