Mary Henderson Eastman

Sioux Teepees or Winter Houses, Mary Henderson Eastman, text, Seth Eastman, illustrations
Sioux Teepees or Winter Houses
Mary Henderson Eastman, text
Seth Eastman, illustrations
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Mary Henderson Eastman arrived at Fort Snelling, located near present-day Minneapolis, on September 30, 1841.

Mary found the Indians there quite different from the "eastern" variety she knew as a daughter of Virginia, although she soon developed an "abiding and sympathetic interest" in the Indians, and she proceeded to learn their language and songs.

At twenty-three years of age and the mother of three, Mary joined her husband, Captain Seth Eastman of Company D, First United States Infantry, who had just assumed command of this post. Mary married Seth Eastman in 1835 and her life was forever intertwined with her husband, who was a military man and a gifted artist. His drawings and paintings of the Dakota Indians in and around Fort Snelling rank among the most significant works of western American art. Mary's own writings, including her account of seven years at the Fort, serve as a fascinating counterpoint to her husband's artwork.

Mary Eastman's close relationship with the Dakota Indians no doubt enhanced her access to tribal members and ceremonies. Mary's creative literary efforts were at once "realistic and compassionate." She viewed the Dakota people as "ignorant, idolatrous, and savage" yet she also saw the Indians as a "noble and dignified people, degenerating and losing its proud spirit as a result of white encroachment."

"Who can look upon them without interest? Hardly the philosopher — surely not the Christian. The image of God is defaced in the hearts of the savage. Cain-like does the child of the forest put forth his hand and stain it with a brother's blood. But are there no deeds of darkness done in our own favored land?"

By 1848 Mary had a publisher for the Legends of the Dakota. She also had illustrations, four lithographs after her husbands paintings, to offer with them. Mary's literary career was launched with the April 1849 publication of Dahcotah: Life and Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling. Recognition soon followed and Mary contributed to a variety of women's magazines and journals, also including her husband's illustrations.

By the Fall of 1848, however, the military sent Captain Eastman to Texas. Mary and the children did not go with Seth to Texas, however. They proceeded east to New England, and Mary stopped off in Cincinnati in order to pursue another career option. She began serious negotiations as her husband's business agent. Mary saw this income as a necessity, for a soldier's pay was not enough for the family's desired lifestyle.

Mary also campaigned actively to see her husband transferred to Washington, DC, where he could continue his work as a painter of American Indians with the Office of Indian Affairs. Despite initial setbacks, Mary pursued this mission with all her abilities. By early 1850, Seth Eastman was stationed in Washington, DC and assigned to work on Schoolcraft's Indian Tribes of the United States, published by Lippincott, Grambo and Company in Philadelphia, 1851-1857.

As Mary continued to campaign for her husband's artistic career, her own literary writings evolved to reveal an uncommon series of attitudes toward slavery, women's rights, and Indian matters.

"They thought it supernatural (wahkun) to be represented on canvas. Some were prejudiced against sitting, others esteemed it a great compliment to be asked, but all expected to be paid for it. And if anything were wanting to complete our opportunities for gaining all the information that was of interest, we found it in the dauguerreotype. Captain E., knowing that they were about to celebrate a feast he wished to paint in a group, took his apparatus out, and, when they least expected it, transferred the group to his plate. The awe, consternation, astonishment and admiration, surpassed description. "Ho! Eastman is all wahkun!"

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