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Interview Transcript
Western Landscape
George Catlin's Voice
read by Emery Battis

"A World Entirely Different"

"Impressions, however, of the most vivid kind, are rapidly and indelibly made by the fleeting incidents of savage life; and for the mind that can ruminate upon them with pleasure, there are abundant materials clinging to it for its endless entertainment in driving the quill when he gets back. The mind susceptible of such impressions catches volumes of incidents which are easy to write—it is but to unfold a web which the fascinations of this shorn country and its allurements have spun over the soul—it is but to paint the splendid panorama of a world entirely different from anything seen or painted before; with its thousands of miles, and tens of thousands of grassy hills and dales, where nought but silence reigns, and where the soul of a contemplative mould is seemingly lifted up to its Creator. What man in the world, I would ask, ever ascended to the pinnacle of one of Missouri's green-carpeted bluffs, a thousand miles severed from his own familiar land, and giddily gazed over the interminable and boundless ocean of grass-covered hills and valleys which lie beneath him, where the gloom of silence is complete—where not even the voice of the sparrow or cricket is heard—without feeling a sweet melancholy come over him, which seemed to drown his sense of everything beneath and on a level with him?

"It is but to paint a vast country of green fields, where the men are all red—where meat is the staff of life—where no laws, but those of honour, are known—where the oak and the pine give way to the cotton-wood and peccan—where the buffaloe range, the elk, mountain-sheep, and the fleet-bounding antelope—where the magpie and chattering parroquettes supply the place of the red-breast and the blue-bird—where wolves are white and bears grizzly—where pheasants are hens of the prairie, and frogs have horns!

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 9: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

The Enameled Prairie

"I often landed my skiff, and mounted the green-carpeted bluffs whose soft grassy tops, invited me to recline, where I was at once lost in contemplation. Soul melting scenery that was about me! A place where the mind could think volumes; but the tongue must be silent that would speak, and the hand palsied that would write. A place where a Divine would confess he never had fancied Paradise—where the painter's palette would lose its beautiful tints—the blood-stirring notes of eloquence would die in their utterance—and even the soft tones of sweet music would scarcely preserve a spark to light the soul again that had passed this sweet delirium. I mean the prairie, whose enameled plains that lie beneath me, in distance soften into sweetness, like an essence; whose thousand velvet covered hills, (surely never formed by chance, but grouped in one of Nature's sportive moods)—tossing and leaping down with steep or graceful declivities to the river's edge, as if to grace its pictured shores, and make it 'a thing to look upon.' I mean the prairie at sun-set; when the green hill-tops are turned into gold—and their long shadows of melancholy are thrown over the valleys—when all the breathings of day are hushed, and nought but the soft notes of the retiring dove can be heard; or the still softer and more plaintive notes of the wolf, who sneaks through these scenes of enchantment, and mournfully how—l—s, as if lonesome, and lost in the too beautiful quiet and stillness about him. I mean this prairie; where Heaven sheds its purest light, and lends its richest tints—this round-topp'd bluff, where the foot treads soft, and light—whose steep sides, and lofty head, rear me to the skies, overlooking yonder pictured vale of beauty."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 32: Fort Leavenworth, Lower Missouri.

"The Sublime and the Picturesque"

"Amongst these groups [of bluffs] may be seen tens and hundreds of thousands of different forms and figures, of the sublime and the picturesque; in many places for miles together, as the boat glides along, there is one continued appearance, before and behind us, of some ancient and boundless city in ruins—ramparts, terraces, domes, towers, citadels and castles may be seen,—cupolas, and magnificent porticoes, and here and there a solitary column and crumbling pedestal, and even spires of clay which stand alone—and glistening in distance, as the sun's rays are refracted back by the thousand crystals of gypsum which are imbedded in the clay of which they are formed."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 3: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Fort Pierre

"This Fort is undoubtedly one of the most important and productive of the American Fur Company's posts, being in the centre of the great Sioux country, drawing from all quarters an immense and almost incredible number of buffalo robes, which are carried to the New York and other Eastern markets, and sold at a great profit. This post is thirteen hundred miles above St. Louis, on the west bank of the Missouri, on a beautiful plain near the mouth of the Teton river which empties into the Missouri from the West, and the Fort has received the name of Fort Pierre, in compliment to Monsr. Pierre Chouteau, who is one of the partners in the Fur Company, residing in St. Louis . . . ."

"The country about this Fort is almost entirely prairie, producing along the banks of the river and streams only, slight skirtings of timber. No site could have been selected more pleasing or more advantageous than this; the Fort is in the centre of one of the Missouri's most beautiful plains, and hemmed in by a series of gracefully undulating, grass-covered hills, on all sides; rising like a series of terraces, to the summit level of the prairies, some three or four hundred feet in elevation, which then stretches off in an apparently boundless ocean of gracefully swelling waves and fields of green. On my way up the river I made a painting of this lovely spot, taken from the summit of the bluffs, a mile or two distant, shewing an encampment of Sioux, of six hundred tents or skin lodges, around the Fort, where they had concentrated to make their spring trade; exchanging their furs and peltries for articles and luxuries of civilized manufactures."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 26: Mouth Of Teton River, Upper Missouri.

Prairie on Fire!

"The prairies burning form some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country, and also some of the most sublime. Every acre of these vast prairies (being covered for hundreds and hundreds of miles, with a crop of grass, which dies and dries in the fall) burns over during the fall or early in the spring, leaving the ground of a black and doleful colour."

"Over the elevated lands and prairie bluffs, where the grass is thin and short, the fire slowly creeps with a feeble flame, which one can easily step over; where the wild animals often rest in their lairs until the flames almost burn their noses, when they will reluctantly rise, and leap over it, and trot off amongst the cinders, where the fire has past and left the ground as black as jet."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 33: Fort Leavenworth, Lower Missouri.

Roaring Buffalo Herds

"Near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River—and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them, from which we were highly delighted to make our escape. It was in the midst of the 'running season,' and we had heard the 'roaring' (as it is called) of the herd, when we were several miles from them. When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river, and galloping up and over the bluffs on the other. The river was filled, and in parts blackened, with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about . . . furiously hooking and climbing on to each other. I rose in my canoe, and by my gestures and hallooing, kept them from coming in contact with us, until we were out of their reach."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 32: Fort Leavenworth, Lower Missouri.

Wild Flowers and Fruit

"The scenery of this day's travel, as I have before said, was exceedingly beautiful; and our canoe was often run to the shore, upon which we stepped to admire the endless variety of wild flowers, 'wasting their sweetness on the desert air,' and the abundance of delicious fruits that were about us. Whilst wandering through the high grass, the wild sun-flowers and voluptuous lilies were constantly taunting us by striking our faces; whilst here and there, in every direction, there were little copses and clusters of plum trees and gooseberries, and wild currants, loaded down with their fruit; and amongst these, to sweeten the atmosphere and add a charm to the effect, the wild rose bushes seemed planted in beds and in hedges, and everywhere were decked out in all the glory of their delicate tints, and shedding sweet aroma to every breath of the air that passed over them.

"In addition to these, we had the luxury of service-berries, without stint; and the buffalo bushes, which are peculiar to these northern regions, lined the banks of the river and defiles in the bluffs, sometimes for miles together; forming almost impassable hedges, so loaded with the weight of their fruit, that their boughs were everywhere gracefully bending down and resting on the ground."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 10: Mandan Village, Upper Missouri.

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