by Elizabeth Guheen

When Charles Bair arrived in Montana in 1883, he had been preceded by almost one hundred years of history that had irrevocably shaped the West he would find and settle in. He certainly came seeking gold, much of which had yet to be discovered, but he also came for land and the riches that hard work could provide a poor, young farmer from Ohio. While he was financially successful, his most worthy accomplishment was leaving two daughters who ultimately recycled all of the family’s wealth back into the state’s philanthropic activities and, significantly, into education. Befitting their time, Alberta and Marguerite Bair attended finishing schools and became proficient in music and the arts, but they were not offered formal, academic educations. They were expected to host and attend teas and appropriate parties and care for their mother, but there is little doubt that they knew there was more to life. Once on their own, they set out on trips to Europe, where they visited museums, explored, and learned about and acquired the continent’s treasures. And once on their own, they proved to be two formidable women who ran their large ranch on their own terms and planned their estates to make a difference.

They gradually began to meld the family’s eclectic collections, theirs and their parents’. They lived out their lives in the family’s late nineteenth-century ranch house, but like those who had come before them to Montana, they too had been explorers. They continued to learn through what they had collected and through the art their father had acquired. Ultimately, and in their father’s memory, they established a museum. The Bair Museum’s mission is to perpetuate the historic and artistic legacy of the West, its history, and the Bair family’s legacy. Through exhibits
of the family’s collection of works by Charles Russell, Joseph Henry Sharp, and Edwin S. Curtis, as well as through the two Karl Bodmer exhibits on view during the summers of 2021 and 2022, Travels on the Upper Missouri, 1833–1834, featuring work from the Larson Collection of Bodmer Prints, the museum continues to advance the Bair family’s impact and place in the fabric of Montana and the West.

Before Bair, Curtis, or photography, there was German ethnologist and explorer Prince Maximilian du Wied (1782-1867). The prince arrived in America in time to record and document a unique segment of life along the Missouri River circa 1833. A hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Maximilian spent the years 1815–1817 in the forests of Brazil studying its indigenous tribes, its plant and animal life, and all things wild along the primordial Amazon corridor of the early nineteenth century.

In 1821, he published the results of his research, titled Reise nach Brasilien in den Jahre, in installments in a leading scientific journal, thus cementing his place among the most forward-thinking scientists of his time on both continents. His work garnered only one significant criticism. Traveling without an illustrator, Maximillian had included his own drawings. His artistic brother and sister laughed at them, critics disparaged them, and his mentor Alexander von Humboldt advised him to take an artist along on his subsequent explorations.

Artists typically accompanied European and American scientists exploring the South American continent’s jungles and riverways to document their findings of the flora, fauna, and indigenous tribes and cultures. In North America, after the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark and subsequent explorers of the American West included artists in their teams of scientists, geologists, and mapmakers. Their role was to record the landscapes, botany, and wildlife along the routes that would connect the East to the West.

Maximilian had studied published accounts of Lewis and Clark’s expedition across the plains on the Upper Missouri River, as well as the expeditions of Zebulon Pike in 1805 and Major Stephen H. Long’s 1819 exploration on behalf of the U.S. Topographical Engineers. By the late 1820s, the prince began to envision his own exploration of the American West, what historian William H. Goetzmann would later eerily describe as “the dark side of the moon.” When Maximilian departed for America, he was accompanied by his family estate’s huntsman and expert taxidermist, David Dreidoppel, and Karl Bodmer, the young Swiss painter and printer he hired to illustrate his research and their journey. They docked in Boston on the Fourth of July 1832 and reached St. Louis, Missouri, in the spring of 1833.

Almost a year after arriving in America, Maximilian and his traveling companions departed St. Louis on the steamboat Yellow Stone on April
9, 1833. Following their first stop at Sioux Agency, the Yellow Stone docked at Fort Pierre, where passengers and crew were transferred to the steamboat Assiniboine. They set course for Fort Union and arrived on June 19, having traveled 1,800 river miles from St. Louis in seventy-five days. Setting out on the small keelboat Flora they arrived at Fort McKenzie August 9, 1833, and spent the month painting and writing. After an early morning attack outside the fort walls that killed many Indians and threatened the settlement, they decided to turn back downriver and spend the winter by the frozen Missouri with the Mandans at Fort Clark. While the fort was rustic and poorly supplied, and their winter there proved harsh and dangerous, Bodmer’s and Maximilian’s stay among the Mandans and Minetarres produced the most significant artistic, scientific, and ethnographically enduring work of their whole journey to America.

When Edward Curtis was born in 1868 (a year after Maximilian’s death), black and white photography, with its still-cumbersome equipment, was an established form of documentation. Curtis made his first camera when he was twelve and gradually became skilled enough to open his own photography studio in Seattle, Washington, and support his family by taking portraits. His life took an unexpected and fateful turn when he was asked to make photograph on one of the continent’s last explorations, Edward H. Harriman’s 1899 expedition to Alaska. His work documenting Alaska gravitated toward its grandeur and away from views of exploitation, but from that point forward, Curtis surrendered his life to preserve what little remained of America’s vanishing First Peoples, albeit several decades too late to document the pre-settlement cultures expertly captured by Karl Bodmer. Curtis’s work culminated in the 20-volume publication of The North American Indian.

Maximilian and Bodmer encountered two Americas—Maximilian, a rapidly disappearing indigenous culture and the America of progress and commerce, the settling of a wild river that would not remain wild for much longer. Seventy years later, the members of the Harriman team would encounter two Alaskas, one depicted in Curtis’ images of pristine rivers and glaciers, the other degraded by the chaos of the Gold Rush that had lured young men like Charles Bair to go west and seek their fortune. Between Prince Maximillian’s and Bodmer’s expedition and the work of Edward S. Curtis and other painters of the Western experience, including those in the Bair Collection, and finally through the efforts of Alberta and Marguerite Bair, the museum collectively strives to communicate and disseminate the history of the American West.

The exhibits Travels on the Upper Missouri, 1833-1834, Part. II, featuring work by Karl Bodmer, and A Grey Day in the Bad Lands, featuring Edward Curtis original photogravures, will be on view at the Bair Museum in Martinsdale from May 31 through October 31, 2022.

For more information, call (406) 572- 3314.