Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shaping the Trans-Mississippi West: 1800-1810

The United States was born out of the British Colonies, which had been founded in North America beginning in 1607. These colonies were originally limited to the lands along the Atlantic Ocean, east of the Appalachians, but with their 1763 victory in the French & Indian War, the British gained control of almost all of North America east of the Mississippi River. When the United States was formed after the War of Independence, it consisted essentially of the territory in eastern North American between the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River in the north and Florida in the south.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the American western frontier consisted of the lands across the Appalachians, but east of the Mississippi. Citizens living in the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi considered themselves westerners; for instance, Henry Clay from Kentucky was popularly known as “Harry of the West.” By the end of the century, however, the United States stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it was the trans-Mississippi region which was then the American West.

In 1800, most of the trans-Mississippi region was either Spanish or French territory. French Louisiana consisted of those lands in the Mississippi drainage to the west of the river, so lying between the Mississippi and the continental divide. The lands to the west of the continental divide were primarily Spanish, being the northern part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, though the country north of the 42nd degree parallel was claimed also by the British.

So, in 1800, what would become the trans-Mississippi United States was divided into just three basic political entities, French Louisiana, northern New Spain, and (somewhat disputed) the British Columbia District in the Pacific Northwest. By the end of the century, this was all part of the United States and by then it was divided into 23 political units! The changing political configurations of the trans-Mississippi region between 1800 and 1900, as shown in contemporary maps, will be the subject of a series of blogs I will call “Shaping the Trans-Mississippi West.” Today I’ll look at the first decade of the 19th century.

French Louisiana originally consisted of most of the drainage basin of the Mississippi, on both sides of the river. In 1764, with her loss at the end of the Seven Year’s War (called the French & Indian War in North America), France relinquished the eastern half to the British and the western half to the Spanish. France regained control of Louisiana west of the Mississippi from the Spanish in 1800.

In the first few years of the nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte was involved in much conflict and intrigue in Europe and the French dominions abroad, and he faced imminent war with the British and total financial collapse. Looking for a quick solution for the latter, in 1803 Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States for essentially 15 million dollars (about 220 million in today’s dollars), the equivalent of less than 3 cents per acre.

In this one transaction, the United States essentially doubled its size. The exact border between the Spanish lands in New Spain and Louisiana south of the continental divide were not clear, but that was settled by the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. There was also still dispute about the ownership of the lands in the Pacific Northwest. Little was known of Louisiana, so President Jefferson almost immediately sent out an exploring expedition under Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Early maps were able to show a rough image of this newly acquired U.S. territory, but it wasn’t until the Lewis & Clark information and then later exploring expeditions that accurate details began to become available.

There are a number of common themes which we will see as we study the development of the trans-Mississippi West, one of which is that initially large territories were divided into smaller units as their population increased. Citizens would move into part of a large territory and would soon feel a desire for a more local government, which could take into account the particular needs and wants of that local population. These smaller units were usually also territories, but then over time they would usually become states (unless they were again subdivided).

Thus it was that in 1804, that part of the Louisiana Purchase south of the 33rd parallel became the Territory of Orleans. This was, of course, the area where there had been a large and sophisticated population of Spanish, French and now American citizens, who felt that they had little in common with the vast, undeveloped parts of Louisiana to the north. The remainder of the purchase, north of Orleans, became the unorganized District of Louisiana, which then became the Louisiana Territory in 1805.

Thus the political situation of the trans-Mississippi West in 1810 was very like that in 1800, though now divided into four parts instead of three: New Spain, the disputed Pacific Northwest, the American Louisiana Territory, and the Territory of Orleans. Before another ten years were up, another unit would be broken off, as we’ll see in the next blog in this series.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Miriam Leslie

Any regular reader of this blog will know that I am very interested in prints of the American West from the illustrated newspapers of the nineteenth century. In my continuing research on the subject I came across what I think is fascinating story about a remarkable woman. It is more about the personalities involved than the prints, but still I think the story is appropriate for this blog

Frank Leslie, born in England as Henry Carter, began his career as an artist and engraver for the Illustrated London News. In 1848, at age 27, Leslie emigrated to America where he soon began work for Gleason’s Pictorial in Boston. He then moved to New York City to work as an engraver for P.T. Barnum’s Illustrated News, but that paper folded shortly thereafter. At that stage, Leslie decided he would do his own publishing.

Guided by his famous motto “Never shoot over the reader’s head,” Leslie was very successful as a publisher. Beginning with his first publication, The Gazette of Fashion, and until his death in 1880, he published over twenty periodicals and seventy books. The most successful of his publications was Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1855-1922).

About the time Leslie started that paper, the American West was opening up and becoming a subject of great interest to the public in America and overseas. Thus American and British newspapers began to send artists to the West to document this frontier for their readers. Just a few months after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Frank Leslie sent Joseph Becker from New York to San Francisco and back by train to document this nation-changing trip.

Less than a decade later, Leslie decided he would make a grand tour of the West. Robert Taft wrote that “the nes plus ultra in the way of pictorial excursions to the West…was that of no less a person than Frank Leslie himself in the spring and summer of 1877.” Leslie brought along two correspondents, two artists, a photographer, some family friends and his wife, Miriam Leslie. It is Mrs. Leslie, as remarkable a personage as her husband, who is the focus of this story.

Born in 1836 as Miriam Florence Folline, by 1877 Mrs. Leslie was a highly educated woman, speaking four languages, and mainstay of New York social life. However, her early life was less highfalutin and, indeed, rather colorful. At age 21, Miriam she fell for a jeweler’s clerk named David Charles Peacock, and when her mother found out, Peacock was threatened with jail on a charge of seduction and forced to marry Miriam. No child appeared and soon the couple separated, the marriage (the first of four for Miriam) being annulled.

After a short career on stage, as part of the “Montez sisters” with Lola Montez, Miriam moved up in the world when she met and enchanted Ephraim G. Squier, an archaeologist and wealthy businessman. They were married in 1857 and Miriam moved easily into New York City society.

Ephraim and Miriam were both drawn into the circle of Frank Leslie, with the former becoming editor of the Illustrated Newspaper in 1861. At this time, Leslie separated from his wife and moved in with Ephraim and Miriam. Two years later, Miriam became editor of Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine. In this period, Miriam and Frank developed more than a business relationship. In 1867, the three, then a rather notorious ménage a trios, went on a trip to Europe. Frank tipped off old British creditors of Ephraim’s, who was promptly was arrested for debt when they landed in Liverpool, allowing Frank and Miriam free reign to enjoy their time together before they bailed Ephraim out of jail a few weeks later.

Frank and Miriam soon both divorced and were then married on July 13, 1874. Miriam, however, continued her colorful ways, for it is said that it was on their honeymoon that Miriam met author Joaquin Miller, with whom she began an affair; the main character in Miller’s book The One Fair Woman is supposed to be modeled on Miriam.

Miriam, of course, went along with Frank on the trans-continental excursion of 1877, writing a book on her experiences, Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate. Her narrative is often insightful, but also from time to time lacking in tack. In particular, Mrs. Leslie was not impressed with the burgeoning mining town of Virginia City. She wrote “To call a place dreary, desolate, homeless, uncomfortable, and wicked is a good deal, but to call it God forsaken is a good deal more, and in a tolerably large experience of this world’s wonders, we never found a place better deserving the title than Virginia City.” Not satisfied with this, she finishing up by remarking that “The population is largely masculine, very few women, except of the worst class, and as few children."

R.M. Daggett, the editor of Virginia City’s Daily Territorial Enterprise, was not amused. He thus assiduously gathered all the dirt on the Leslies he could, and on July 14, 1878, issued his paper with a full front page article headlined: “Our Female Slanderer. Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Book Scandalizing The Families of Virginia City—The History Of The Authoress—A Life Drama of Crime and Licentiousness—Startling Developments.” This vicious article detailed with glee Miriam’s scandalous life, both true and alleged, including an illegitimate birth, shot-gun wedding, time on the stage, extra-marital affairs, and her divorce from E.G. Squier, which was said to have sent him to a lunatic asylum.

Miriam’s remarkable life continued well past this notorious episode. When Frank Leslie died in 1880, deeply in debt, Miriam took over the business and put it on sound footing. She even had her name changed legally to Frank Leslie in 1881, successfully running the publishing house until she sold her interest in 1902. Meanwhile, in 1891, on a trip overseas, she married Willie Wilde, a brother of Oscar Wilde, who she subsequently divorced just two years later. Miriam died in 1914, at age 78, and left half her estate to Carrie Chapman Catt for “the cause of Woman’s Suffrage.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Original matrixes

Linda, who has a blog at Artifacts Collectors recently sent me some questions for an interview, which she has now posted on her blog. I thought her questions were interesting and hopefully my answers were as well. There were a couple of follow-up questions from readers that were posted, one of which raised an issue of some interest to me.

The question was: "Do you collect or sell the original matrix too? Were they kept at all after the print is published? Can new prints be made from them?" I did send Linda my reply to this, which is on her blog, but I thought I'd expand a bit on my answers here in my blog.

Original matrixes —wood blocks, metal plates and lithographic stones— do turn up from time to time and they are fun to acquire if you can. Interestingly, unless the image on the matrix is a famous one, they tend not to sell for a huge amount even though they are fairly rare. I think the main reasons are that they are a bit hard to display and, probably more importantly, they don’t look that great at immediate sight.

There are a number of reasons they usually don’t look that great. First is that they were practical objects, not decorative objects (though they were used to create decorative objects), and if they are indeed original matrixes, they will often show some sign of wear or age deterioration. Also, on plates and blocks especially, the design is not that easy to see. The designs were made to hold and transfer ink, not to display to the naked eye.

And finally, you have to remember that the image on the matrix was drawn backwards, so that the impression made from it would be right-way-round. This can make them look strange, especially for prints with text in them. This is one thing to remember, for we see with some regularity “plates” or “blocks” which are intended to look like original matrixes but are just decorative reproductions. The majority of these, however, are “right reading,” so they are usually easy to spot.

One of the reason that original matrixes are relatively rare is that -again because they were simply practical objects for a specific use, not ends in themselves- there was usually not a good reason to keep them around once the printmaker was done with printing them. If the printmaker was going to do another printing, then they would be saved, but if not, they took up too much room just to hang onto, and in some cases the material could easily be reused.

For copper plates, the metal itself was quite valuable, so once a plate had out-lived its printing life, it would usually be melted down to be used again. Lithographic stones, on the other hand, could easily be wiped clean and reused and as most originally came from Europe and the cost of purchase and shipping was substantial, this is what happened to most original lithographic stones.

The one type of original lithographic stone you do tend to find from time to time are what I call “storage stones.” It was standard practice in the nineteenth century for images to be transferred from one stone to another. If you were running off a large number of images, it was easier to have the artist draw the image onto one stone and then transfer that image to other stones so that you could have several stones being printed with the same image simultaneously.

Publishers soon realized that they could save “stock” images for use in the future. Many images that were used on advertisements, certificates, bank notes, stationary, etc. would be used over and over again by a lithographer, so these images were stored on stones which were just a collection of these images, waiting to be used. As these were stones that lithographers kept around, a fair number of these turn up from time to time. They do look a bit odd, as they usually contain a strange variety of images scattered across the surface of the stone, but they are interesting and fun to acquire if you can.