Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893),
View on the Missouri, Blackbird’s Grave
watercolor, 7 5/8 x 11 ¼ in.; 19.37 x 28.58 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.373
Artist Karl Bodmer accompanied the German explorer Prince Maximilian on an 1832–34 expedition to North America. In the west, the two men followed the same Missouri River route traveled by Lewis and Clark nearly thirty years earlier — they even used Clark’s maps, copied for the Prince in St. Louis in 1833. Although the landscape and native cultures had undoubtedly changed in the three decades that separated their journey from that of Lewis and Clark, Bodmer’s pictures remain the most beautiful and accurate depiction of the upper Missouri frontier and allow us to vividly imagine what the earlier explorers might have seen.
This watercolor view shows Blackbird’s grave in the far distance, a tiny conical mound on the hill in the center of the picture. Blackbird (ca. 1750–1800) was a powerful Omaha chief, reputed to have poisoned his rivals with arsenic obtained from French traders. He died of smallpox and was said to have been buried, sitting upright on his horse or mule, on this hill near his village. Lewis and Clark climbed the hill in August 1804; Clark described the grave mound as twelve feet in diameter at the base and six feet high. Maximilian and Bodmer saw it from the river in May 1833 but apparently went no closer.