Drawing the Western Frontier: The James E. Taylor Album
Created and maintained by the National Anthropological Archives.
In this Web resource, the National Anthropological Archives presents the scrapbook of one of the leading nineteenth-century illustrators of the American West. James E. Taylor (1839–1901) was a soldier in the Civil War when he became a “special correspondent” and illustrator for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Soon after the surrender at Appomattox, he ventured west, where he sketched images of the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty meeting. In subsequent years he traveled throughout the West and published an abundance of line drawings, earning himself the nickname “The Indian Artist” by virtue of his numerous (often stereotyped) renderings of Indians. His drawings were widely known in his own time; a sample of them appeared in Col. Richard Irving Dodge’s renowned memoir, Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years' Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West (1882).
As the Web site’s introduction makes clear, illustrators such as Taylor often based their drawings on photographs, which were becoming increasingly widespread but were not easily published. The Taylor album contains some 1,109 photographs, newspaper clippings, drawings, and letters, of which 748 have been reproduced on the site. A small sample of the album’s 118 pages has also been scanned for viewing.
Scrapbooks are a particularly interesting medium for online display. Since scrapbooking is a familiar hobby today, Taylor’s album and others like it are potentially resonant sources not only for professional historians but also for undergraduates and even high school students. Pages bristling with newspaper and magazine clippings, private photographs, letters, locks of hair, and other assorted memorabilia can reveal much about the ways nineteenth-century Americans wove their lives into the drama of contemporary events. Scrapbooks are also uniquely intimate documents, and no two are the same; smudges of excess glue, handwritten notes, and other peculiarities suggest the idiosyncrasies of their compilers.
But scrapbooks are also cumbersome and fragile. Consequently, the most common medium for sharing and preserving them has been microfilm, which flattens color into a monochromatic gray and eliminates almost all sense of texture. This is where Web sites can help. While texture remains elusive, the color of the Taylor album comes across well. The smears of glue and ink on each page, the creases in each clipping, and the many personal annotations are mostly visible and give a sense of Taylor’s presence.
The album’s numerous photographs and postcards often suggest inspirations for Taylor’s art. These include some genuine rarities, including an Alexander Gardner photograph of a peace pipe actually being smoked at a treaty negotiation.
But the photographs and postcards are useful for understanding Taylor’s role not only as a producer of western images, but also as a consumer of images and stories. The vast majority of the images appear to have been commercially produced, suggesting that, as with so many western artists, Taylor was inspired by both the actual West and other artists' representations of it. His interests extended to theatrical productions with western themes. Stage melodramas of western adventure were popular in the East in the 1870s and 1880s, and the site features portraits of prominent actors in these productions, including William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, and John B. “Texas Jack” Omohundro.
The presentation has strong points as well as flaws. The photographic collection is easy to access. All 748 of the images are cataloged, and each can be enlarged for better viewing. The cataloging itself leaves something to be desired, however. Many of the photographs bear commercial labels that reveal more than does the catalog. So, one is pleasantly surprised to find that the image listed as “View, from Above, of Town, Showing Masonry Houses, Road, Plowed Fields, Graveyard, and Mountains in Background n.d.” is actually a comparatively rare photograph of Santa Fe, New Mexico, some time after the Civil War. Just as intriguing—and problematic—is the presentation of individual album pages, which include photographs, line drawings, and newspaper articles regarding the Meeker massacre, gold mining, a tour of Mexico, and other subjects. Here, some of the items, including the more lengthy newspaper articles on the Meeker massacre and gold mining and some of the handwritten inscriptions on various photographs, are not reproduced in high enough resolution to allow the text to be read.
The Taylor album as displayed on Drawing the Western Frontier thus captures much, if not all of the promise of online presentation of historical documents.
University of California