Figures in a Western Landscape Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Elizabeth Stevenson is Candler Professor of American Studies, Emeritus, at Emory University. She was born in Montana in 1919 to one of “a colony of six related families transplanted from the yeoman farming country of hilly north Georgia” and left Great Falls in 1932, when her family returned to Georgia. Her Montana childhood shaped her imagination for life, and in 1979 she returned to the region “to look at a remembered landscape and see it again with a kind of critical questioning.” She approached history as biography and explains of Figures in a Western Landscape: Men and Women of the Northern Rockies, “I saw a basic fact as underlying all theories [of the American western movement]: that the dry regions west of the ninety-eighth or one hundredth meridian are different from the wetter and more humid regions of the East and that this difference would largely determine the kind of life that could be lived in this vast space.”

The first figure in Stevenson’s landscape is Meriwether Lewis. In 1809, a few years after his return from his famous Western expedition with William Clark, Lewis was robbed and murdered at age thirty-five on the Natchez Trace between Memphis and Nashville. Stevenson finds in Lewis’ journals a compound of Enlightenment rationalism and the romanticism of his day. Whereas Clark was straightforward and objective in both his life and his journal accounts, Lewis was introspective and sometimes self-consciously literary. Stevenson calls Lewis “a man of the advent of a new age, that of the romantic view impinging on the useful, rational view of landscape and life.”

Osborne Russell was a Maine Yankee who went west in 1834 with a party of fur trappers led by Nathaniel Wyeth, and he took off into the mountains on his own the next year. The life he lived among Indians and occasional whites was cruel and harsh. What interests Stevenson about Russell is the awareness of his surroundings that he reveals in such journal remarks as “the scenery now spread out before me put me somewhat in a Poetical humour.”

John Kirk Townsend shared Russell’s ardor for mountain landscapes and surpassed him as an observer and a naturalist. Townsend left Independence, Missouri, in 1834 with a companion naturalist, Thomas Nuttall, and overcame a natural fastidiousness to plunge into the brutal life of the region. Stevenson describes him as a rationalist who sought to fit the West into “the grand rational scheme,” and who as “the new scientist was thus as much an enemy of the way of life of the Indians as the thoughtless and speculative trapper.”

Two important figures in the Bitterroot Valley between the 1840’s and the 1870’s were the first Catholic missionary to the northern Plains and Rockies, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, and “Major” John Owen, a trader who bought an abandoned mission and turned it into a social center as well as an economic influence. Stevenson sees De Smet and Owen as part of “an early phase in Anglo western life,” intermediaries between the first explorers and early settlers like the Stuart brothers, James and Granville, who had left their native Iowa for the California gold fields and made their way to Montana in 1857. The Stuarts were the kind of solid citizens who would travel 150 miles to buy five books for five dollars each: Shakespeare, Byron, a life of Napoleon, a French Bible, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Two lives unusually intertwined were those of Thomas Dimsdale and Henry Plummer. Plummer came to Bannack in 1862 and immediately distinguished himself as a fast man with a six-shooter when he killed a man in a shootout. He was tried, acquitted, and then elected sheriff. Another new arrival in Montana, Thomas Dimsdale in nearby Virginia City, edited the first newspaper in the territory, the Montana Post. Dimsdale’s life intersected Plummer’s when he wrote up the story of Plummer’s hanging by vigilantes. Whether justice was done in the execution of Plummer, who was accused of conniving with outlaws, is still debated. What interests Stevenson is the sympathy with the vigilantes revealed by Dimsdale, “a man who loved civility and culture, yet was fascinated by evil and excused violence.”

Lieutenant John Bourke went to the northern Plains in 1875 as...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)