Review: Journals a must-read for students of Western culture

2013-09-08T00:00:00Z Review: Journals a must-read for students of Western cultureBy DANELL JONES For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
September 08, 2013 12:00 am  • 

"The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied"

Marsha V. Gallagher and Stephen S. Witte, editors

University of Oklahoma Press

 

"The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied" have long been prized by historians, anthropologists, and native people as an insightful, detailed record of the 19th-century American West and Native American life.

Volume Three is now a finalist for the High Plains Book Awards art and photography prize. This volume, beautifully translated by Dieter Karch, and painstakingly edited and annotated by Stephen S. Witte and Marsha V. Gallagher, will make fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in the natural world and native people of 19th-century North America. Its large-scale format, attention to editorial procedures, and hefty price ($85) confirm its identity as a scholarly tome. But the prince’s vivid descriptions of the natural world, his thoughtful accounts of native people, and his dramatic rendering of the trials and tribulations of the expedition will appeal to many readers.

This final volume of the journal begins with Maximilian’s return to North Dakota after several months at Fort McKenzie on the upper Missouri River in northern Montana. The prince records his daily observations with the precision of a novelist. For example, describing the technique of professional buffalo hunters, he writes that “they stand up in their stirrups, extend the gun with both hands, bring it in line with their faces, ride close to the buffalo, and kill it — usually with one shot. They quickly throw powder into the gun barrel and (follow that with) the bullets, which they hold in their mouths. ... They shoot 10 to 11 and more animals, one after another.”

During the treacherous river journey toward Fort Clark, Maximilian calmly records the expedition’s daily failure to find fresh game. When they are forced to survive on bad salt pork, their captured animals refuse to eat. Pathetically, he notes, even their little caged bear begins “constantly scratching his crate” from hunger. When they finally manage to kill a female elk, the relief is palpable.

One of the most impressive elements of his journal is his 1833-34 winter stay at Fork Clark, N.D., where he devotes his time to studying the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara cultures. He records detailed descriptions of the Mandan dress, home, food, language, social relations, entertainment and religious practices, with briefer accounts of the Hidatsa and Arikara peoples.

The Swiss artist Karl Bodmer accompanied Maximilian on his journey up the Missouri and painted celebrated images of the landscapes and people. Unfortunately, this volume only includes two of Bodmer’s remarkable paintings. The numerous small sketches in the volume from the prince’s journal are often charming, but it is a pity that the book does not offer more of Bodmer’s monumental visual record. The book does come with a DVD that includes all three volumes of the journals in PDF format.

For the student of Western ecology, history, anthropology, botany and Native American culture, this book is a must-read. It is the work of a brilliant observer who was dedicated to providing an accurate record of a most remarkable and significant world.

 

Danell Jones has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Columbia University and is a co-founder of the Big Sky Writing Workshops, www.bigskywritingworkshops.com.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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