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Since Christopher Columbus first met American Indians in 1492, many Europeans had
been fascinated by Indian life and culture. As a result, there was a demand in Europe for
drawings and paintings of Native Americans. European artists who had never seen an
Indian supplied most of this demand. But in the nineteenth century, several painters
traveled into Indian Territory to make an authentic record of native life. One of the first
artists to do this was the American painter George Catlin. In 1841, Catlin published a
book of his work. Catlin's work helped inspire another important frontier artist, the
Canadian Paul Kane.
Paul Kane was born in Ireland in 1810. His family moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada,
when Paul was nine years old. The young boy was not very interested in school. At that
time, there were still Indians living in wigwams in the Toronto area. Young Paul liked
visiting the Indian village instead of going to school.
Since Paul spent little time in school, he was largely a selftaught artist. He also became
a surprisingly good writer, considering that he had not spent much time studying
spelling or grammar. After working some years making and decorating furniture, Kane
was ready to travel. He spent the years from 1836 to 1841 living and traveling in the
United States. Then he traveled in Europe from 1841 to 1843, studying the great painters
of the past. He was back in the U.S.A. until 1845, and then he returned to Toronto.
Immediately upon his return, Kane headed into the wilderness areas around Georgian
Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, and Lake Michigan. His plan was to sketch Indian life before it
disappeared forever. American Indians were dying so rapidly from European diseases,
such as measles and smallpox, that many people believed that they would soon vanish
as a race. Their culture was threatened too. As white settlers demanded more land,
Indians were being herded into small pieces of land called reservations. Here they
could no longer practice their traditional way of life. Kane wanted to capture Native
American life while it still existed.
Kane returned to Toronto at the end of 1845. He had received one good piece of advice
and that was if he wanted to travel into the wilderness, he would have to go with
experienced people. He was able to get the support of the Governor of the Hudson's Bay
Company, Sir George Simpson. In May 1846, Kane joined the annual canoe fleet of fur
traders going west. Kane would travel all through the wilderness areas of western
Canada and northwestern U.S.A. During this time, he made hundreds of sketches of
Indian life.
Although Kane faced incredible hardships during his travels, he was able to see what he
wanted to see. He was able to take part in one of the last great Buffalo hunts and killed
two large bison himself. Traveling west with the fur traders he visited many forts and
trading posts. He saw and painted a prairie fire. He shot a grizzly bear at close range and
killed several wolves that attacked his horses. He learned to travel long distances on
snowshoes in winter. Finally, he arrived at the Pacific coast, where he made some fine
drawings of the west coast Indians. European diseases had reached there just before
Kane. Fifteen hundred Indians had died near Fort Vancouver in the summer of 1848. One
wealthy chief had ruled 1,000 warriors and had ten wives, four children and eighteen
slaves. Now he had only one wife, one child and two slaves. Kane had not come too soon.
However, there were tribes still unaffected by western culture and western diseases.
Kane also traveled widely around the Columbia River in northwestern U.S.A. Everywhere
he went, he sketched Indian chiefs and scenes of native life. On his return trip, he
encountered a large war party of 1,500 braves on the warpath against their traditional
enemies. He was able to sketch the leading chief, Big Snake, who was later killed in
single combat during the battle.
When he arrived back in Toronto, Kane gave an exhibit of his sketches and watercolors.
Most of the rest of his life was spent turning these drawings into finished paintings.


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