- Seth Eastman’s Drawing of Corpus Christi: A Military Man’s Representation of the South Texas Frontier Settlement, Circa 1849
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Early in its history, Texas was graced with the presence and work of a number of fine artists. Some had a folk-art feel to their work, like Theodore Gentilz, who arrived in Texas in 1844 working as a surveyor for Henri Castro, the founder of Castroville on the Medina River. Others were exceptionally well trained, like Richard Petri, who had attended art school in Munich. Many of the best artists were foreign born, and some were only passing through Texas, like the Englishman Thomas Flintoff. However, one American-born artist who stands out for the faithfulness of his works and his contribution to documenting early Texas was a military man, Seth Eastman.
Recently four of Seth Eastman’s drawings appeared at auctions. All four purportedly came from the descendants of Caleb Lyon (1822–75). [End Page 169] Lyon served as a New York congressman (1853–55) and as governor of Idaho Territory (1864–65). One of those drawings is perhaps the earliest surviving original artwork depicting the settlement of Corpus Christi, Texas. This article compares the Eastman drawing with other early depictions of Corpus Christi for Eastman’s drawing gives us the best idea of what Corpus Christi looked like in its infancy; but first some background on Seth Eastman.
Seth Eastman, born in Maine in 1808, was the eldest of thirteen children and from his youth was attracted both to art and to a military life. He attended West Point, graduating in 1829; he was then commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.1 While at West Point he had studied technical draftsmanship under Thomas Gimbrede learning to record landscapes and topography and to render human figures, important military communication skills in the days before photography. Upon graduation Eastman was posted to Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin Territory, and then in 1830 he transferred to Fort Snelling in what is now Minnesota.2
Seth Eastman was a naturally talented artist, who drew constantly, and in 1833 the Army had him return to West Point as a teaching assistant under Robert W. Weir and Charles Robert Leslie (a friend of renowned British artist John Constable, but who lasted only six months as a teacher of drawing at West Point before returning permanently to England). Seth Eastman held his post at the Military Academy until 1840. In 1837 he published his Treatise on Topographical Drawing, which became the textbook used at the Military Academy. While teaching at West Point he took up painting and gained a reputation as a painter of the Hudson River School.3
Eastman was a bit of an enigma. Obviously he was talented and sensitive to his surroundings; at the same time he was every bit a military man, officer, and Indian fighter. During his tenure at Fort Snelling, he married a fifteen-year-old Dakota Indian girl named Wakaninajinwin (Stands Sacred), who was the daughter of a Dakota chief named Cloud Man, and she had a baby girl by him. Shortly after his daughter birth, Seth Eastman was reassigned to West Point. As he left Fort Snelling, he divorced his young Indian bride.4
Seth Eastman later married a prominent southern physician’s daughter, Mary Henderson, whose father was the surgeon at West Point and whose family dates back to the first founders of Virginia. Mary Henderson was as complex a person as was Eastman. She wrote Dacotah, or Life and [End Page 170] Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling (1849) in which she recorded with understanding and respect the legends and life ways of the Indians, and made the point that white prejudices against the Indians were based on ignorance. On the other hand, she later defended the southern way of life and slavery in her bestselling book, Aunt Phillis’s Cabin: or Southern Life As It Is (1852).5
Seth Eastman was bound by his command structure to follow the dictates...