The portrayal of the West of the late 19th century by Frederic Remington is an enduring page in American History. His sketches of the cowboy’s daily life and the Indian’s dress and manner are a permanent record of an era that would otherwise have been lost. Remington learned the ways of the West firsthand and called upon his sketches and superb memory throughout his career to produce finished illustrations. That his works showed a painstaking authenticity is secondary to the feelings that emote of an era which had its day and is gone. Remington said shortly before his death: “My West passed out so long ago as to make it merely a dream. The curtain has come down and a new act is in progress.”
Born in Canton, New York, on the Canadian border, Frederic grew up in nearby Ogdensburg. His father, Seth Pierpont Remington, was a Civil War hero and owner of the St. Lawrence Plaindealer. The family spent many hours on horseback and Frederic was an accomplished rider at an early age. As a cadet at Highland Military School, he had hoped to attend West Point. His father preferred that he study Civil Engineering. Neither ambition was to be realized and in 1878 he found himself at Yale, where he excelled in football and boxing.
The death of his father and the refusal of Mr. Caten to allow his daughter, Eva, to marry the Yale student, added to Frederic’s youthful restlessness and so in the spring of 1881 he headed west to Montana. During this summer his sketchbooks were being filled with the grist for future mills. He was returning to the West the following spring after studies at the Art Students League and illustrating for Harper’s. With his inheritance he bought a sheep ranch in Kansas and in 1884 Eva Caten became Mrs. Remington. They opened a saloon in Kansas City, an endeavor which, due to unscrupulous business partners, was to leave him penniless and headed for New York. Western stories were very popular in the magazines of the day. Writers such as Owen Wister, Richard Harding Davis and Theodore Roosevelt were spinning tales of cowpokes and Indians, of pony soldiers and prospectors. Remington found his work much in demand and by 1888 his was the name in the field. Over 177 drawings of his were published that year in Outing, Harper’s, The Century and Youth’s Companion. Among his first assignments was “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail” by Theodore Roosevelt for The Century. His friendship with the future President led to an assignment to illustrate the “big scenes” in Cuba during the Spanish-American War (1897-98). The dramatic paintings of the Roughriders considerably enhanced Roosevelt’s reputation. TR wrote: “I regard Frederic Remington as one of the Americans who has done real work for the country; and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.”
The Remington family enjoyed a comfortable existence between their estates, first in New Rochelle and later in Ridgefield, Conn., and the “Robinson Crusoe” island (Inglenuek) which they owned in the St. Lawrence River. Throughout his life, however, Frederic found time for rejuvenating trips West.
Equally adept at sculpture, Frederic embraced this medium and landscape painting during his last years. He appreciated the three-dimensional freedom of clay and bronze and the expression of vastness and color which he could bring to his Western landscapes. Unfortunately, these developing forms were caught short by his untimely death in 1909 of complications from appendicitis.
Relatives established a memorial museum in Ogdensburg soon after his death. This landmark as well as other national citations and memorials attest to the deep feeling that many Americans have for this colorful, exciting era in our history and their appreciation for the man who preserved it for future generations.