In the decades following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, millions of European-Americans migrated west of the Appalachian Mountains displacing Indian peoples and bringing vast changes to the region and its ecosystems. As they did, “The West” developed a mythical status as a land of beauty, adventure and possibility. Though indigenous peoples had lived in the region for tens of thousands of years, the West was seen as a landscape unspoiled by civilization—an “American Eden.” This romantic vision was aided in no small part by the territory’s unique fauna. Chief among them, both in stature and significance, was the American bison.
“The Great Plains were dominated by Indian peoples—Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Apsáalooke (Crow), Blackfeet, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Assiniboine, for example—whose religious beliefs and oral narratives exalted the power and majesty of the buffalo,” writes the Smithsonian’s Cécile R. Ganteaume in Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States. Natives relied on the buffalo for food, clothing and shelter.
These creatures became symbolic of the mythic West. In 1912, sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor created Buffalo (model for Q Street Bridge). The 13-inch-tall bronze depicts an alert male bison, standing on all fours with a jauntily flickering tail. The piece was the model for the magnificent sculptures that today can be seen on Washington, D.C.’s stately neoclassical Dumbarton Bridge, which spans Rock Creek Park between Georgetown and Dupont Circle.
While Proctor titled the work Buffalo, it actually depicts an American bison—buffalo are native to Africa and Asia. This month, the Smithsonian American Art Museum debuts a new video web series, titled, “Re:Frame,” featuring host Melissa Hendrickson, who explores the museum’s collections from different vantage points and with the helpful expertise of specialists working throughout the Smithsonian Institution. The first episode investigates Proctor’s sculpture as well as the relationship between bison and perceptions of the West, as well as the connection between this charismatic megafauna and the early days of the Smithsonian Institution.
Proctor’s family moved west from Michigan in 1871, settling in Colorado when the artist was 11 years old. Growing up, Proctor fully embraced the life of a frontiersman, learning to hunt, track and live off the land. “He [spent] the rest of his childhood hunting big game and just loving the West and all its nature,” says the museum's curator of sculpture Karen Lemmey.
By the time Proctor was a young man, European-Americans’ perceptions of the West had already begun to change. The transcontinental railroad eased overland travel and the California Gold Rush accelerated population growth. Fear grew that “Eden” would be lost. In the words of famed sculpture Frederic Remington, “I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever… and the more I considered the subject, the bigger the forever loomed.”
This worry was particularly valid when it came to bison. Before 1800, estimates placed wild bison populations at 30 to 100 million animals, but by the 1890s, less than 1,000 remained. Industrial-scale hunting depleted the vast herds, says Ganteaume of the American Indian Museum. “So dependent was the American Industrial Revolution on buffalo hides to make conveyors and belts to propel machinery into mass-producing commercial products that the American bison was on the verge of extinction,” she writes.
As Americans anticipated the extinction of the Western way of life, the peoples, animals and landscapes of the region became popular subjects for artwork. The bison “itself was iconic as a symbol of the West, as a symbol of the fading of the myth of the west, the demise of the West,” says Lemmey.
Proctor, having grown up in the region, became famous for detailed sculptures of animals he knew intimately from his boyhood days. “He was so good at sculpting animals that other sculptors, like Augustus Saint-Gaudens , who was really the premier American sculptor at that time, commissioned Proctor to do the horses for his equestrian monuments,” says Lemmey.
“When he was trying to sculpt an animal, he strove for extraordinary accuracy,” she adds.
After receiving a prestigious commission to sculpt native North American animals for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Proctor’s renown grew. In 1911, the Fine Art’s Commission of Washington, D.C. asked Proctor to create a sculpture to crown the planned Dumbarton Bridge. The Art’s Commission wanted the decorations for the bridge to have a distinctly “American character.” To achieve it, along with the monumental bison for its ends, Proctor created fifty-six identical reliefs of the face of the Oglala Sioux Chief Matȟó Wanáȟtake, also known as Kicking Bear, to cap the bridge’s corbels. The Kicking Bear heads, notes Ganteaume, were created from a life mask anthropologists made at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History when the Lakota leader visited Washington, D.C. in 1896.
Ironically, Proctor had to travel to Canada to create his sculpture of the buffalo. “Proctor resurrects this animal in his work by studying it from life. Not in the United States, but in Canada because that’s where he was able to find a sizeable herd,” says Lemmey. His depiction of this quintessentially American animal is actually based on a Canadian bison.
Thankfully, bison were spared from extinction. “They’re a success story for conservation,” says Tony Barthel, curator at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park. “Bison are not on the endangered species list… the population today is stable. It depends how you count the numbers, but about 13,000 to 20,000 bison are part of the pure, or wild, bison that live in wild lands.”
The Smithsonian’s relationship to bison, and their conservation, dates back to the time Proctor lived among them in the West. “The Smithsonian taxidermist William Temple Hornaday went on an expedition out West to collect some bison for exhibition in the museum. On that trip, he was shocked to discover how few there were,” says Barthel. Hornaday returned to the Capital City determined to help save the American bison and immediately began lobbying Congress for the establishment of a zoological park.
“We had a small group of bison that were actually living on the National Mall,” says Barthel.
Eventually, Congress approved funding and the National Zoo opened its doors in 1891. “The bison were some of the first families,” he adds. Today, visitors to Washington, D.C. can still see American bison at the Zoo.
Proctor’s sculptures remain at the ends of the Q Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. The model the artist used to create them is now a permanent part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. “It gives us an opportunity to study the monument up close,” says Lemmey.
While perceptions of the West may have shifted, bison continue to hold symbolic meaning. In 2016, they were declared the first ever National Mammal of the United States, joining the Bald Eagle as an official emblem of American identity.
The 1912 Buffalo (model for Q Street Bridge) by A. Phimister Proctor is on view on the second floor in the south wing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.