End of the trail

You can still buy some pretty horrible unauthorized copies of James Fraser’s work, but few people remember the artist.
End of the Trail, cast 1918, by James Earle Frazer, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We had the smaller version in our house when I was growing up

 When I visit a city, I try to seek out its famous artists. Minneapolis-Saint Paul gave us Prince, Leroy Neiman, and A Prairie Home Companion. However, visual artists are thin on the ground. That’s surprising, because it’s a robust city of great beauty. Moreover, the prairie has given us so much great art, ranging from the novels of Willa Cather to the paintings of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and so many others.

1913 Indian Head Nickel, courtesy US Mint (coin), National Numismatic Collection (photograph by Jaclyn Nash)

James Earle Fraser came from tiny Winona in the southeast corner of the state. His name is pretty well forgotten today, but two of his works are iconic 20th century pieces. The Indian Head nickel was struck from 1913 to 1938 as part of the US government’s first attempt to make beautiful currency. “I felt I wanted to do something totally American—a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country’s coin. It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100% American, and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly,” Fraser said about his design.

End of the Trail was intended to be cast in bronze, but wartime shortages prevented that. The original  slowly deteriorated until 1968, when it was obtained by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum  and restored.

Fraser sculpted a monumental plaster version of a Native brave dropping in exhaustion for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. End of the Trail was based on his experiences growing up in Dakota Territory. “As a boy, I remembered an old Dakota trapper saying, ‘The Indians will someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.’”

“The idea occurred to me,” he later wrote, “of making an Indian which represented his race reaching the end of the trail, at the edge of the Pacific.”
End of the Trail was copied on the cover of The Beach Boys 1971 album Surf’s Up.
The sculpture earned a Gold Medal at the fair. Within a few months, thousands of photographic prints had been sold. In 1918, Fraser began producing bronze miniatures of the statue. They caught the troubled spirit of the times. They were everywhere, including in my father’s study when I was growing up.
You can still buy horrible copies of it, both in bronze and in less permanent forms, like this t-shirt.
Fraser had great sympathy for the plight of the Native Americans, who were being pushed west or restrained on reservations. His father, Thomas Fraser, was a railroad engineer helping to push the great rail lines across the country. A few months prior to James’ birth, Thomas was among a group sent to recover the remains of the 7th Cavalry Regiment after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
End of the Trail was meant to illustrate the Native American plight. Instead, it became an early piece of pop-art, copied endlessly not only in bronze but in prints, posters, t-shirts, pins, bags, belt buckles, and bookends. It was featured (badly) on the cover of The Beach Boys 1971 album Surf’s Up.
The same is true of the Indian Head Nickel. This is an insulated Whataburger Coffee Mug.
Fraser learned to carve by scavenging limestone from a nearby quarry. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago, the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian. He worked as an assistant to America’s foremost sculptor,  Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Starting in 1906, he taught at the Art Students League in New York, eventually becoming its director.