The End of the Trail
Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Backstory and Context
James Earle Fraser first conceived of The End of the Trail while studying at the Chicago Art Institute. During this time he assisted with the installation of sculpture at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The sculptures of American Indians displayed at the fair encouraged Fraser to produce this image. Fraser began work on a model for the piece that drew on what he saw at the fair and on his childhood experiences on the plains of South Dakota. A small bronze version of the work won the John Wanamaker prize at the American Artists Association exhibition in Paris, France, in 1898. He then produced a monumental version of The End of the Trail out of plaster for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). It won a gold medal for sculpture at the 1915 fair.
The 25-foot plaster statue stood in the Court of Palms at the entrance to the Expo, where it was seen by nearly 19 million visitors.1 At a time when hand-held cameras were becoming widely available among middle-class audiences, Fraser’s statue “was abundantly photographed and was one of the official photographer's best sellers.”2 Moreover, models of Fraser’s sculpture depicting a tired American Indian man slumped over his weary pony sold widely, helping to spread the impact of the work far beyond the fair gates.
Twenty-first century scholars argue that James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) intended End of the Trail as pointed criticism of federal Indian policy that devastated Native peoples by forcing them onto reservations. These scholars suggest that Fraser sought to honor Native people’s survival in the face of suffering.3 Growing up on a ranch in Mitchell, South Dakota, Fraser witnessed federal soldiers forcing American Indians from their native lands onto reservations. In his memoirs he explained, “as a boy, I remembered an old Dakota trapper saying, ‘The Indians will someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.’” And Fraser later explained that he envisioned “making an Indian which represented his race reaching the end of the trail, at the edge of the Pacific.”4
It is possible that Fraser intended to protest Indian removal policies. But both the Indian and his pony slump forward, despondent. His spear hangs downward in defeat. The imagery reinforced early-twentieth-century Euro-Americans’ ideas about “vanishing” Indians. Many white Americans believed that “savage” Native American culture would soon become extinct because it could not compete with superior white “civilization.”
Most of the art at the PPIE celebrated the progress of Euro-American civilization. Several pieces compared supposedly civilized whites to savage peoples of color. And The End of the Trail was paired with Solon Borglum’s heroic white Pioneer in a way that invited similar comparisons. So it is hardly surprising that fair-goers read the statue as declaring or even celebrating the disappearance of American Indians. Indeed, a published guide to sculpture at the fair depicted the piece as a “conception of the end of the Indian race.” Having traveled a long overland trail, he discovers that “the trail is gone and only despair is his. So has it been with the Indian. His trail is now lost and on the edge of the continent he finds himself almost annihilated.”5 The Book News Monthly reported that
Earle Fraser’s moving “End of the Trail,” balancing Borglum's “Pioneer” in the Court of Flowers, smites at your heart-strings with such pathos and mute appeal that you find yourself harking back to it many times in your visit, for another glance at the spent horse and rider. The drooping head, bent back, fagged body and limbs, of both the Indian and his steed, spell a grim story of bitter defeat and utter despair.6
While Fraser may have intended to challenge the mistreatment of Native peoples, the public clearly read his statue as celebrating the natural demise of those red peoples in the face of a superior white culture.
After the PPIE closed, the Exposition Company was responsible for cleaning up the site. They sold buildings, fixtures, and equipment to the highest bidder. Because they were made of staff (plaster, faux travertine and chicken wire), the buildings and artwork did not last as long as normal stone, brick or wooden buildings. Part of the fairgrounds became Golden Gate Park. The Palace of Fine Arts was spared, and later rebuilt on the same spot. But construction workers regraded most of the site for redevelopment, including the Court of Palms where The End of the Trail stood.
Like most PPIE art, The End of the Trail was made of plaster and abandoned after the fair closed. The Tulare County Board of Forestry acquired it and Solon Borglum’s The Pioneer for the cost of railway freight to relocate them to Visalia, California. The statues were placed on a stone base in Mooney Grove Park in 1919. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, acquired The End of the Trail in 1968. After restoration, it was placed on display inside that museum. A bronze casting was returned to Mooney Grove Park, where it now stands. The Pioneer was too badly degraded to receive similar attention. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1980.
Because Fraser never copyrighted The End of the Trail, others were free to adapt from his imagery. A bronze copy of the statue was erected in Waupun, Wisconsin, in 1929. In the 1930s, Hardy Murphy and is horse, buck, posed at rodeos to mimic the slouched pose of the Indian and pony in Fraser’s statue. (Singing cowboy Gene Autry and his horse Champion later copied the trick to end of their rodeo act. Autry would declare to the crowd that they were representing Fraser’s famous painting, “End of the Trail.” Except End of the Trail was a sculpture.) And in 1971, the Beach Boys used the image in their album cover art for Surf’s Up. Today, the image appears on belt buckles, bookends and other household objects.
2. Frank Morton Todd.The Story of the Exposition: Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal. Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company, 1921. Vol. II: 334. https://archive.org/details/storyofexpositio02todd.
3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “End of the Trail, Then and Now,” accessed June 1, 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/the-american-west-in-bronze/blog/posts/end-of-the....; “End of the Trail: Introduction - National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum,” accessed June 1, 2015, http://nationalcowboymuseum.org/learn-discover/online-unit-studies/end-of-the-trail-introduction/.
4. "End of the Trail, Then and Now."
5. Juliet Helena Lumbard James, Sculpture of the Exposition Palaces and Courts; Descriptive Notes on the Art of the Statuary at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco (H. S. Crocker Company, 1915), 34.
6. Elizabeth Clendenning Ring. “San Francisco.” The Book News Monthly July 1915.
Julie Schimmel, “Inventing ‘the Indian,’” in William H. Truettner, The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 172–74.
Patricia Janice Broder. Bronzes of the American West. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975.
Dennis Mauirizi. "End of the trail: James Earle Fraser's now-famous sculpture had to earn respect" Deseret Morning News August 27, 2006. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/645196142/End-of-the-trail.html
Meghan Saar. "No End to its Trail." True West Magazine October 9, 2014. https://truewestmagazine.com/no-end-to-its-trail/