Online Artist Archive
Cary, William de la Montagne
b. 1840; d. 1922
Discipline: Drawing/Illustration, Painting
During the summer of 1861, William de la Montagne Cary and two friends came up the Missouri River in search of adventure, and in Cary's case, images of Indians and western life.
Despite his prodigious name, Cary wasn't wealthy, although he grew up in a cultivated New York family. He had apprenticed to an engraver when he was 14 years old.
Cary was 21 when he ventured west the first time. He and his companions came upriver aboard the steamer Spread Eagle to Fort Union and booked passage aboard the Chippewa for Fort Benton.
The Chippewa's cargo include 300 kegs of gun powder.
When the steamer was near the mouth of the Poplar River, one of the crew members had taken a lighted candle and a gimlet (a tool for drilling) into the cargo space, where he proceeded to bore a hole in a barrel of whiskey. Some of the liquid ignited. The crew member and ship caught fire.
Cary and the other passengers grabbed their belts and rifles, and when the steamer touched the bank, headed for the trees. The Chippewa briefly floated downriver and then blew up.
Cary had lost 80 sketches. He wrote: "The trees were draped with badly scorched annuity blankets, red cloth and red flannel by the bolt."
The survivors crowded aboard a cached, flat-bottomed mackinaw boat and returned to Fort Union.
Cary returned to the Upper Missouri in 1866, 1867 and 1874, each time to do field work in anticipation of painting large oils.
His work documents life in the Upper Missouri country in that period from the Civil War
until the battle of Little Bighorn. George Custer and Bill Cody had sat for him.
Work by Cary often appeared in Harper's Weekly and Scribner's.
He died in 1922.
- Ken Rogers
Originally published under the title "First Artist of the Upper Missouri" in Lewis and Clark: Art of the Upper Missouri. (Ken Rogers, Tim Fought, editors. Jim Bridges, publisher. Bismarck: The Bismarck Tribune, 2000.) Used with permission. Cary image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#2896).