Noble Savage in the Courthouse Square:
Patronage and Legacy in Sherry Edmundson Fry's Mahaska
(c) 1998, Greg Olson
By definition, works of public art are commissioned and erected with
the intention that they will express certain social values, traditions, and
legacies that are shared by all. However, because the "public" is comprised
of so many various constituencies, a single work of art can easily embody
diverse and often contradictory messages.
This paper presents a case study of one such work, Sherry Edmundson
Fry's 1908 sculpture of Mahaska, the Ioway chief who lived from about 1784
until 1834. A native of Creston, Iowa, Fry was a young student in Paris
when he met a retired Des Moines businessman, James Depew Edmundson.
Edmundson hired him to create a memorial to honor his father, William, who
had been one of the first white settlers and government officials in Mahaska
Fry created the sculpture in Paris, where it appeared in the Salon
of 1907 and again in 1908 where it won the Prix de Rome. The artist shipped
a bronze cast of the sculpture to Iowa where in May of 1909, it was unveiled
in Oskaloosa's courthouse square before a crowd of 12,000 rain-soaked
spectators in a dedication ceremony that was sponsored by Oskaloosa Tribe
number 4 of the Improved Order of Red Men.
On the day of the dedication, the Oskaloosa Herald astutely #
observed; "The Statue will stand for more than the inscription show[n].
There will be wrapped up in it all the romance and tragedy of the almost
extinct red man, the story of pioneer days and pioneer men, the struggles
and achievements of an artist and the filial devotion of a son." During
each step of the process by which this work of art was commissioned,
sculpted and dedicated, competing layers of texts and subtexts were laid
upon it. Subject, patron, artist, and local boosters all brought differing
historical legacies and perspectives to this single monument.
Born near Burlington, Iowa in 1838, James Depew Edmundson
(1838-1933) was six when his family moved to Oskaloosa in the newly opened
Indian lands of southeast Iowa. His was a classic rags-to-riches story that
began when he was an assistant at a grist mill at the age of fifteen. A
somewhat diminutive and delicate young man, Edmundson gave up manual labor
to study law in a local law office. He served as a page for the Eighth
General Assembly in Des Moines and eventually set up a law practice in
In 1866, at the age of twenty-eight, he moved to Council Bluffs and
became the law partner of the husband of women's suffrage leader Amelia
Jenks Bloomer. It was in the boom of the western Iowa real estate market
that Edmundson began to amass his fortune. He eventually left his law
practice to concentrate on real estate investment and banking. He helped
establish one bank and later, became the president and controlling
shareholder of another, the First National Bank of Council Bluffs. By the
turn of the century Edmundson undertook a well-financed retirement, moving
to Des Moines with his second wife, Laura Barlcay Kirby. The couple
traveled extensively through Europe and Edmundson, a voracious reader and
scholar of culture, initiated several philanthropic endeavors. It was on
one of his trips to Europe in 1906 that he contacted George Bissel, an
American sculptor living in the French capital, about creating a memorial in
honor of Edmundson's late father, William.
William Edmundson seemed to be the embodiment of the pioneer spirit.
Born in 1805 in Harrison County, Kentucky, he spent much of his life
actively pursuing frontier adventure. He arrived in Des Moines County, Iowa
with his wife Priscilla Depew in 1836. After the birth of James, the family
moved to Fairfield where a second son, William Jr. was born. In 1843, the
family stayed in Fairfield while William ventured on to the site of
present-day Oskaloosa to investigate land which had recently been ceded by
the Sauk and Fox Indians.
Legend has it that William Edmundson plowed the first furrow in the
region that was to become Mahaska County. The territorial Legislative
Assembly commissioned him to serve as the first sheriff of the unorganized
county. A year later, he was elected to that office when the county
government was organized. In 1848 he represented Mahaska County in the
special session of the First General Assembly. In 1850, Edmundson caught
gold fever and spent five years in the west before finally returning to his
family in Oskaloosa.
It is not known who chose the figure of Chief Mahaska (c. 1784-1834)
to be the subject for the William Edmundson memorial. The choice was a
provocative one though, for as F. R. Aumann has pointed out, "the story of
Mahaska is not lacking in the dramatic requirements of an old Greek
Tragedy." Born near the Iowa River around 1784, Mahaska, or White Cloud,
spent much of his youth living near the Des Moines River in what is now the
county that bears his name. At an early age, he displayed skill and bravery
by killing several enemy Sioux to avenge the death of his father, Chief
Mauhamgaw, or Wounding Arrow. In that battle, one of eighteen in which
Mahaska claimed to have taken part, he proved his worthiness to succeed his
father as chief.
At age twenty-four, Mahaska was imprisoned in St. Louis for killing
Joseph Tebeau, a French trader, in a gun battle on the Missouri River.
While prison seems to have altered the young brave's attitude toward
violence, he escaped a year later to lead one more raid against the Osage.
Though he was wounded in the battle and narrowly escaped with his life,
Mahaska felt that the death of his father had finally been avenged. "My
heart is at rest." He declared. Perhaps remembering a promise he had made
to William Clark while in prison, Mahaska refused to take up arms ever
Mahaska is probably best remembered for an 1824 trip he made with a
delegation of seventeen Ioway, Fox, Sac and Piankishaw to Washington D.C.
During the trip, the delegation met with President Monroe and approved a
treaty ceding Indian land in what is now northern Missouri. While the
Indians were treated to tours of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia,
Mahaska and his wife, Rantchewaime, or Female Flying Pigeon, each sat to
have their portraits painted by the renown American painter, Charles Bird
Returning to his home in the region of the Missouri and Nodaway
Rivers on the border of present day Iowa and Missouri, and perhaps sensing
the inevitability of the encroachment of the whites, Mahaska vowed to adopt
the life style of his white neighbors. He built a log home and began
farming. It is said that he greatly regretted his part in the murder of
Tebeau and took solace only in the fact that he had never killed a white
In 1833, a group of Omaha Indians killed an Ioway Chief named Crane.
Mahaska refused to allow his braves to raise a war party to avenge this
murder, instead appealing to the federal government for justice in the
matter. When several Ioway killed six Omaha, Mahaska assisted General
Hughes, the Ioway agent, in arresting them. The next year one of the Ioway
braves escaped from Fort Leavenworth, tracked Mahaska to his camp along the
Nodaway River and killed him.
His vow of peace and his martyr's death made Mahaska a figure with
whom whites could readily identify. Many tended to see his life as proof of
the red man's potential for rehabilitation. Here was a savage who lived an
"uncivilized" existence as a young man, but who adopted aspects of a
European lifestyle as he grew older. While his legacy seemed to vindicate
the hopes and expectations of white pioneers, like William Edmundson, his
image was also appealing to later generations of whites who, like James
Depew Edmundson, tended to mythologize the image of Mahaska in their
nostalgia for the vanishing frontier. It is ironic that this man, who in
life was forced by the white establishment to abandon his native lifestyle,
became, in death, a symbol extolling the virtues of that lifestyle.
The man who created the image of Mahaska, Sherry Edmundson Fry
(1879-1966), was a twenty-five-year-old living in Paris when George Bissell
introduced him to James Depew Edmundson in 1906. Born and raised in
Creston, Iowa, Fry had already worked with two of the great sculptors of his
time; Lorado Taft in Chicago and Frederick MacMonnies in Paris. He had won
an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1902 and was looking for an
opportunity to create his first large scale work. James Edmundson had just
awarded Bissell the commission to create the memorial to his father. As the
two men began to discuss the project, they jointly agreed that this young
artist from Iowa might be better suited to execute the sculpture and that it
might present him with the opportunity to enhance his reputation.
In preparation for the Edmundson project, Fry returned to America in
the summer of 1907. As the Ioway population had been greatly reduced and
had been removed to Kansas and Oklahoma, he traveled to the Mesquakie
settlement in Tama, Iowa to sketch the people whose ancestors had been
Mahaska's allies. While in America, Fry most surely either sought out the
1824 Charles Bird King portrait of the Ioway chief or studied one of the
engraved copies of the portrait that appeared in various editions of
McKenney and Hall's History of the Indian Tribes of North America, beginning
in 1844. Before returning to France to begin the sculpture, Fry collected a
trunk-full of guns, clothing and Indian artifacts to take with him for
Fry first displayed a model of his new work in the 1907 Paris Salon.
The next year he exhibited the completed Mahaska and was awarded the Prix de
Rome for which he received $1,200 a year and the opportunity to study in
Rome at the American Academy for three years.
Mahaska is unlike the Archaistic style of sculpture for which Fry
would become known later in his career. Instead, it is similar in many ways
to the work of his teacher Frederick MacMonnies. Like MacMonnies' Portrait
of Nathan Hale, Fry's Mahaska is rich in naturalistic and expressive detail.
Just over life size, Mahaska towers above the viewer from atop an eight foot
granite pedestal. Dressed in richly modeled furs, the Ioway chief stands
with his right foot slightly forward, his left hand clutching his garment,
his right hand holding some sort of fowl. His posture is graceful, his arms
muscular, and his expression is proud. During much of his life Mahaska was
known for his courage and skill as a hunter. Fry, however, portrayed him in
a moment of repose and reflection. He faces the west, toward the setting
sun and toward the direction in which his people were forced to move in
order to avoid the encroachment of white settlers.
While the sculptor's views concerning the decline of American Indian
culture and the opening of the American west to white settlement are not
known, it is possible to draw a comparison between Mahaska and an
allegorical figure Fry sculpted for the Missouri State Capitol Dome twelve
years later. Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain, stands in stark contrast to
the portrait of the Ioway chief. Wearing the refined robes of antiquity,
she leads the migration of civilization to the lands ceded by the Indians.
While the hunter Mahaska, clad in rustic furs, gazes westward to contemplate
the death of his culture, Ceres, whose streamline modeling strives to embody
pure spirit, also faces west from her perch on the capitol dome. Bare to
the waist she holds a sheave of grain, promising fertility and abundance to
all who follow. For her these lands are ripe with the promise of
opportunity. Viewed as a pair, Mahaska and Ceres are bookends to the story
of the American West; on one end, the vanquished savage contemplating the
death of his nomadic lifestyle and symbolizing the loss of the pristine
forests and prairies in which he hunted and gathered; and on the other end,
the victor holds the rewards of cultivation and ingenuity, heralding the
arrival of Western civilization. In retrospect, it seems that perhaps Ceres
might have better captured the optimism of the pioneer spirit embodied by
the elder Edmundson.
The bronze likeness of Mahaska arrived in Oskaloosa via the Rock
Island Rail Road in September of 1908. Almost immediately a group of local
boosters, which included members of the Oskaloosa City Council, Commercial
Club and Tribe Number 4 of the Improved Order of Red Men, joined with James
Depew Edmundson in planning a formal dedication ceremony. The Red Men, a
secret fraternal organization with some 400 members in Oskaloosa, took
special pride in participating in the unveiling ceremony.
Nationally, the IORM claimed to have begun in 1763 as the Sons of Liberty.
They were established in their latter form in Baltimore in 1834 and were
perhaps, the oldest secret society of purely American origin in existence at
that time. The Red Men, who were in fact not red at all-membership was open
only to whites until 1974-boasted half a million members in 1922. In 1924,
Arther Pruess reported; "Its ceremonies, nomenclature and legends aim at
conserving the history, customs and virtues of the aboriginal Americans."
Initiation ceremonies for new members were based on acts of "pretended
savagery" and officers in the organization used the titles Senior Sagamore,
Junior Sagamore, Prophet, Chief of Records, and Keeper of Wampum.
Oskaloosa Tribe number 4 of the Red Men was organized in 1883. Dr. Frank
Whitehill of Oskaloosa and Frank Day of Des Moines arranged to hold the
dedication of Mahaska in conjunction with one of the largest initiations of
new members ever to be held in the state. Edmundson apparently liked the
idea of a dedication sponsored by the Improved Order of Red Men and was
intrigued by the prospect of enlarging the ceremony to include lodge members
from the entire district, or reservation. May 12 was selected as the date
for the ceremony because it marked the Red Men's annual Flower Day festival.
A steady rain failed to keep an estimated crowd of 12,000 people from
attending the dedication festivities, which began at 11:30 in the morning
and continued into the evening. The day began with an old settler's picnic
and an automobile parade. Later, in the courthouse square two friends and
contemporaries of William Edmundson, Semira Ann Hobbs Phillips, the first
school teacher in Mahaska County, and Amanda Martin, one of the County's
earliest settlers, unveiled the statue. Fifty boys in Indian costumes sang
an ode to Chief Mahaska that had been especially composed for the occasion.
Major Samuel H. M. Byers, renown solider and diplomat, author of the
Official Iowa State Song, and a childhood friend of James Depew Edmundson,
read a poem he had written in honor of the chief. Wilson Brooks of Chicago
then addressed the crowd with a speech entitled "Chief Mahaska and His
Allied Interest as Represented by the Improved Order of Red Men." The
festivities continued with an Indian Sun dance, apparently performed by
whites, and the mass initiation of Red Men. A band concert at the gazebo
concluded the program.
Major Bryers captured the tone of the event in his poem, "Chief Mahaska:"
"Great Chief, brave heart, / This shaft we raise, / The semblance of thy
form; / That children's children long may see / And keep thy memory warm. /
That down the vista of the years / This sculptured bronze may tell / Of one
who loved his tribe, his kind, / And died for them as well."
While the portrait of Mahaska professed to honor the great chief of the
Ioway, friend of the white man, it carried within its cast bronze shell,
associations to the legacies and perspectives of all who participated in its
creation and dedication. If these legacies sometimes conflicted, it was
because they reflected larger uncertainties in the relationship between
whites and American Indians during the period of westward expansion.
Mahaska, the statue, bears testament to the story of a man who tried to cope
with the loss of his cultural identity and of his homeland. But it also
tells the story of a pioneer whose hunger for new land pulled him further
westward, in the wake the retreating natives, and of his son, the investor,
who turned this hunger for land into a financial bonanza.
A member of a persecuted race, Mahaska was pursued, imprisoned, and reformed
by whites only to be murdered by a member of his own tribe. There is irony
in the fact that his efforts to live peacefully with the whites led to his
death. In his recent study of Iowa regionalism, E. Bradford Burns has noted
that there is also irony in the fact that whites "looked to the vanquished
[Indians] for lessons and/or for inspiration after having expelled them."
Mahaska was only one of many statues of American Indians (Thomas Crawford,
The Dying Indian Chief Contemplating the Progress of Civilization, 1856)
that were erected in public parks during the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century. Most of these sculptures played upon a widespread
nostalgia for the once-proud race that had come to the "end of the trail."
They tended to idealize American Indians as being stoically graceful,
picturesque in dress and folkways, and in peaceful co-existence with the
Fry's image represents an attempt to portray the Chief at the peak of his
power. It only hints at the inevitable fall of the native culture and the
legacy of death, disease, and genocide that accompanied it. While we admire
the image because it is strong and beautiful, we are comfortable with it
because it is not threatening. Here is a friend of the white man whose
death came at the hands of his own people. Mahaska the sculpture allows us
wash ourselves in the sentiment and romance of Mahaska's fate, while sparing
us any sense of guilt or responsibility.
For the whites of post-frontier America, it might have been more comfortable
to pay ceremonial homage to Native Americans than to confront the reality of
the survivors of the race who had been herded off to reservations. By
placing images of Indians on pedestals in city parks, displaying their tools
and artifacts in museum cases, and re-enacting Anglicized versions of their
customs and ceremonies in dark lodge halls, whites were able to satisfy
their romantic curiosities while atoning for their sentimental sense of
These acts, however, had little to do with memorializing Native American
culture. Instead, they were memorials to our own cultural achievements and
our own pioneer past. Not only had whites spread their civilization from
sea to sea, they had succeeded in domesticating the continent by
identifying, categorizing, and exploiting nearly every element of it, Indian
The memory of which Major Bryers spoke so eloquently, to be kept warm for
our children's children, was not the memory of Mahaska, or of the Ioway, but
of our own European ancestors who settled this state and made it into the
place we know and understand today. Sherry Fry's Mahsaka is an image that
is completely of our own cultural making that fits neatly within our own
system of cultural values. Of all of the legacies and values that came
together in its creation, it is our own that are portrayed most strongly.
Vachel Lindsay, poet and native of Illinois, published a poem in 1915
entitled "The Black Hawk War of the Artists." He could have been describing
Mahaska, its creators, and boosters when he wrote; " All the young men /
Chanting your cause that day, / Red men-new made / Out of the Saxon clay, /
Strong and redeemed, / Bold in your war-array!"
by Greg Olson
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