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James Earle Fraser and the Legacy of His ‘Vanishing Indian’

Who was the man who sculpted the controversial statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Museum of Natural History? He was no racist, but the messages of his famous figures have become problematic.

The American Museum of Natural History’s recent decision to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from its Central Park entrance gives us all the opportunity to revisit and rethink a wide range of things we have taken for granted in American history and American memory. Although the Roosevelt debate has largely focused on the statue group’s depiction of him as a cowboy or Rough Rider on horseback, leading a Native American on one side and an African gun bearer on the other to a more “civilized” future, it might be useful to give some attention to the distinguished American sculptor who fashioned the sculpture.

James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) was born in Winona, Minn., but he grew up near Mitchell, S.D. His father was a railroad engineer who spent the summer of Fraser’s birth in Montana gathering up the remains of George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry members who perished at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 26, 1876, to return them to their homes in the East. Young Fraser discovered his artistic vocation while carving scattered chunks of limestone near his home. He was inspired by the architecture and sculpture he observed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. He studied in Paris, before returning to the United States in 1902, where he set up a studio in New York that he made his headquarters for the next 50 years. 


Sculptor James Earle Fraser studied in Paris, before returning to the United States in 1902, where he set up a studio in New York that he made his headquarters for the next 50 years. 

Among others, Fraser sculpted statues of Alexander Hamilton (D.C.), Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson City, Mo.), Albert Gallatin (D.C.), John Hay (Cleveland), Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia), Abraham Lincoln (Jersey City, N.J.), Thomas Edison (Dearborn, Mich.), Harvey Firestone (Akron, Ohio), and General George Patton (West Point). His Roosevelt group for the American Museum of Natural History was dedicated in 1940. Fraser is best known, however, for two other works: the Indian Head (Buffalo) nickel in 1913 and his sculpture “The End of the Trail,” first exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, where it won a gold medal. 

The Indian Head nickel was America’s standard five-cent coin between 1913 and 1938. It was preceded by the Liberty Head nickel (1883-1913) and was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, which (somewhat redesigned) still circulates. The Fraser Indian Head nickel was part of a general currency reform undertaken by President Theodore Roosevelt, who engaged his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens to give our coinage a more modern and more quintessentially American look. This was the same impulse that led TR, when the White House was remodeled in 1902, to insist that the carvings on the stone fireplace mantel in the State Dining Room be changed from lions to the American bison (buffalo). 


The Indian Head nickel, designed by Fraser, was introduced in 1913.

The buffalo on the reverse side of the Indian Head nickel (“tails”) was probably modeled after a bison bull in New York’s Central Park Zoo named Black Diamond. Black Diamond was the offspring of a bull and cow given to the zoo by the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It is also at least possible that the nickel buffalo was modeled after one of the bulls brought back from the Montana frontier by William Hornaday, the man who did more than anyone else to save the buffalo from extinction, and the first director and one of the founders of the Bronx Zoo. Fraser’s accounts of the sculpting process varied over time, but he knew the artistic effect he wanted to achieve, and it was identical to the cultural philosophy of Theodore Roosevelt. “When I was asked to do a nickel, 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 percent American, and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly.”

Fraser’s “Indian” was a composite. The depiction of the Native American on the obverse face (“heads”) was based on several of Fraser’s encounters with Plains Indians. “Before the nickel was made I had done several portraits of Indians, among them Iron Tail [an Oglala who performed with Buffalo Bill], Two Moons [a Cheyenne who participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn], and one or two others, and probably got characteristics from those men in the head on the coins, but my purpose was not to make a portrait but a type.” As is often the case in cultural history, a number of different Native Americans later claimed to have been Fraser’s model. The result is quite beautiful, with perhaps just a touch of probably unintended caricature. Today, Fraser would probably be accused of a mild form of cultural appropriation, though the Sacagawea dollar that circulated during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2003-2009) was also partly a composite, and it was also designed by a non-Indian artist. 

“The End of the Trail” is one of the most iconic images of American Indians in our culture. It depicts a Native American man slumped over an exhausted horse standing gingerly at the end of the trail, overlooking, Fraser said, the Pacific Ocean, because American Indians had been driven out of all of their traditional homelands farther and farther west until there was nowhere left for them to go. The Native man is holding a lance which is pointed toward the ground, not in defiant resistance but in defeat. Fraser fashioned the lance so that from a distance it appears to have transfixed the Native man. 


Fraser's "The End of the Trail" is considered one of the most iconic images of American Indians in our culture.

It’s a great sculpture by a distinguished American artist. I have been drawn to it all of my adult life. You can hardly go through a whole day of traveling through the American West without seeing it on a car decal, a belt buckle, a t-shirt, or a motel sign. Even though I have always loved the image, I have for a long time felt uneasy about it. Created in 1915 not long after the century of the “Indian Wars” ended at Wounded Knee (Dec. 29, 1890) and with the passage the Dawes Act (Feb. 8, 1887), which parceled out the reservations into small square homesteads, many of them claimed as “surplus” by white pioneers, “The End of the Trail” expresses genuine sympathy with the plight of Native Americans. That’s almost everyone’s first impression of the sculpture. But it represents “nobility in defeat,” “dignity in loss,” “the end of Indian resistance,” and the “vanishing Indian,” as if once Native American resistance to the white conquest of the continent was over, “Indians” would simply disappear over the horizon. 

This, in fact, is the message of John Gast’s famous 1872 painting “American Progress,” in which the angel Columbia floats over the landscape stringing telegraph wire while the Natives ride off once and for all into the sunset as covered wagons, steamboats, plowmen, and railroads occupy their former hunting grounds. It is also the burden of a number of state seals: white pioneers advancing, Natives receding into the past. Fraser’s sculpture manages at the same time to be triumphalist for white civilization — the conquest of the continent is now complete — and yet compassionate. He is well aware of the “cost” of American civilization.


John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress.”

But here’s what I consider to be the problem with Fraser’s famous sculpture. During the conquest period, from 1607 to 1900, the European-derived white Americans were so threatened by the idea of Native American sovereignty and resistance, so determined to take the continent by whatever means necessary, no matter how ruthless, that they did “not have the luxury” of exhibiting much respect or sympathy for the peoples they were displacing. Native Americans were denigrated and demonized, called “savages,” “red devils,” “prairie n….rs,” and worse. 

Even in the 1880s, the most famous re-enactment in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the Indian attack on the settler’s cabin, finally repelled, of course, and the virtue of Victorian wives and daughters preserved by the white cavalry. Frontier newspapers wrote front page editorials dripping with unguarded racism, some of which unapologetically called for the actual extermination of American Indians. 

It is a sad but telling irony that the most popular genre of frontier “encounters” literature was the captivity narrative, in which a white woman is kidnapped by marauding savages and handed around to lusty warriors to suffer “a fate worse than death” at their hands. Rather than a narrative, say, in which Native peoples are minding their own business on their ancestral lands when an armed white militia group arrives to wipe out men, women, and children in a dawn raid. 

By the time Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th president of the United States, the “Indian Wars,” were over — many of them clearly fueled by the leftover testosterone and white male rage of the Civil War (on both sides). American Indians had been “pacified,” thrust onto reservations, many of which were incapable of supporting the resident population, forced to take up till agriculture on barren lands, their children carried off by force to faraway boarding schools where they were taught to be “red Americans.” Finally, victory in hand, it was possible for white colonialist civilization to step back and take a deep breath. The threat was over. Crazy Horse (Oglala) was dead. Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa) was dead. Red Cloud (Lakota) was disarmed (in every sense of the term). Geronimo (Apache) and Chief Joseph (Nez Perce) were sufficiently “tamed” to be pressed into marching in Roosevelt’s March 1905 Inaugural Parade, like conquered Gauls in one of Julius Caesar’s Roman triumphs. 

Now it was possible to pull back a little on the steam juggernaut of America’s Manifest Destiny and find some sympathy, in defeat, for the Native peoples the United States had spent the previous 100-plus years dispossessing, fighting, cheating, and offering one lying promise after the next. How many times had white negotiators in the Black Hills or the Wallowa Valley in Washington said, “Give us this much land and we promise we will never be back for more”?

The narrative of the “vanishing Indian” has a long pedigree in American culture. In the 1830s, American ethnographer and artist George Catlin and the German prince Maximilian of Neuwied traveled on separate missions to the northern Great Plains to capture Native American culture “before it was too late.” Catlin’s paintings and essays, together with the magnificent watercolors of Maximilian’s artist Karl Bodmer, provided the world an indelible portrait of Native American life just when the fur trade was beginning to destabilize Upper Missouri cultures dramatically. 


James Earle Fraser in his studio with a clay model of the "The End of the Trail" sculpture, ca. 1910. (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, N.Y.)

Half a century later, the Seattle-based photographer Edward S. Curtis undertook a 30-year project to photograph Native Americans of the trans-Mississippi West in their native clothing and in as close to a pre-white cultural landscape as was still possible, again, to “get it all down before it was too late.” Fraser’s gorgeous “The End of the Trail” is perhaps the greatest — certainly the most iconic — rendition of the “vanishing Indian” genre. It spoke powerfully to the American public in 1915 and it still speaks to the world in 2020. 

But its message is problematic. First, there is the hypocrisy of just starting to celebrate the American Indian when you have finished the work of vanquishing him. Fraser would not have received acclaim if he had presented the sculpture in 1870 or even 1890, while the mad conquest was still unfinished. Second, as any Native American cultural representative will tell you, Indians didn’t vanish after all. They morphed, accommodated, adjusted, partially assimilated, ducked below the radar, regrouped, resisted, and above all survived. They are still among us, though you and I might not always recognize them in their 21st-century clothing, working side by side with their white and Black counterparts all across the United States and Canada. 

“The End of the Trail” may mark the end of one phase (one trail) of the history of indigenous Americans, but it did not extinguish them biologically or culturally, in spite of the best efforts of the 18th- and 19th-century conquerors. As Mark Twain put it about newspaper reports that he had died, “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Reports of the final vanishing of Native Americans have always proved to be more pessimistic than accurate. In fact, one of the single most remarkable, even stunning, facts of American history is the resilience and now resurgence of Native American culture — language, craft work, agriculture, religious observance, and cultural pride. 

What links “The End of the Trail” with the TR statue group at the Museum of Natural History is an understanding, even if a somewhat melancholic one in the case of the “vanishing Indian,” that white Europeans and Americans were the “dominant race” of the world, destined to bring civilization to all the benighted indigenous people of the planet, whether in South Africa, Rhodesia, New Zealand, and the American West, whether they liked it or not, and at the end of the Gatling Gun if necessary. 

It was widely thought in Roosevelt’s era that Native Americans could not co-exist with white civilization, at least not in any recognizable form. Fraser’s “The End of the Trail” evokes sympathy not righteousness, a post-conquest respect rather than a guilty call for attempting to undo what Helen Hunt Jackson called a century of dishonor. It may have been necessary to be ruthless in bringing about the Europeanization of North America and other “waste places,” as Roosevelt termed them, but it was then thought to be the burden and destiny of Anglo-Europeans and Teutonic peoples to extend the blessings of civilization to the far corners of the earth. This, certainly, was Roosevelt’s view and he was, in his four-volume Winning of the West, entirely unapologetic about it. “The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages,” he wrote. “American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori — in each caser the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people.”

If we want to understand the current cultural moment, we must try to understand it in the troubled context of American history. 

I believe it would be a crime against art and human creativity to destroy any of James Earle Fraser’s sculptures. All of his work is characterized by soulfulness and generosity of spirit. Even the two Natives in the Roosevelt statue group in New York are depicted with a kind of sensual dignity. Separated from TR on horseback, they would perhaps now be regarded as beautiful and non-controversial, although the fact that the African is depicted as a gun bearer signifies his subordinate status. 

Fraser’s art should not be lumped in with a hastily rendered statue of Stonewall Jackson thrown up in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in the deep south to intimidate African Americans and maintain the apartheid of Jim Crow America. No fair person can look at Fraser’s sculpture and believe he was a deliberate racist. He was not one of those whites Martin Luther King denounced in August 1963, as “vicious racists . . . lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.” 

In fact, the ambivalences of Fraser and the ambiguities of his sculpture are precisely what we prize in great art. Who has ever written a definitive essay on "Hamlet" or explicated Joyce’s Ulysses to the satisfaction of the rest of us, or figured out precisely what is going on in an Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes poem? Our best strategy — I know I write as a white male of privilege — is to remove such statues as now intensely irritate, offend, or hurt, to contextualize the ones that are in any significant way problematic, and then to place at least the best of the offensive statues in obscure rooms in our museums with plenty of critical interpretation. Iconoclasm is always a gross form of art criticism and it paints our rich, nuanced, often tragic history with a very broad and sometimes unjust brush. 

If James Earle Fraser were alive today, I doubt that he would fashion the TR sculpture group as he did. He would not presume to appropriate Native American iconography to form a composite “Indian” for the nickel, and he would find it conceptually impossible to believe that Native Americans, some of whom have been governors and U.S. Senators, presidents of universities, great athletes, internationally revered hoop dancers and flutists, and extraordinary doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and writers, were a “vanishing race.” 

That was then.

For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book, Bring Out Your Dead: The Literature and History of Pandemics is available at

Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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