End of the trail

James Earle Fraser's now-famous sculpture had to earn respect

Published: Sunday, Aug. 27 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

It drove James Earle Fraser crazy. But Gene Autry kept doing it.

As the finish to his rodeo act, Autry and his horse, Champion, would strike a pose, shoulders hunched, heads bowed, as the cowboy crowed to the crowd that they were portraying Fraser's famous painting, "End of the Trail."

You'd think Fraser might have loved the publicity. Guess again. "End of the Trail" wasn't a painting, it was a sculpture.

Autry could never seem to get it right. Fraser could never understand why.

James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) is not a name many Americans will recognize. Yet it was Fraser who created some of our most recognized art. The most recognized of the recognized? His "End of the Trail."

If you've visited the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, you've no doubt seen it. A 25-foot rendition is on permanent display. But even if you haven't made the trek yet, you've probably seen a snapshot of the piece. Almost everybody has.

With its haunting depiction of an exhausted Indian atop his pony, the sculpture captures every horror, every injustice, every betrayal in the forced Westward resettlement of the country's Native Americans post-1830.

It wasn't by accident.

Many of Fraser's childhood friends had been Indian. He'd grown up in the small town of Mitchell, in what was then the Dakota Territory.

His father, a mechanical engineer with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad, was responsible for charting a route through the region. Through the region and, as fate would have it, right into art history.

It was in Mitchell, after all, that young Fraser met The Man on the Porch.

The Man was carving a piece of chalkstone. The soft mineral was quarried nearby.

"It was a square," Fraser later told The New York Times, "and he'd made four corner posts and a ball inside that could move."

"I went out to the quarry and I began carving every darn thing!"

Apparently, it took.

Fraser was just 17, a student at Chicago's Art Institute, when he designed "End of the Trail."

In 1915, he entered a 25-foot plaster version in the prestigious Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and took home the gold medal.

Hopefully, they gave him some Prozac to go along with it.

No sooner had the exposition ended than the award-winning creation was carted off to a junkyard, albeit an art junkyard, a holding pen for work with no place else to go. And there it sat. For four years.

Fortunately, in 1919, the California city of Visalia rescued it for the not-so-princely sum of $190. It stood in the town's Mooney Grove Park for 50 years.

But 50 years exposed to the elements took their toll.

So in 1969, the Cowboy Hall of Fame took ownership of the plaster piece and its costly restoration needs.

In return, Visalia received a same-size bronze replica.

Because of its style and subject matter, the public long credited the sculpture to Frederic Remington.

No matter. Though they might have had the pedigree wrong, they knew what they liked. And they liked "End of the Trail." Big time.

Photos were sold by the hundreds of thousands. Its likeness was on everything from calendars to post cards to ashtrays, back when most homes had ashtrays.

About the only place it failed to make an impression was Fraser's bank account. He never had the sculpture copyrighted, so he never made a penny on it.

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