Gustavus Sohon’s Portraits of Flathead and Pend d’Oreille Indians, 1854
By: John C. Ewers
CSKT E 89 .E9 G8 1948

Northwest Chiefs: Gustav Sohon’s Views of the 1855 Stevens Treaty Councils
By: David Nicandri
CSKT KF 8202 .H45 N53 1986

These two books provide an excellent overview of Gustav Sohon and his drawings of Native leaders in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sohon himself is an interesting character of history. He was a German immigrant, fluent in numerous languages, a talented artist and hearty wilderness man. It was during his time at Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Mountains as a surveyor for the military (1853-1854), where he first sketched several of the leaders of the Flathead and Pend d’Oreille. These drawings caught the attention of Governor Issac Stevens, who transferred Sohon to his command and tasked him with drawing important figures and landscapes of his treaty councils.

Gustav Sohon’s pictures succeed where words fall short. Written accounts can only go so far in accurately describing people or events. Images make them real. They bring truth and clarity to the foggy interpretations in our minds. They show us personalities and cultures that would otherwise be lost. Sohon paid close attention to details, providing Indian names, the translations, and written notes about the men he drew.

Why do I include both of these books? I think the two complement each other well. Nicandri’s collection (1986) does not include sketches of the Flathead leaders, since Sohon did not redraw the Flathead and Pend d’Oreille leaders during the Hellgate Council. The book does, however, provide a thoughtful overview to the complications, shortcomings, and misunderstandings in all of Stevens’ treaties (including the Flathead Council). This analysis is largely absent in Ewer’s book (published for the Smithsonian in 1948). Reading the two together provides a complete narrative accompaniment to Sohon’s historical images.

Originally posted September 2014