Fur Trade Illustration Project Papers, Artifact of the Month for July 2012

September 18, 2012 Posted by: Jennifer Clark, Archivist

The Cache, V107-000188, William Macy
The Cache by William Macy, V107-188

Fur Trade Illustration Project, 1945-1948

This month's artifact of the month is one of the park's wonderful archival collections - The Fur Trade Illustration Project. This fascinating collection consists of two hundred and fifty pen and ink drawings by National Park Service artists William Macy and James Mulcahy.

The project originated with Carl P. Russell, who was Chief Naturalist of the National Park Service in the 1930s. Russell's interest in the fur trade led him to write two classic books on the subject: Guns on the Early Frontiers: A History of Firearms from Colonial Times Through the Years of the Western Fur Trade; and Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men: A Guide.  Russell began fifteen years of intense study to prepare to write these books in 1930, traveling to libraries, museums, and private collections in the United States, Canada, and Europe.  The one thing that Russell lacked for his project was illustrations. At about this time, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial needed similar illustrations for its new exhibits on westward expansion, and Russell suggested the Fur Trade Illustration Project as a way to benefit the museum and to illustrate his books. He lent his considerable expertise to the project and the National Park Service provided the artists. 
Buffalo Hunt on the Snake River, V107-000181, James Mulcahy
Buffalo Hunt on the Snake River by James Mulcahy, V107-181

The National Park Service found two artists to illustrate scenes, people and objects associated with the fur trade in the west - William Macy of the Museum Division and James Mulcahy, a New York art teacher returned from the war in the Pacific. They viewed as many original objects in person as possible, examined contemporary field sketches and written descriptions left by participants, and used Russell's notes from his extensive research in over one hundred collections. Russell kept in close contact with the pair, recommending subjects for their drawings, made between 1945 and 1948. Many of the drawings were simply intended to be realistic depictions of artifacts, while others were Macy and Mulcahy's interpretations of photographs or historical portraits of important figures. Some were graphically powerful scenes that look similar to woodcut illustrations. Others depicted Native Americans in an insensitive manner - engaging in drunkenness and thievery - an indication of the stereotypes prevalent in the period in which these works were created.

John James Audubon by James Mulcahy, V107-000154
John James Audubon by James Mulcahy, V107-154

Jim Bridger by William Macy, V107-000161
Jim Bridger by William Macy, V107-161

When their work was complete, Macy and Mulcahy departed for other projects, although Russell had yet to finish his books. Macy went on to design exhibits for the Institute of Pathology at the Armed Forces Medical Museum in Washington D.C. Mulcahy began to work on the recently funded postwar projects at the National Park Service Museum Branch Laboratory.   

Russell received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952 to continue his work on the fur traders and trappers.  He finished and published his book, Guns on the Early Frontiers in 1957, the year in which he retired from the National Park Service. His Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men: A Guide was published posthumously in 1967. Unfortunately, Dr. Russell did not have the chance to complete the final book of the planned trilogy. His papers are located at the Washington State University Library in Pullman, Washington.

Peace Medals by William Macy, V107-000037

Two Peace Medals by William Macy, V107-37

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial collection includes the original drawings, preliminary sketches, publication plates, and positive and negative photostats connected with the project. The finding aid lists all the drawings by subject.

Types of Beaver Hats by James Mulcahy, V107-000177

Types of Beaver Hats by James Mulcahy, V107-177

Due to the fact that these drawings were created by employees of the National Park Service, there is no copyright restriction for their use. Some are available for download from the park website, but more are available from the archives. Please contact the archivist for more information about obtaining reproductions. 


Some of the material in this article was taken from Ralph Lewis, Museum Curatorship in the National Park Service 1904-1982. Washington D.C: National Park Service, Curatorial Services Division, 1993, p. 118.

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