Switzerland & Midwest Connections: Karl Bodmer -Unusual Journey to Americas Interior

Switzerland in the USA
4 min readJun 11, 2021

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

Traveling with German Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied into the American interior in 1833, the work of Swiss painter Karl Bodmer ranks among the most remarkable period depictions of Native Americans. Among Bodmer’s most famous subjects was Chief Mato-Topé of the Mandan tribe in what is today North Dakota. He is thought to be the real-life model for Winnetou, the famous Western hero created by German author Karl May.

The right person for the job

Karl Bodmer was born in Zürich in 1809 und studied painting with his uncle Johann Jakob Meier as well as well-known Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. He left for Koblenz in 1828 were he came to the attention of Prince Maximilian, a well-known explorer who spent two years in Brazil a decade earlier. Lacking artistic ability, the Prince vowed to bring someone with talent to capture scenery and people of America, but who would not be too strenuous on his pocket book. Bodmer fit that bill. In 1832, he, Prince Max and David Dreidoppel, Wied’s hunter and taxidermist, sailed for Boston where they arrived on July 4 in the midst of a cholera epidemic. The explorers finally made their way to St. Louis in March of 1833 where they met General William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, who served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He issued Prince Max, who traveled under the alias Baron Braunsberg, and his fellow travelers the necessary pass and advised them to proceed by boat rather than on foot. Traveling up the Missouri River, they met various tribes, which Wied recorded, and Bodmer began to paint.

Nobody ever painted natives like this before

At Fort Clark, they befriended the peaceful Mandan tribe. Originally an eastern tribe, the Mandans had gradually been pushed further and further west. Bodmer’s portrait of Chief Mato-Topé (Four Bears) in his finest ceremonial regalia, including a flowing headdress of eagle feathers is impressive. Only warriors who have shown great bravery and courage in battle were allowed to wear this headdress. Prince Max notes “The vanity which is characteristic of the Indians induced this chief to stand stock-still for several days, so that his portrait succeeded admirably.” According to Max’s notes, the splatters just below the shield symbolize blood, indicating that he had been wounded in battle. His battle exploits were also pictured at the shoulder. In his hand is a long spear with feathers. Mato-Topé used this spear to kill his brother’s assassin, whose scalp is stretched on a round frame and hung from the shaft of the spear above the feathers. Bodmer also painted Péhriska-Rúhpa (Two Ravens), a Chief of the Manitaries, whose tribe the Prince described as “the handsomest and most robust persons, of both sexes and all ages,” on the Missouri. In the summer of 1833, the explorers arrived at Fort McKenzie in today’s Montana, where hunters traded French cotton, German Silver, Mirrors, Chinese red Vermilion (for war paint) and alcohol with the native tribes in exchange for various types of furs. Wied describes in his writings the fatal impact Whisky had on the natives. The drinking lead to many arguments among the tribes and in the early morning hours on August 28, the Assiniboine tribe assaulted the Blackfeet tribe outside the Fort. Bodmer captures the bloody battle on paper, believed to be the first and only painting of its kind.

Return Home

Realizing that with unrest among the tribes continuing further west was too dangerous, they spent the winter of 1833/34 in the area and then sailed back to Europe, where their work was later published. Bodmer’s drawings and paintings are still used by some Native American tribes as records of their history. He wanted to return to America and live among the natives, but abandoned his plans after learning of Mato-Topé’s death from smallpox in 1837, which wiped out most of the Mandan tribe. In later years, Karl Bodmer moved to France where he died in 1893.

Special thanks to Will Hansen of the Newberry Library for granting me access to the works of Karl Bodmer. Please visit the Newberry Library in Chicago at www.newberry.org. You can also see Karl Bodmers Exhibition at the Met Museum in New York through July 25th. https://www.metmuseum.org. Finally, the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, also has a Bodmer collection. www.joslyn.org.

Left: Prince Maximilian zu Wied (center) and Karl Bodmer (right), David Dreidoppel can be seen between them; Right: Pass issued by General Clark to Wied (under the alias Baron Braunsberg) and his traveling companions. (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)
Scene from Bodmer’s Painting of events at Ft. McKenzie on August 28, 1833 (Courtesy of the Newberry Library).
Chief Matu-Topé of the Mandan Tribe painted by Karl Bodmer (Courtesy Newberry Library)
Péhriska-Rúhpa, Chief of the Manitaries painted by Karl Bodmer (Courtesy Newberry Library)

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Switzerland in the USA

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